Group Update from India
The hardest part of India, so far, is describing it. It's like trying to explain the concept of a rainbow to people who've yet only seen black and white-- a new, overwhelming, but really beautiful sensory experience necessitating all five senses and all our attention. Before heading to Benares, we spent one month orienting to India itself: travelling around while getting to know each other and this country we'll call home for the next nine months. In Delhi, we welcomed our first cup of steaming chai, learned the fine art of bucket showers and navigated our way through the sweaty, colorful crowds. We met our first Hindi teacher, Binit-ji who traveled with us from Delhi to Kausani to Dehra Dun to Benares, his home. The girls headed to the fabulous Westside, a Delhi-based department store for our first salwar kameez outfits and the boys explored the city. We traveled by overnight train (in which we fast learned about squat toilets as well as how much we take air conditioning for granted) and then jeep ride to Kausani, a city in the Uttarakhand region in the foothills of the Himalayas for orientation meetings and intensive Hindi lessons overlooking the clouds. After a week in Kausani, we took a jeep back down the mountain and another train to Dehra Dun to work on an organic farm called Navdanya. Isabel and Doug worked in the kitchen, learning how to make the delicious, organic dishes we enjoyed while Tyler, Maxson and Azza worked in the fields helping with harvesting, seed sorting, weeding and composting. Our Hindi lessons continued and we learned about Navdanya’s Gandhian philosophies. After one month of easing into India, we headed to Benares.
On the day of our anxiously awaited arrival, it rained. That's an understatement. A monsoon with 30cm of rain slapped the city streets, transforming roads into instant rivers, shutting down the famous sites we wanted to see and flooding the banks of Gangaji (the Ganges river). We pulled our raincoats tight over our heads, heaved our backpacks off our tiny bunks of the Shivganga Express train and waded through a city that didn’t seem very welcoming that rainy, rainy day. However, the rain storm proved an important parallel to life here in Benares for two main reasons. First, we needed to use the first Hindi word we had learned back at Princeton: jugar, or improvisation. Much of India is run on jugar-- don't have enough room for our backpacks in the cab? Tie them to the roof using bungee cords. Jugar. The second reason was about aligning, adjusting or probably just forgetting our expectations. Admittedly, we expected the sun to shine on us as we rugged travelers arrived at our destination. We also expected a million definitions of Benares-- nearly everyone we had talked to about this city has different and mostly contradictory adjectives. It's beautiful. It's dirty. It's chaotic, calm, exciting, exhausting, holy, friendly, religious, unique. It has three popular names: Benares, Varanasi and Kashi. Turns out, anything and everything we expected this city to be turned out wrong; perhaps it’s for the better. Sure, it wasn't sunny when we arrived, but it made the first sunny day seemingly all the more deserved. Sure, we couldn't go on our scavenger hunt or tour the city for a couple days, but we got to know the people who are here to enrich our experience so much. Sure, we had to roll up our pants and wade through the streets in mysteriously murky water, but taking a year and coming here is the ultimate exercise in getting our feet figuratively (and this time literally) wet. We're all still adjusting, still arriving in our minds to this city of three names, a million inhabitants, a million more tourists and a million still more definitions. Frankly, we'll probably be adjusting until the day we leave. All we know for now is how lucky and happy we are to be here trying to experience, understand, and hopefully become a part of Benares.
I’d like to preface my update by clarifying that my Hindi name is Asha (mostly because Indians aren’t used to pronouncing the “z” sound, but also because I think that name is beautiful and it means “hope”), and as long as I wear salwar kameez and keep my hands covered in henna tattoos, I’m going by my Indian identity. So far, I love it here. Benares is incredibly unique and I’ve never had so much trouble trying to describe things as I do here. Above all, Benares is a challenge and a celebration for the senses. I have learned to love weaving through rickshaws and water buffalos on my bike, avoiding stepping in the cow dung spotting the unpaved roads, stumbling through everyday conversations in Hindi and trying to drink as much delicious chai per day as absolutely possible. It’s hard to think that it’s already been one month here, but it’s also a relief because now it is “getting cold” (also known as the weather is dropping to the frosty temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit compared to 120 during the monsoon season).
I am staying with the Agrawaal family and could not be happier living there. I have one younger host sister named Priyanka whose nickname is Shubhi. She affectionately corrects my elementary Hindi, loves to dance and most importantly, explains all the news in Bollywood, especially surrounding Shah Ruk Khan, our favorite Bollywood actor. Shubhi stays up later than I do studying and speaks flawless English. I also have one older host brother, Shobit who is in college in Lucknow studying Computer Science. My host dad and host mom insist I call them Pitaji and Mataji (Dad and Mom in Hindi). Pitaji owns a sari shop and also trades stocks on the first floor of the house which functions as his office. Mataji is a Sanskrit teacher and a fantastic cook. Yesterday, I burped at dinner for the first time and Mataji hugged me she was so happy (burping in India indicates you enjoyed the meal. I have told her many times in my best Hindi that Mataji's food is delicious, but I have learned that actions speak louder than my mispronounced Hindi words here). In short, living with a host family is one of my favorite parts of this program so far.
Regarding sevaa, meaning “selfless service” and the central focus of our program, I am working at Guria, an organization that fights human trafficking and forced prostitution in Northern India. I could not be more inspired and humbled to be working there. Ajeet, the founder of the organization is an absolute visionary and so wise. I don’t fully understand the organization yet, but I’m working hard to absorb his ideas and help out. In the mornings I go to his office where I have been helping with some grant applications, organizing photos and typing case studies, and in the afternoon I go to the Non Formal Education (NFE) center. The center, I’ve found, is the heart of Guria-- it's an after-school program for children of sex workers in the red light district of Varanasi called Shivdaspur. Manju, Ajeet's wife, leads meditation and art exercises for the kids and they are fed one good meal. The center provides a safe haven, perhaps the only one for the kids to freely express themselves. I have been braiding hair, playing games and helping teach computer class to some of the older girls. I am amazed every day by these kids. I soon figured out that during meal time there are more kids than plates (but enough food to go around) so the oldest girls wait until the younger ones have eaten. Further, many of the kids offer food to me even though it's probably the only meal they will eat that day. Despite everything they face, they are kind, gentle, selfless, friendly and ready to learn. I look forward to learning more Hindi so I can start teaching theater and dance classes at the center, and especially so I can have more conversations with the kids. I am so thankful, inspired and happy to be working at Guria and can’t wait to keep learning about everything this incredible, multi-faceted and impassioned organization does. Happy Diwali everyone!
After one month in Banares, I am enthralled, confused, intrigued, and most of all incredibly excited about living in this city for the next six months. I have begun working at World Literacy Canada, a multifaceted NGO which seeks to empower children, women, and families through education. I am working on two facets of this mission. The first is the Gumti Library system, little stands on the side of the road that act as small libraries in remote areas of Banares. I am organizing, updating, and evaluating all the Gumtis to ensure they are effectively promoting literacy in the surrounding community. Additionally, I am also working with the health division which primarily involves educating the public about things like nutrition and hand washing. Much to my delight, this involves a significant amount of field work. Whether it is going out to visit a Gumti or helping out with community health meetings, I am thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to explore new parts of Banares and interact with all manner of people. In coming weeks, I hope to become a more effective field worker as my Hindi communication skills improve and I am able to more actively engage with the people I am working with.
Outside of work, I am enjoying getting to know my large and vibrant host family. My host father, Dr. Rakesh Pandey, is a professor at Banares Hindu University and is able to give lengthy and informative lectures on any topic at any time. Three of the four children are completing degrees from BHU in various aspects of science. All are very inquisitive, funny, and always anxious to start a new conversation. The final sibling, my host sister, is married and lives in another part of India. However, she has been visiting with her very cute baby who likes to constantly stare at me with a look of pure terror. The family is held together by an infinitely kind host mother who seems to constantly be worrying about my health and offering me Indian sweets. The house is perpetually full of energy and discussion, providing a very intellectually stimulating and interesting environment to come home to.
A typical day involves waking up and working out a local gym before heading off to work. The gym is a great place to lift weights and converse with local Banarsi men as they strut and preen before the mirror. At work, I will usually be doing paperwork in one of WLC’s main buildings or heading out to the field to evaluate a Gumti or work at a health camp. My favorite part of the day comes after work, in the form of a Hindi lesson with Virendra-ji. Virendra-ji’s patient, disciplined, and humorous style of teaching continues to push along everybody’s Hindi skills at a rapid rate. The day ends with dinner, conversation, and homework at my host family's house.
The combination of a busy schedule and a constant flood of new information means that time has flown by. It seems amazing that we have already been here for over two months, but I am determined to explore, experience, and take advantage of every facet of Banares's unique culture in the remaining time I have.
The other day, I had my first “this-place-is-going-to-be-hard-to-leave” moment. I was setting off firecrackers on my roof with my host family and friends, a practice that is common during the celebration of Diwali, the festival of lights. Banaras is starting to feel like home.
I am living with a mother, father, eight-year-old brother, and thirteen-year-old sister in a beautiful house near Tulsi ghat. The roof offers a view of the Ganges, as well as a place for my host brother, Deep, to light firecrackers. Deep is constantly trying to get me to play games, and has adopted my orange headlamp as an accessory for his scary stories, roof explorations, and as a fun head ornament. Madhu, my sister, loves making art as well as cooking. She works as a family translator when my Hindi fails to be effective, which is embarrassingly often. I enjoy having discussions with her about topics ranging from Gaddafi’s death to silly girl talk. I hope that these talks will be conducted in Hindi soon, and I’m extremely jealous of Madhu’s ability to switch between Hindi and flawless English. My host mother is a wonderful cook, and I love watching her work her magic in the kitchen. My host father loves to joke, and enjoys trying to get me to speak Hindi.
I am working at Kiran Village, a center for differently-abled children in Madhopur. I take a bus from Banaras, and love watching the scenery become more rural as I leave the city. I am currently working in the education department, where I run sports classes for the children and teach an English class for post-high school students.
The sports classes are proving to be an opportunity for creativity, as many of my classes have a mixture of students in wheelchairs and leg braces as well as physically capable children. Some of my classes also have hearing impaired, mentally disabled, and cerebral-palsy afflicted children. I am having a blast engaging with all of the kids, and love their excitement and desire to get involved – from a student with leg braces insisting that he retrieve a ball thrown way past his head, to students pushing their wheelchair-bound classmates in relay races and kickball games.
In the afternoons, I am teaching an English class to a group of post-high school students in the Human Resources Training department. I’m doing a lot of research on ESL, while also working on getting my very polite class to feel free to ask questions rather than listen to a lecture. I am encouraging them to do dialogues and act out skits, as many of them have great written English skills but are timid when it comes to speaking.
I am thankful for the havoc that Banaras has wreaked upon my body – things like a pollution cough, a long and early commute, a surplus of simple carbs – because it has taught me to adapt. I have found that wearing a face mask keeps dust-related sore throats at a minimum. My commute is made easier by making friends with fellow bus-riders. Wanting to break out of the cycle of white rice has led me to explore the city’s incredibly diverse food scene. I am looking forward to future challenges and consequent adaptations.
We have been in India for almost two months now, but as I expected would be the case, this past one has had the real substance of the trip. Kausani and Dehradun were great -- both relaxing and a good chance to learn some Hindi and adjust to living in India before coming here -- but Banaras is the real deal.
It's taken fully a month here, but I'm finally settling in and really starting to enjoy Banaras. Initially -- and especially when I was sick -- it was all too easy to focus on the negative aspects of life here; the air pollution is largely inescapable, the traffic and roads are crowded at best and terrifyingly lawless at worst, the daily highs of 95 degrees would leave me drenched in sweat at the beginning of my workday, unavoidable cow dung, etc., etc. But I've realized how greatly diverse and exciting this ancient city can be. On my lunch break alone I can wander down Assi road, buying fruits I've never seen before from any of the countless stands, eat a handful of different cuisines, chat with locals over chai in a language I didn't know at all just two months ago, wander down to the river to see the ascetics and Hindu pilgrims who have come from all over the world to visit the country's holiest city. Maybe part of my fascination is just due to the fact that I haven't had the opportunity to live in a city since I was very young, so the sheer number of things to do sometimes boggles my suburban brain a little.
But that's not all of it. I think that in many ways Banaras epitomizes India's national identity of pluralism; in a country this huge, there is no single race, religion, political ideology, climate, or culture to stitch together its 1.2 billion inhabitants in any meaningful way. Instead, "the world's largest democracy" -- as any proud Indian is sure to call it -- draws its national identity from celebration of its own tremendous diversity. Banaras reflects this. It is Hinduism's holiest city, the place where the god Shiva first appeared on earth, where believers are promised release from the cycle of reincarnation upon death. Yet 35% of its inhabitants are Muslim, and the city was home to a number of great Muslim saints. The Buddha, knowing Banaras's reputation as a nexus of religion and scholarship, gave his first sermon after enlightenment three miles outside the city limits. The Sharmas, my host family, are not Indian, but Nepali. All of which makes it a really fascinating place to live.
So things are going well here. Now that I'm able to take the city's small irritations in stride, I'm enjoying this unique opportunity to step away from being Doug Wallack and instead try on "Yudhisthir Sharma" for a while. I'm excited to explore the city and its tremendous history and culture. I'm excited to be of use at my work site -- World Literacy Canada -- computerizing their records so it can be a 21st century organization taking full advantage of its 21st century technology. I'm happy to be making friends here too -- my BYP classmates, my coworkers, my Indian running buddies from the track at Banaras Hindu University (BHU)...
I think I've achieved my gap year goal of academic refreshment, so now I'm just along for the crazy ride that is India, and it's great.
I am settling into my life in Banaras very happily, and am quite pleased with my host family, work site, and overall routine.
My host family is composed of an older brother, Saurab (24), an older sister, Suchi (27), a younger sister, Sachi (17), a mother, Mataji, and my father, Kammaleshji. Also, uncles and cousins come over all the time, since the majority of our extended family lives in the same building complex. I spend a lot of time with my brother out at restaurants eating, watching movies (at home and in the theater), playing badminton, and seeing cool things around the city. I like to cook with Suchi, and we compete over who can make the best pasta. I look forward to dinner every night (cooked by Suchi, Sachi, and Mataji) and hanging out on the couch, watching TV and listening to music with the family.
I work at the Bal Ashram, an orphanage for boys. It is just a few minutes away from my house by bike, so I tend to avoid going to the program house in the morning, since my work is so close. The Ashram is part of the Aghor Foundation, an organization started by the Babaji, the older uncle of my host brothers and sisters (so my uncle too). Bal Ashram is composed of an orphanage, organic farm, school, eye clinic, and women's empowerment project. I started out doing odd jobs around the various projects, but the Babaji has now formally assigned me two main jobs. I am the main beekeeper of the organic farm, and spend three days a week on the other side of the river at the organic farm cleaning hives, killing predators (like big red wasps and ants), harvesting propolis (a medicinal goop secreted by the bees), and eating lots of honey. My other task is to write the monthly newsletter for the Aghor Foundation, summarizing the work completed each month with accompanying pictures and interviews with various members of the community. I also write general articles for each Aghor project.
Things are going very well. Obviously, I miss the people I love at home, and I've been a little sick, but besides those things I am very happy with the way things are going. I have a gym membership, take many pictures, and I try to use my Hindi as much as I can. I'm glad I brought a guitar, and I really like watching Indian classical music concerts. I have many young friends at the orphanage, including an adolescent monkey named Bajurangi. I play volleyball with the other men at the Ashram at 5 twice a week, and last weekend I played a more complex Indian version of tag with a few locals across the river. I am excited for what the coming months will bring!