The Rock by Admin


How can one describe poverty? How can one actually describe bare poverty, when there is really nothing much to describe except the bareness itself and the nothingness?

I am following the Director and Founder of the school, and filming her as she makes her way through the main street of Nagwa, a river-side slum near Assi Ghat. She is taking me to the home of two of her students, so I can get a better sense of who these kids are and where they come from. So I follow her and film her walking through this very lively street full of children, women, men, cows, dogs, buffalos, shit - you name it – in Nagwa, Varanasi, India.

For a few days now, the different people I have talked to or interviewed have told me that most of the school’s children come from this area of town. I have been told that they are “underprivileged” children. It’s even part of the official name of the school. Poor it means, it is unfortunately as simple as that. But still, I had not yet seen what poverty really meant in Varanasi and I was still unconsciously mentally comparing it to images of poverty in more familiar lands and environments. Again, this is Varanasi, or Benares if you prefer, the reality does not change with the name, it is India, the heart of India. So after about 15 minutes of following the Director, with my camera in my hand and people staring at us with amazement and sheer curiosity, she finally points to the home of the little boy and girl. From the outside, their home is an indescribable, indefinite shape covered with a large, whitish, dirty-ish plastic sheet. It faces the river and is next to some kind of vast lawn/wasteland where water buffalos enjoy the grass, children play cricket and everybody – human and animals alike and together – uses as a bathroom and restroom. Adjacent to the house, there is a shop (pretty much a human-sized wooden box that opens on top) where the mother of the kids (and sometimes the father but rarely) sells different kinds of paan and a few bottles of soda. That’s it. The mother is waiting for us in front of her home. I’m still filming. She invites us inside. The children go in first, then the Director, the young British volunteer at the school who came along with us, and finally me trying to get a good shot of this moment of discovery. Inside, Rana, the Director is in her element, but for the British girl and I, it is a little more difficult to figure out, especially the sitting part. I’m filming anyway, so I stay up for now, it makes it easier.

The room is probably no more than 6 or 7 sq./meters. It is held together by a structure made of bamboo sticks tied together. The only, and I mean only, furniture is an old and moldy wooden table. That is what they eat on and that is what they sleep on, and that is also where they probably do all other activities in the house as it takes most of the space available anyway. But what really strikes me is something else. I don’t know exactly why it does, but there is something in this image that will stay with me and define this moment for me. There is no real floor in the “house”, but rather a bunch of rocks piled up that provide an uneven ground for a little more than half of the interior. The way it is done is the following: on the river side, they have built a little wall that goes up to half of the height of the structure. That wall is made of rocks picked up in the wasteland and is meant to protect their house when the Ganges floods, which has apparently already happened a few times this year. Then, and in a way as a continuation of this wall, some more rocks make up part of the flooring. It is so hard to describe – or rather, to convey the totally surreal feeling that one senses. Even Rana seems surprised and asks the woman about it. So I film the interior, the lone piece of furniture, the small wall made of rocks that doesn’t go all the way up, more rocks on the floor, and I film and keep on filming until I suddenly realize that I have absolutely no idea of what I am actually filming, or why I am pointing the camera where I do. I realize that I do not know why I am creating these images whatsoever and for what purpose. This state of nakedness (I don’t really know what word would be the most accurate: poor, underprivileged, miserable, bare, so I use naked) is absolutely and utterly foreign to me; it is so far from what I have seen before and I am struck by the intimate circumstances in which I am experiencing it: from inside, inside the home, inside the lives, as a guest in the privacy of this family. I realize that I do not have any feeling of pity and the woman’s extraordinary energy of life does not allow it anyway. What I feel again, pretty much 12 hours after the French couple at Lotus Lounge, is a total, total, total incomprehension towards what I see in the moment I am seeing it. I feel numb again, not knowing exactly what I am doing here in the end. And even though meaning will slowly and ultimately come up later and gradually, at this moment, I feel more confusion by seeing this, not less. So I keep on pointing my camera aimlessly at different things that are going on: the kids eating their lunch/dinner while sitting on the table, the wasteland in the back with the Holy Ganges in the distance, Rana and the British volunteer sitting where they can in the house, the mother laughing and chatting with Rana, etc.

Finally, I end up turning off my camera and find a spot to sit myself. I play with the kids, joke with the mother (as much as possible given the fact that we do not speak the same languages), and drink the soda from her store that she hands me, and for which she will refuse any payment. That’s it. It’s time to go now.

The French Couple by Admin

It is about 7pm. Wednesday evening. 10 days ago now. I walk up the stairs to the Lotus Lounge, a trendy, made-for-tourists restaurant in the old city of Varanasi, overlooking the Ganges. There is a Nepali-serenity-US dollars accepted theme going on. It is actually quite a nice place, just a vast terrace on top of the river with mosaic on the floor and a huge painting of Krishna (or maybe it’s Buddha) on one of the walls, peacefully looking after you. Food is delicious and it is made clear on the menu that everything you will order has been washed with purified water. I really wonder what that means exactly, purified water, and if it was purified by Buddha himself (or Krishna for that matter)… But I don’t dare ask.

So after a long day filming at the school (I am starting a documentary film project about this school that offers free education to underprivileged kids in Varanasi), I decide to treat myself to a nice meal in this gorgeous setting. I walk the 4 kilometers that separate this part of town from Assi Ghat near where I am staying. It is already night when I get here, so the views of the Ganges won’t be on the menu for me tonight, but the whole experience is still quite enjoyable. From where I sit, I can hear music being played on the steps of the ghat (the ghat itself is flooded) and the special Varanasi mist is slowly spreading its thin veil. Beside me, at this early hour, there is only a Spanish couple (I can hear them speak) in their mid-thirties. She’s attractive and keeps on staring at me as if I had come out of a grave or something. He is wearing his hair very short and sports a few days old beard like pretty much all Western guys I have encountered throughout my trip. By now, I have come to believe that it is a sign, a way to communicate with other fellow travelers, something like, “I’m in India, living like a local (at Lotus Lounge…) and I’m roughing it!”. Since arriving in Varanasi, I have made sure to be clean-shaven everyday. At this point, I can’t look at a beard anymore without thinking: “Phony”, but I also have to disclose that I lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for almost three years, so beards and phoniness, you know…

I try not to pay too much attention to the small crowd that slowly comes in. Young and trendy couples, all European. I take a few notes on my Moleskine notebook, read a few chapters from this book by Arundathi Roy about Indian Maoists (the Naxalites) that Nick gave me before I left Mumbai, and order a Nepalese chicken curry with a ginger, lemon and honey tea. I am enjoying myself, quietly, even though I have to admit I’m slowly getting irritated by the crowd. I know I am part of this circus, just like any other character in this play, but it is still annoying to see it unfold. Too much. There is too much of the same in just one place.

Finally, they arrive, like the cherry on the cake, the French couple. I had already noticed them a few days ago at Café Sala, not far from here. I noticed them because he reminded me of a good friend of mine in Paris, and she looked like your typical young Parisian woman, similar to so many I used to see when I was still living there. They must be in their mid-twenties, 27 maybe. From the moment they come in, it is actually difficult to take my eyes off of them, or think about something else when I manage to look away. To make a long story a tad shorter, I am puzzled. Even the Maoists are unable to hold my interest now. She is wearing the official uniform for Western female tourists in Varanasi: colorful light and large pants found in any authentic-US dollars preferred stores in the old town, a mid-length kurta in a completely different, non-matching and flashy color, a turban (yes, a turban…), and to complete the picture with the needed mystical touch, a small orange Hindu bindi on her forehead. Next to her lay the gorgeous and delicate leather hand-made sandals she got for herself in the past 48 hours, fully and duly covered in holy Varanasi shit. In one word, she looks like most of the Western hippy-ish girls I see in the narrow streets of the old town when I make it up to here. If it were only her though, by herself, I would not have paid much attention, probably would not have even noticed her. But she was not alone. He is with her.

He, it’s her boyfriend, same age as her, and the reason I find myself writing about the French couple. In a way, I could start by saying that I know this guy. I don’t mean personally of course, but I can tell by his accent, the way he moves, even the words he uses, I can tell where he comes from, which city, neighborhood even. I’m not even thinking France here, I know it’s Paris, there’s no question about that. If I were feeling bolder, I could even venture a guess on the name of the street and I’m sure, absolutely sure, that I would not be far off. Ok, so I know this kid, I went to school with a version of him, smoked my first joint with another version, dated (or at least wished to) the same girls. And today, I am staring at him as he is asking the young Nepalese waiter if he actually is Nepalese, and telling the poor kid who starts having cold sweat running down his face that they just came back from Nepal and everybody looked just like him. And as he says that with the most relaxed, even friendly tone, I can’t stop thinking that he is actually dressed in a gorgeous black and plum silk Nepalese Lungi tied around his waist. That’s it. Just that scarf. That’s what the French young man from the French young couple thought would be a good idea to wear tonight at Lotus Lounge, overlooking the holy Ganges. I look at them and I get lost in my thoughts, lost in a meaning that will never come. I feel numbed by the total and utter incomprehension of what he and his girlfriend (wife maybe) think they are experiencing of India, but more generally of the world. I look at them and I wonder whether all these signs that they are wearing, each one of them potentially able to tell us something about them, are losing all substance and meaning now that they have been reorganized and appropriated by them. And I keep on sitting there by myself, eating my spicy chicken curry, more and more overwhelmed by my surroundings and totally disconnected from what is really going on around me. I hear a girl in the back with the strongest British accent asking: “Are your juices made wid wataa? Are they made wid wataa?” And I think that the Nepalese boy waiter (who, as it was ultimately decided, looks like all Nepalese people the French couple saw in Nepal when they were there a few days ago) responds quite nicely by saying (at least, I think that’s what he said): “No ma’am, they’re not made wid wataa, but we do pee in them”.

Cinemat(rain)ography by Admin

The train put its long aging body in motion about an hour ago. 30 hours from Mumbai to Varanasi Junction. 29 hours or so to go. Me, myself and the rest of the Indian travellers embarked on a journey through India from West to East, and slightly up North. I woke up at 4 am last night, surprisingly clear at such an early hour, the middle of the night really. But I shouldn’t be too surprised as my sleeping patterns have been all over the place since I arrived. Jet-lagged, that’s how it’s called. There were some nights without sleep at all. Some where I woke up at 3 or 4 am (I didn’t go back to sleep, my day literally started at that time), and then other nights where I slept for 12 hours in a row, to compensate I guess. So I woke at 4 and now that I’m drinking Nick’s strong and delicious Lavazza espresso (yes, this is Mumbai…), I start wondering if Setsh is really going to be here at 5:30 as he promised. Actually, it’s the 400 rupees I said I will pay him for the ride that made him promise. But still, the young man dropped us home at about 10:30 pm or so and he had already been working for the whole day, and he still needed to drive back the car all the way from Bandra to Colaba, which will take at least another 45 minutes if not an hour. So, I’m a little worried, slowly waking up to my senses in the middle of the moist Mumbai night… My phone rings. It’s Setsh! He’s already downstairs, 30 minutes in advance.

So I made it on time at Lokmanya Tilak Terminus (the train station), because Setsh was on time, early actually. Now the day has risen, but it does not make much of a difference for me. First, it has been raining since we left Mumbai, non-stop, a steady outpour of Monsoon rain. Second, and actually more interestingly to me, I ended up inheriting what I found out to be the only yellow(-ish) colored window of the wagon. It did not seem like a big deal at first, but this yellow is actually going to color my whole train journey through the subcontinent. I start by sitting on what will soon become my bed for the next day or so. I look at India passing in front of me through the yellow-colored, widescreen shaped window I got for myself, only for myself. And I start to think that yes, it is indeed India, but an India from after the nuclear holocaust. That is really all I can think about right now. All the different landscapes we travel through actually look different, if it were not for the fact that the bomb has done its work of destruction and no life will ever be able to live again in this land. I mean, that is what my divagating mind comes up with after looking at this dirty yellowish world for a few hours now. But then, in the middle of these considerations about the end of the world and the extend of the radiations, I come to think that there is indeed some hope. Beside my window being the only (for whatever reason) colored one, it also has an extra feature, an almost magical one… between the two glass panels that make the window and isolate you from the outside, well, between these two panels, there is water. Yes, water. It took me a bit of time to realize, but it is actually water and it is filling the space between the two glass panels up to a third of the height of the window itself. I’m amazed, fascinated now. I had never seen such a wonder in a way, a private aquarium enclosed inside a train window. And the whole thing literally moving through a continent. It is beautiful to see the water slowly and smoothly undulating through the window, a counterpoint to the shaky, coughing movement of the train. And suddenly, as we dive even more into the heart of the land, I start imagining that maybe some fishes will soon appear in the water, literally swimming their way through the landscape made of mountains, fields, forests, all wonderfully and strikingly green (and yellow of course, so almost blue…) because of the Monsoon rain. I also imagine that life will start again in this pool of water, now that everything has been destroyed on the surface. It will be full circle. It would make such perfect sense. So I close the curtains of my berth, lay on the bed and let myself slide into my own private away from home cinema. There is just me now, laying along the window that is as long as I am tall and as high as my little compartment. So that is all there is really, the yellowish moving image and my own daydream, raindream, to the rhythm of the old shaky train.

And after a while, my perceptions become thoughts and memories. So I think of La Jetée, that my wife made me watch for the first time, for the post-nuclear world; I think of the 12 Monkeys, for the same reason, and also because I’m on my way to Varanasi, home of the monkey god. I remember also Kusturica and his American dreamers for the fishes floating in the air; I think of Fellini, and I start remembering, all by myself, and in the middle of the world, surrounded by lone businessmen and whole families, I start remembering on my way to the city by the Ganges, with the stories from Satjavit Ray in my bag, I start remembering why I was 14 years-old one day, 20 years ago now, and wanted to make films. I think of this young teenager, this child really, going to the old rundown and oh-so uncomfortable cinemas of the Quartier Latin in Paris to discover old films by the American masters, forgotten Italian films of the fifties and sixties with the worst prints ever, and the New Wave, again, and again, and again the New Wave. And I keep looking at the water inside my window, thinking of the wave. And then it’s here, right in front of me, or more precisely inside of me, I see a time when it really only was about daydreaming, raidreaming, nightdreaming, sexdreaming and dreaming and dreaming this world, its possibilities and shortcomings. And then, in the privacy of my compartment, curtains shut, moving window on the world, I tell myself as I slowly fall asleep, rocked by the movement of the train, images and memories real and invented populating my mind, I silently tell myself that when I grow up, I will be a filmmaker.


Leaving Mumbai by Admin

So that's it. A few days in Mumbai are now almost gone. Tomorrow morning at 5 am, I will be taking a 25 hours train ride to Varanasi. I had come here once more than a year-and-a-half ago. I remember the first words I had written at the time about the city: "I hate Mumbai!". Literally. That's how I felt the first time I laid foot on this ground. It was December of 2009. It was hot. It was crowded. It was hectic. It was foreign, so completely foreign to anything that I had seen or experienced before, even though that realization only came later, much later during that first journey.

I thought I knew when I came the first time to Mumbai, to India for instance, with my wife. I thought that being non-white automatically, even magically, gave me a kind of innate understanding of this world. “Come on!”, I thought, “they’re dark-skinned like me; some, most of them, even darker than me, that should be enough to navigate in this society, in this culture”. The reality is that I had forgotten many things, forgotten that most of my life I had lived outside the dark-skinned countries; forgotten that most of my life I had lived in affluent neighborhoods of major Western metropolitan cities; forgotten that before trying to understand one needs to be open enough to hear, feel, taste, experience; forgotten that I was probably as much of a white man that I was not and will never be; finally, I had forgotten that humility in front of this gigantic, in every ways, world lying in front of me should have been at the essence of my approach. I had forgotten so many things…

This time feels different though as time has passed and I’m experiencing Mumbai by myself. The city feels familiar today, almost in a natural and unconscious way, a kind of body knowledge, a mental understanding of some codes and interactions. There is also less anger on my side, less anger and less fear, of everything, of that 15 hours plane that brought me here from New York crashing in the ocean; less of that fear that society, that people slowly instill inside of you, the fear of the other. So I talk to people, share a cab with two young Indian guys coming back from Dubai and that I met at the airport. I chat with the chubby, moustache bearing middle-aged man at the kebab stall in Colaba. I get scammed by a beautiful young gypsy girl named Esmeralda (her name is not Esmeralda, but as I can’t remember her real name…) near Gateway of India. I get into the worst argument with the cab driver who’s outraged I asked him to use his meter. I go to Gandhi’s museum two days in a row taking pictures of small figurines narrating the life of the great man through its more symbolic moments. And I finally have a new pair of glasses made (it only took me three years…)!

And then after all of this, something truly special has happened. I was at Mani Bhavan (Gandhi’s house in Mumbai) for the second time, about to finish taking the pictures I had come for. The figurines I was mentioning are enclosed inside large wooden boxes and you can watch scenes of Gandhi’s life through a glass panel. The last of these boxes represents the burning of the Mahatma’s body in front of a crowd of everyday people and local and international personalities. I’m about to take the shot when my Indian phone starts ringing… It’s my mother. I get on the little balcony adjacent to the room and chat with her for a few minutes. I tell her that I am at Gandhi’s house, I tell her about the room, the atmosphere of tranquility and humility, about the figurines, etc. She is moved, and I believe she is also tired as Ramadan has started more than a week ago now and she’s getting old too. She tells me to make a wish, any wish while I’m there. So I hang up the phone and does just that. I make a wish…

I get back inside and in front of the last box, ready to snap my last picture. Contrary to the other boxes, the lights do not work for this one, which is just fine as the darker and more subdued atmosphere works perfectly with the moment it is narrating. So I’m about to snap my last picture when suddenly a woman’s voice behind me tells me that I’m wrong, that the picture is not there, it’s not where I think it is… The voice says in English with an Indian accent: “look up, look at the sky, and you’ll see Krishna…”. I’m surprised, confused too. I turn around to discover this 60 years-old Indian woman standing next to me, wearing a green sari outfit. She notices my confusion and tells me again: “you have to look at the sky, all the gods of all religions are there, but you need to look if you want to see. This was Gandhi, he respected all religions, faiths, beliefs.” I look at the box again and finally understands what she means. On the inside panels of the box, in the dark because of the lack of light, skies are painted. And on top of these skies, the Gods, or a symbol in the case of Muslims, of all major religions are represented, floating above the human crowd and the burning body of the Mahatma. And suddenly a strong emotion runs through my body, I’m completely moved by what I have just seen, what this woman helped me see. So I thank her, my voice almost shaking, explaining that it is not the first time I come here, not the first time that I looked at that box, not even the first time that I took pictures of it and that I had never seen what she just showed me. She smiles and tells me it’s karma, that we were meant to meet and talk today. I ask for her name that I forget the moment she says it. She asks for mine and also where I come from. “My name is Adel. I was born in Algeria, raised in France, and I now live in Brooklyn”. I said a version of this maybe a million times in my life. She says she has lived in New York before. A long time ago. She says she has been a guide for 34 years. I tell her it’s my age. And for a brief moment, both of us are strangely moved by this encounter. I want to thank her again and offer my hand to shake. She steps back and says no, holding her two hands together and slightly bowing towards me. I do the same and then I leave.

Back in the street, in the middle of the crazy traffic and hustle and bustle of the city, with cars honking like the fate of the whole universe depended on it, I call back my mother in Paris. I tell her that story, barely holding back tears of emotion and I feel that emotion running through the line and connecting us in a profound way for an instant. I hang up and keep walking all the way to Chowpaty beach.

I sit on the sand, breath, take a few pictures, and look at the sea.