Group Update from India
As we depart Banaras, this city, community, family – whatever you want to call it – where we have spent the past seven months, we reflect on what has been most valuable to us, what has challenged us the most, how we have grown, and how we will manage to keep our minds in the present as we hop on the train to Delhi, and then escape the sweltering heat to the awe-inspiring Himalayas in Ladakh. The meat of our year is indisputably here in Banaras: it is the city that has become all of our homes, the city that houses our beloved NGOs , the place where we have built our community. And now, as we find it time to leave, we all take a moment to reflect on how we have changed and grown throughout this year and what it means for us now, moving forward.
Bittersweet, like an unripe mango.
The middle of April is an interesting time for Banaras fruit stands. The glowing, juicy oranges have shriveled and darkened. The once radiant, yellow bananas have turned sludge green and now have peels reminiscent of rubber. But there is a new contender. The mango. However, at this point, all the best tropical fruits, native to this neck of the Gangetic plains, are in a strange intermediate stage where no particular fruit shines. The mango is on the upswing, but at this moment, the ideally golden, mouthwatering color is dotted with patches of green. It is unripe. Tasty, but sour. Bittersweet.
These days, as I get ready to leave Banaras, my life feels like an unripe mango. Grab the fruit. Take out your knife. Slice it down the sides, and dig in. Here is a sweet, yellow chunk: I am getting closer to seeing my family and friends back in America. I think of escaping the heat, which has recently climbed to, and remained at, around 105 degrees Fahrenheit, and it feels like I have bit into the juiciest part of the fruit. I picture Ladakh – the lofty, snowy peaks; the vast, breathtakingly barren moonscape; the pure air; the soon-to come yoga sessions on the shores of a sky blue lake, renowned as one of the highest-altitude-lakes in the world – and I have hit the fruity jackpot.
But I remember what day it is, and how little time is actually left, and the mango starts to turn greener. I think of walking down the ghaats for the last time; of taking a final circuit through the lush local university; of bestowing my trusty bike, which has braved the dusty, rough Banaras roads with me for the past seven months, upon someone else. And then I think of the human connections I have made, and the green gets even more intense. Are yaar! This mango really needed to stay on the tree for longer.
This community has been so welcoming, generous, and warm. Do you know what the strongest thing in India is? Yeah, I am sure the national animal, the tiger, dukes pretty well. And yes, Ganga-ji’s bacteria are also pretty darn vicious and scrappy. But neither is the strongest. It is the India family structure.
It is clear in the language. It shows what the priority is here. According to a book I read recently, Dreaming in Hindi, there are words in English, like “privacy,” which apparently do not translate in any comparable way to any of the subcontinent’s many tongues. Expecting someone to learn the Hindi familial terms by heart would, in my opinion, rival giving someone who is learning to speak English, a dictionary and commanding them to memorize all the words that begin with the letter “A”. In Hindi, there is a specific word for your maternal grandmother. Or your spouse’s brother. Or your mother’s sister’s son. I have gathered that “in-laws,” or “cousin,” is just not sufficient. That would not be specific enough. Not personal enough.
The family I have become part of transcends my host family. Sure, I have Mata-ji, Bao-ji, Shiv, Anandi, and Amma-ji, who now responds emphatically to my “High-five kuriye!”s, who are all wonderful in different ways. But the community I feel part of here extends from the door of my Assi ghaat abode to Virendra-ji’s classroom and Salman-ji’s office. To my own classroom at the village school, and to the homes into which I have been invited by my kind students. To Cozy Corner, run by Kaashi, who knows what kind of dosa I want as soon as I walk in. To the Betawar teacher’s office, where Abha ma’am, Vinay sir, Harshita ma’am and all the other great teachers at Nirman chat.
The community that I am leaving behind also includes the people I know on a less personal level. They are faces I see every day that help to give Banaras its inimitable flavor. Ashok, the man with his pet monkey, Julie, who lives on Assi ghat. The didi at Nirman whom I do not know so well by name, but rather by her wide, toothless smile and singsongy “Namaste, bhiya!” The numerous buffalo herders, who unceasingly stop traffic, with their blundering, heavy-footed, friendly behemoths. My Banarasi family, that I know will be nearly impossible to leave behind, consists of all different characters: from the people I love as part of my mental portrait of Banaras, to the people – my host family and students – that I have come to actually love.
When I think of the immediate future, of boarding my last sleeper train of Bridge Year, headed from Banaras to New Delhi, my mango is darn bitter. I might just go complain to the fruit walla on the corner of Lanka. But when I think farther into the future, of coming back and visiting, my mango’s golden. The truth is that I cannot not come back. Banaras is part of me now.
Whenever I eat a delicious, ripe mango, my hands end up drenched in sticky juice. But, especially when a sink is not readily available, the stickiness is an ephemeral memento of how good the mango was. At the moment, my skin is coated in one hundred layers of dust from the Banaras streets. My nails are still dyed purple from Holi. And my speech and mannerisms are stained with the signature Indian headbob (does it mean yes, no, maybe, or all three?!), and staccato, reflexive “Haan!”s and “Theek hai!”s. These marks and habits will fade with time, but that does not mean that Banaras and its impression on me will fade along with them. Banaras’ impression will be everlasting.
I know that I will remember Banaras and all of its awe-inspiring places, and most importantly, all the people I have met, who I know have impacted me, and whom I have hopefully impacted in some way. And whom I have come to love. This is how I will leave the mango juice on my hands.
Why would I ever want to wash myself of Banaras?
There’s a new Starbucks in Delhi. It’s in Connaught Place, and I’m sitting here sipping my Tall, Non-Fat, Chai Tea Latte that’s roughly 27 times more expensive than Friends Tea Stall’s Milk Chai in Varanasi.
I’ve left Varanasi, and the only thing on my physical body that reminds me of my seven-month stay are the earthy-red swirls of mehndi on the palms of my hands. My host-sister Madhu applied the henna the night before I left, as the bells of late-night temple goers reverberated through the hot, April air. We sat on the family bed—mom already asleep in her sari, and a moisturizing mixture of yogurt, holy basil oil, and powdered henna solidifying in my hair. Madhu kept asking me what each of her designs brought to mind.
My answers: Mountains, a strawberry, a quail, Giant Kelp, Two slices of Costco pizza. Madhu laughed. Her answers: Teeth, a feather, a mermaid, an hour glass.
It’s funny what slips to the front of our minds. Our minds are filled with associations, and are constantly looking to draw lines between the figures in front of our eyes and the millions of observations we’ve made in the past. What I find these days, with the Varanasi portion of our program behind us, is that I have a lot more to draw on than just the 18-year–old palms of my hands.
The Chai Latte in front of me reminds me of my middle-school notion that Starbucks was the pinnacle of American café culture. It’s subtle gingery flavors remind me of Christmastime shopping trips with my mother. The slightly sweet foam on the rim of the cup brings me back to long, dramatized hours staring at a screen trying to turn chicken-scratch into something compelling for this English class, or that college application. In this Chai I taste interviews, movie dates, and the crisp mornings of meticulously scheduled Saturdays.
But as we close up Bridge Year, chai stirs up more in me than ever before. A couple of 8-ounce glasses of chai is what an undernourished, below-poverty-line, Varanasi schoolchild typically takes for breakfast, along with a couple of stale biscuits. The same gingery flavor also reminds me of Bal Ashram’s morning and afternoon seva meetings, in which everyone would gather and plan the selfless service of the day over laughter and free-flowing refreshment. I’ve seen cups of tea passed between housewives and dishwashers, passengers and drivers, and ghat-strolling friends. I’ve seen chai fuel end-of-life pilgrimages, soothe weary souls, and serve as the drink that unites a nation.
I can simply draw more lines. And the lines begin to form pictures that I couldn’t have imaged eight months ago.
Leaving Varanasi—the physical acts of packing up my bangles, cleaning my squat-toilet, and boarding the Shiv-Ganga Express to Delhi—is a reminder of all the new mental associations that Varanasi has left me. It’s not that I see the world in a whole new light, but rather that the scope of my associations is broader than ever before.
For seven months, I woke up every morning with the unspoken certainty that as I struggled to get out of bed, I’d catch a glimpse of the Ganga outside my window, sometimes choppy, sometimes calm, sometimes glowing under the rising sun, sometimes shrouded in mist, but always and forever there, just a stone’s throw from my bedroom window. I never seriously imagined a day when I would wake up and the Ganga would no longer be flowing outside my window. For seven months I have never questioned that my days would consist of cups of chai, crazy traffic, herds of water buffalo, jabbered Hindi, fascinated stares and endless availability of India’s best street food. I couldn’t imagine the day on which I would have to say good bye to my host family, to my mentors, and to the kids at Guria. For many long months, I was so surrounded by Varanasi, so entrenched in my surroundings that no matter how much I talked about home, America paled to a shadowy state next to colourful, musical, potent Varanasi.
And now that all those unimaginable days have come and gone, America is just as shadowy and Varanasi is just as vibrant. I find myself in a strange no man’s land, between homes, between cultures, and between lifestyles. As I walk around in Delhi, wearing jeans and a t-shirt for the first time all year, and relax in my hotel room watching American TV shows, my confusion only increases. Staying in a room just down the hall from where we spent our very first night in India, Mackenzie, Ada and I, mirroring our first action upon arrival at Wongdhen Guest House in August, flipped on the TV to watch Bollywood music videos. Except this time we expertly navigated through Mastiii, Zoom, Sony MIX, and M Tunes, stopping on our current favourite songs and singing along. Unlike in August, there was no giggling, no amazement over the ridiculousness of the music videos. Instead, it was only when we found a channel playing American music videos that we all stared in shock at the TV and discussed how unusual and strange the videos were.
That is a very measurable way to see how we’ve changed over the past eight months, but we’ve changed in endlessly more, absolutely immeasurable ways too. I’ve only begun to scratch the surface and I know it will take time and returning home to really see how India has changed me, but as I wander around Delhi and am faced by competing Western-Eastern stimuli, it’s so easy to see how differently I respond now than I did eight months ago. I feel more at home sitting at a Sufi shrine listening to namaz from the mosque next door than I do sitting in Starbucks writing this group update. In my mind the mosque is a masjid and not a mosque and when I begin to wonder if prayer time is coming up, I peer in to the mosque and read with ease the chart of this week’s prayer times. These examples may sound more like reflections of things I’ve learned than of ways in which I’ve changed, but the fact is that in learning the way of things here, I’ve unlearned the way of many things at home.
Family, religion, hospitality and respect are valued much more highly here than they are in my experience in the United States. If my nine months of exposure to the Indian value system hasn’t changed my own values, than it has at least changed the way I think about my values and about others. There is an openness here that, although jarring at first, has now become familiar to me. In a country where millions of people live their lives out on the streets, there is no expectation of privacy or separateness between you and the crowds of people you share the streets with. Where I come from, we all walk around with walls around us, occasionally broken through by a polite excuse me, and then immediately rebuilt. Here, it is very nearly impossible to build up walls between yourself and others and you can feel, every second of the day, the push and pull between you and the rest of the city - people, places, animals and all. Indian culture, although extremely diverse in its own way, has an undercurrent of interconnectedness, promoted by shared religion, clothing, food, and customs. There’s a certain amount of hegemony, at least in north India, that allows a crowd of people to relate to each other in a way that’s completely impossible in the United States. As Varanasi slowly becomes more shadowy and the United States becomes more concrete, this common understanding, this openness, the idea of having a shared experience with the people around you - something that was once jarring to discover – will now be jarring to lose.
"You elucidate me on the topic which I don't understand."
"Your will power is very good."
"I will miss you sir, please be in our contact."
"You are good in a teacher and you know that what are the responsibilities of a teacher."
"You are as a God to me."
"You were a nice teacher."
"If we don't understand you tell us many time and you try to tell everything in new way."
The above is a sampling of the touching, and sometimes amusing, feedback I received from my sixth grade students after administering their final exams. It has been a great source of reflection for me as I depart from the Nirman School. I try and categorize things as simply as I can: as successes and as failures. The most rewarding part of this process lies in the former; Where did I find "success?" First starting here in September I scribbled on a yellow notepad that success meant inspiring my students and increasing their awareness of the vital nature of their education. I feel confident that I have done exactly that. During class it has been easiest to observe success in the way my students speak and write English, with new vocabulary and new understanding of things like articles and subject verb agreement. It is also visible in their capacity to solve algebra, exponent, and square root problems in math. They can also tell you about the water cycle, what block mountains are, and the number of bones in the human skeleton. Comparing their exam scores from when I started and when I finished reveals significant improvement from many of them.
On a personal level too, I have had a great deal of success. Every day at Nirman I'm greeted with an enthusiastic, sometimes borderline rowdy "Good morning Sir!" followed by a respectful silence as I walk towards the blackboard. After this my students usually ask me about a homework problem, today's agenda, or what America is like, and when I decide which topic to approach first they listen intently and energetically, often interrupting me while raising their hands and calling "Sir!" to ask me a question. During clean up period at the end of the day they form a semicircle around me, often requesting me to join them in a game. One even invited me to his home for dinner. Having left just two days ago, I've even starting receiving emails from them asking about what I'm doing next. I've connected with my students which has allowed me to go beyond the curriculum and be not just a teacher, but also a friend.
I myself have benefited tremendously from serving as their teacher. I've learned more about patience during my time with them than any other time in memory. I've learned how children interact with each other and how they absorb information. I've learned to look beyond teaching methods within my comfort zone. I've learned how to stand in front of the class and project myself as a figure of knowledge, calm, and confidence. I've learned some colloquial Hindi. Most importantly I've learned more about myself and how to face the feelings of frustration, defeat, exhaustion, and other similarly stifling feelings. I've learned how I characteristically react to issues and what I do well and what needs improvement.
My experience as a teacher was also full of failure which presented difficult challenges. Some students, a minority, hardly improved, given their class attendance, interest, and focus. Despite sitting down with these students privately on several occasions, I made no real meaningful impact on their desire to pursue an education. For them I didn't do enough. I struggled in other ways too. Controlling the volume level in the class and preventing my students from distracting each other proved nearly impossible. It wasn't until early spring when I really had the class always at attention. I also had difficulty in teaching to a variety of skill levels concurrently, which I can most easily describe by comparing it to juggling. Finally sometimes I just wasn't prepared for all my classes and ended up scrambling for a plan to fit the day.
These are the main elements of teaching, both good and bad, that stand out to me at the time in my reflection. A week, or a month, or a year from now I imagine I will remember and look at my experience from a vantage point that is unlike the one I have just described. And I feel that way primarily because that is exactly what is happening every second in India. Whether it be traffic, electricity, or school holidays - nothing is predictable here. Everything is fluid.
It just takes some time to adjust to adjusting.
“Nice to meet you.” My students eagerly shake my hands, the interaction interrupted by shouts of “mat jaeeye!” “kyon ja rehe hai?” “ham apki yad aenge!” Don’t go. Why are are you going? We’ll miss you. I try to manage to carry Ambrish at the same time as Karthik and Gautam climb up my other side while Rhimjhim hands me cards from the class, and Abhishek and Suraj fight for my one semi-free hand, saying “Nice to meet you.”
Before I even knew it, my last working day in Banaras arrived and everything became a whirlwind. I had thought I had found closure for myself, that I would be able to leave sad, but content, ready to close one chapter and move onto the next, but as I watch my kids completely ignore their teacher (who I imagine must be slightly irked that I’m interrupting her class) and rush to say farewell, I realize that there’s no closing this chapter of my life. I realize it so fast that I’m almost scared: I must come back.
It’s a little crazy, thinking back to the first time I met these kids. Back when they looked at me as an intruder on their class. They didn’t respond to me in class, they would only very hesitatingly stand up to answer questions. Out on the streets, I was just like any other stranger. Now, even though I haven’t been in their classroom as a teacher for a few months now, I hear “Hariom Allen sir!” while I’m biking down the road. Happy waves to me from detention. Suraj stops by after school to see how I’m doing. Shivam and Gautam drag me upstairs to play tag with them. Although in many ways, the office work I did was based around producing results, getting grant applications done, making newsletters, typing letters and mailing receipts, the greatest thing that I ever made at Little Stars was the special relationship I have with Class 2, the rowdiest, naughtiest (as they would say), but absolutely best Little Stars class.
“Sir, sir!” I put Ambrish back down as I take a few more cards. “Cub vapas aenge? August?” When will you come back? August? I pause. Obviously I won’t be back in August. In August I will likely be sitting in front of my computer snacking on Chinese food listening to music, or sitting in front of my piano practicing scales, and the thought suddenly scares me. When will I be back? Will my students still be here when I come back? What if I never see them again? My students look at me expecting an answer.
“Humko pata nahin. Do sal ke bad?” I don’t know. Maybe two years later?
They look at me with dissatisfaction, and I am quickly peppered with requests to come back earlier. And that’s when I realize that even if my students aren’t here, even if this is really the last time that I see them, we’ll still all have had a special year. Even if they end up migrating to other parts of India, as some of them inevitably will, and I never see them again, we will both always have the memories of this year, of Allen speaking splotchy Hindi trying to explain fractions and multiplication, of Happy and Shivam jumping across tables, and of Abhishek’s slightly arrogant gait. Those memories will stay, and all the changes, the influences, the significance of meeting this year will stay with us for years to come. Ultimately, I realize, we can’t guarantee that we’ll see each other again, and we can’t guarantee that we won’t forget each other as the years go on, but we’ll always have met, and we’ll always carry a trace of our meeting with us. We’ll always have something from this experience with us, however small, however large. Really, it was great to meet them.
I smile as Suraj again grabs my hand.
“Nice to meet you sir.”
“Nice to meet you too Suraj.”
It’s all regular now. The bike rides to work, the subji and roti, the walks along the ghats, and, though not until recently, the mango smoothies. I was shocked and overwhelmed when I first arrived. I didn’t speak much Hindi besides “yah kya hai?” What is this? and “yah kursi hai” This is a chair. I was quiet and not so comfortable around my host family and at my work site. I didn’t see myself ever building up enough immunity to try the fruit juice sold on the side of the road. And April 17th, my date of departure, seemed very far away.
Fast forward to the present, seven months later, I can argue with rickshaw drivers pretty effectively, in fact a few of them know who I am and avoid me. I speak to my friends that only speak Hindi about more than just the weather. I feel comfortable at my home stay. I love listening to my host dad tell jokes, watching serials with my host grandma and host sister, and attempting to learn how to make chapati and palak paneer among other Indian dishes from my host mom. I have found my best friends in Benares to be the Benares Hindu University girls that also live in my house, and now I can’t imagine my experience here without them. Every day I look forward to seeing and talking to Ajeet Ji and Manju Ji at the Guria office and hanging out with the kids at the Non-Formal Education Center. Over these seven months a lot has changed. The weather, the seasonal fruits, the number of Indian pilgrims, and somewhere along the way, my level of comfort.
All this week I have been making rounds of the city, crossing things off of my Benares bucket list, and running last minute errands. I’m trying to take in as much of Benares and spend as much time with the people I love here as I possibly can before my departure. I’m writing goodbye letters, putting together gifts, attending farewell dinners, and arranging a “goodbye” event at work. Though I’m going through all the motions that will lead me to my leaving, it’s hard to believe that I’m actually going. Even as I begin to pack up my bangles to the tune of my favorite Bollywood songs, I can’t picture not waking up in Benares. I’m extremely excited for the month ahead in Ladakh, to see mountains like I’ve never seen before, and to embrace the weather change (from around 100 degrees to 32 degrees Fahrenheit!). I’m even more excited to go home to America and see my family for the first time in a long time. Despite my excitement, I know I’m going to miss Benares and everything that comes with it more than anything. It will be strange not living with my Indian family, seeing my friends every day, being greeted by the little faces saying “NAMASTE ADA MAAM,” spending time with Ajeet Ji and Manju Ji, and not looking outside my window and seeing a cow on the street.
I think that, now, in a sense, I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish here. I never approached my Bridge Year experience prior to my arrival in India with a set idea of goals or an even somewhat concrete idea of how these nine months would play out. I know that when I leave Benares in a week from now, it’ll be like leaving home. I have a family, friends, favorite things, and a life here. I’m going to miss every little piece of Benares from the herds of water buffalo that halt traffic to the children at the center that inspire me on a daily basis. The point is, leaving is going to be really hard. But when I think about that, I know that I’ve come here and accomplished what I really wanted to accomplish. My Hindi is not flawless, I have not changed the world of human trafficking, and I still don’t understand a lot about Hindu culture. But I am leaving a life behind here, and I can’t wait to come back.
There are lasts where there were firsts everywhere I turn these days. The last time I take my dirty clothes to the neighborhood dhobi. The last time I take a boat ride on the Gangaji. The last monthly meeting at World Literacy of Canada (WLC).
The first half of April races by in a blur of buying presents, scrambling to finish projects at my worksite, and soaking up every ounce of Banaras that I possibly can. I struggle to find time to sit and reflect but stumble upon it suddenly one afternoon when I mention my departure date to one of my students, Abhinav.
He looks up from his English Saurabh, with an unreadable expression upon his face and says sadly, “Mujhe nahin pata tha” I didn’t know. He looks back down at his notebook, raises his pen as if to write, puts it down again, and looks back up, “When are you coming back?”
I am thrown. I start to answer several times and stop several times. When am I coming back? There aren’t any immediate plans—there’s no official sequel to Bridge Year—and I am looking forward to seeing my parents’ faces again more than I can say. But that this city and its people have won a part of my heart can’t be ignored. I know that when I go home I will miss the easy routine of the Pandey household, the quirks and personalities of the WLC office, and the ins and outs of Varanasi. I know which cow can be seen where and at what times, I know what a longleta is and where to get the best one, and I both know and pay the local (fair) prices for rickshaw distances, bicycle repair, and fruits, vegetables, and street food. I will miss nights cooking with my host sister. I will miss playing volleyball and joking around with my host brother. I will miss hearing ‘Aayush bhaiya’ called when I am due to teach a computer class or someone has a question about their homework.
I look back at Abhinav and tell him that I will come back as soon as I can and in an effort to lighten the suddenly serious mood ask, “Are you going to miss me?”
He nods vigorously. “I hope you come back. No one ever comes back.”
No one ever comes back. I run back through all the conversations I’ve had with the kids who come to the Tulsi Kunj Library about my departure and suddenly I realize what emotion I saw in their, and Abhinav’s eyes. It’s the belief that once I leave, they will never see me again. It’s sadness and resignation. It’s heartbreaking to look at.
Volunteer work done through the Bridge Year Program has an inherent time limit. I don’t argue with the view that it is often valuable for both beneficiaries and volunteers themselves but for the first time I can put a finger on the emotion that has been rising within me as time moves inexorably forward. It’s guilt. It doesn’t sit right with me that I will be whisked away from Banaras in a train leaving so many of the friends I’ve made behind. I owe it to these kids to show that I am there for them for more than just the time I’ve been lucky enough to spend here. Everyone who has passed through the Ganga Mahal Office owes it to these kids. Abhinav has watched multiple foreigners come, help, and leave, never to return again. I need him to know, need all the kids to know, that I am not going to forget about them. I will remember him in America. I will root for him America. Forget about the brochures, posters, endless spreadsheets, school visits, home visits, Gumti libraries, I’ve made, done, and run. Connecting with the WLC kids on a human level has been far and away the most important thing I have done during my 7 months.
I check over Abhinav’s latest set of sentences. They’re written in perfect English. I give him a big grin and a ‘Badiya!’ Great! I tell him to keep practicing—I’ll be back soon to check up on his progress.
That’s a promise.