Leaving the Burn Ward


My days in the land of masala are numbered.
The project at the government hospital burn ward is wrapping up, as much as that sort of thing can be completed in the short time we've alloted it. And I'm ready to get home.
I think if it weren't for the hospital project I'd be more nostalgic about leaving. But I can't say I'm sad to return to the comforts of the U.S. Well, I was never in denial about missing my Western lifestyle, but until about a month ago it was all an adventure. When I first arrived in Varanasi I wasn't impressed. I missed the peacefulness of Dharamsala. After a few days I came across the photo book End Time City by Michael Ackerman. It gave me a new appreciation and I started understanding the magic of this place- The bathers at the ghats, the winding maze of little streets, the cremations on the river, the pervasive ancient history. There's so much to absorb. But Celia and I had committed ourselves to working on a serious story to bring home, and the hospital found us.
Since then I've struggled every day to leave the hotel and face the ward, and Varanasi as a whole. I think I lost sight of the beauty and mystery here and got caught up in the utter misery and terrible contradictions I learned about. It's hard to maintain an appreciation for an ancient culture when it causes so much hardship in the present.
Most of the burn victims we've met are women. Most of them were burned in kitchen accidents. Some are dowry cases. Even the accidents are related to the caste system, which gives certain families no chance to afford (or be educated about) anything better than obsolete technology (kerosine stoves), and afterward are left to the mercy of government medical care.
The dowry cases are obviously barbaric acts, but what's even more impressive is they've increased in recent years because of India's economic boom. Demanding a dowry is now illegal in India, but people quietly compete against their neighbors for better material possessions. And the cycle of mistreatment of women is insane. A mother-in-law demands more from her son's wife's family (like a bigger TV). The wife's family has another three sisters to marry off so they can't afford more. So the wife has an "accident" (most burnings are passed off that way). And the wife's family will expect a large dowry when their son gets married. When I visited the district prison, which contains a dowry ward, the warden told me most dowry cases are either acquitted or dismissed because of limited evidence. Only about 10-15% are convicted. Which means many murderous mother-in-laws go unpunished, or lots of people are blaming their mother-in-laws to try and reap some benefit.
Upon arriving at the ward one day we noticed lots of new people standing around looking worried. A woman had come in with 100% of her body burned (supposedly) and her sister, the only English speaker, told us her mother-in-law had done it. That was shocking enough without later discovering nothing was being done about the criminal who set her daughter-in-law on fire and dumped her in a pond. The victim's father forbid any action, saying it was destiny and nothing could be done. At some point the magistrate arrived and took a sort of statement from the victim before she was carted off to another hospital by her family on a scooter rickshaw.
Another major challenge we faced came from a volunteer from a swiss/french NGO called Action Benares. This gem of a human, who we came to know as Gilles, tormented us from the first day we went to the hospital. This guy, who unfortunately embodied the worst of French political cartoons, unabashedly insulted our intentions as journalists (and humans) repeatedly. "To put a picture of a burned person on the front page of a tabloid - this is your dream, no?" He confronted me on several occasions about issues we had previously discussed and resolved, for reasons I don't understand. He accused me of lying about permission for photos picture when I had very clearly taken steps to prevent this kind of confrontation. And then he got physical. I was convinced he would hit me and I'd have to fight him back. He didn't go further than pushing me, grabbing my camera and threatening to take it as his own. I'm glad I showed enough restraint to not break his kneecaps. It's possible that, had Celia not intervened, things would have escalated. And he did all of this in front of patients and families that we'd developed a bond with while yelling "you don't care about these people!".
After that encounter Celia and I were dumbfounded. We slapped our foreheads, asked "what the hell?", cried, then sat there paralyzed. As soon as the volunteers left a young burn victim's father walked over to us holding two lit biddis (indian cigarettes), one for me and one for him. He brought us back to where his terribly burnt daughter, Rani, lay on the ground in the nasty courtyard and his wife offered us tea. Rani was weeping. She reached for Celia's hand and, in so many English words, told her it would be OK.
The rest of the families responded the same way. They all invited us back and asked for more pictures.
Maybe they don't understand what photojournalism is or why exactly two Americans were spending so much time with them. Nor did I fully understand their lives. But I don't think we needed to. We created a bond with the people of the burn ward exchanging only gestures of mutual respect, not words or contracts or complicated ideas. At some point we found translators to help us gather information, but on a human level there was never a lack of understanding.