Everything, everything, everywhere, all the time

by Gabriella Sonabend

  1. The rickshaw driver is waiting for me by Assi Ghat, he wears a beige straw hat; he is gaunt with a sharp jawline and high cheekbones. He wears a pale blue shirt with a deep blue sweater vest. He wears worn out grey flannel trousers and sandals. I jump into his auto-rickshaw and he begins to talk. He is extremely excited. I am on the way to his house to meet Laxmi his 13 year old daughter who dreams of being a painter. This rickshaw driver is the man who takes me back to the gallery every day after I have finished my drawing and each day I share with him the new pictures and he beams with pleasure. His English is very good; we talk about his life and his family, he tells me that his daughter spends all of her time painting and that he has learned to accept her passion and learned to encourage her, even though he does not feel it is sensible. He tells me how he has two daughters and that for most people this would be a problem but for him they are his greatest love. He talks of the problem of being born a girl, the dowry, the exclusion, “no parent wants a girl” – he tells me, “girls only bring trouble, every mother and father are praying always for a son”. But he is different, he is pleased to have daughters, proud – blessed. So I told him that I would love to meet Laxmi that I would like to go to his house and see her paintings. So there we are driving to his house, a slum house near the Ganga. He parks the auto on the side of the road and we descend into a maze of makeshift houses, cows block the thin alleyways, corrugated metal roofs sit low and precarious on stone and wooden structures.

Ahead of us is a barn with a metal roof, inside it around fifteen young girls are having a dancing lesson, they are dressed in knee length traditional dance dresses and they flick their wrists and heads to the rhythm counted out by their teacher – the driver pokes his head into the barn and calls to Laxmi, she runs out excited and he tells her that I have come to meet her and to see her paintings. Laxmi is overwhelmed with excitement. I remove my shoes and she beckons me up a stone staircase into a small room, on a low table are a stack of folders filled with her drawings. There are crayon landscape drawings of mountains and imagined heavenly scenes, there are drawings of Disney princesses and Hindu deities, each page I turn is bright and joyous; there is so much optimism. I survey my surroundings and marvel at how much colour can emerge from the slum. The books remind me of my childhood, of the endless hours I would spend in my bedroom, drawing and painting and diving deeper and deeper into my own fantasy world, this girl is like me, escaping through pencils and watercolours. I ask if I can draw her and together we sit on the stone steps, the light is fading, it is already 4pm and I know that soon her features will be indistinguishable in the shadows of the slum. I draw urgently and she smiles at me. I ask her questions about her life and her dreams for the future, she is extraordinary, of this I am certain. I make her promise me that she will make something new every day, that she will believe in her talent and that she will fight to be an artist and leave the slum. She understands and she promises and she repeats my words. My drawing is not good, my hands are shaking and I am so worried about making a good drawing that I fail to capture her. Now the light has almost entirely faded and I promise her that I will come back to see her again, she returns to the dance room and steps into the centre of the group, she is composed, she holds a confident smile, I sit and watch her for a few moments and then I leave.

  1. I sit down on the ghats and they come and sit beside me, their hands and feet are filthy, their legs are covered in dry mud and downy hair. They wear ripped clothes and carry frayed scarves, they want money but I do not want to give them money that will simply be taken from them, I would rather give them work and food. I open my sketch book and I show them the drawings I have made so far, they make oo-ing and ah-ing noises and say that the drawings are very beautiful. I indicate that I would like to draw them – the littler one sits in front of me and stares into my eyes. Her hair is short and tussled, her fringe sticks to her forehead, the corners of her mouth twitch as she tries to keep still, she stares relentlessly; her face is round and boyish. Her name is Melissa and she is eight years old. She looks as though she hasn’t eaten in days, her tongue darts out of her mouth and licks the corners, her eyes are full of hope and hopelessness. I try to capture all of this and more, the sun shines directly into my eyes and she is cast in shadow.

Girja is nine years old but the age difference between the two girls looks much greater than a year. She is slender faced and extremely beautiful, her eyes are hazel brown, her features are delicate, her eyebrows are thick and well-shaped. She can’t stop herself smiling as I try to capture her charm, as she sits before me her initial appearance as a beggar girl evaporates and she is regal and composed. I can’t stop thinking about what these beautiful girls’ lives must be like. How is it possible that they are here, begging, walking the ghats in search of tourists to feed them? Of course, I know the answers to my questions but these are too unpalatable, too terrible and too painful. I have heard the stories of what happens to girls like these, the demoralising abuse but sitting in front of them, holding their hands, capturing their looks in pencil, I do not want to believe this. This is all too real and I am powerless.

I take the girls to Assi to buy them some food, they want to get chapatis from the pizza place that the tourists go to. I take them there but the men working in the restaurant take one look at the girls and refuse to serve me. They lie to my face, they tell me that the kitchen is not open – I can see that it is and all around us there are people eating freshly cooked food. I am infuriated and I do argue but quickly chaperone the girls away. I do not want them to realise what has happened, I do not want them to undergo the rejection but they are not stupid and they understand as well as anyone their place and the way they are seen. Two beautiful girls, looked at like vermin, judged by their shoeless feet and their muddy calves, as if it were their fault they were born so low, as if they were contaminated. I hurried them to another place in Assi and inside a low lit local restaurant they sat eagerly on brown plastic chairs. The owner of the restaurant smiled at the girls and he thanked me for bringing them here to feed them. I told him to bring them whatever they wanted and they each consumed three full plates of rice and dal – ravenously. They drank enormous gulps of water, they did not look up from their plates at they ate. I sat across from them and corrected my drawings; I watched their tiny elbows moving up and down as they brought the food to their mouths. I wondered who would feed them tomorrow. I walked them back to the ghats and I said goodbye, they thanked me again and again, they blew me kisses and then hand in hand they walked back towards the water, back to work.

  1. I am sitting in a cycle rickshaw. The traffic is heavy, extremely heavy, the road is gridlocked with cows, motorbikes, cycles, tuktuks, pedestrians, trucks – everything. It is around 5pm and the day has almost passed, there is a thin sliver of light in the sky but the dust turns the yellow strip murky, my lungs ache. I am wrapped in my Tibetan shawl, the evening is growing cold. In front of my rickshaw there is an open-back truck headed for the river, on the floor of the truck lays a corpse in an orange shroud, it is decorated with coloured strings and garlands of flowers. Around the corpse stand a circle of men waving incense and chanting. I am looking at the corpse and its open-backed hearse, a young man sees me, he gestures to his friends, they all look over. I immediately lower my eyes but I can’t help but see what they do, they are pointing at me and making lewd gestures, one of the men unzips his trousers, they are rubbing themselves and looking at me, still the corpse lies between them. This is life here. This is just everyday life.
  2. I am on the roof of Lennart’s building; we are with some of his friends and Ashish, (the owner of his guesthouse). Ashish has invited over a few of his friends, now they sit down and open a box of beers. There are nine men around the table and two women including myself. One of Ashish’s friends starts to ask Lennart about women, he strokes his leg and tells him he is a sexy man, he must get many women. His language becomes increasingly vulgar and inappropriate, Lennart is fluent in Hindi and confronts him about his behaviour in his own language – this does not deter him. He becomes more and more physical, Lennart leaves the roof. The vulgar man turns to me, he tells me I am beautiful and asks why I don’t smile at him, I avoid eye contact, I feel sick and unsafe, he is not yet drunk but he is drinking quickly and it won’t be long now. I decide to leave.
  3. I am walking through Assi with Lennart, we decide to buy a lassi and sit and watch the street, we laugh about the fact that we have become used to our peculiar environment. We describe what we see to each other, the cows, the buffalo, the hunched up men, the absurd hand gestures, the shouting men who are only metres apart, the strange shop signs, the broken road, the shops with no produce, the produce with no shops, the men urinating on the street, the marching band waiting around before a wedding in gold uniforms and ridiculous feathered top hats. We make a verbal snapshot of those moments, suddenly we feel we have woken from a strange psychedelic drug trip, we remember the insanity of our world. We laugh, we drink our lassi and we accept what we have learned to know and we accept that we are part of it.
  4. I am drawing another beggar girl, one I have seen almost every day since arriving in Varanasi. As she sits in front of me I realise I have never really seen her before, I have seen a beggar but this is a person, a yearning child, a needing soul. A beautiful and elegant woman draped in a lemon yellow sari watches me draw; when I finish the drawing she asks me “Do you only draw poor people?” I say “No, I only draw women”, “Good” she replies “Then you will draw me”. And so it goes, I no longer need to ask, I am directed, instructed, I am summoned.
  5. My friend leaves Varanasi for the South, an important part of my life is about to disappear. Who will I watch cremations with? Who will now take me deeper into this strange world, he was my doorway, now I wonder if I will stay where I am or continue further and further. My love of painting has returned, I did not anticipate this. Suddenly, I am locked up in my studio and throughout the night I mix colours, Terry has given me an enormous canvas to paint on and I do not worry about what I make. I work and in the day I keep one eye wide open watching this terrifying world, the other turns inwards and watches as my internal world unfolds.
  6. I am back in the rickshaw with the same driver. He asks if we can stop for a moment, he wants to draw a picture for me. We pull over and he draws two cartoon drawings, both childlike, one of a man, the other of a potato person – he tells me this is the best that he can do. He smiles all the while and laughs at his own effort, I tell him I think they are wonderful and ask him to sign his name.