Group Update from India
It's halfway over. The "2011" in Bridge Year 2011-2012 is already over, and it's hard to grasp that time is slipping through our fingers. As part of our program, we are each allotted a monthly stipend for an ISP, or "individual study project." We chose from different, equally Indian topics ranging from sari-weaving to Buddhism to Avurvedic studies and are delving as deeply as we can into our chosen topics. Mine's Sanskrit.
I thought coming to India meant escaping academics. No school, no classes, no tests for one whole year! I never thought I'd volunteer myself during this gap year to learn an extra language or read extra literature. That was before Daniel took us to a lecture from his Sanskrit teacher, Pundit Dr. Vagish Shastri ji (a "pundit" is a title awarded to someone who becomes an expert in the highest of Indian traditions-- language study, tabla, sitar, Indian classic singing, etc). Within one hour, he taught us the roots of some Hindi words we knew, and connected these Sanskrit roots to some English words as well. I've always been a word nerd and was completely stunned at the sharp precision, refreshing logic, and beautiful musicality of the Sanskrit language. One week later I found myself a "disciple of Shastri ji." Shastri ji himself is a fascinating man. He speaks slowly and carefully as he sifts through the 20 languages (yes, really, 20!) in his head. He's written more books than he remembers (I've counted 48 in his classroom so far) and he taught Madonna how to sing in Sanskrit. The classroom is his house and he only meets me early in the mornings because he truly believes Sanskrit should be studied as the sun is rising.
The first thing that struck me about Shastri ji was how calm I felt just being in his presence. His white hair and whiter clothing symbolize the purity of the language he so passionately speaks and teaches. He is a guru-ji in the exact sense of the word (here's where I apply my knowledge!) because he teaches with such "fire" (ru in Sanskrit is a vowel that also means fire). He makes me sing the alphabet and each word as I learn to pronounce it, and my host mother (also a Sanskrit enthusiast) has already commented on my deeper understanding of Hindi, and India itself through studying the culture through a most ancient lens. Studying Sanskrit helps me learn more of the best of India-- the language is very much tied to the culture itself, and Shastri ji's copyrighted teaching techniques connect each new consonant I learn to some Hindu myth or yogic chakra.
I'll conclude with an anecdote about the most important perk of being a Sanskrit student: the morning of my first class, I was wandering the alleyways trying to find Shastri ji's house. I asked a nearby chai-walla where he lived, and after giving me precise directions, he offered me a free cup saying, “the chai is free on behalf of India” because I'm learning her ancient language.
In India, there's a tremendous respect for teachers. Though to them the career of teaching might lack much of the prestige of being an engineer or doctor, what seem like the Indian epitomes of success, individual teachers, or gurus, of all disciplines are held in very high regard. Whether it's learning a language, a trade, a form of art, or how to cook delicious Indian meals, there's a sort of quasi-master-and-apprentice relationship here that's largely forgotten in the West. In America we tend to value informality and regard it as a lack of pretension, but in India I've come to appreciate the unerring deference to gurus as something pretty admirable. Even if they've grown up and become teachers themselves, students address their teachers in the formal aap conjugation, greet them with a slight bow and a light touch to the feet. When I first came here it seemed groveling and humiliating. I’m eighteen, I'm a legal adult, I've never met this old guy before, why should I kowtow like this? Can't we just shake hands?
But I gave it a try. It's how I address Goswami-ji, my sitar teacher. And I've realized that it's a nice way of recognizing the relationship between us. He may not dazzle me with virtuosic performances of heartbreaking genius every Monday at 4:30, I may not be an entirely hapless music student in my lessons, but still we are something less than equals -- what that handshake might convey here. And it makes sense. He's a profoundly competent sitar player with a lifetime of experience, and I -- though I consider myself a good musician in the more general sense -- am not. And it's not that I love being self-abasing; I don't, and I don't have to be. It's not the dichotomy I assumed it was between groveling and me being the presumptuous teenager acting like his equal. There's a comfortable space in between the two, where you just acknowledge that your teacher is your superior in that particular regard, and that's okay. It doesn't diminish your character or your standing or anything. Everyone has gurus in something or other, so they get it.
And sitar, by the way, is pretty sweet. It's not as mysterious as I once thought it was (melodies are played almost exclusively on one of its couple thousand strings, for example), but it has its own group of scales and music theory and all that. So I'm enjoying untangling those matters while checking another box on my must-do's of excellent if stereotypical Indian things.
When I told Daniel, our program advisor, about my desire to learn tailoring as my independent study project, he naturally asked, "Do you know how to sew?
"Oh yeah," I replied, "I've made a few things on my machine at home." Somehow forgetting that Banaras, the “City of Light”, would be more aptly named “City of Light (From Three to Five but Don't Count on It).” Frequent power cuts render my familiarity with an electric machine useless.
Faced with hours without power, the many tailors of Banaras turn to the environmentally-friendly - and, for an American, totally retro! - iron machines.
This was quickly made evident during my first lesson with Ajay-ji, whose tailoring business operates out of a room under a flight of stairs. This calls to mind a certain boy wizard, as does his prowess with needles - magic can be the only explanation.
I asked if we could start with the basics. Threading the ancient iron machine was similar enough to render me overconfident. But the action required to power the machine flummoxed me. I thought that it just entailed pumping the foot pedal. It's a multi-step process – spinning the hand wheel to get forward momentum, bringing your foot down at the right moment to keep the needle moving forward.
Ajay, whose father began teaching him the family trade when he was 11, was both amused and confused at my attempts to synchronize each motion. It's second nature to him, and he was at a loss to break it down.
But, eventually, something clicked. Maybe it was magic. Or maybe it was the hour of patient correction as I tried again and again to coordinate the needle.
Learning the physical aspect of sewing was an unexpected barrier – but I’m glad that it’s there. It’s yet another reminder of how things that are simple at home – asking for a pen in a store, stitching a hem – leave me helpless. To me, this is far more exciting to me than the prospect of stitching a beautiful sari. Don’t worry, there will be plenty of those too, though, I’m sure.
Now February's gone. Time has gone by so quickly. I feel like I let the months slip away, and that I didn’t take advantage of that extra time. Now, I have fewer than 3 months to accomplish all that I want to do. It has taken me this long to truly “live” in Varanasi, but as the end draws near, my priorities surface. I have goals that I want to achieve, and each speaks to a corner of my time here.
I want to saturate myself with Tabla. I have been taking lessons consistently for about a month with my teacher, Ramuji, and it is time for me to take this to the next level. Right now I practice in the morning for around 45 minutes, work on a little notation during the day, and then practice for around 30 minutes at nighttime. Sometimes I don’t. This is what I am trying to change. Tabla needs to rise in my list of priorities, because it has been shadowed by brief urges like “Turn Off My Alarm,” and “Eat A Second Dinner.” Why did I allow such a thing? In hindsight, I see that I didn’t have a clear end-result in my mind when I started this venture. Now though, I think I know what I want out of my Tabla experience. I want to dedicate myself to something, and feel what that’s like. I want to PLAY Tabla. I want to have a working knowledge of Indian classical music. I want to develop a lasting relationship with my remarkable teacher. These things come from greater dedication.
I want to leave a lasting impression in my Ashram with my current work. My role has changed from the start of the program. First, I hung around the Ashram, painting, cleaning, sanding, and doing general upkeep and maintenance. Then, the pontoon bridge that connects the two banks of the river was built, and I worked at the Eco Farm, tending bees and turning compost. Now, I am working on revamping the Ashram’s cleaning and water waste systems. I am in the middle of rebuilding a small-scale filter originally constructed by Josh, a former BYP participant. in the hopes of gathering data that will reveal its efficacy. Hopefully, this will prompt future participants to set up a large-scale model in the future. I am also working to replace all of the Ashram’s soap systems (dishwashing, bodywashing, and clotheswashing) with organic, biodegradable soap from local sources. I have been making this new soap from the Reetha Nut, which grows here in Uttar Pradesh and is a great source of Saponin, a cleansing agent. I want to be effective in these two tasks.
Finally, I want to continue working on myself. This update was supposed to be about Gurus in Varanasi, and how they have influenced my life. Daniel, Ramuji, and the Ashram’s founder, Babaji, all play enormous roles, but I am also listening to my conscience. I have learned a lot about myself here, and I have learned firsthand. I know how hard it is to stay a happy person when my life is turbulent and unbalanced. I know how happy I can be if I keep the promises I make to myself. It took a lot of unfocus early in the program to show me exactly how I can hone in on my priorities now, so for that I am thankful. I see the months of September to January as my guru. I am learning how to separate my good advice from my bad advice. Teeth to the wind, I look to the future.
It is tough to imagine how different this experience would be without the help that dozens of people in both India and America have provided. We are so well taken care of that there is someone to talk to about everything from medical issues to cultural confusions. Yet, there are those who stand out in their role as mentor, teacher, or as the Indians would say: guru-ji. Without these guru’s sage advice and leadership I would be adrift with very little knowledge or background to understand and engage with the activities that happen around me.
The first of these gurus to enter my life was Virendra-ji, our Hindi teacher. Virendra-ji’s regular Hindi classes have not only provided us with the ability to communicate with locals, but they also act as a guide to daily Indian life. We are often provided with explanations of upcoming Indian holidays or of various cultural habits that seem strange to our unfamiliar eyes. He is never short on restaurant or life suggestions and seems to delight in our progressing cultural fluency. His teaching style is challenging, and he contently pushes us to use new vocabulary or grammatical constructions. My ability to successfully navigate Indian culture and language is due in large part to his patient and productive teaching.
Another important guru in my life is Salman-ji, my Urdu teacher. Urdu is a language spoken predominantly by Muslims across India and Pakistan. It is very similar to Hindi in vocabulary and grammar, but it uses a different script. Salman-ji is an Indian Muslim who give me a window into a part of India that is ignored in my normally Hindu dominated surroundings. He has led me and my fellow Bridge Year participants around the city to look at the various Muslim mosques and has given us a talk on Islam. Salman-ji is a writer in an Urdu newspaper, and is always eager to talk about politics and current events. Full of high expectations, Salman-ji has facilitated my learning of the Urdu script and is pushing my language skills along. Yet, what I most enjoy about his teaching is a chance to enter one of the Muslim quarters twice a week and learn about a different aspect of Indian life.
The next guru-ji entered my life recently when I asked our group leader Daniel about increasing my intellectual engagement with India. Daniel introduced me to Dr. Alok his friend and guru. Dr. Alok and I meet regularly to talk about everything from Indian history, to Obama’s reelection chances, to the Banaras lifestyle. Under his watchful eye I am working through a reading list which is increasingly underlining my understanding and appreciation of how Indian culture acts. Thanks to his facilitation of reading and exploring Gandhi’s autobiography, the group engaged in a week-long Gandhian fast to better understand Gandhi’s simple lifestyle. The next few months promise lessons on local Indian politics, ancient Indian history, and more.
My final guru only has to fulfill his role infrequently, but he is important nonetheless. He is my wrestling coach. This kindly older man puts up with my infrequent attendance and piteous lack of wrestling knowledge and skill with nothing but a smile. His patience and willingness to accept me into the arena gives me a chance to hone my discipline and mettle. He continually espouses lessons on wrestling and discipline. I have learned a significant amount about Indian athletics and the Indian mentality through working with him in the wrestling arena.
This short list does no justice to the many other people who I learn from on the program. The lessons taught by our group leaders, host families, and co-workers could fill books. The men listed above make up the core of my activities and are responsible for all of the valuable information that I am learning about India. I am incredibly lucky and grateful to have the chance to study under such a diverse and interesting cadre of teachers.