by Gabriella Sonabend
Bedridden, I am used to the way it goes now. Health will be shaky and no arrangements will be kept. Limbs will lie weak and joints will ache. I play detective and try to think through everything I have eaten in the last 24 hours or so that might have caused this, but this is a silly game. Varanasi is saturated with millions of strange bacteria and one by one they seem to be finding their way to me.
I feel extremely guilty, Jeremy has flown across the world to Varanasi to see the city and to see me and I have been an appalling host. I have neither wanted nor really been able to take him anywhere or show him anything. My view of the city is currently so heavy and tainted, the ceremonies hold no charm for me, the temples seem dark and dingy. I see only obsessive compulsive behaviour, the weight of tradition, old superstitions and unpalatable indoctrinated thought.
Yesterday I ventured out again, (although I promised myself that I would not). I met Jeremy and tried to take him to Lolarka Kund (the well), but for the first time since arriving here I was denied access. I could not enter my safe house. He felt unwell and returned to his guesthouse to sit and watch the river. I went and sat with the girls who run the local laundry in Assi. I had promised to draw them and I intended to keep my promise.
I sat down opposite an older women (mother) who smiled at me and whilst shaking her head told me that husband was a bad man, “drinking” she said. I said “I am very sorry to hear that” there was a silence, she looked at me expectantly. I do not know what else to say, too tired – I act automatically, I remove my sketch book and pencils from my bag and I say “Would it make you feel happier if I drew you”, “Ha” (yes) she said and smiled a warm deep smile. It was an absurd interaction – of course I knew my drawing her would have no impact on her marital issues whatsoever, but it seemed the only gesture I could offer at that moment. Her daughter soon came and sat behind me and then her granddaughter arrived back from school. They patiently waited their turns and I drew each of them. We talked about life, about arranged marriage, about being a girl in Varanasi. One of the girls, (the elder one who runs the laundry) invited me into their room and showed me her family photos, her saris and her nephew’s school report card, of which she was extremely proud. I asked her where she lived and she motioned at the small room
“I live here, with all my family” she told me proudly. I could only see one bed and at least 6 family members. “My parents sleep in the kitchen with my sister and my cousin, my brother sleeps in this bed and I sleep here” (She motioned to the floor). I asked if she was comfortable there and she laughed and told me she would not want to share a bed with her brother as he stretches out so much in his sleep, she preferred the floor. This is how it goes here.
I let hours slip by. I drink chai with the girls (probably not a wise idea), I think about how much my concept of time has changed in India. I long ago discarded my watch and my calendar, I float through this landscape as through a dark never ending dream; sometimes moments seem so cyclical, sometimes time freezes for hours within one moment.