Story of an Image

This was 2015 summer, and after a long and hot day of walking in the maze-like alleys of Varanasi, me and my friend were relaxing at a makeshift tea shop on a street corner. It was mid-day and the light was super harsh and not conducive to my type of photography. I had no energy to make pictures anymore, just wanted the day to end, have some spicy food and get some sleep. One of the best things we can do in Varanasi is to find a quiet corner (not easy to find it) and just look at what’s happening around. It is incredibly chaotic and yet very beautiful. In that hustle and bustle, I noticed an old woman, probably in her late nineties, slowly walking and about to take a turn into another alley. I suddenly had this urge to follow her. Not because I wanted to photograph her or anything like that but I was just curious. Curious to know a little more about her, maybe say hi and have a small conversation or maybe just to look at her up close. I told my friend that we are following that old lady and we did.

A few minutes later, that woman walked into an ancient temple compound and instead of going into the main temple, she makes a turn and takes stairs to what seemed like a private property. We’ve been to that temple previously, but never noticed other structures and homes in the compound. I found someone who looked like a caretaker of the temple and enquired. This temple, through charities, manages a home for elderly widows who are above the age of 65. Some women are abandoned by their families, some volunteered to spend rest of their lives in peace and quiet and moreover at the abode of Lord Mahadev. Most Hindus believe that if you leave your body at Varanasi, your soul is relieved from the cycle of life & death, and you attain moksha (liberation). At this point, I’m more than curious, I am intensely compelled to meet that old lady and all her friends. You see, thousands of travelers and photographers visit Varanasi every day and sometimes it’s a nuisance to the locals. No one knows why they are being a photographer or where their photos will end up and what not. I introduced myself to the caretaker and explained that my intentions are not to exploit their situation but learn something from them, and hopefully be an active part of their plight. He gave it a good thought and finally agreed to allow us to meet them. It was their lunchtime, so they sang prayers and had humble servings of simple food in their community kitchen.

There were about a total of 10 to 15 elderly women and about 4 to 5 support staff. Most of the women there were around the age of 70 and some were in their nineties and a couple of them over hundred years old. We took off our shoes washed our feet outside the main entrance and entered their home. For me and my friend, their home was as sacred as the temple itself. Traditionally, it is a custom to leave footwear at the door and walk barefoot indoors. We were offered some tea, and we gladly obliged. The conversations we had ranged from personal life situations to favorite pastime to who is most shy of them all and to which 90 year old was the rowdiest. Every word was a lesson, every lesson was an experience, and every experience was wisdom. In the meanwhile, I made some portraits and told them that one day I would come back and give prints. One of the ladies showed us around and told that two of their friends could not join them for lunch because one woman was washing her clothes and the other woman, who was 104 years old, had a high fever and resting. Although there was support staff, these women preferred to do chores on their own. We didn’t want to take up too much of their time so I said my goodbyes and my friend was saying his.

I stepped out of the kitchen and dining room and sat quietly on a bench, was trying to gather my thoughts and cherish our conversations. As I looked up, the woman who went to do laundry seemed to have got back and was arranging some stuff in her room. And the other woman, who had a fever and the oldest of them all, stepped out of her room to talk to the support staff about something.This was one of those rare moments in life when I was completely present and lived in the moment and saw nothing else. She walked so slowly and every step she took seemed like an eternity. I could feel the effort, the struggle, the determination, and the life she needed to take the next step. All the big things that I worry about, state of the world affairs, consequences of human progress, changes required to the education system, future of our next generations, and so on; all these seemed so insignificant, so small like a speck of dust. In that moment time stood still, and I’m pretty sure that my heart skipped a few beats. So glad that I remembered my responsibility as a photographer, remembered that I was holding a camera, remembered to look through the viewfinder, remembered to check everything was okay and finally remembered to press the shutter. And then the moment disappeared forever from reality. All I have right now is an evidence of that experience, through this photograph.

I came back to the U.S and stayed here to attend school. After two long years of being away from my wife and son, I went home in summer 2017. As promised, I visited my old friends and unfortunately both the women in this photograph passed away, but I did get to meet few others from my last trip. Some of them did recognize and welcomed us back wholeheartedly. I still remember their surprise, and joy after holding the prints of their portraits made two years ago. Whatever award money I received for this image, until that point, I handed it over to the caretaker. Now, there is another award. Sure, I made the photograph but it was their award, and it is them who earned it and deserved it. Each time I or my friends go there, we do our little bit. Next time we plan to stay there with them and be of some help. I can’t wait to go back, maybe cook for them, tell them some stories, and learn some stories.

I made this image when I was with my friend Ravi at the home for the elderly widows, managed by the Nepali Pashupatinath Temple in Varanasi, India.