The hand that swings

by Gabriella Sonabend

Christmas passed by Varanasi with relative modesty, some small shops hung Santa costumes outside and put emaciated plastic trees on sale, a handful of Westerner’s cafes closed for the day; but in general life continued oblivious to the Christian festival, it paled in comparison to the great ceremonies of the Hindi festivals and Muslim parades. At the residency I decorated the kitchen with garish bright decorations in the middle of the night and we gathered in the morning in my makeshift winter wonderland for pancakes and gifts. We had agreed to each buy a gift for a limit of 500 rupees within the theme of “God’s Gift”, which we would then swap on Christmas day. I bought a small golden model of a tuktuk and filled it with figurines of the Hindu Gods, I stuck a sticker of the Virgin Mary on the roof and a sign that said ‘God bless you’ – the result was an intricate and extremely tacky Godmobile. It was a lovely calm day, free from the pressures that Christmas always seems to bring back home; I stayed within the gallery gates and shut myself off to the mania beyond.

Thursday – four days left in India. Somehow I am not filled with any desire to ‘make the most’ of these last few days, my adventuring spirit has depleted in the past few weeks, with my work finished and shipped back to England I feel purposeless. I think about home constantly with both excitement and dread. I can’t imagine how my life will be in only a few weeks, I fear suffering from reverse culture shock – how will I sleep without the persistent sound of horns outside? How will I cross a road with a designated crossing and traffic lights? Will I be intimated by public intimacy and offended by scantily clad women? Will I dream of the burning ghats and long for the realities, which this world presents – the base truth of death, the grime and the dirt?

In the morning I amble along the riverfront and sit on the steep steps watching as children fly kites and new tourists walk by in inappropriate dress, holding hands and displaying a total lack of sensitivity for their cultural surroundings, this amazes me, even though I see it often. I wander into little shops and buy trinkets for friends and family at home. I sit on the steps at Assi Ghat. Here the vendors know me and I am not bothered, I stare at the river in front of me, the sky is clear but somehow a mist seems to gather on the opposite bank.

As I fall deeper into my daydream a small face pops up in front of me with a smile stretched from ear to ear. She is shy and bashful and sways her body from side to side; her eyes are filled with excitement.

Ligoty stands before me, adoring and shy. I talk to her but she does not understand anything I am saying, her smile grows. She sits next to me and stares up at me. A local man approaches and he tells me that she is a beggar and that she wants my money, he tells me I am rich and I am pitying her, he tells me that the children who have now gathered around her are her brothers and sisters. They are not. I tell the man to back away, that they are not her siblings and that I know her. He seems shocked and asks Ligoty in Hindi if she knows me, she shakes her head joyfully but she does not speak to him. She shuffles closer and closer to me. The man asks me if I am going to adopt her, I am completely thrown by this question, of course I am not, it would be practically impossible, I have no means to support a child, I would never be granted permission to bring her out of India and if I did what life could I give her? You can’t just choose a child to bring home… I realise that I am seriously entertaining his question and that I harbour an extremely strong maternal instinct that makes me want to shout out “Of course I’m going to adopt her, what else can I do!” but I suppress the irrational urge to shout. I watch Ligoty staring up at me and I know that there is very little I can do to help her. I stand up and walk towards a cafe where I am meeting a friend. Ligoty jumps up with me and as I walk she skips at my side and swings up her mud covered hand and lands it in mine. Her hand is tiny and very dry, her fingernails are bitten short – the feeling of her tiny hand inside mine is explicable. I am filled with an overwhelming rush of sorrow, helplessness and guilt. I feel guilty because I know I can offer little more than this moment and the gesture of capturing her portrait and I can’t imagine the significant of this act for her. I want to be able to give her something else, but what can I give? Her smile is enormous and I smile back at her, when we reach the paving stone where her mother and sister sit with begging bowls I feel her hand slip out of mine, she lands crossed legged on the floor in front of her mother and reaches for her own tin bowl. I continue up the street and as I walk she watches me. A blanket, shoes, a sweater… what can I bring her that will provide some genuine help and if I bring something for her surely I must bring something for every other beggar on that strip. This I could afford to do, but what would be the significance of this act? What would it mean for these people and those around them? Would it be entirely positive or are there somehow possible negative repercussions that I can’t conceive? I am extremely confused, I do not want to act foolishly, I know enough about this culture to understand that there is deep significance in every exchange and every gesture.

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