After leaving Mumbai at 3:30AM to fly via Delhi, carrying a fabulous bag filled with fine Varanasi-made salwar kameez, I arrived in Varanasi for the first time in a year and a half. They had a brand new airport.
Previously, the Babatpur airport was about twice as big as my overpriced Pali Naka studio: you could put down your bag at one end of the conveyor belt and pick it up again ten feet later. But now, the Babatpur airport is an international airport, because it hosts flights to Bangkok and Kathmandu. So now it runs the length of Bandra station and is all shined marble and glass.
In Nagwa, I let myself into Little Stars School unceremoniously and sat down in the office, where everything was in the same place as I’d left it a year and a half ago.
One by one, the women who cook and clean and run the school came in and grabbed me, held me and hugged me.
Asha came into the room: she’s is the principal of Little Stars and selfless in her dedication to providing the highest quality education to the kids in her neighbourhood, children of vegetable salesmen and rickshaw walas. More than 500 students attend Little Stars School. I touched Asha’s feet: a gesture that displays great subservience and honour given to that person, as it signifies taking the dust of the their feet in hope of becoming as wise as they are. It’s a gesture I shy away from unless I feel I can do it wholeheartedly, as in Asha’s case.
I met the hostel girls: a group of twenty two girls who have been abandoned at some point of life, in some awful circumstance, and now live and study at Little Stars. Some had left babyhood to become girls, and some were leaving childhood to become women, taller and more beautiful than before. They led me up to their hostel room and took me back into the fold: holding my hands and touching my cheeks, asking questions. We sat on their bunk beds and I listened while they spoke over one another’s voices, showed me their photo albums and their new precious things, like special hairclips and powder compacts given by past volunteers.
In Assi, I went back to the house where I’d spent so many months three years ago: the Yadav family home up from the river. In the laneway, I was called into people’s homes to see their new babies, to see the children I’d known before who were now so big. I met Ashish, one of my ‘brothers’ in the lane behind the house, leaving on his motorbike for some undefined commission work. I met the strong wind coming off the Ganga river with equal force and went inside, where everyone was passed out on the thin mats in the airy living room at 4pm in the afternoon. Lalu, the middle brother and one of my favourite people, woke up and made tea. More friends came over to sit and talk and pass the time.
We went down to the ghats where they bought some bhel, or ‘goat food’ as Lalu calls it. Far from the shore, Raj handed me two diyas that he had bought from a child. We lit them and I dropped them over the side of the boat, where they glimmered in the water for an unusually long time. The rest of the power in the city went out, the old ‘light ka problem’ that is naturally still unsolved. Only the facades of crumbling buildings shaped the curve of land meeting the river. I lay down and looked at the stars and felt the warm wind and listened to an old song play out of a mobile phone and the boys’ voices, and felt hugged by the world around me.
Back onshore, I ate some chana and rice that Lalu had cooked before Raj took me back to Little Stars on Ashish’s bike, whistling through the galis and narrowly avoiding goats, dogs and small kids. At school in their pyjamas were more familiar faces, the remainder of the girls I hadn’t seen earlier in the day, covering me with hugs and beautiful words.
“Bas, bahaut ho gaya, Brownie didi is tired now. Sab log goodnight bolke upar chaliye,” said Asha.
To me: “You’re tired, you have to sleep. Come and first I’ll give you a nice head massage.” While she massaged my hair with Amla oil, Asha chattered softly about who was getting married to who and what else was new. I closed my eyes in absolute contentment: I would have been purring if my throat had that mechanism.
How is it that in Varanasi where there is nothing compared to Bombay, there is all of this? How can I walk in after so long and be so beautifully cared for? I will never know, and will never give as much back as I’ve received.
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The picture featured in this article were taken by the author, Bronwyn McBride.