It’s Monday so in my 5th grade English class we’re learning our weekly vocabulary words, all from the book we’re currently reading, the first Magic Tree House book. The second word on the list is “impossible.” Kya matlub, Ma’am? What does it mean? First I try to explain in English.
“Impossible means… not possible. Means, you can’t do it. At all. So it means… not… possible…”
The English explanations work better for some words than others. Plan B is explaining in Hindi.
“Ho sakta nahi hai,” I say.
“Oh! Sakta nahi hai, nahi sakta hai,” they tell each other.
“So, for example, if I tell you, Pradyum, you have to write a whole copy, a journal that fills ALL these pages—” I say, flipping through the pages of his notebook “—in five minutes, go.”
“You would say, ‘Ma’am, that’s impossible,’ right? I can’t do it, it’s impossible.”
Impossible. They like the word, and the example. I wonder if I’m going to hear it during tests or about future homework assignments, and I grin. It’s good for them to have vocabulary to complain with.
We move on to the next word, but for the rest of the day my mind keeps coming back. Impossible. What does it mean? What examples are there, really? What is impossible? I learned as a kid that “nothing is impossible”—isn’t that why I had the guts to come here? To say I could be a teacher before I’d finished being a student? To leave my home, my family, for an entire nine months to do something completely unknown, to live and eat and breathe unknown, and learn to like it too—I came because I believed, no matter how different or crazy or difficult, that it was not impossible. Never impossible.
In my time here, though, some things have happened that until they happened or I found out about them, I didn’t think or believe would be possible.
A mouse in my room, at first a dirty and slightly frightening (though small and fuzzy) intruder, now a co-renter—Impossible—for me to just accept a mouse in my room and pooping on my stuff, but we have worked out a schedule between us and really the only problem is when I disrupt our time-share program by being in my room in the afternoon.
Sitting on a train for an entire day without going completely crazy, and then choosing to do it again—Impossible—once, and at most for the obligatory return trip, would be painful enough. Yet we’ve done seven long train rides, plus one return trip by bus, and some parts of the ride are even enjoyable.
A litter of six puppies—dirty and flea-bitten from the day they were born, cute faces and wagging tails not holding off skin diseases. Only three left, a month and a half later. Motorcycle, starvation—each in its turn sprawled on the garbage heap till morning, when they’re taken away with the plastic bags and food the cows didn’t eat. And so it goes with dogs all over the city—Impossible—I wish.
Me, a disliker of gaudy clothing and hater of pink since before I can remember, buying and wearing a flaming pink sari for an entire day, and not feeling awkward or uncomfortable at all—Impossible—have I lost any “fashion sense” I ever had?
All the little gullies and twists and turns, and then even the larger streets that all looked the same with their rows of billboards. On a tour my first day in Banaras, I was told I’d learn my way around pretty quickly, and I laughed—Impossible—I have horrid direction sense, and there aren’t even street names I can memorize! Yet I feel more comfortable navigating and giving directions in my spheres here than those I live and work in at home.
A road dug up, torn down, then stacked in sections with rocks and dirt and rocks again. Months of disjointed work and teeth-jarring travel later, the road finally being covered in asphalt and smoothed dusty black—Impossible—surely it couldn’t have turned out so neatly, with all the people and layers and pieces.
An 18 year old girl with so little experience teaching a class of mixed ages and levels in 3 different groups simultaneously and trying to communicate with them in a language she started learning only a week before she became responsible for their education. The idea that she could successfully impart knowledge and joy to them—Impossible—yet somehow, some days, it seems to be happening.
A three foot tall Shivaling made of solid mercury—Impossible—pure mercury is liquid at room temperature, no matter how much time and faith you spend on it. It must be an alloy, a compound, a joke, yet Swami-ji is so sure that this long alchemic process created something “western science” cannot, and the mercury in his temple is not only solid, it’s safe to touch.
A cousin, away in China, not so close but still a relative, a proud role model, suddenly gone in a night—Impossible—we both should be with our families, me to help them through the loss and him to make the loss not true. But we were both expanding our words “overseas,” and now only I can send letters home.
Another boy, a class 7 student, with a constant sunny smile. Healthy one afternoon and dead “of cold” the next morning—Impossible—as we tell his classmates the sun is throwing heat at us. Even the later explanation, infected bite or cut that caused a fever that traveled to the brain, cannot explain a mother who wails her mourning song, an older brother who bikes to school alone to continue his studies in a now smaller class. That they should be left with this hole, so suddenly—Impossible—please, God, make it impossible.
The Ganga River, curving serenely across my view. Grey, dark and animated during a storm. Harshly shining in the middle of the day. Disappearing into the otherworld of mist at night. Despite all the trash and sewage dumped into it, so pure and holy for the people of Banaras—Impossible—how can beauty and faith make the water clean?
The idea that in just nine weeks we’ll be leaving Banaras, our schools and work and homes and friends—Impossible—there’s so much more to teach, to explore, to try… How will we ever pack up and go?
It hasn’t been easy to accept what I thought was impossible as true; some things I still struggle with, and maybe I always will. I do believe it’s a gift India has given me, to take these beliefs I didn’t even know I had and turn them upside-down, to show me just how possible the “impossible” could be. After all this thought, I think I’m now even less sure about what the word truly means. For my class though, I have just one example: Impossible is me being unchanged by my time in Banaras. Impossible is my forgetting you.