Group Update from India
When people from home ask us what exactly we're doing in India, oftentimes it's difficult to explain. Of course, there's plenty of exploring, chai drinking, and Bollywood movie watching, but the bulk of our time is spent at our service sites. Five to six days a week, eight hours a day, each of us venture into our private Banarasi worlds: our work sites - the places where we've both encountered the greatest challenges and had the most fulfilling successes since coming to India. The experience we each have at of our service site is unique, but for everyone, it is an experience that greatly colors our time in India. The answer, therefore, to what exactly we're doing in India isn't in the chai drinking, the Bollywood movies, or the daily adventures we have. It's in our service sites and in the things we've learned from them.
I’ve heard the adage, “Where does the time go?” more times throughout my life than there are wandering dogs, cows, water buffalos, monkeys and pigs here in Banaras (and trust me, there are a ton), but I have yet to discover an answer. Just five months ago, I was still in America, waiting for Bridge Year orientation to arrive, running around packing and making visits to the travel doctor, excited to meet my group members and my group leaders, to set foot into mysterious India, of which my ideas were only nebulous. And today, I’m in India, and have been for nearly five months. It is paagal – ridiculous – to look at the calendar, and see how much time has passed: how much we’ve done, and scarily, how little time is left.
It amazes me to think that such a short time ago, I didn’t know the six other people with whom I’m sharing my experience, my wonderful instructors, my one-of-a-kind host family, and the enveloping, vibrant Nirman community. I remember my first days teaching at Nirman’s village school, located in a small settlement, Betawar, on the outskirts of Banaras: how awkward and stilted my interactions with my new students and co-teachers were. Who’s this gora? Why is he here?
A lot has changed since then. The students and teachers from both the city school and village school, who were once complete strangers to me, are now my friends. I love chatting with the didis in the kitchen at Betawar, and with the librarians at the city school. Not only my students, but kids from other grades greet me with earnest, high-pitched “Namaste!”s. (There is one first grader, Ankit, possibly the most adorable child in the world, who hollers “Nick-sir!” when he sees me and does cartwheel after cartwheel.) I even managed to lead a Saturday staff meeting, in Hindi, and have a bunch of my coworkers participate. Unlike my first few days at work, I now feel ensconced and a part of the spirited Nirman community.
I realize that one of the largest reasons I don’t want my time to end in Banaras is because I want to finish my time here feeling that I have imparted something special to my students, that I’ve made an unequivocally positive difference in their lives. I’ve spent nearly four months with them, taught them a myriad of chapters and subjects, always trying to bring my best self into the classroom. But I have no way to quantitatively measure if I’ve done something truly good. Sure, improved test scores are quantitative, but that’s not what I want to gauge. I wonder if I’ve successfully imparted things to my students that they would never have learned had I not been their teacher, if they had never been taught by someone with a lifetime of different experiences, someone who didn’t know village life or Banaras such a short time ago, but only the fine detail of city life and New Jersey.
Some of my favorite moments in class are when my students inquire about America, comparing what I tell them to their own experiences. The other day, one of my 7th graders, Vidhan, said something along the lines of “Nick-sir, is it true that outside of India, people don’t have arranged marriage?” When I responded that “No, most people don’t have arranged marriages,” much of the class (in particular the kids who live in the village) shot me perplexed looks, followed by giggles about the outlandish idea of “love marriage” (the Indian term for a non-arranged wedding) being the norm.
I’ve encountered a bunch of other times where the differences between my students’ culture and my own have come to the forefront. I remember a particular instance where I put to use a common technique of my old 7th grade teacher. In Mike Mooney’s 7th grade class, if kids were hitting each other, pushing, shoving, touching, he would bellow something like “If I didn’t know better, I’d think that you two were in love.” Once, when my kids were out of control, when Aditya kept hitting Gulnaz, I commented, “Aditya, you know when you pick on someone, it’s usually because you love the person.”
This would have been normal back in America, but here, it was somewhat of a faux pas, clear from the blank stares on my students’ faces.
These are mundane happenings at my worksite. They are learning experiences for me, I know, and hopefully learning experiences for my students as well, lessons that transcend traditional subjects – instead of only studying the Word of the Day, performing skits on chapters from Bridge to Terabithia, and listening to lectures on the Mughals, I hope my kids are uniquely benefitting from having me, some strange creature from the other side of the world, in their classroom. There’s no formula or algorithm to definitively know if I’ve made a positive difference, but when my kids implore me to tell them anecdotes from life in America, when Anubhav and Insha say “Nick-sir, you’re a good teacher!” or when Priyanshu effusively tells me “That’s really interesting!” I try to have faith.
Just as I want to know if I’ve helped effect change in my students, I wonder everyday how I’ve changed since Bridge Year has begun. I’ve gone from trekking up misty hills, riding camels over mountainous sand dunes, sauntering up a hill to a sandy fort on the back of an elephant, to sitting and reflecting under the Banyan tree where the Buddha attained enlightenment. And most importantly, I’ve set up shop here in Banaras, and have become part of a loving, maasti-filled Hindustani community – from my gurus, to my host family, to the warm, enveloping Nirman community. I often ask myself “How have you changed? Have you grown?” In Bodh Gaya, Debi led us in an exercise where we reflected on what we have learned so far on Bridge Year. After picking my brain, I saw more clearly how formative these five or so months have been.
I’ve learned seemingly small things: eating with my hands is koi bat nahim. The signature Indian head bob is now second nature. And veering to the left side of roads and alleyways is a habit etched into the inner recesses of my cerebrum. (Driving when I get back home is going to be tough …)
I like to think I’ve learned bigger things too: I’ve learned Hindi. I am a Ganga’s width or ten away from becoming fluent, but I’ve progressed a lot from day one. I’ve learned to be a better teacher. I’ve learned how to be away from home, that I’m an adult, and that ultimately I’m the only one responsible for my own well-being. And, in a way reading alone could never accomplish, I’ve begun to learn how big the world is, how vast, varied and eclectic mankind is. There are so many different ways that people manage to live: some spend their lives like you and me – passing their days in school or at work -- while others drag their forcefully amputated stumps along the rugged concrete, beseeching passersby for a rupee or two. Humans are adaptive and resilient.
I hope the second half of my year here teaches me as much, if not more, as what I’ve taken from my experience so far. The most drastic changes and lessons, I’m guessing, won’t surface in my consciousness until my Bridge Year is long over, but I’m confident that I’m learning every day. Just as my students learn “apathetic” and “flourish” as their Words of the Day, I’m determined to get something new out of each and every day I have left, to try and squeeze the pulp and rind out of Banaras, the fruit that is wonderfully bittersweet.
Deereigh, deereigh. I repeat to myself as I update the already updated and apparently incorrect student database, and as I try to teach kids arithmetic they “learned” two weeks ago. Slowly, slowly. A phrase that comes to mind more often than I would have thought in a city that feels anything but slow, from the jam-packed and crazy roads to the irritated, bustling crowds. Yet the phrase, deereigh deereigh, has indeed slowly come to define my mindset in Banaras.
Every day, I go to the Little Stars School office to act as a volunteer administrator for Asha-ji, the founder and principal of the school. I pick up class profiles, sit down at the desk, turn on the computer, and update the student database, beginning with the Pre-Nursery and working my way up through the 10th standard (the equivalent to American 10th grade). I organize Asha-ji’s contact list and address book, making sure new visitors have their information inputted and old contacts have their information updated. I work on budgets and funding and trying to establish online donation platforms. Fairly mundane work in the life of a administrator of a non-profit school.
However, it was not always this way. At the beginning, I would get to work and tear my hair out in frustration. Someone had messed up the database and everything from names to enrollment numbers to birthdays were wrong. Then I realized I was updating the database off the wrong sheet of paper. Then there was the power that constantly fought my efforts to work on the computer and the construction that interfered with my attempts to get online. Then the computer would freeze and profile sheets would get lost and information would be missing and kids would have suddenly disappeared from school, as if just so that I couldn’t find them the day that I chose to take their updated pictures. And then, after all of that, I would get back to the computer with a few minutes of working power and reliable internet and Asha-ji would want me to make a photocopy of something to send to a sponsor and the printer would first run out of ink and then break.
Working in the office used to be a source of never-ending frustration as I constantly battled with everything from the computer to my own impatience. Yet deereigh deereigh that feeling went away. Slowly, under Asha-ji’s guidance and a gradual increase in experience, I’ve learned that it’s not always about how fast you can get something done, but just that it gets done. Work isn’t always about producing results and crossing things off of checklists. Sometimes making progress means just finding your work where you left it (and somebody moved it), or realizing that yes, the last person to enter database information didn’t know what caste “Yadav” is and that it falls upon you to fix it.
Now, as I sit in the office sipping chai while waiting for the computer to un-freeze (or crash), I realize that back home, speed had been the focus of work. Speed and quantity. How much could I get done, and how fast? But here I’ve learned to relax. Here it’s OK to eat a samosa while looking through folder after folder, looking for a profile. Here it’s OK to step outside for a walk for a chat when kids are missing. It’s not necessary to rush to try and fix a problem. Time itself can fix plenty, if you will wait for it. So deereigh deereigh, we continue with our work. The small problems will fade, either from our continued efforts to whittle them away, or from the never-ending friction of time. And deereigh deereigh, our work will finish, and everything will continue to run its course.
“Patience,” says Ashai-ji often times in the office. “It takes patience to finish this work.” And it does. It takes patience and persistence rolled into one and balanced out, so that neither dominates the other, to deereigh deereigh continue onwards.
It's 1:30 PM and I am walking my bike out of the gates of the Guria office, ready to take to the streets for the second time of the day. I look both ways and I make my way into the conglomeration of buses, cars, auto rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, and cows that blend together to form the organized chaos that is traffic here. Becoming a part of the mix on the roads is the first step in my 8 kilometer journey that will lead me to Guria's Non-Formal Education center. And in all likelihood, I have absolutely no idea what I will be doing today.
When I get to the center I find all of the younger children sitting in a circle. I join them to sing a few songs, which for me means I mouth words that sound similar to the Hindi lyrics I'm hearing and get really excited whenever I hear a Hindi word I know. The songs are over with pretty quickly and Annu-Ji, one of the teachers at the center, hands me a pair of nail clippers, a bottle of hair oil, and a comb, and gestures towards the nearby sitting children, all expectantly looking up at me.
I think "so this is what I'm doing today." I clip all of their nails, and find out I have left them too long. I apply the hair oil, and find out I have not applied enough. I comb their hair, and find out whatever I've done just isn't stylish. But I do my best. It's my service site, where I'm trying to make some kind of contribution, but instead I'm learning something every day from the people involved with Guria whether that be how to comb hair "the right way" or how to approach the fight against human trafficking.
I knew before I got to India that a big part of my Bridge Year would be the service component, but what I didn't know was what exactly "service" would entail. My service work is about as predictable as the weather here, which changed just overnight from an arctic zero degrees Celsius to a comfortable temperature at which I no longer feel the need to avoid taking a bucket bath. I spend my mornings in the Guria office, where I could be doing anything from working on the blog to listening to Ajeet-Ji talk about the latest developments in the world of human trafficking. My afternoons are spent at the Non-Formal Education Center where I do everything from shredding pounds of carrots to make a traditional Indian dessert for the children at the center, to teaching English or computer class.
I am inspired by Ajeet who has dedicated his life to a time consuming and unbelievably complicated cause. He says because the criminal nexus never takes a break, he won't take a break from working. I am especially inspired by the kids at the center who live in the red-light district of Varanasi, and so are vulnerable to entering into the generational prostitution cycle that exists in that area. While I can be frustrated by just a bad bike ride, these kids put on the biggest smiles despite the obstacles they face on a daily basis. They work extremely hard because they know that education can give them a way out of their current situations. The kids at the center have shown me that I can always work harder, and that I can always smile whether I'm having a bad day or not.
The unpredictability of my work day mirrors the unpredictability of much of my experience in India. There's no way to guess how chaotic the traffic will be; maybe I'll make it to work relatively smoothly or maybe I'll end up in a traffic jam caused by a water buffalo. There's no telling what the power situation is going to be like; maybe the internet AND power will be working in the office, or maybe the whole city will be lights out for a while. And how I feel about my work site also mirrors how I feel towards my experience thus far in India. Miscommunications might happen, and bad days do exist, but I love India (for the most part) and I love working at Guria.
It’s hard to believe that at one point in my life, I didn’t know the words to the World Literacy of Canada (WLC) morning prayer song. It’s a simple ritual, really, but also a beautiful one that grounds me and prepares me for the day. At 9:30 AM sharp, the office rises as one and everyone makes their way into a small courtyard flanked by posters displaying the English, Hindi, and Urdu alphabets. We assemble facing the Ganga and raise our voices in song, pledging to walk the paths of our lives well and to avoid evil. As the last note fades away, I say hello to Shitanshu-ji, Mamta-ji, Uttam-ji, Manisha-Ma’am, Maahe-didi, and a whole host of people whose names, faces, and personalities have all become known to me during the past 3 and ½ months of Bridge Year in Varanasi.
And what a whirlwind hundred-odd days it’s been! I’ve settled on my favorite restaurant (Kerala Café, for the record, which makes the best Chole Bature around), seen elephants and camels stop traffic in the streets, overcome the worst stomach-sickness of my life, embraced the bucket shower and squat toilet wholeheartedly, been lucky enough to experience Kamlesh Pandey-ji’s famous ‘Chicken Night’, enjoyed countless Bollywood songs and movies, purchased a signature Banarsi sparkly red vest, and picked up some Hindi along the way. But most of the experiences I’ve found the most valuable and memorable have taken place in one of the two white buildings that house WLC’s Ganga Mahal Office and its Tulsi Kunj Community Library.
I won’t say it has been easy, because it hasn’t. As Bharati-ji, the former Director of the India Branch, explained to me, WLC is a Hindi-speaking organization, which, she went on, is why many of its English-speaking Canadian volunteers didn’t enjoy their time in Varanasi. Many of its full-time employees know next to no English and nearly all of its beneficiaries can only manage a hello. There’s no problem with this—WLC doesn’t need anyone except the India Director to be fluent in English—but I certainly found it tough to make inroads initially. The majority of the kids at Tulsi Kunj found me an interesting curiosity for about a week before losing interest and patience with my plodding Hindi. I came into WLC with drive and energy to do all I could to help the organization only to find out that though there was much work to be done, there was very little of it that I could do. I helped write out vast Excel spreadsheets of books to be ordered, helped people to clean up their written English, and generally performed odd-jobs around the Library. And all the while my spoken Hindi improved exponentially thanks to the inimitable Virendra-ji, our Hindi teacher, who, when he’s not pounding his fist on the table to remind you that you have made a mistake conjugating, instructs us on the finer points of Hindi idioms and expressions.
In early November, nearly everything about my job at WLC changed. The management decided that my Hindi was good enough to warrant more responsibility. For the past two months now, I have been running my own gumti (a small shack normally used to sell miscellaneous products that WLC ingeniously filled with books) library in the neighborhood of Adityanagar, far from the Ganga and our friendly central neighborhood of Assi. My solutions for problems ranging from a lack of regular attendance to goats attempting to eat the books have all been fairly successful (hint: it’s useful to bring a box of sweets with you when you talk to the goat’s owner about potentially moving them or tying them up). At the library I have gone from ‘that weird foreigner who shows up everyday’ to Aayush bhaiya, in-demand English tutor and undefeated chess champion of Tulsi Kunj.
As my understanding of Hindi and my relationships with WLC employees deepens, I am beginning to understand where exactly I can be the most effective for the organization in the coming months. I am excited to deal with new problems at a new gumti (I have been transferred, having increased the Adityanagar gumti’s attendance by nearly 200% to another ‘problem gumti’) and look forward to discussing the finer points of the passive voice with my current group of tutees!
Before I came to India, before I started working at Guria, poverty seemed to me like a pretty cut and dry concept. Obviously, dealing with poverty is far from simple. But poverty itself is something that we, in the 21st century, with our news stories, expose movies and books, causes, organizations and statistics, is something that we've come to believe we all intellectually understand. It means lack of money, lack of opportunities. It means old clothing and poor living conditions. It means a dearth of food and a constant struggle to make ends meet. But since arriving at Guria, I've realized that, although we all know a lot of handy key phrases to describe poverty, these phrases stunt our understanding, making it bland and shallow.
At Guria's Non-Formal Education center, I teach computer and English class to the older girls. Computer class, to most, brings up memories of fooling around on Mavis Beacon, or maybe to some, learning more advanced computer functions. But at Guria, computer class means learning how to turn on and off a computer, to double-click with the mouse, to open a new folder and to type, at this stage, less than ten words per minute. From the beginning, I was struck by the fact that, before Guria got computers, these kids had never seen a computer in their life. Things that are obvious to us, so obvious that we don't even realize they are pieces of knowledge to be known or not known - things like knowing when the computer is on or off, understanding that the mouse controls the cursor on the screen, grasping the concept of files and folders and two files not being able to have the same name - are completely foreign to them. Suddenly I began to see the depth behind the hackneyed soundbyte that poverty is lack of opportunity. For these kids, it means never being able to work a job that requires you to go anywhere near a computer. It means never being able to use a computer in any of the many ways we use them every day. Imagine never using a computer again, imagine a job for which you'd never need to touch a computer-like device. For us, in America, imagining that goes beyond even the power of our well-trained imaginations. It was only last week, as we were reviewing how to turn on and off the computers, that I thought to ask how many of the kids have electricity in their homes. The answer? About half the kids who we are teaching how to use computers aren't even used to using electricity.
In English class, I go around the room, asking questions like, "what's your name?", "where are you from?", and "how old are you?". The other day was the first time I'd ever seen anyone stumble in response to the question "how old are you?". It was the first time I'd ever seen someone consult their friends about their age and come up with an answer only after a bit of disagreement. Although the questions and answers are supposed to be in English, the discussion about the girl's age was not an error in translation, it was all in Hindi. That is not nearly as common a phenomenon as not having any idea how to use a computer - the former I've witnessed only once, while the latter applies to all the kids at Guria - but it taught me just as much about poverty, and exponentially more than statistics or theses ever could.
One of the other volunteers at Guria once told me that perhaps the biggest impediment to the childrens' education is their lack of encouragement at home. It has been jarring for me to hear how many times the girls have told me that they aren't smart enough or can't do something - and to see how quick they are to give up when faced with a difficult classroom assignment. It's weird to see them rebuff compliments with responses of "no, I'm not smart," or "no, that wasn't good." But the flipside to that are some of my happiest moments at work. When we started English classes, some of the girls weren't interested, some didn't think it was worth the effort, and most had no faith in the English that they had learned thus far. Now, they all jump for the chance to be the one answering questions in class and clap joyfully when they get things right. Sometimes I'll be teaching computer class and suddenly hear, floating over from the other side of the room, "where are you from?", "I'm from India, where are you from?", and listen joyfully while they go through their entire repertoire of questions and answers. There are girls that insist they don't know enough English to answer my questions, but I insist that I'll help them through the answer, and somewhere in the process, they realize they can do it and suddenly, they're hungry to learn more.
They may know more English than they knew - or thought they knew - four months ago, but it's not the English phrases they can now say that make me happy. It's their excitement, their enthusiasm, their desire to learn, and, most importantly, their pride in what they have learned, that make up my happiest moments. I couldn't possibly teach them enough English to make a difference in their futures, but I couldn't ask for anything better than the ability to inspire them to want to learn and to challenge themselves, and most of all, to believe in themselves that they can face the challenges.
Upon returning for the first time since December 18 to the Nirman School excitement, anxiety, and eagerness rushed through me. As I walked my bike inside the iron green gates separating the chaos of the street and the confinement of the school, the sound of them creaking open immediately brought back all the memories I've collected here in the last three months of teaching. Harshita ma'am approached.
"Good morning Harshita ma'am. How are you?"
"Good morning Tyler Sir, I am fine. This term you will be the class teacher for class six. Aside from Hindi and Sanskrit you will be their only teacher. You will have many more responsibilities."
What more responsibilities could I have? I thought to myself. She continued.
"You will have to arrange parent meetings, write progress reports, walk the students to class in the morning, clean the classroom in the afternoon, take attendance sheets, write term exams, order classroom supplies" she paused, having run out of breath.
Rather than feeling overwhelmed by this exchanged, I felt empowered. These small changes represented something much more significant to me: a greater integration within the community at Nirman, and even more importantly, a sign that I had been doing my job well.
First starting at Nirman, I'll admit, was a bit overwhelming. Fresh off the train from verdant Mussoorie, I arrived at the campus and within minutes, by the instruction of a busy office manager, found myself teaching algebra to what would eventually become "my" class. Sadhana, Ajeet, Alkesh, Laiba, Dinkar, Imran, Imran Mohammad, Shadiq, Mansi, Neel, Ummehani, Neha. 12 students, 5 girls and 7 boys. With no lesson plans that day, I don't remember exactly what I taught. But the students’ energy, respect, and curiosity were unforgettable. They came from families of silk weavers, history professors, rickshaw cyclists, merchants, tailors, construction workers, and many other jobs. But every day they come to Nirman as students, as equals. There was a palpable sense that these children were not just classmates, but friends.
Having been on the other side of the desk not four months earlier as a high school senior, I found myself flustered by the role I had been prescribed. I hadn't undergone any training. Despite this, I progressed rapidly as a teacher through structuring my lessons and connecting with my students. The first proved more difficult. My assignment was to teach math, geography, music, and English to the sixth grade class. Math was relatively simple; Nirman provided a useful textbook with a variety of practice problems. Geography was also straightforward, though I had to be creative when teaching the chapter about the motions of the Earth. None of the students were familiar with the concepts of rotation and revolution, and the textbook failed to provide edification. The fact that the Earth is tilted ("Sir what does that word even mean?") on its axis 23.5 degrees proved even more mystifying. The next day I procured a basketball-sized globe from the library and devoted the morning to giving demonstrations involving each of the students. I'm happy to report that they scored very well on that section of their exam.
English was much more difficult to teach than the previous two subjects. No textbook was provided, and the literature they were reading in class was about 19th century mail-order brides in the American Midwest. They were even more confused about it than I was. After tossing the book, I had to gauge their level of English and determine what to do about it. Having listening to them speak and asking them to write short paragraphs I decided to focus the class around four components: vocabulary, grammar, reading, and writing (OK I admit I also had input from my AP English teacher via email). Their proficiency has notably improved since September. My last class, music, was particularly difficult. I had both class five and class six combined, some 30 odd students. I was the only one with an instrument, my guitar, but it wasn't loud enough for all the students hear so I couldn't play for them. They were also easily distracted by each other. My objectives would be to: enhance the students appreciation of music; expose the students to new genres of music; and teach basic concepts of music theory. They can now identify the sounds of John Coltrane's horn and Chris Martin's voice, the meanings of a major triad and a chord, and the significance and purpose music can serve in their lives.
I also focused on connecting with my students on a personal level. In the months I have with them, I know I won't be able to teach them everything they need to learn. More important to me is impacting them with an understanding of the importance education will play in their lives. Before class every day I join my students in the amphitheater, and its there I've learned about their parents, their brothers and sisters, their favorite television shows, their pets, their favorite places in Benares, and their dreams. It's there that I've practiced my newly learned Hindi words and sentences, and it's there that I'll hobble over them as though they're the slippery, barely exposed rocks peering out of a running creek you skip across to avoid falling in.
My work at Nirman is the most fulfilling aspect of my Bridge Year experience thus far. Here I am engaged, challenged, and motivated by my students to enrich their lives and passions for learning. I take this role with full sincerity, and I can't say with certainty that I will succeed. But now that I have become their class teacher, I am sure that the real challenges lie ahead.
I’m from California, where the waves of the Pacific lap up against rocky shores. But I’m here in India. Little 4-year-old Indra Shivam is also in India, where he lives along with 20 other boys at the Aghor Foundation’s Bal Ashram in Varanasi. As an infant, Indra was found abandoned and starving near Varanasi’s railway station, but was brought to the Ashram and nursed back to health with generous thalis of scrumptious chaaval-daal.
From the Ashram’s glass-walled meditation hall, where I can be found in the morning giving English lessons, one can see dead bodies and rotting, un-manned ships floating down the holy river Ganges.
Oh, and there’s a whirling gyre—a trash heap the size of Texas!—out there somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. And it’s killing baby Albatross and making people sick.
But for now, I’m concerned with keeping little Indra’s chaaval and daal scraps from getting out into the Ganges and floating out to sea when he washes his plate at lunchtime.
That’s right; I’m worried about the lentil beans and the grains of rice.
But because I’m the third generation of Bridge Year Volunteers to focus on water quality at Bal Ashram, the looming global dearth of freshwater and the plight of Phoebastria immutabilis don’t throw me off my groove, and I can focus on the tangible changes that have been made in that brilliant and peaceful corner of Varanasi over the past three years.
Two years ago, Josh Ellis designed a greywater filtration system for the Ashram, and with typical Josh Ellis maasti, built a 4-foot-tall concrete model of the Biosand technology. That baby filter’s grandpapa is the massive gravel and sand filled tank that is now underground in the main courtyard. For a couple weeks in November, we turned the front lawn into a sandbox-worksite—which the boys certainly enjoyed—complete with Bollywood tunes, mountains of gravel four times the height of Indra, free-flowing chai, and helping hands from nearly everyone I’ve ever seen step foot inside the Ashram. Now, all of Bal Ashram’s greywater is filtered and collected to water the organic garden. I still can’t believe the buzz of community during those work days, and I’m still finding little piles of sand in the pockets of all of my kurtas.
Last year, Maxson Jarecki researched the parameters of the Biosand filter’s use. When I arrived at Princeton this fall for orientation, he’d prepared notes on everything from organic soap preparation to the necessity of drain covers. Those notes inspired the dorky-looking food traps that I designed for the Ashram sinks (because if too many food scraps build up in the Biolayer, the whole filter could very quickly go kharab!).
So I’m part of a continuum. People impart their knowledge. People build prototypes, they build friendships, and they build excitement. They lend their hands, they pull their weight, they push others—inspire others—over midmorning espresso and pistachio barfi, to pick up projects and possibilities they’d never considered before.
As for me, I’ve discovered that the beans-and-rice of change is always understanding. You could equip a city with a full-scale, state-of-the-art sanitation system, but it wouldn’t matter unless people understood why making water clean, and keeping water clean, are important.
So I like to teach. And about a month ago, I gave classes in the Ashram’s Anjali School. We talked about how the Biosand filter works, and did a quick demo of how it can turn a raw sample from brown to clear. But we also talked about the idea of stewardship. I had all the kids meditate on the wealth of beautiful, delicious, and useful things that we get from clean water, and then we talked about how we should treat Mother Ganga-ji in return. I tried to explain that while we all can’t go around building sanitation systems, we can allkeep our trash off the ground, and we can all talk to our families and friends about why they should do the same.
That day, my buddy Vijay drew a picture of the filter, and drew a picture of the elephant-god Ganesha munching on freshly-cleaned carrots and exclaiming about how much he loves clean water.
And the next day, I went back into the classroom. I gave each child a little paper water drop, and had them write down one thing they’d done in the past day to help Ma Ganga Ji.
I stood in silence. Blue pens scribbled. Chota Raju Sir went back to grading copy books.
“Kya Hindi theek hai?”
Yes, please write in Hindi.
When the room was saturated with little, raised hands and shouts of “ho gaya”, I collected the water droplets, and was about to leave the classroom. But everyone, including Raju Sir, was crowded around one boy’s desk. The boy kept writing, almost furiously, until the little droplet was almost completely navy blue with Devanagari swirls and curls. Everyone stood up straight, and Raju Sir grabbed the soaked-through droplet.
“He wrote that yesterday, he was walking home from school, and a man was about to put a puppy, a dead puppy, into Ganga ji. But he told the man that that isn’t good for the river, and that it would hurt the river, so the man listened and took the puppy somewhere else.”
I was stunned. He’d kept a dead dog out of the river? Really? He’d gone up to a grown man and told him to keep his dead dog out of the river? I wasn’t sure whether to feel culturally… okay… about this. To be brought to the Ganga at death is one’s final shot at nirvana. Ganga can wash away one’s sins. But the boy was proud, and he knew that no river, no matter how sacred or how strong, can indefinitely wash away our blunders.
So the future of freshwater is shaky, the future of our oceans is shaky, and I still toss and turn at night for the future of the Laysan Albatross. But I know that chavaal-daal can save a boy’s life, can make or break a filtration system, and can lay the foundations for real societal change. And it’stotally tasty, too? It’s really all about the rice and beans!