A little friend

by Gabriella Sonabend

As I walk the ghats in search of a new subject she begins to walk beside me, she is twelve years old but looks only eight. She has straight black hair, long thin eyebrows and deep wide eyes. She wears a long muddied white and blue top and mucky blue shorts. She smells like the roadside, like stale food and dry urine but she is an extremely beautiful child and she watches me with great intensity as I walk beside her at her skipping pace. I motion towards the steps by the water and we sit down, she is cross-legged and leans towards me with hungry expecting eyes. I take out my pencil and paper and begin to draw; she is thrilled at the attention and blushes as she rests her tilted head on a tiny palm gazing up at me. Unlike my previous subjects she is completely still and waits patiently for the drawing to unfold, she can’t believe that she is being awarded so much attention and every few seconds she giggles and fights to hold back her spreading smile. A few local men gather and one explains to me that my little friend is very hungry and that I ought to buy her something to eat, she is indeed very tiny and underfed and I am more than happy to walk along towards the food vendors and let her choose a treat in return for her time. She chooses a large pack of chocolate biscuits, which she places inside a sock, which she has been carrying, she walks with the sock by her side, swinging around its contents triumphantly but still she seems extremely hungry and so together we continue along the ghats in search of a proper meal for her to eat. We find a vendor selling street food and I buy her a plate of various curries and breads and she devours the contents in minutes, licking the plate clean. I offer her another portion but she would rather get up and walk so we continue on our journey together in search of more women for me to draw.

My little friend becomes my new guide and she helps me to find interesting faces and tells these women that I wish to draw them. She walks in my shadow and mirrors my gait, at first she is shy and does not speak but simply watches me as I invite her on my way but as the morning passes she becomes more excited and more comfortable and soon she is nattering away emphatically, telling me everything that she needs to express – of course I can’t understand a word but I respond with answers nonetheless and in this way we chat all morning with no concept of what our conversation is about.

My inability to truly communicate with this child makes me feels oddly helpless. I can feel the urgency with which she needs to be heard. I see how her eyes have ignited under my caring attention and yet I can do nothing but observe her body language and try to offer compassion through my own. I am able to offer her food and time, but beyond this I am useless to her and this devastates me. I wish that I could speak Hindi or even understand fragments of what she is saying. When we part and she returns on her own up the ghats squishing the mud with her bare feet, I wonder if her words spoke of childish daydreams or pragmatic everyday thoughts.

At night I met a friend who I had met at the Ashram a few nights before. A German who is living in Varanasi learning to speak Hindi. We walked along the water towards the small burning ghat and together we sat in silence watching the funeral pyres, it was getting late and there were few people out by the river. A group of old men sat on benches watching the fire, the night was turning cold but we were warmed by the heat of fading bodies and it provided a strange comfort. Before coming to Varanasi the idea of going to a cremation ground to sit and think, to simply be and reflect; would probably have seemed insane if not even offensive, but once in Varanasi this activity is perfectly logical and acceptable. My friend told me he would often come here when he was frustrated, upset or angry, that sitting for a few minutes in front of the burning bodies would ground him and return him to calm and sanity. I completely understood this and wondered if people would treat life with more care and attention if such a ritual was experienced by all, especially in the West.

We talked about loss. I told him about the year that both me and my little brother each lost a friend. I spoke of the slow passing of my grandfather and the way I had watched him degenerate over one long hot summer. He spoke about a close friend he had lost a few years ago and we both understood that these losses had changed our personal understandings of time, of life and how it moves beside death. It took the loss of a friend for me to realise the reality of my own fragility, at home death waits like a sinister villain around dark corners, it springs out and captures the naive and deluded, we all believe we are invulnerable. Here death is life’s gentle mirror, they move side by side and slip interchangeably between each other, they share ground and air, they do not hide but their formlessness reveals itself in every moment of every day. There is no shame in the beauty of death, she rises majestic for all those who watch to admire, so we felt no shame as we were warmed by the heat of bodies being released into the air and we did not feel the need to justify our longing to be there.

The old men gathered around us and my friend spoke to them in Hindi. They were asking him where he was from and whether there was a caste system in his country, when he replied that there was not they seemed overjoyed and each congratulated him as if he were personally responsible. As they spoke with him, the younger men who could not determine our relationship stared at me with aggressive lingering eyes. When my friend was not looking they edged closer and closer and licked their lips and whispered obscenities to me. I was disgusted by the situation and the enormous disparity between how I and my male friend were treated. Furthermore, I could not digest the fact that this was happening here in front of burning bodies – but this is how life and death dance together.

We left the ghat and walked back to Assi, my friend taught me how to swear at the men and told me shout at them if that situation arose again. He explained that if I asserted myself they would back away immediately. I will certainly try this next time but I am not yet convinced.