by Gabriella Sonabend
- I am sitting at Assi Ghat, it is dusk and mist dances across the stone steps, the candlelights on the river are soft and hazy through the thick white. The ghat is crowded with tourists, vendors and locals enjoying the evening. I was with my friend but now I am alone and as I sit I notice a circle of men standing behind and around me, peering down. A small girl approaches me, she wears a pink sweater and a Jamaican flag hat with Marijuana leaves stitched on the sides, she is holding a basket of flowers but she does not try to sell any to me. She seems to look me up and down as if she is sizing me up, I watch her and when it seems she is satisfied she climbs up the steps, puts down her basket and sits beside me. She looks up into my eyes.
“I’m Priya and I’m ten”
“I’m Gaby, nice to meet you”
I begin to ask her questions, she tells me that she hasn’t sold any flowers today, it is hard work and she doesn’t like the people that hang around the ghats. I ask about her family, she has a sister and two brothers, her brothers are aggressive and they push her around, her sister she tells me is very lazy and refuses to sell flowers. I ask Priya if she is afraid, she is not afraid but she does not trust the men in Banaras, she does not trust the boys. She shuffles closer and closer to me, she is bright-eyed and her English is excellent. She tells me she learns it at school but mostly she learns from speaking to tourists on the ghats. I tell her that I am very impressed with her English and that she must keep studying hard, perhaps she won’t always have to work here. She tells me she sells candles to pay for extra lessons but she does not need to worry about her future yet.
“There is time for deciding” she tells me earnestly and I am shocked at her calm wisdom. She tells me that she wants to give me something, a present from her. She covers my eyes and tells me to open my hand, I feel something heavy and smooth. I open my eyes and inside my palm I find a beautiful white bracelet made from pearl-like plastic beads.
“I can’t take this from you”
“You must, it is my gift to you. Please it would make me too happy. You must keep it”
“But do you not want it?”
“I buy it, but I don’t need it anymore, now I give it to you”.
I am speechless. A child who essentially has nothing has just given me one of her few possessions. I put in on and she sighs in appreciation. I reach into my bag; I must give her something in exchange. A few days ago I found a wonderful stone carver, a gentle, warm man who carves the smallest stone elephants that I have ever seen, in his spare time. These were not on display in the shop but he shown me his own personal experiments and when I asked to purchase one such miniature elephant, he was genuinely reluctant and anxious that I would somehow break it – it was his finest work. We bargained and bantered and I walked away with the world’s smallest elephant packaged inside a tiny wooden egg. It was my Banaras treasure and I intended to keep it in my wallet as a travelling companion, but in this moment I knew it had to pass it on. I beckoned Priya towards me and told the men leering behind us to move away, I held the tiny egg in my palms and she peered over at the strange shape. She discretely opened the egg and found the little animal inside, her eyes glowed and I made her promise to keep it a secret, to keep it for herself, it was her treasure now. She promised emphatically and for a brief moment she gave me her little hand. Her friends arrived with their flower baskets and began their sales pitches but most of them knew me and soon put down the flowers to talk instead.
- Two warm blankets for scarcely any money, but I know that this is not enough. I go to find Ligoty, she is in her usual spot, and I give her the two blankets.
“One for you, one for your sister”
She nods and gathers them in her arms. I reach out for her hand and she places it in mine, her eyes are wide as ever and she smells like the stale dirt of the street. I hope that she uses this blanket and that it isn’t resold, I hope she is warm tonight.
- I have printed pictures of Payal and I standing in front of the drawing of her on Assi Ghat. I am smiling a Cheshire grin and she looks happy and very sleepy (it is 6.30am). I take these photographs to her home, it is around 9 at night and she is inside her small room with her entire family, they lay across each other on the bed, her mother at the centre.
“I have come to say goodbye, I’m leaving”. Payal is at the back in the kitchen and she rushes out to me, and flings her arms around me. I can’t believe how upset she seems about the fact I am leaving and am equally amazed at my own emotional response. I am fighting back tears, my teeth are chattering I will genuinely miss this family, they have shown me such incredible warmth and generosity, they have been a symbol of beauty amongst the pain the mess and the dirt. I hold her to me, I will see her again I am sure and I tell her this, she promises me she will continue to be strong for her family and that she will keep beating up bad men, (this is a remarkable talent of hers), she is an exceptional woman in this society and I have no doubts that she will be ok, still the idea of leaving her here is painful. Her cousin runs out and wraps herself around me; little Muscan with her round cheeks and slanted eyes, she kisses my hand. I am beckoned into the room and towards the bed, I am suddenly at the centre of dozens of limbs, arms and legs wrapped around me, I am being kissed and offered gestures of prayer. Payal’s mother sits at the centre of the bed and shakes her head smiling at me, she touches her heart; I touch mine.
I have never before experienced such an explosion of genuine warmth; I am tingling in every digit and every limb. There is no reserve whatsoever, I understand that this family is bound together by a great force of female love, they are a troupe of adoring women and during this brief moment they extended this love to me. England seemed so distant.
Payal asked me to close my eyes and to stand still; she wrapped a beaded necklace around me.
“So you will not forget me” I could never forget her. Never.
We say goodbye a hundred times, I find it almost impossible to leave the little home. I do leave – this is not my home.
- I have one more photograph to give; it is a photograph of the drawing of Ligoty blowing in the breeze at Assi Ghat. It is 10pm; I approach the small platform where the beggars sleep, a fingerless man and the beggar girls’ mother sit beside a small fire of burning plastic. Beside them are a pile of blankets, which I recognise as the girls’. The mother watches me approach and beckons me towards her, I give her the photograph and she shows it to the man. She smiles and thanks me; he also thanks me and offers a gesture of respect. I whisper that the photograph is for Ligoty, the mother understands, she crawls towards her daughter and gently places the photograph beneath her sleeping head. Sleeping rough, a single photograph for a pillow. I don’t see the new blankets.