Group Update from India
I am now Nikhil. Or Nickoo. Or Nickelodeon. Choose whichever you want. Just know that Nick is not an option. These are the three monikers my eight-year old host sister, Anandi, has decided to rotate between when referring to me. And know that it’s Nikhil Pandey, Nickoo Pandey, or Nickelodeon Pandey. So long as I’m here in Benares, I’m embracing my Hindustani identity, and for now, I am a Pandey, along with my rambunctious six year old host brother, Shiv; my mischievous host sister, Anandi; my wise, Hindi-only-speaking grandma, Amma-ji; my mysterious and influential host dad, Bantu-ji; and my warm, kind, caring host mother, Dolly-ji, or as I now often call her, Mata-ji.
So how do I fill my days? I’m working for Nirman, a school that educates kids from all across the spectrum of Benares: many kids are children of the merchants and rickshaw-wallas on the streets, while other kids have lawyers and doctors as parents. Nirman, founded by its current director, Nita Kumar, in 1990, along with a board of other professionals, prides itself on its integrated student body. The school is filled with kids from urban and rural Benares, boys and girls, kids who are rich and poor, and Hindus and Muslims. Nirman thrives on the principle that the same level of education should be provided to all, and that segregating students based on x or y detracts from the lessons that can be shared between students from different rungs of life. Perhaps the most novel thing about Nirman is its emphasis on the arts. In an education system virtually devoid of creative outlets, Nirman offers students a comprehensive arts education in addition to the mandated general education requirements.
How do I fit into the machine that is Nirman? I’m working as a teacher — four days a week in the village school, approximately two in the city. Right now, teaching my 7th grade class at Betawar, or the village school, can be a challenge. The class is a mix of students who can speak fluent English, and student who’ve grown up in villages where spoken English is an extreme rarity and whose English abilities reflect the fact. I’m having trouble making lessons that challenge the fluent English speakers and manage not to totally confound the kids with lackluster English skills. I would call it a very exciting problem. Also, in keeping with Nirman’s pedagogy of uplifting students through the arts, in addition to teaching traditional subjects, I’ve been teaching creative writing classes to grades three through seven. It is interesting being on the other side of things, being the one deciding the lessons, grading the tests and assigning the homework, especially having been on the being-taught end so recently (June really wasn’t so long ago…). The kids are admirable, most of them very eager to learn. To them, I am “Nick-sir,” and with my 7th grade class, I’m working assiduously to help them practice and prepare their “drama” on deforestation for Nirman’s annual arts exhibition. I have run into a lot of them around Benares, and I’m always greeted by a polite and high-pitched “Namaste-ji, Nick-sir!”
We’ve been in Benares now for more than four weeks, and the familiarity of our surroundings accompanies a more nuanced, objective perception of our life here. Novelty numbs, and now that things are not so new, the things a traveler passing through might label as “culturally intriguing” can appear more like burdens. Instead of photographing the cows and water buffalos, I am forced to weave between them on my way to work, and instead of analyzing Varanasi’s environmental issues, I get the brunt of the dirty air, evident in my newfound cough. But I’d say that these are things that come with being a temporary resident. Regardless, I would say I love Benares. It is a city, especially in comparison to the quaint town of Mussoorie, the verdant hill station where we spent our first three weeks in India. But it is much more manageable and livable than New Delhi. When I arrived, I was finally able to process how Debi, our program director, is able to consider Benares her home. Maybe it’s because we’re “Dragons,” but the shopkeepers of Assi seem especially kind. Assi Ghat is homey and houses a plethora of awesome shops. Amid the chaos of urban India, I’m able to feel some serenity and sense of place in Benares. This city and river are holy. Who cares if the river Ganga is innately holy or if people solely imbued it with holiness? Regardless of which, Benares, amid the craziness of India, retains some level of solemnity. Its residents are more calm, more easygoing. After all, for most of them, the river is one big church. I came to Benares expecting much worse, in terms of the trash, the noise, the pollution. Yes, there’s garbage and feces everywhere; everything’s dusty; and in the streets, the noise level rivals that of Times Square, but in many ways, the things that make me tug at my hair help make up this place’s charm. Maybe I’m experiencing a prolonged “honeymoon stage,” or maybe I’ve yet to see the really horrible, but at least at this moment, I feel that there’s so much good to offset the bad. I’m enjoying my time in this mystic city. I really like my group members, my homestay family is incredible, and I can only hope that my service placement continues to go wonderfully. This year has thus far been great to me.
After about a month of living in Benares, everything is starting to fall into place. I’ve found my favorite places to hang out in the city and settled into a comfortable routine. It’s hard to remember just how intimidating and large the city felt upon our arrival.
It was quite jarring to board a train in the cool, verdant scenery of Mussoorie and step out 22 hours later into the blazingly hot cacophony that is Benares. Gone were the trees, monkeys, and silence, replaced by rickshaws, dust, and the Ganga. For me, born and raised with the Pacific Ocean always within site, being next to a body of water is always comforting. And though I had been told that the Ganga was more than a body of water, it took until I actually arrived to fully understand what that meant. Every morning from our Program House, I look down and seen men performing puja, dhobis washing clothes, and the general hum of life on its banks. My work site is right next to the river and I often take my lunch box down onto the ghats to sit, do my best to speak Hindi with locals, and generally watch the world go by.
I’ve also purchased a bike and riding it has quickly become one of my favorite pastimes. At times, biking in Benares requires a near-meditative state of single-mindedness. There are so many things to keep track of all at once: potholes, pedestrians, trash, animals of all kinds, cars, motorcycles, buses (which slow down for no one), autorickshaws, and bicycle rickshaws, that there is absolutely no time to think about anything else. I’ve found it to be a hugely effective cure for fleeting bouts of homesickness and self-doubt about Hindi.
There’s something very satisfying about learning a language from the ground up. Every day, it seems, I make huge strides and there is still a lot to look forward to. After I learned how to speak in the past tense, worlds of conversation opened. After, I learned the verb to play, I engaged in a detailed and thorough conversation with my host father about the finer points of cricket. As I learn how to ask questions, how to use the subjunctive and the passive voice, I embark on the lengthy process of attempting to master the names of every vegetable and spice used in Indian cooking while I help my host mother and sisters cook. Without my host family, this month would have been a thousand times more difficult. Every night when I come home, I am instantly cheered by one of my two host sisters, Suchi and Sachi, who are eager to check my Hindi homework and talk about our days and lives. My host brother Saurabh loves to show me all his favorite Bollywood songs and dance moves and I play volleyball with him and his friends several times a week. The Pandeys have given me a new name, Ayush, which means “blessing.” I am forever turning around to answer queries like ‘Ayush, chai, chahiey?’ (Will, do you want chai?) and I hope they get the message that the answer will always be yes. The food is delicious, simply put. There is always some form of bread (chapati, primarily) with every meal and some form of vegetable curry. I have taken to eating with my hands like a duck to water. In America, sopping up remnants of sauce with bread is the best part of the meal, but in India, it is the meal. And it’s great.
I work at World Literacy of Canada (WLC) an organization that aims to promote literacy in Varanasi and the surrounding communities, through Adult Literacy Classes and various incarnations of libraries around the city as well as women’s empowerment through skills training and micro-loans. I spend most of my time at the Tulsi Kunj Community Library teaching English and Math, as well as running small workshops on basic computer skills and how to use dictionaries, thesauruses, and encyclopedias. WLC is filled with Hindi-only speakers and I get a great deal of practice each and every day. I love hanging out with my students after our daily hour is up, continuing conversations about life in Benares versus America and taking them on in cricket.
I can’t wait to see what the coming months bring.
"Ubhi apki Hindi kharab hai, leiken apki Hindi achchhi hogi" or "Right now your Hindi is bad, but it will be good." These are the words of encouragement I received from the kids at the Guria after school center. Much of my time in Varanasi is spent at my work site. Hannah and I are working at Guria, an NGO dedicated to ending forced prostitution, second generation prostitution, and human trafficking in general. My work is split between the Guria office and the after school centers in the Red Light district of Varanasi. In the office, we work on a variety of projects like applying for grants, archiving, and making improvements to the website and blog. The Guria afterschool center is one of my favorite places. Whenever I go, I am greeted by a barrage of "Namaste Ada ma'am"'s, requests to Bollywood dance, and pulling on my limbs. The kids go to the center after school from 2:00 to 4:00 just for a place to hang out, away from their usually hectic home situations. I love to just spend time with the kids, playing games with them and attempting to speak to them in Hindi. Eventually, we will have the chance to teach a computer class and organize projects and events at the afterschool center. I love being with the kids. Even though the 2 hours at the center are spent running around and playing with the kids, I always feel re-energized and happy after I go.
Transportation is a big part of my work experience. For the first week we took shared rickshaws, but we have recently acquired bikes. Getting shared rickshaws was difficult; we'd find ourselves surrounded by rickshaw drivers in a matter of seconds inquiring about our destination. Now I ride my bike to work, to the after school center, and home. Biking in Benares is probably best described as chaotic. It's a challenge to pay attention to and avoid running into everything around me. I have enough trouble walking somewhere without falling down and/or getting lost. The moving obstacles on the road include everything from other bikers to cows, while the non-moving obstacles include everything from unpaved roads to mountains of cow poop. Despite the obstacles, I enjoy riding my bike because it gives me the opportunity to exercise, get a rush of adrenaline every day, and experience the city in a new way.
Another positive part of my time in Varanasi so far has been my homestay family. I live in a neighborhood with a helpful proximity to the ghats and the Program house. I live with my host mother, host father, host grandmothers (NaniJji and Dadi Ji), and a few boarding students from Benares Hindu University. My family has a farm several kilometers away from the city. They also have a passion for Hindi serials (soap operas) which I have likewise adopted. Every night I come home from Hindi class and continue "studying" by watching my host dad's favorite serial. My host parents speak great English, unlike my host grandmothers who I frequently have the chance to talk to in Hindi. I am pretty sure Dadi Ji and I have an inside joke going, and although our conversations are always very simple, I really enjoy them.
Unfortunately, I've been sick a few times since I've been in Benares. My experiences being sick have been very positive, especially thanks to the support from my group and my host family. My host family was always very concerned, and my host mom made me special meals that wouldn't upset my stomach. After I thanked her profusely for everything she had done for me while I was sick, she told me it was no big deal because I was part of her family now. That in itself made me feel better. I don't feel like I'm just living with a family, I feel like I am part of a family and I love that.
In addition to my work schedule are Hindi classes, spending time with my host family, and exploring the city as much as possible. I think that one of the greatest things about Benares is the proximity to the Ganges. I can't say that I can see myself bathing in the river anytime soon or ever, but I love just sitting on the ghats and witnessing the effect that the river has on other people.
It's strange to think that Benares is more than somewhere I am spending time away from home in. Benares is my home now. It's an adjustment, but definitely an adjustment that I've been able to handle and enjoy.
With 55 days of the Bridge Year experience completed, I feel as though I'm just getting started. Let me explain. For the first time, things here really seem to be coming together. I no longer struggle with constructing the most basic of sentences in Hindi. I no longer need a map and a phone to find my way through Assi. I no longer fear biking among cows, motorcycles, cars, auto and manual rickshaws, pedestrians, and other bikes. I no longer feel awkward in my homestay, as though I'm an uninvited guest. And I no longer feel uncomfortable as a full-time teacher at the Nirman School. Assimilation is over, and I like more and more every day the things I'm beginning to see.
Coming to India, I admit, was not something I had always planned for. With that said, I had so few expectations coming here, I wasn't sure exactly what I was embarking on. I doubt any Bridge Year participant ever is. But I certainly didn't expect to find myself becoming so quickly attuned to the lifestyle here that already, this city really has become my second home. When someone from Portola Valley, California first arrives in Varanasi it's easy to enter a state of shock. The smell of urine emanates from the alleyways connecting the web of roads together. The roads themselves aren't named; they are identified by the neighborhoods in which they cross. Trash collects in loosely assembled piles, only to be burned leaving an atrocious charred mess behind. Street dogs crowd intersections, some in decent health, most marred by mange and physical abuse. In-N-Out doesn't exist.
But none of these things actually matter. Beneath this gritty exterior lies a culture and people who are compassionate and deeply spiritual. It's these qualities that affect my experience here more than some pollution or lack of infrastructure. For me this is embodied most by the family that has taken me in. I'll never forget one of my first nights with them, when after they had returned from Temple I asked how it had been.
Narendra-Ji, my father, looked at me, his face free of expression and replied, "Temple is always beautiful."
In the three weeks that I've been with them since that moment, we have come to understand each other so that those serious moments have mostly been replaced with laughter and discussion. Narendra loves to discuss the Central Indian Government, anything concerning American politics, and technology. With his wife Sarika we'll discuss food, Varanasi, and practice speaking the others native language. Their daughter Riti, is just 7 years old and loves to play hide and seek and shoots and ladders in addition to being quizzed on her school work over dinner.
And each of them goes out of their way to help me. Riti always eagerly greets me at the door after I return from a day of teaching at Nirman (see Nick’s update) and Hindi class. She tells me when I'm dressed well. And when I'm not. Sarika prepares my dinner, makes my bed, tells me when to take my clothing to a dobi, and tests my Hindi. And Narendra takes me out to see street festivals, shares family stories, invites me on vacations with his family, and brings me sweets. These acts of kindness are just some of the things that they are constantly doing for me, and though however small they may be, they are ultimately what I spend the most time thinking about.
And it's these thoughts which have prevented me from feeling homesick. Because where I am is home. It's the place I return to, where I rest, where I feel most safe. What more defines home than those qualities? I'm happy to be at home.
A couple days after arriving in India, Ada, Mackenzie and I found ourselves in search of some chai, and, hungry for every opportunity to absorb more Hindi, we picked up a new word: kahan - where. One of Hindi's many quirks of pronunciation is that the "n" at the end of kahan isn't actually an "n" sound. Instead, it's a "nasalisation," a concept that to us, at the time, lay somewhere between comical and impossible, and, as a result, we spent a good portion of the afternoon running around with our fingers pinching our noses, laughing and yelling "kahannn, kahannn." I'm happy to say that we've come far since that day, and now when people ask me how my Hindi is progressing, I picture the three of us running around with our hands on our noses, doubled over with laughter, hardly able to say a word whose usage has since become quite standard, and it amazes me how much we have learned in the past two months.
Before I came to India, one of the things I was most excited for was learning Hindi: the overwhelming, intoxicating thought that nine months from then I would be jabbering away in a language that I couldn't even have identified if I had heard it on the street. It's like working my way through a labyrinth: hard to keep track of exactly where I am, sometimes hitting walls, but always moving forward, always being forced to make decisions - to make sentences, to just embrace the Hindi I do know and not worry too much about the things I have yet to learn.
Whether at home, at work, or around town, there's always a cascade of Hindi clamoring at your ears, and while I see plenty of tourists stubbornly sticking to slowly spoken English, you will never connect with people the same way if that's the method of communication you choose. There are the straight-faced, tobacco-chewing rickshaw drivers perfectly willing to inflate the price of the ride, who break a smile and acquiesce when you tell them woh pagal hai, that's crazy! There are the little kids on the street asking you apka cycle hai, is this your bike, and fiddling with all its bells and whistles, before running off with a smile and a dhanyavad, thank you.
The time I most appreciate my Hindi, however, is at my service site. Ada and I are working at Guria, an organization that combats sex trafficking, particularly child sex trafficking, as well as second-generation prostitution. They also work to reduce the social stigma against sex workers and their families. I'm working both at Guria's office, as well as its Non-Formal Education Center. The Guria Center is located within the red light district of Varanasi (the first child-prostitute free red light district in India, thanks to Guria's actions) and acts as an after-school center for the children of sex workers in the area. The center uses art, meditation, games, and other methods to provide the kids with a safe, happy place to spend time in. Every time I arrive at the center, I am immediately greeted by a room full of excited, often screaming, children. The room clamors with their calls of namaste ma'am! and they all beckon for me to sit next to them, calling out ma'am, ma'am, here! We play games, we dance, we draw, and often I let myself become a human jungle gym. Communication can be comical, but I understand just enough that, for now, the energy, excitement and enthusiasm of the kids can fill in the blanks.
When I get home at night, I am again surrounded by Hindi, whether from my immediate family members or one of their many relatives. My homestay is with a wonderful family, the Agrawals, who live in a huge blue house deep in the alleyways near Badhaini Ghat. My host mom is a teacher at a local school and my host dad is a sari shop owner by day and stock broker by night. I have a host brother, Shobit, who is away at college in Lucknow, as well as a host sister, Shubhi, who is my go-to translator for when my Hindi falls short of deciphering the crazy twists and turns of Indian soap operas. There is also the rather elusive grandfather, an endlessly sweet old man with a wispy beard and big, thick-lensed glasses, who always greets me with a namaste and "speak in Hindi!" Although conversing with my family in Hindi is still a work in progress, nothing beats the feeling of accomplishment of being able to explain things to them in Hindi, rather than English - even when I accidentally ask them if mera dost (my male friend) can stay with me for the week and then have to run back two minutes later insisting meri dost, meri dost (my female friend)!
Thinking back on the day when kahan felt like a mouthful, I have endless amazement for the way it now rolls off the tongue, the way I've almost seamlessly slipped in to my new life here, embracing the weird-sounding words, the uncomfortable situations, and finding myself more and more deeply entrenched in Benares every day.
“Hari-om Sir!” I give a slight namaste to my students as Puja-ji, my teacher-mentor at Little Stars tells the kids to sit down. I put my backpack down and stand up to look at the class as they smile at me and then resume copying down the exercises on the blackboard. I looked around at the A3 sized posters that hang off the walls, some mix of black and the original robin-egg blue, and the 52 students in Class 2 of Little Stars School. As I settle into the classroom, I go through my schedule. I’ll stay in the classroom until after lunch, and then head down to Asha-ji’s office, where databases that need to be updated, books that need to be catalogued, and fundraising events that need to be organized are waiting for my attention. I fiddle with the idea of posting signs in cafés around the city to get news of Little Stars out to everyone, particularly those foreigners walking around who are easily wooed into donating a couple dollars.
In many ways, the combination of office work and classroom work at Little Stars has made the experience enriching. In the classroom, I get to meet the kids, to see the school first hand, and understand the intricacies of how it runs. In the office, I wrestle with all the problems of running a school with almost no income, trying to improve education for kids that need it and deserve it without the money to do so. Little Stars is a school for the poorest children in Varanasi, and is located at the heart of the Nagwa slums. Every day at 8:00 in the morning, children emerge from the narrow alleyways, coming out of shops and three square meter houses, and enter through the gates. The first few days I was there, the children looked at me as a foreigner, a person who did not belong in the complex and intricate machine that is Little Stars School. But now, Gautam and Ganga will run and take my hand, confirming that I will, indeed, be coming to their class to teach. Abhishek will come to me with a math notebook saying “aur mushkil problem dijiye” [Give me more hard problems.] Ankit and Ambrish will fight off the third graders who are trying to “steal me” from the second graders, and Ankita and Raja will instruct me in the proper way of turning away a flood of children asking for my autograph on their hand. I’ve even begun to find my own little group of second graders, and will soon be starting enrichment classes in math for the kids who are not challenged enough by the ordinary classroom work as well as tutoring sessions for the kids who are struggling to keep up with the rest of the class.
Little Stars and its kids have become something that I look forward to every day. Before coming to India, I spent hours worrying about what exactly I would be doing in a foreign country. The work I do couldn’t possibly make a difference. I don’t know Hindi, I’ll never be able to communicate with the coordinators at my site. The service site will treat me as a foreigner, I’ll be doing work as “just another guy” who has too much time, too much money, and now has a conscious that’s urging him to do a little service for the good karma. I won’t like it there.
In many ways, what I worried about has come true. I won’t be able to change the state of poverty my students live in. I am loved as “Allen bhai from China/America who Hindi nahin janta hai (does not know Hindi).” I am, in a way, just another volunteer passing through Little Stars, just staying for a longer time than the average volunteer at Little Stars. Yet these worries don’t particularly mean that much to me anymore. I love my work at Little Stars. I might be inherently an outsider, unable to truly comprehend the living conditions of the kids, and completely unable to make a lasting difference, but every time I walk underneath the now completely oxidized gate of Little Stars, a feeling of “at-home-ness” that I had expected to allude me for a year washes over me.
Perhaps the craziest thing about Little Stars though, is the fact that despite the ridiculous economic disparity between me and the kids, we both love and respect each other. In the classroom, and even on the street when I see my kids and they’re too shy to greet me outright, it’s not a conversation between a rich boy and a poor child. It’s not an awkward conversation between a foreigner with little Hindi and a street kid with little English. It’s the meeting of two humans, two people each with their own story, brought together by a series of events that can only be described as miraculous, each teaching the other something special as they continue moving forward into the beckoning future.
We’ve been in Benares for over a month now, and I’d say I’ve learned a lot. At this point, I’ve mastered the fine art of squeezing into impossibly tight Indian chudidaar pants—think turtleneck sweaters, but on your ankles— without tumbling to the ground. I’ve learned enough Hindi to sustain conversations with 4-year-olds regarding the construction of Biosand filters at my service site. I’ve learned to love dinner served at 10 p.m., and I’ve learned that in this ancient city, a pungent, Ayurvedic scalp massage can turn into something, dare I say… spiritual?
“Will you rub this on my head?” my pouty-lipped host brother asked on my first night in my homestay. I was crouched on the floor with dhal and rice up to my wrist, and I desperately looked to my tweenaged host sister for some explanation.
“He wants you to rub that oil in his hair,” she said with a chuckle.
This couldn’t be a legitimate request. It had to be some kind of test—a trap, maybe! Skeptical
Mata-ji, and manskirt-clad (okay, lungi-clad) Pita-ji and Uncle Chacha looked on in silence.
Would the new, Hindi-botching American girl woman-up and help a brother in need?
I got up, washed my hands, and then kneeled down on the barren kitchen floor and ran my oily fingers through Deep’s tresses. Everyone went back to their silver thalis with silent satisfaction.
Deep touched my feet, thanked me, and put the little brown bottle back in the puja room, where
it sat for some time between holy tulsi plants and revered portraits of Durga and Shiva.
I suppose I passed the test, because three weeks later, as I lay sprawled with twisting stomach pains and a rocking headache, it was little, loving Deep who made cooing noises and rubbed healing oil on my crown and temples. There was so much concern on his face, and I couldn’t help but think of that first night in the kitchen. Things had come full circle. I was initially startled by the pure compassion, but in the past five weeks, it’s something I’ve encountered again and again.
We’ve all read the guide books. It’s Varanasi—one of the holiest cities in India! And the books don’t lie. Every morning, I wake up to a symphony of crashing brass bells, bellowing seashell horns, and chanting neighbors as they perform their morning aarti. For every sweet-smelling chai stand, there are two or three carnation covered temples, and intrepid motorists raise hands and bow heads as they zoom by. Ganga-ji pulses through the city like you wouldn’t believe.
But as I settle into my routine, I’ve found that the spirit of the city overflows from the banks of
Ganga-ji, seeps from the confines of the temples into every street, and exists within every goofy cotton-candy vendor and stern Hindi guru. As someone who’s never embraced the concept of
God, I thought I’d be an observer of spiritual life in Benares. Wrong, wrong, wrong! This place is like a big, Almighty-sanctioned carnival that pulls you in, and sends your mind spinning before it lands softly in the divine.
Last week, I was blessed by a Bollywood belting rickshaw-walla. For me, the moment sealed the deal. I love my host family, I love my service site, and I love this holy city. The guidebooks don’t lie, but there is certainly a lot that their glossy words just cannot say—like the feeling of having your worries washed away by a bottle of neem tree oil, and a boy whose heart is filled with God.