A call to Kashi

Nirbhaya – Why rape?

One year to this day. She was brutally gang raped on a bus in Delhi and subsequently died. Thousands took to the streets in protest, campaigned to change the rape laws. She became the face of a struggle for change, a martyr – but what has changed?

Nirbhaya was not the only woman or indeed person to be raped that night, across India women, children and even men of all caste backgrounds are being sexually abused on a daily basis. Five minutes in a slum in Varanasi can make that quickly evident. Sexually repressed groups of males, forbidden contact with women until marriage, walk the streets in large groups with glaring eyes that tell all in seconds.

Being here has made me realise that it is not as simple as changing a law, there must be an entire mentality change. Rape is not an act of sexual desire; it is an act of frustration and urgency for power. Here we live in a society where although males are preferred and are dominant they have no true power or control, it is simply an illusion. How do we begin to dissect this issue, at what point do potential aggressors become so powerless and frustrated that they are led to behave in such a demoralising manner (towards themselves and their victims), at what point do these men lose their power – their power of self-determination and choice?

It is easy to see from living in Varanasi that the concept of self-determination is virtually non-existent here. From the day a boy is born until the day he dies he is part of a lineage, he takes his place in a hierarchy, he is his mother’s prince but he must obey her command, he must marry the wife she chooses, he must live in his mother’s house for his entire life, whilst he is a boy he may run around and play but he has no contact with females, he goes to a single sex school and is forbidden to be alone with a woman until he is married. This is a society, which favours the male and as a result female babies are frequently aborted or ‘die’ after birth. Consequently, the population is no longer balanced; the number of males greatly outweighs females. This means that not every man will be able to marry and some men will go their whole adult lives having never touched or been friends with a woman (aside from their mothers). I have seen these men around Varanasi, they salivate at the sight of a white woman (because they believe we are prostitutes) they use us for their most inane fantasies (for example the man who masturbated on the truck carrying a corpse as he stared at me in the rickshaw behind). What they learn of foreign women is what they find in pornography, they imagine in the West that every woman is running around freely giving herself to any man who desires her; they are extremely envious of this, this adds to their frustration.

On top of this, although women are second class citizens compared to men and daughters are seen as a burden, (dowry worries begin at birth), the women of India are resilient fighters who are used to doing the tasks their male counterparts are incapable of, they run the house, they work, they keep the family together and in a strange way they are the boss. This adds to the confusion of the young Indian male who is told his is superior but is still bossed around by his mother. So the male becomes further frustrated, he walks around like a pack animal, (in Varanasi packs of men can be found on every street at every hour of the day), they can’t touch women so they hold each other’s hands for intimacy and friendship and in the dark it is well known that many fulfil each other’s sexual needs. Add in the fact that gay sex has just been re-criminalised, (giving gay Indian’s a shame complex), add in the matter of caste (which breeds jealously, insecurity, self-loathing etc)… So how does the Indian male live this paradoxical existence? When does he reach breaking point and need to lash out and assert himself and who does he attack?

He attacks the female, because the female is weak, the female is lesser and so by this logic the female deserves to be punished. He attacks children for the same reasons. He uses rape as his method because it is his most naturally violent tool, it is his most purely destructive and creative method of dominance and torture.

The point I am building begins to emerge as a messy whole. For sexual violence to stop in India the role and status of the male must be reconsidered from every angle.

House arrest – body and mind – Constance and I

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.

No sweets for you Madame!

Last night I had the most peculiar dream. I was with a friend from home but we were not at home and we were not in India, I think we were in Berlin. He began to ask me about my time in India and I told him some fantastical story about how I had been living on a house boat, with no shower or kitchen; the winter had arrived early and the water around me had frozen. I had suffered through the cold and eventually I agreed (after much encouragement) to move into the mansion beside the river. In my dream I knew I was lying to my friend and I felt horribly guilty but I simply could not bring myself to tell him any truth about India. I woke up feeling ashamed of my dream-self, I am not one to analyse dreams in any great depth but it did make me think again of the strangely fictional aspects of my life here. Days that pass delirious –

Yesterday I did not leave my studio, I was determined to get myself back on my feet, the murky cloud that had been drowning my brain, causing nausea and depression had finally lifted but still my body was incredibly weak and I could barely walk to the kitchen, (a few metres away). I lay on my bed staring up at the high white ceiling, I dreamt of my next escape. As I fantasised about exotic creatures and fresh water running through dense jungle, the sounds of Varanasi were ceaseless. The horns, the pre-recorded prayers booming through loud speakers attached to electricity poles, the shouting men, the howling dogs, the stomping of the water buffalo nobly heading south (I have yet to discover where they are travelling to), the birds circling the high tree tops (these are scarce), the horns and the road workers.

I ate honey and yogurt, yogurt and honey, nothing else, my teeth feel strange but at least my mind is clearing. I remember something absurd.

A few days ago, before I became sick, Jeremy joined us for dinner at the residency. I wanted something sweet for desert and told the others I would pop out quickly to pick up some sweets from the local shop. I wrapped my head in a scarf and ventured alone into the dark, dusty night. The sweet shop is only a few minutes away but at night the swerving headlights and dust clouds quickly obscure sight and walking any small distance is a challenge. I arrived at the shop feeling strangely triumphant; I lowered my scarf so I was able to speak and asked the man at the counter if I could buy a mixed box of sweets. He stared at me with a blank expression, there were three other men behind the counter and they each proceeded to stare in the same way. I repeated my request and pointed to the sweets I wanted to buy and the box I wanted to put them in. They continued to stare. I asked again, this time my voice slightly raised. Again, no response and then the man at the front of the counter began to laugh.

“We have no sweets” he told me, this was of course a blatant lie as I was standing in front of a large counter of them. “I only speak Hindi” he then said, which, was of course also a lie, I have bought sweets here many times and I know that he speaks English.

“You go” he told me. That was that. For some unspoken, inexplicable reason I returned to the gallery empty handed, shaking my head in disbelief (although in truth I was not shocked at all – this is India, anything can happen – I shook my head more for dramatic effect). I related the story to the others and no one seemed particularly surprised.

Harsh reality – sans pity

My friends send me concerned messages from home. They reach out to me with beautiful words of encouragement and as I read them I feel flushed with warmth. I tingle as I realise how much support I am being sent from afar, but something in their words concerns me. They are worried about me, my health, my sanity and perhaps I have given them good reason through my writing – but this was not my intention. I am writing to convey my own truth, to capture and relate the reality of being here, the beauty and the horror, the triumph and the sickness. I am only human, I am only weak and fallible, sometimes I see with eyes wide open and feel I understand the world around me, but for the best part I am utterly confused, I walk around as if in a cloud and all that lies beyond my cloud is misty and vague – I can’t grasp it, I can’t tell what it means, what it says, all is distorted and I struggle to step into clarity.

There is something I am extremely wary of. I have been advised to remember that everything I see is simply what I see. My father told me perhaps my issue is that my expectations of the world and humanity are too high; another friend told me everything is how you think it. Perhaps both of these statements are true and I am in fact suffering from extreme optimism tainted by harsh reality, perhaps if my ‘mentality’ changed I would feel differently – but this is a hard thought for me to swallow. I don’t like the idea that I am seeing struggle and pain because my mind wants me to, and if I desired to see beauty then I would.

The reality is I am seeing beyond the romantic notions of this city and I am not searching for this vision – I have been invited in by those I have met and spent time with in the city, people who were born here, who will live and die here. Yes, of course there are moments of great hope and beauty, but in truth these are extremely hard to come by, the beautiful spirit of the people here does not take away from the fact that they have to live in terrible poverty with no basic human requirements – clean water, medical attentions, a sanitary place to live.

Are my expectations of the world too high? Maybe, but perhaps not, if people across the world have managed to build secure lives (I am talking of basic requirements – I do not begin to delve into the psychological issues we suffer in the developed world), then why shouldn’t I dream this for India? I know that humanity doesn’t have to be this way – I am product of a completely different society, where I have rights and self-determination – so why shouldn’t I despair for the people I see who are trapped by poverty, disease and social inequality?

Bed ridden

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.

 

A notion of stillness

4 hours of sleep, but somehow I have awoken with a new lease of hope and energy. Throughout the night I have been working on mounting my series of drawings in panels of sari fabric, lined with bells and sparkles. This is agonising work; hand stitching delicate paper in low light, but this morning I woke, climbed down from the platform where I sleep to find what I created in my somewhat delirious and shaky state – I am shocked at my own productivity.

5 portraits delicately and lovingly framed. I know immediately why I must remain here and I remember without difficulty the beauty, which lives in Varanasi, which has kept me here so long, which has given me fuel to look past what ought to drag me down daily. These women, each face given to me with such honesty and intensity an interaction so authentic that even my uncertain pencil lines have managed to capture this. Their pictures lie across my daybed, my desk, my walls and my floor, I am surrounded by their smiles, their winces, their embarrassment, momentary joy – everything they have allowed me to glimpse.

I am hungry to share these moments, the overwhelming beauty of a half of society who normally can’t be looked at in this manner. Women do not look at men, they do not talk to foreigners, they do not seek to communicate, they are in a constant state of flux here, fulfilling their various duties – but in these drawings they have given me something incredibly rare and precious – their stillness.

I remember a thought, which compelled me when I was living and working in Israel in 2010. Back then I was using dance as a means of mapping out and understanding space. I danced in 44 different locations in Jerusalem Dance was an anthropological study, an action to repeat, which like sonar would send out a sound into the spaces I occupied and what returned to me was echoes of culture, of religion, of architecture, of different thoughts contained in a city of passion and conflict. At the time, I learned that my body represented a plethora of different images and signs to different groups of people; I learned that my actions were not defined by my intentions, but by what my surroundings dictated and understood of me.

I began to think about stillness and these questions arose: At what point does stillness become active? At what point does simply being present become a dance? At what point does this dance become an act of protest? Finally, at what point does an act of protest pose a threat (to the participant and/or the audience)?

These questions seem as pertinent to me now as I think about trying to find and capture these women in moments of calm and unusual stillness. I think about their implication of their freezing for me and giving me their time, time which is precious, time which in India is not linear – rather circular, hectic and unpredictable. I realise what they have given me is so much more than a half hour of emptiness – it is time that would be spent washing, cleaning, cooking, nurturing – completing every expected action of their lives.

With these thoughts I awake, and in these thoughts I am reveling. I am honoured, I am so fortunate I am completely overwhelmed. Perhaps a storm is brewing within me, but for the moment it has no need to erupt, I am still motivated and above all I have access to an insight, which is so personal and authentically beautiful I can’t shun it. I lovingly adorn each image; I want each picture to be perfect, to award these faces my time and my stillness, to give this work the time, which could be spent in tears and self-pity. I want to afford each woman the same positive attention, curiosity and love, which they afforded me in being my sitters.

Yes. There is work for me yet in Varanasi. I am living dialectic, a truly self-aware and simultaneously deluded product of this city. I find myself talking out loud, laughing and scorning my own words and thoughts. I prevail, those faces wait for me and I prevail for them alone.

 

I almost can't believe I am painting again, I was convinced I would never paint again.

I almost can’t believe I am painting again, I was convinced I would never paint again.

Insomnia, perhaps?

It is 2am, it is Wednesday. Of this I am almost certain. During the day my body is sluggish; I am barely able to respond to conversation, I feel like I am bearing an enormous weight. I try to explain how I feel but I realise that my words sound contradictory and confusing, I am unable to articulate myself. To be honest I am not sure what I think anymore. Everything feels like an enormous effort; eating, speaking, moving from one space to another.

Somehow I manage to work, somehow I manage to leave the gallery and hop into a rickshaw. I even muster the energy to bargain over the price (I don’t know why I bother with this insignificant petty battle). I go to Assi and I meet Jeremy, we sit in a cafe, he has been here only two days and he already somewhat sees the insanity of this world, he could not stay here, I wonder how I have managed it. I go to the local laundry place, I have given the young woman who works there a bag of fabrics and asked her to stitch them into panels for me. They will be used as mounts for my drawings of women. I am beckoned into a small room, there is a power cut, and it is dark outside. In the room are two young women and a small girl. I am waiting for my fabrics to be delivered by a man, the women are thrilled to have me in their company and they offer me chai and ask me questions about myself and my work. I show them pictures of my drawings, which I have taken on my phone. They gasp with delight and ask me to draw them, I am weary but I do not want to disappoint them and so I take my sketch book out from my bag and sharpen my pencils; but it is too dark and I can barely see their faces. I promise that I will return over the next week to draw them. Will I have the energy to keep my promise?

Now it is night, it is cold and the sky is a heavy misty mauve. The sound of wedding bands has finally stopped for the night but the horns persist. I have been sewing and painting again. Sometimes when night falls and the city begins to sleep I feel my energy returning in short bursts – perhaps I must wait for the city to sleep before I am able to feel my own sense of space and time.

Today friends reached out to me from home and from other places which seem so incredibly far away. They sent words of encouragement and love. For brief moments I felt uncannily close to something, but for the best part of the day I feel estranged – from everything. I wish I could explain what exactly I am feeling but I can’t, I do not find the right words or actions.

Perhaps it is an overwhelming sense of empathy for the world around me, which I feel I am beginning to know, (know but never understand), a sadness that does not revolve around my own ‘self’ but is shared with every struggling being in this place. I am not sure. I search for productive ways of dealing with these feelings – is this insomnia?

It has been suggested that I return home. Despite everything, I feel that it is not yet my time to leave (maybe I am delusional). There is something here worth staying the extra few weeks for, I think, at least this is what I tell myself.

With only eyes

One beautiful moment.

I am in Dalmandi again, buying more fabric for my artworks. I am standing in a shop, which sells trimmings and edges to adorn saris and dresses; borders and bells, reels of these, shimmering on shelves; stacked ceiling to floor. The shop is dark and narrow and packed full with women, Hindus and Muslims. Half of the women wear beautiful saris; they are wrapped in shades of magenta, turquoise, teal, buttercup, amber and cobalt. The other half is draped in black fabric, covered head to toe; they stand in a cluster. I stand beside this cluster. They watch me asking to see my various trimmings, they are curious, it is not common to find a foreigner in this market, they are whispering to each other, only their eyes are visible and they dart back and forth towards me. I turn to them and I smile, it is not forced, although I am exhausted, I am suddenly extremely moved by this group of shaded women and I smile a smile I did not plan. Suddenly I see the corners of theirs eyes creasing, the fabric covering their noses begins to twitch and rise slightly, their eyes sparkle and I know that beneath their shield they are smiling back at me.

For some reason I shake my head in laughter, I am not laughing at them, I am not laughing at the situation. I am simply sharing a strange, inexplicable, uncontrollable moment of joy. I pay for my things and incline my head to say goodbye. Within moments I’m back on the streets, there are no women here for me to laugh with.

Jeremy

Home. Salad. Warm bed. Silence. All craved. My mind is now fully saturated I am not sure if for the time being I can handle any more – thoughts, smells, senses. My lungs feel clogged, everything is filthy. I am sick again, for the fourth time now. I can’t take another dose of antibiotics; it is one bug after another. I eat apple pie and oranges, drink rehydration salts and plenty of water. I try to be good to myself, to protect my body but every time I go outside I feel like I’m being battered.

My ears accosted constantly. I can’t tell if I am very sick or simply utterly exhausted. Perhaps they are one and the same.

Jeremy has come to visit, he is part of the reason I am here. We are working together, producing an installation piece. I have told myself that this time in Banaras is a research period, I feel like I am researching my emotional demise. He is in newcomer mode, his lungs still carry air from England, he is bright and energetic He is enthused with curiosity and excitement. I can barely drag my feet beside him. I am wrecked. Standing next to him makes me realise I am very weak indeed. I am usually a force of energy and nervous creativity when I am with him. Now I am slow words and jumbled thoughts, tired legs and heavy head. One hour walking the ghats and I need chai, I need apple pie.

My body wants rest – I give it sugar as a compromise. I continue to paint. Even my brushstrokes are lazy and slow. Home, will it feel as warm as I imagine? A large red sofa, soft dim lighting and a floor so clean I can sleep on it. An oven. Avocados. I dream of sitting in a bathtub listening to music. Will the streets seem eerily empty and will I feel invisible when not every passerby stares into me?

I am in a rickshaw. It is very dark outside. He takes backstreets that I don’t recognise. I am afraid.

The roads are being dug up again. The streets look like they did when I arrived. Am I imagining this? I feel like I’ve gone back in time but with a heavier heart, a sad wisdom. The roads, again and again the roads. The city continues cycling.