House arrest – body and mind – Constance and I

by Gabriella Sonabend

I need someone to guard the gates of the residency and stop me from going out. I am beginning to think my behaviour is compulsive. I have a total fear of the outside world teamed with an overriding obsession with investigating it and facing the dirt, the chaos and the horror. This morning my sea legs were back and I needed extra material for the pieces I am making, I knew that it would be impossible to explain to someone else where to get them from so I was forced to venture back to Dalmandi.

In the rickshaw I held my stomach and tried to avoid lungs full of brick dust. I turned on my iPod and listened to my friend’s music, somehow hearing his voice above the city racket. It soothed me and I felt momentarily invigorated. I took photos of absurd scenes on my phone and thought about how almost every frame would create a great surrealist painting – who would believe these compositions back home?

I jumped off the cycle and practiced my most assertive stride. Elbows out to create space around me, wide-legged; I paced forward darting through pedestrians, motorbikes and cycles. Ears still filled with music from home I did not hear what people shouted at me as I rushed past. I arrived at the fabric shop, the man recognised me immediately and prioritised me over the other customers, usually this would upset me and I would not accept this preferential treatment, but at this exact moment I felt my body buckling and was suddenly very grateful for being white, tall and female. I bought what I needed – with probably the greatest efficiency a transaction has been done with in the history of Indian commerce, I bolted out of the shop and ran down the main road in search of a rickshaw home.

At home the heaviness returned immediately, legs fit only for lying on a bed, dizzy eyes, and a fatigue, which caused the entire body to slump forward. I felt foetal, curled up and crumpled. Across the room I saw my pale green bath towel scrunched up on my wicker chair, I empathised with that towel, I felt sorry for it lying there so pathetic and redundant – fuck – I’m empathising with a towel, time to get out of here?

Meanwhile in the gallery an exhibition opening was taking place, Shanti was prescribing bhang tandi and the local socialites and passing tourists were admiring the series of wildlife photos on display. Constance made her way from Assi to visit me and we sat in my room and talked of life in India and the growing fatigue, which seems to be gripping us and our friends who remain here.

Constance – is an artist, a doctor, a writer and a philosopher and my greatest confidant in Varanasi. She has been living in Varanasi for over ten years giving free medical care to ‘untouchables’, during those years she worked exclusively in the slums of the city, and through her work she slowly came to understand the reality of life for untouchables. She discovered counterfeit medicine, fake diagnoses and negligence throughout – the reality about medical care for untouchables is; there is none. Doctors have no motivation or interest in helping people from the lowest caste so talcum powder filled pills, empty medical charts, drips filled with water from the Ganges, misdiagnosis are all a given. After more than ten years of struggling to change this, Constance reached a point of despair – she alone could not change the system, she could no longer handle the pain and the horror.

I met Constance only a few days after she decided to stop working in the slums, now a painter without a studio, suddenly feeling redundant in a place where she formally had such great purpose. We met in a guest house; now we meet in cafes, we talk for hours and I listen to her stories of falling deeper and deeper into life here, of becoming so closely integrated and yet always being an outsider, white skinned, female, American. Through Constance I have been allowed to glimpse aspects of this city that I would otherwise be ignorant of, through her truths I am able to look closer and see deeper, she shares with me with an urgency and vigour that ensures me of the importance of her words.

So we sit in my bedroom Constance and I. She is longing to escape Varanasi, to go somewhere snow-capped with bare trees and cold water, Kashmir, the mountains, the dreamscape. I urge her to go, I have been here three months and already I am exhausted and deflated, she has been here more than ten years. I can’t imagination her current state. She is strong-willed and self-determined, but somehow she seems tethered to this hellish place.

Constance takes care of me; she makes sure that I have the right medicine, the right food and coca cola! She tells me that I must learn to take care of myself physically. I must not neglect my body, I must listen to it. In return I wish the opposite for her- that Constance will learn to take care of her mind, to remove it from the site of trauma, to allow her to step out of hell and indulge in beautiful surroundings and silence.

She leaves, I remain in my room. I stare at the bright white halogen strip light on my wall. I think of Constance. I pray that she will leave Varanasi – nothing positive here remains for her, she has given of herself entirely, now she must travel somewhere where she can begin to heal the wounds she has suffered in her effort. I worry that she has become too wedded to this place, that life beyond will seem too sterile for her, too performative, that she is clinging to the real. Certainly if nothing else, Varanasi embodies the most extremes of reality.

Constance has the same pale blue eyes as my late grandfather, the same hue, the same shape, the same folds and creases surrounding them – they twinkle with the same humour that manages to prevail throughout. I am captivated by these eyes and I feel I am in the presence of a great wisdom. I marvel at everything she is, her physical age is 77 but we are one and the same, old or young, we speak the same language with the same intensity, she assures me that I am not bordering on insanity. I love her like a friend I have known my entire life. As I lie foetal and ridiculous, I wish for her well-being. I close my eyes and imagine her on a beautiful house boat, she wears a long black skirt and is wrapped in blankets, and she holds a long thin paint brush and watches her breath dance before her in the cold. She is happy here.