moments from Holi

First Colors

Holi began this afternoon for me as I walked through a crowd of students joyfully milling around the Imperial Public School near my house. “Didi!” called a girl I’d never seen before, the joy in her voice making me feel like I truly was her big sister. She carefully applied bright pink powder to my third-eye and cheeks, then ran off with her friends.

As I turned the corner, two girls who live near to us greeted me happily as they do every day. Their smiles grew even bigger when they saw the color on my face.

“Didi, wait. One minute,” the smaller of the girls told me as they ducked inside their house. An older woman outside found that hilarious, and kept repeating it, “Didi wait.” They soon emerged with their bag of pink powder, and added their own marks to the grinning canvas of my face.

I didn’t have any return color with me, but no one seemed to mind. There was a heartfelt joy in the exchange that I had not anticipated—I’d been expecting more joking, war-like playing, which will probably come later. For now though, before the battle starts, I’ve seen Holi’s love.

At my homestay

As soon as I got home with color on my face my homestay sister made me wait while she ran and got red sparkly powder. She put some on me, my homestay brother added some, and I put some on both of them and the girl who works for the family. I ended up with a design that looked something like war paint.

School Games

Friday afternoon went by slowly. My class, 5th and 7th grade students, really didn’t want to do much work, and I chose not to force them. After all, it was the beginning of their Holi holiday. We did some work, then the students wrote about and drew their plans for Holi.

At 2:15 I had to run over to the preschool classroom, where the children had taken advantage of their teacher’s brief absence and started throwing yellow powder at each other. It took a few minutes to restore order.

Finally 2:35 came and I turned my class loose. They milled around for a little bit before one by one heading outside. While they chased each other around the courtyard, I kept two of my older students company inside.

Many of my students came to put tika on my forehead and a little color on my cheeks as well. I had thought this would be a “ha ha I get to throw color at my teachers” type of thing, but instead I was amazed  by the amount of affection and respect in the gesture. Some of them even touched my feet.

After cleaning up we drove back to the city school where the festivities should have been long done, but the students and some teachers were still playing full out. There the game was of a different style, and I got covered in various colors—red, pink, orange, yellow, dark green, dark purple—all over my face and neck and arms and hair. I even ate some of the powder, and it tastes nasty.

On the Roof

For Holi itself we slept over at a Banarasi friend’s house, then played on the roof with students and foreigners from various different groups and organizations. Although I took a while to decide to go up on the roof, once I got up there I had a fair bit of fun. Weapons included the powders, colored water in water guns and buckets, and occasional water balloons.

After a fair bit of time, we laughed at our purple clothes and skin and spent a while basking in the sun before helping clean up and taking a shower—the first of many before all the color would finally come out.


That evening we followed proper traditions and went out to visit our teachers and friends. We applied tika color to their foreheads and were tika-ed and fed in return. The woman who cooks for us was verysurprised and  happy to see us, and we spent a while sitting and talking with her. I arrived at one teacher’s house at the same time a small elephant did.  I was lucky enough to give him a tika as well, although I had to keep him from eating my bag of green powder as I did so.

I don’t have any deep conclusions to offer you about Holi, but I really, really enjoyed all the different aspects of the festival and would love to share in its celebration again.


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.”

They laugh.

“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.

when we fly

January 14th was the holiday of Makar Sankranti, also known as Kitcherie, which the men and children of Banaras celebrate by flying kites. The skies are speckled with kites of all colors, many of them trying to cut others down. In the afternoon of Kitcherie I was lucky enough to be able to spend some time on the brand-new roof of my friend’s homestay house, where I received my first kite-flying lesson.

The first time her homestay father Devanand handed me the string, the black and green kite which had been peacefully soaring in the air spun and toppled, dropping rapidly despite my wild attempts to somehow tug it back into place. Devanand grabbed the string back from me and quickly put the kite to rights.

“That’s okay,” I said, laughing along with the others at my failure. “I’ll just take pictures for now.”

I watched as the men and boys sent kites climbing into the air, or dropped them down the cut the strings of rival kites.

“Kuta hua!” (Cutting happened!) We would all yell out when a kite was successfully kite. At least I think that’s what we were yelling—I had a bit of trouble hearing the words through the cheers. “Happy Kitcherie!”

I tried to figure out what the expert kite fliers were doing, but it seemed to be an inexplicable combination of tugging the string up and down, and just holding the kite in the air. My friend and I also couldn’t figure out how the kite cutting actually worked, as each person gave us a different answer.

As the light started to go down, one of Devanand’s friends handed me the kite string again. And again, the kite plummeted.

“I’m sorry I’m sorry!” I said while he patiently tugged the kite into the air again. “I don’t know what to do!”

The man said something, and Devanand translated for us. “When the top is up, pull the string.”


I took the string and tried one last time, tugging the string in towards me when the top of the kite was up, and the kite did in fact climb. The kite starting spinning and I flinched, pulling a little wildly.

“No, no,” the kite fliers told me. “Up, top up.”

Right. Up. I watched the kite’s spin more closely, and tried to only pull the string when the top of the kite was pointing up. And, to me magically, the kite’s motion came under control, and it once again hovered fairly steadily in the sky.

I learn to live and balance in Banaras much the same way as I tried to balance kites in the sky.  There are people around who make it seem so easy, from the everyday routines that I often struggle with to bigger events like proper pujas, marriages, and deaths. At times I feel like I’m completely out of control, spinning or falling and just waiting for someone else to grab the kite string out of my hands and set everything right. But occasionally the right thing clicks, and I figure out what I’m supposed to be doing—how the constant tugging in different directions is supposed to work.

When things are going well, when the top is up, that’s when you pull hard, work hard, to keep flying higher. But what happens when the top is down? I asked my kite-flying teachers this when the issue came up, and one demonstrated by twitching the string sideways, causing the kite to spin once more, then again pulled on the kite when the top was up.

Just sitting in the sky isn’t enough. I have to be willing to occasionally lose control, to spin, in order to straighten up and fly higher.

my work at Nirman

Alright, time to explain my service work in more detail. All five of us work at different sites—mine is a school called Nirman or the Southpoint School. “Nirman” means progress, but I’m still working on figuring out the second name.

Nirman has two campuses, one in the city of Varanasi and the other in Betaver village, about 45 minutes drive outside the city. On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings I take a cycle rickshaw to the city campus, and at 8:30 Sunita ma’am (another teacher) and I get into the school’s care and we make the trip to the village campus, picking up some students along the way.

The school in the village is spacious and right on the banks of the Ganga River—absolutely beautiful. The school day begins with an assembly where the children sing and hear any announcements. Then my first class starts.

The village school is small, so the students are combined into just 3 classes; my morning class is grades 1 to 4. Besides the varied ages, the children also have a wide range of English skills, from beginning three-letter words to writing full, mostly correct paragraphs.

We start our morning with one minute of silence, then go over who is in charge of different duties that day—opening windows, sweeping the floor, cleaning the blackboard, handing out pencils, putting up chairs, and overall in charge. Then it’s English time. The students are split into three groups—Peacock, Tiger, and Cobra—based on their English skill level. Sunita ma’am takes the Peacock group to work on very beginning English. I teach the other two groups, giving one work while talking to the other, back and forth. We read stories and base grammar work, vocabulary, and projects on their subjects. Recently they’ve also done work writing about current holidays and their experiences on those days.

Around 10:45 we switch to science class. I teach using the blackboard, stories, pictures, their workbooks, and little experiments. We’ve covered insects, the weather, spiders, birds, dinosaurs, and plants. Our current until is about water—how we use it, the water cycle, and water pollution issues. As I teach I translate the information and questions into Hindi, often stumbling over word order or verb tenses, and my older students help me explain what I’m really trying to say.

All this sounds very fluid and organized, so now I’m going to admit—it’s not. I am still a very beginning teacher, and while I do have decent knowledge of fun writing projects and science activities I am still below novice on issues like long-term planning and classroom management. Which means that no matter how hard I work, on any given day there is always someone who is bored, someone who just can’t understand, occasional small fights, and a fair bit of talking while I’m trying to teach.

I tell myself every day that I am getting better, and tomorrow will be better, and someday, some year I will have enough experience to be the teacher I wish I could be now. And I work really hard to make up for my shortcomings.

12:15 to 12:45 is tiffin time; I keep confusing people by calling it “lunch”. Mondays and Wednesdays I spend this time being a house advisor—the school is divided into four houses who compete in environmental work and various competitions for points (think Harry Potter). My free lunch times I talk to the other teachers as I eat my often very spicy sabji (vegetables), dhal (lentils), rice, and rotis (flat round bread).

After lunch I teach the other class, grades 5 and 7 (there is no 6th grade for some reason). Again, much of their English studying is based on stories, although sometimes I choose grammar topics they seem to need help with. So far we’ve covered irregular past tense, possessives, and some parts of speech. This term I decided to have them tackle actual chapter books instead of just short stories, so 5th grade is reading the first Magic Tree House book, and 7th is reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Last period I teach social studies to just 5th grade. I’m effectively a long-term substitute for this period as one of the teachers left a few months ago, so we’re mostly just continuing work in their book. At 2:35 school is over and I go back to my younger class to help them pack and clean up. We get back in the car and arrive at the city campus around 3:30, and if I’m not completely exhausted I meet with the principal, plan, or do library work (or help Joe and Andrew teach basketball on Wednesdays) before going home.

On Thursdays I don’t go to the village school. I stay at the city campus and help the houses with their various projects during their environmental work period, giving ideas and making sure everyone has something to do. The rest of my time varies: I do some planning work, help set up science activities, sub classes, or work in the library. I generally work about four hours on Thursdays.

And Saturdays are teachers’ meetings and planning time from 8:00 to 1:00. It’s a little odd to be the only student in my group who works on the weekend, but I’ve gotten used to the schedule, and the block of time to talk about upcoming events, issue materials, and plan is incredibly useful.

So that’s my week, as far as the service work goes. I’m gettting so much out of my time at Nirman; I can only hope I’m giving them some small help in return. The kids I work with are absolutely amazing, and even when they’re driving me crazy I love them so much. It’s hard for me to accept that I won’t be coming back to teach them next year.