The last few

by Gabriella Sonabend

I am walking along the ghats with Sam and suddenly I bump into a friend from home, although I knew that he was coming to Banaras I did not expect to see him and I am somewhat thrown off course. I had had hundreds of ideas about how I was going to spend my final week, I would walk the length of the ghats in both directions, I would take a rickety boat to the other side of the river and simply sit for a day, I was going to buy a sweater to put on a goat, (this is something that happens particularly in Banaras). I thought about finding a recording studio and making a new track. In reality after our modest Christmas I did very little and was held back by a new bout of health issues including intensely bad back pains. I spent hours on my bed staring at the black spots on the walls and ceiling, which had once been mosquitoes. I ventured to the ghats on some afternoons, I even flew kites on the lawn in front of the great white mansion next to the gallery – but nothing grand happened, and there was no epic close. Time did not race but rather it seemed to slip away and I became increasingly conflicted about returning home.

Kite flying season has begun and the ghats are filled with young children eagerly kite cutting and playing cricket throughout the days. Christmas has bought large waves of tourists and in my last days I watched as greenhorns felt their way around the unfamiliar landscape. Bargaining fights with rickshaw drivers prevailed. I watched as men in sparkling, home-made brightly coloured sweater-vests whizzed around on their bicycles. I sat at the burning ghat, the pyres never cease, there is an endless supply of bodies and every day young children who I have never seen before arrive by the waterside with baskets of flowers and candles to sell. As I sat amidst the clouds of drifting smoke I remembered standing inside the well and understanding that somehow I was an integral part of this chaotic and ever-changing landscape, I remembered the way I became part of its deep echo. At home I have never known this feeling. Here I am an outsider and a stranger but in this state I have been welcomed in and acknowledged, at home I am simply another body in a city of ever passing faces. I am afraid to return to this reality, this great loneliness.

The water buffalo continue their path to an unknowable place. The dogs patrol and parade, they run in gangs. In a small back alley in the old city I see something extraordinary, a small dog sleeping on top of a dozing cow, their forms are so perfectly moulded together – one acting as a bed the other as a blanket. The pigs remain humbly and obliviously inside the gutters; they roll in sewage and make no attempt to brave the chaotic roads.

Outside the residency the road is still being reconstructed, in my first week they had dug it up in order to lay power lines, now it is being dug up again to install a new sewage pipe. My original assumption seems to be confirmed – progress is near impossible in Varanasi. Certainly every two steps forward is taken with one step back.

I do not know how to say goodbye to the people that I have met here. I have forged so many friendships, which are so different from the ones I have known at home. I have no idea how to say goodbye to the women and the girls that I have drawn, although I scarcely know them I feel so deeply connected to them I shiver at the idea of leaving them. I still do not know the significance of my act, perhaps I never will.

My thoughts seem to become increasingly fragmented. I have learned so much and yet I feel utterly ignorant, I have barely scraped the surface of this world, I have looked through one lens and I have tried to look without judgments or assumptions – I have seen vividly and felt strongly, yet I can hardly make sense of any of what