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.