Hey Banaras

Hey Banaras,

It’s me. The one who… you know… well actually I guess you probably don’t know me. I’m really just one of the many people who has come and now is going, driven away by the heat. Your heat.

Really I don’t know what to say. To you I must be like all the other foreigners, even the flies who come and go with the seasons. Small, short-lived, barely worth your notice. Still, I’m writing to you. Partially because I’ve been instructed to, and also well because I feel like I should thank you, even if it’s presumptuous to suppose you care. I’m sure the flies think they’re special too.

In my mind, Banaras, you begin at the river. Washing, boating, cremating—so much becomes purer here. The scientific reality of sewage overflow and bacteria count. . . I know it, but when I look out at the Ganga river it’s so hard to believe. The calm currents and ripples, the sunlight reflecting brighter than the sky, everything seems so unsullied. And the people who go daily to bathe, do rituals, wash their clothes—somehow, your dirty water makes them clean.

And from the curve of the river spread the ghats, mud and bright paint side by side. Walking on the steps I watched people act out their public lives and deaths. To me, Banaras, you are the place where an old man sits next to a screaming baby, where women can do puja where boys swim, where color splashes over the dirt. Where boats line up for tourists, and candles emulate the moon.

And up the steps, beyond the river, you stretch out so much farther. You are the narrow gullies to get lost and found in, the painted metal rickshaws lined up at crossings. The dust, the wind, the bobbing paper kites. You are constantly physically present. People walk holding hands or with their arms over each others’ shoulders. Cow droppings pattern the pavement. Incense hangs on the air. Trash burns in a corner. Food, necklaces, gods, and sanitary pads color shop windows. Water runs in the river, on the street, and sometimes out of the taps. The electricity comes, the electricity goes. Something I took for granted is a generous, grudging gift. You are the music that throbs through my dreams, a deep, energy-filled lullaby.

You are market-streets where women in saris sell vegetables outside of convenience stalls hung with plastic packets of chips. Temples filled with pundits and devotes, pushing and yelling and demanding money, and tiny shrines propped against the base of all the big “people” trees, wrapped around with red and orange string. Bikes, auto rickshaws, pedestrians, cars, and cows all on the same road. You are an old city made new every day.

You are people I have met and shared a moment with. Shopkeepers, gurus, priests, children. You are the friends I danced with, the family I ate with, and the businessmen I argued with. Students who called me ma’am and asked me questions. Those who promise they will write to me, and those who forgot me as I walked past.  Every person who met my eyes and smiled or frowned or cried.

You are the ability to interact with all these people. To say hello and start my explanation one more time—from America, mother’s Indian, grandparents live in Mumbai, learning Hindi, teaching English and science, and what’s your name?—or just sit down nearby and watch. You are the frustrating moments too—heat, sickness, loneliness—and how I discovered I could get over, make light of, or learn from them. You are responsibility, for myself and for others. And after pushing me to do something new, you are the joy of successes, small and large. I found a drum. I make a round chapatti. I taught a class. You are independence, a driving, teaching force in your seeming uncaring.

As I look around, Banaras, I see that your entity is actually an entirety—the river, the people, the buildings, the cows. You are dirty and you are clean; you are holy and crazy and beautiful. The heat, the bugs, even tourists like me, every one of them adds a ripple, some reflection, a single drop to your holy water. I am not the city, but I am for a brief moment, a part of the city, just as a drop of water flows through the river. And the cool thing about water is it doesn’t really disappear. It moves, it changes, even leaves… but some monsoon storm it comes back, different and yet once again there.

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in Mumbai

My only real symptom is that I’m tired. I’ve got my appetite back, I don’t have a fever, and I never turned yellow. Really I would feel totally healthy, if I weren’t so tired.

I’m also a little disappointed, though I try not to be. Bad enough that I missed the first month of my program waiting for my ankle to heal, but now instead of heading off to Ladakh I have to sit and wait for my liver to heal! But luckily this time I am not sitting miserably killing days at home; instead I’m at my grandparents’ house in Mumbai. And hep E, while annoying, is not threatening, chronic, or very long-term, so hopefully I’ll get to have at least a few minor adventures of my own while I’m in the city. Right now the most I can manage is going to one place or meeting one relative each day, and mostly I just sleep and eat and sit and sleep and eat and sleep some more.

People here tell me it’s hot, and I think they’re probably right. But after the beating sun and dry, scorching winds of Banaras, Mumbai weather feels pretty nice. It’s cool in the morning and evening, and there’s this strong breeze off the ocean that I find really refreshing. Every day I happily throw open my windows to greet the sun and wind, only to have them blown back shut in my face. Then I more slowly open one side at a time, and latch them to the sill so they’ll stay.

My clothes have caused people here some confusion. Since I didn’t bring many western clothes when I came to India, most of my outfits are proper salvar-kurta-dupatta sets I bought in Banaras. They’re comfortable and cool, and were the appropriate thing to wear there. But for cosmopolitan Mumbai, they seem very old-fashioned and dowdy. People I meet are surprised to hear I’m from America because I don’t dress like it.

I’ve also been struggling a little with the perception people here have of Banaras. While some people tell me with a laugh that I saw “the real India,” as if Mumbai were somehow just a Bollywood creation, many classify my city as “backward” or “dirty” without a second thought. They praise me for the fortitude they think it must have taken to spend time there, but don’t really understand why I would have wanted to.

I like Mumbai, the breeze and architecture and convenience. But I miss Banaras. I miss the ghats, the blaring street music, the smiles of strangers. Sometimes I even miss the cows, but that may be excessive nostalgia. Mostly I miss my friends there, and the independence and purpose I had. Guess it’s time for me to start finding a little independence and purpose here now. At least once I stop sleeping 14 hours a day.

a note on bracelets

Before I left Banaras, we had a small ceremony where each of us tied simple bracelets around all the others wrists with a thought or little prayer. The green one from my group leader slipped of en route to the airport, but she retied it for me as we got out of the car. Throughout the afternoon and evening the cords were constantly coming loose and slipping off, and though I retied them the best I could, by the next morning only one bright orange thread was still hanging on.

When even that one finally gave up, I spread all five out on my bed and glared at them petulantly. I really wanted to have these bright bracelets—and the goodwill and comfort they carried—with me as a constant pick-me-up. But they were too slippery to stay tied on. .

With a little thought and more dexterity than I knew I had, I managed to braid them together at both ends, and I am happy to report that the resulting bracelet stays nicely on my wrist. Just one more analogy reminding that we really are stronger together.

Hope you all are doing well—I miss you a lot, but every time I look at my splash of color I think of you with a smile. Thanks.

saying goodbye

I’d decided I was too tired to cry. Saying goodbye to friends, our wonderful cook, even my homestay family, I didn’t shed a drop. I was sad, yes, I missed them already, yes. But tears? none. I could barely get through the day, so I figured I just didn’t have the energy needed to hold that level of emotion, and that I’d deal with it later.

Saturday morning my students came to school to say goodbye to me. We met in the library and I showed them the full series of The Magic Tree House and The Chronicles of Narnia (I’d read the first books of each of these with my 5th and 7th grade students, respectively). Each one of the 5th graders grabbed a Magic Tree House book out and sat down to flip through it. I sat and talked to them all a bit, explained where I was going and why and how I was getting there (none of them have ever seen an airplane).

We went outside and they played for a while on the asphalt “field,” the bus, and a brightly painted play structure, which Shubham told me was a library like the magic tree house. When they found that the play structure shifted back and forth a little on its supports, Pradyum said “The treehouse started to spin. It spun faster and faster,” quoting from the book we’d read.

I’d told them I had to go at 9:30, and we counted down the time together and tried to drag it out. Finally I took a picture with all of them, and spent a few minutes talking to the wonderful principal there. Then I traded a last goodbye and handshake with each of them, and promised once more that I would write to them, that I’d miss them, and I’d try very hard to come back someday. And then there was nothing left to do but leave.

As I walked through that bright green and blue gate some tears finally forced their way through the numbness and exhaustion, and I stood in the sun and dust for a moment and wept.

I can’t explain how much my students mean to me, how they’ve been my teachers and friends as well. How so many of my days and so much of my thoughts have been about them, time spent on lesson plans or test papers or explaining or questioning or writing, all for them and about them. I can’t tell you what it’s like to say goodbye to people you care about that much knowing you may never meet them again, may never even talk to them again. I guess it’s one of those things that either you understand or you don’t. I think most of you will understand, and also know what I mean when I say that these kids, my first class, have truly changed something in me, and I won’t ever, ever forget them.