Updates from India - April 2010
By Shaina Watrous, Lizzie J. Martin, Joe Barrett, Andrew Finkelstein, and Chhaya Werner
Everyone who has ever spent more than six months in Banaras
Said our Hindi teacher, Virendra ji,
his flickering diya eyes wrinkling at the edges as he smiled.
And I believed him, since he gives off an aura
of having been here from the beginning.
We came here to make a difference,
to enable better lives with the force of our hope and determination,
but we could not have known,
(though Newton tried to warn us)
Of the equal force that Banaras would have on us.
I came to teach English, and learned to communicate with a population.
I came to teach confidence and the belief in one’s own power –
I learned a kind of confidence in my own power that I could never have imagined,
Becoming a girl who would jump into a moving auto rickshaw to ride across the city,
a girl who would wish she could walk the main bazaar’s every gulley (and tried),
a girl who would talk to strangers, not only to get directions,
but to learn the way and why they live.
Phir kub ayengi – when will you be back? - is the refrain
of the four-year-olds of the red light district,
the cross-legged cobbler on the corner of Assi Crossing,
the flower girls on the corner.
Sheena-di, Phir kub ayengi?
I may be sitting in a class at Princeton
Twisting around and around
The ring that Annu had slipped into my hand as I left,
(“I took it to God, and asked him to make you great.”)
When I’ll feel the force of Banaras tugging on my finger
Like the persistent children of its streets.
I’ll be back to see once more the Ganga ji, her flowing waters fueling the force
that pulls me to explore just one more blue-tinged alleyway
Gold-leaf paint peeling from its older-than-time gateways,
Silver cobblestones as far as I can see shining and beckoning in the morning light.
Koi Bat Nahin
They told me they would never forget my “Koi bat nahin.”
“She was teaching us very well, and our English is day by day improving,” said Ram at my farewell party at the Kiran Centre. “We trainees will always remember when we tried to speak and some mistake came and she would only say, ‘Koi bat nahin. Try again.’”
It’s true – I felt like it was more important for them to believe they could speak English than for them to struggle to make flawless sentences, so when I corrected them, I would wave my hand in the air, brushing away the mistake and its accompanying embarassment, and tell them it didn’t matter in Hindi. No problem. It’s nothing. Try again.
Koi bat nahin.
If there’s anything that I’ve learned this year, it’s that sometimes you need a mantra of some kind, a few words to remind you of who you are and who you want to be, and ususally, that mantra is given to you by someone who knows you well and to whom you look to for guidance. Some people meditate on mantras, some repeat them as they do difficult things, and some simply lean on their mantras when they need to refocus. Leaving Banaras and all of my friends was difficult for me, and I was happy to have a mantra to carry with me on the train to Delhi.
Koi bat nahin.
I wish you could meet Ram. He is a wood workshop vocational trainee in one of my classes, and he catches on so quickly that I felt like he was a little bored most of the time. His English is incredible, and he is so brave and eager to use it – whenever the rest of the trainees would begin talking quickly in Bhojpurri or Hindi, he would catch my eye, see me struggling to keep up, say, “Teacher, you know . . .” and explain everything about this movie, that cricket match, or what was happening in the hostel.
Ram has a kind of strength that I wish I had. He is “differently able,” as they say at The Kiran Center, but I forget about his crutches most of the time. He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t ask for help. And he is always smiling. Even on my last day, when he responded to my “Namaste!” with “Please you don’t go!” he was grinning at me, and he made me laugh before I could start to cry.
I trust Ram to lead me in the right direction as far as life is concerned. I hope that I am able to meet everything – challenges and joys alike – as gracefully, cheerfully, and enthusiastically as he does. I don’t know if he knows that he is one of my heroes, but he is. And now he’s given me my mantra.
Koi bat nahin.
It’s actually a very appropriate mantra; it fits well with what Banaras taught me. People there have a way of living that I love: they say, “I will adjust,” and they deal with things that might seem uncomfortable or impossible in a positive way, and I want to do that too. This rickshaw is full, but we need to fit one more person or suitcase on your lap? Koi bat nahin; it’s a short ride, and she’s not so heavy. You have a headache and a fever and need to go to work anyway? Koi bat nahin; do the best you can, nap at lunch, and sleep when you get home. Guests are coming and there’s not quite enough milk for chai? Koi bat nahin; add a little water and no one will know the difference. You’re scared of something? Koi bat nahin; you’re stronger than you realize, and you can adjust.
Imagine Usha, one of the girls I taught to crochet in Art and Design at Kiran who can only use her left hand. Koi bat nahin – she held the hook in between her toes, and she makes mobile phone covers like you wouldn’t believe. I came to India thinking that there were an awful lot of things that I couldn’t possibly do; people like Usha prove to me that this is true only if I let myself believe it.
Think of Somnath, who couldn’t walk when he was younger because of rickets, but who now can not only walk, but also writes, directs, and stars in incredible dramas that are performed at awareness programs, conveying a message of acceptance and hope. And think of the way he laughs like nothing else matters but whatever brings him happiness. Think of Nandini, who sometimes can’t concentrate because of the pain in her feet and legs, but who is always giggling or putting her bindi in between my eyebrows or asking me to tell her or teach her something, anything. Think of Rajesh, because of whom there is always water in the hostel – he never forgets to turn on the pump when there is electricity – and who has mastered essentially every tense in the English language, even though speaking is difficult for him.
It isn’t fair, really, that I came here to teach English and instead took a much more powerful class on living with courage and determination and passion for whatever it is I find that I love to do. It isn’t fair that I came with notes for grammar lessons and conversation practice and left with pages of ideas about how to live gracefully and gratefully, no matter what challenges may present themselves.
I stayed in the hostel again this month, and we had a party. For parties in Banaras, one of the important things to make are pourri, which you eat like chapatis (use them to scoop up the vegetable dishes), but which are smaller and fried in oil. Ram and Anil were making them, and I asked if I could help. They taught me, and they were proud when I made a few round ones – “Good! Very good! You are very genius, my teacher.” – but the truth was that I was a little too slow. Ram took back the rolling pin and made about thirty in the time it took me to make five, and then he handed it back to me.
“Koi bat nahin, teacher. Try again.” And I hope that I always will.
Recipe for Understanding
Seven months ago, at the beginning of our time in Varanasi, I wrote about a new tradition of a chicken night that Andrew and I had inaugurated with my family. When I first mentioned this chicken night, I was excited and looking forward to what I thought would be months of easily obtained delicious food and large quantities of protein. What I didn’t realize was that it was going to be lots of work.
While all the preparations for the first chicken night had been organized by Saurabh, my home stay brother, from the second chicken night onwards, Andrew and I were responsible for finding all the ingredients. In America, this would mean a quick trip to the supermarket, but in Varanasi, it means biking all over town to track down chicken, onions, garlic, tomatoes, oil, various types of masaala (spices), and, on nights when we feel like really having a party, a bottle of Coke. Though biking to different stalls and markets was already a hassle, it was made even more difficult by that fact that Andrew and I knew nothing about buying most of these items. Thus, we made mistakes in buying everything.
First we bought the wrong kind of chicken. Then we bought the right kind of chicken, but forgot to have it cut into small pieces. When we finally got the chicken right, we began to struggle with the vegetables. We bought onions that were too small, onions that were too big, tomatoes that were too soft, tomatoes that were too hard and sometimes we forgot to buy the garlic altogether. Oil should have been easy, but first we bought oil meant for cooking vegetables, and then we bought oil that was inexplicably bad, before we found the best kind. Masaala, thankfully, was easy, and after only one mistake, we realized that the masaala meant for cooking chicken was labeled “meat masaala” and bought the correct kind from that time on.
After many months of failure, however, Andrew and I turned a corner and began to buy all the right things. What had once been an hour long shopping trip during which we paid excessive prices and inevitably bought the wrong things turned into a brief visit to the market during which we paid all the right prices and bought all the ingredients for a high quality chicken curry.
Cooking this high quality chicken curry, however, was a totally different story. When my home stay family makes the curry, they follow no recipe and seem to throw all the different spices in at random times and in random quantities. While there is a method behind their system – they do it all by smell – and it is well beyond Andrew and my ability to replicate. Thus, though we have watched the chicken curry being made on many occasions and smelled it during each of its stages of cooking, our noses have not yet developed the skills necessary for us to make the curry alone.
After eight months in India, it would be easy to assume that we know what we are doing and understand many aspects of the culture, but the truth is that we don’t. This is not to say that we haven’t learned things – we have – but our knowledge has not grown much beyond learning to see all the different ingredients of life in Varanasi. In fact, our knowledge about Varanasi and India has grown along a learning curve similar to that of the chicken curry. Just as our original attempts to gather the components were a failure, our original assumptions about life in Varanasi were lacking or even totally off the mark. Just as we have gotten better at finding the supplies, we have gotten better at simply watching and understanding at least part of what is going on around us. As far as making the curry ourselves or fully understanding Indian culture, however, we are still nowhere close to experts.
Discover Yourself: !ncredible India
April marked the end of our experience in Varanasi and the beginning of our stay in Ladakh, where we will run an experiential education camp. Leaving my home of seven months was difficult at times, but this month has been one of discovery. Only during my last four weeks in Banaras did I discover my passion for paan, though I will not be able to bring it with me to the US since the beetle nut market does not yet exist in the West. Similarly, while saying farewell to those who I have become attached to, I discovered how much I enjoy Varanasi and its qualities which, to me, will always remain a partially solved puzzle. Finally, I discovered Ladakh, where beauty is never out of sight. Whether I am staring at the snow crowned mountains that surround me or being entranced by the prayer flags which are constantly playing with the wind, I feel as though I am at an “all you can see” buffet and Ladakh is the entree. Reflecting on April as a whole, I find it hard to believe that only one month has passed, because the changes that have occurred are so extreme.
Paan has no one definition, since every paan wala has their own recipe. It can be any number of spices and nuts, including cardamom, mint, and coconut, wrapped in a betel leaf, which is sucked and chewed until the flavor has expired. In Banaras chewing paan appears to be a cultural hobby. Though I’ve only lived in Banaras for seven months, very few men that I have met choose not to eat paan, while the vast majority of them indulge regularly. Though I never kept count, sometimes I felt that for some of the people who I became close to, paan entered and exited their mouths more often than a clock hand reaches a new hour. I had tried paan in the past, normally on special occasions, but I would have still considered myself a spectator, nowhere close to the bench, bullpen, or the field. Knowing that I would soon leave Varanasi I decided to make the transition from observer to participant. No spring training, no warm up, straight into the game, and the team that is Varanasi took notice. Eating paan brought me closer to the people I enjoyed being with, and in doing so, closer to the city whose culture seems to be unfathomably distant. Honestly, it was an easy habit to pick up. The scent, the taste, and the look are all positive factors. Actually, the look I could do without, since the only thing I can compare it to is eating an abnormally oversized jaw breaker. However, since the appearance is culturally acceptable, I crossed that bridge rather quickly. Leaving paan is not something I wanted to do. Though my dentist most likely would have urged me not to try it in the first place, all of my memories of Banaras will be as sweet and as fragrant as the paan I loved.
Packing up one’s belongings after eight months of accumulation is anything but an easy task. I have packed, unpacked, and repacked my things more times than I would like to admit. Saying goodbye to my friends in the city was even more difficult, but it allowed me to see the strength of the bonds we had forged over the past seven months. My favorite chai wala, a flute salesman, a tailor, a waiter, a shopkeeper, and a sadu, or holy man, made up only a fraction of the people to whom I said goodbye. Though saying farewell to a friend for an indefinite period of time is never pleasant, my Banarsi friends made it easier than expected. No tears slid down cheeks, no resentment was displayed. My goodbyes were far from miserable because I know that I will come back, and my friends felt fine emotionally because, well, they know I will come back too. I know this because I tend to re-visit places that I like, and they know this because I made a promise to each of them that I would return. After every farewell, paper was ripped, pens were borrowed, and emails and addresses were exchanged. Only after leaving did I realize how much the city and those with whom I had spent time had rubbed off on me. Everything from language to behavior had been altered. When our train began to pull away from Cantt Railroad Station and our journey to Ladakh began, I was pleasantly hit with memory after unforgettable memory from Shiva’s City.
Before April 27th, Ladakh was an unfamiliar place with uncertain characteristics. On the plane to Leh, the capital of Ladakh, the region remained unfamiliar while the topography astonished me. From my window seat I was able to watch the landscape change from smooth to jagged to beautifully mountainous. Coming from a blazing city where the tallest mountain was actually a hill, the new scenery and its winter-like chill is a remarkable change. Every time I am outside, the snowy peaks present themselves and I admire the motionless rivers of snow that form vein-like patterns down portions of the mountains. Although moving more than two miles closer to the clouds required a few days of acclimation, the pros have most certainly outweighed the cons.
Though April brought with it the conclusion of my time in Varanasi, my stay in the mountains has been exponentially rewarding. For the remaining month of the program, we will remain far above sea level enjoying the experiences at altitude and running an experiential camp where I will be responsible for environmental education. Though I enjoyed my place in Varanasi, I look forward to further exploring and discovering different aspects of Leh, even though the time here seems to be brutally brief.
I've been to Mumbai before, but now I'm coming from a different place. The baseline comparison in my mind is no longer my home in California, but a very different house in Varanasi. The streets, the people, the weather, all seem different to me than they did before, because I'm looking at them from a different perspective.
As one example there's the heat. People here tell me it's hot, and I think they're probably right. But after the beating sun and dry, scorching winds of Varanasi, Mumbai weather feels pretty nice. It's cool in the morning and evening, and there's a strong breeze off the ocean. The temperatures that would have been draining I instead find refreshing.
Someone here told me that she thought Mumbai traffic was bad until she visited Varanasi. And by a certain measure it's true: the larger streets in Mumbai are well-paved and lined and cars mostly open traffic lights and signals, while in Varanasi there are no lights, and cars, bicycles, pedestrians, motorcycles, and cows all mix together on the roads. But in Varanasi the traffic also moves at a slower pace, and follows a different set of rules regarding right of way, passing, and which side of the road to drive on, and as I learned the protocol I became fairly confident on the streets. But in Mumbai I never know if the drivers will follow their rules or if they'll speed up, run red lights, and make illegal turns-I don't trust them, and I'm constantly expecting someone to hit me. I thought Varanasi traffic was bad until I had to cross a street in Mumbai.
Clothing has been another point of interest to me. In this metropolitan city, most girls my age walk around in jeans and a top, looking very western. But almost all of my clothes are traditional salvar (loose pants) kurta (tunic shirt) and dupatta (long scarf) sets that I bought in Varanasi. They're comfortable and cool, and were the appropriate outfit for me to wear there. But for cosmopolitan Mumbai, they seem very old-fashioned and dowdy. In fact, by wearing the clothes that for months helped me to blend in and feel comfortable, I stand out here, and people give me many of the stares and odd looks that tourists wearing a tshirt and shorts in Varanasi received. Early on in our program we were taught that dressing in the fashion of local people helped show and gain respect. I'm finding that this may be true for modern clothing as well as traditional.
Something I've been struggling a little with is the perception people here have of Varanasi. While some people tell me with a laugh that I saw "the real India," as if Mumbai were somehow just a Bollywood creation, many classify my city as "backward" or "dirty" without a second thought. Yes, there is dirt and trash on the edges of some of the streets in Varanasi, but there is also a cleaning system for it we took months to understand. Yes, the Ganga river is polluted, but it is also beautiful and holy. Yes, there are more water and electricity problems, but people are more prepared to deal with such issues and do so without a fuss. People I meet in Mumbai praise me for the fortitude they think it must have taken to spend time in Varanasi, but don't really understand why I would have wanted to. To me, Varanasi is an amazing place, despite its flaws, and characterized by all the wonderful people I met. Is life there harder? This is an underlying assumption of the comments I receive that I don't know how to answer. Maybe for some, but I see people here dodging cars on the street as they try to sell stings of flowers to commuters, and their job seems much harder than even that of the children who sold flower candles on the riverbanks in Varanasi. Maybe on average life is harder, but I don't believe the wonderful, strong, happy people I knew in Varanasi would agree, and I don't feel qualified enough to judge.
I like Mumbai, the breeze and the beautiful architecture and the ocean. I like a lot of the people I've met, and the mix of so much of India that is represented here. But I miss Varanasi. I miss the steps of the ghats, the blaring street music, the smiles of strangers. I miss my students, my coworkers, and my friends. Sometimes I even miss the cows, but that may be excessive nostalgia. However, more than my individual affection for either city, I am grateful to both of them for showing me differences.