Bye-bye Banaras, hello Himachal

May 16, 2014

in Asia, India, Lydia Odegard, Spring 2014

As I write this post, I am located a 24 hour journey, many sub-cultures, and countless dialects of Hindi away from Varanasi. I have returned to the Dharmshala area of Himachal Pradesh, where I spent 8 months during a gap year after high school. While leaving Varanasi was not easy, coming here was not difficult; I am temporarily settled back into my mountain village home with my Himachali Indian family and, thinking back to Banaras, it seems like months have passed since I left. That being said, reflecting on the end of my semester is necessary in order to give proper closure to the experience I am so grateful to have had.

The last few weeks few weeks in Banaras were a whirlwind of finishing up my schoolwork, namely my 30-page research project on Hindu women’s gatherings in Varanasi. I devoted my last 3 weeks in Varanasi mainly to conducting interviews in women’s homes and compiling my results into the finished project which, although not brilliantly written, I can say I am ultimately proud of. Mostly I am proud of the experience and insight I gained through doing my research. Because I felt a strong interest in the topic I was exploring, the research was not so much a task as it was a curiosity. To give a short summary of my work: I decided on my topic even before I came to Varanasi, based on my previous experiences in India. I knew I would choose a subject related to gender and women’s studies (since it is one of my majors), however I was hesitant to look at controversial and perhaps over-tired topics like trafficking, female infanticide, dowries, etc. While I find all of the above interesting and see the value in looking deeper into them, I felt that given the nature of my research (mostly the limited amount of time I had to complete it) would not allow me to study any of them to the point that I would feel comfortable reaching a conclusion about them. Moreover, since my mindsets and values are for the most part rooted in my upbringing as an American living in the US, I felt that I was not in the position to make judgments about what constitutes “oppressive” versus “just” in the realm of Banarasi women. Therefore, I chose to approach the wide range of topics surrounding Banarasi women in perhaps a less controversial way. Women in Banaras and in many other areas of India tend to spend a majority of their social time with other women, rather than in mixed-gender settings, which is what sparked my initial interest in the topic. I looked at how women spend their free time with one another and what role their gathering together plays in their spiritual, domestic, and social lives which, as it turns out, intersect quite a bit. I looked at what types of activities constitute their time spent with other females, whether it be during Hindu festivals, marriages, at Kitty Parties (modern-day women’s gatherings which tend to happen in restaurants), or on the Banaras Hindu University Campus.

…To be honest, though, now that I have written all of the above, I realize how burnt out I feel having spent so much energy on the topic during the last month and having turned my project in. So, while I could go on for a few more paragraphs and explain my findings and conclusions, I am going to cop out due to the summer vacation mindset I have taken on since leaving Banaras.

Ah, yes… leaving Banaras. Those dusty, broken, and crowded streets bustling with noise, street food vendors, sadhus, bikes, cows, and countless other moving forms seem so far away as I look out over the mountain below me with chirping birds comprising most of the sound around me. However, I would not do my time in Banaras justice without giving you and myself some concluding notes.

As the cliché goes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone (or almost gone), and likewise, I didn’t realize how much I appreciated the city of Varanasi until my last few weeks there. Though the temperature rose along with the amount of dust I took in with each breath during the month of April and the amount of perspiration I produced each day quickly depleted my energy level, I walked to school every day with a new appreciation for the in-your-face mash up of people, motorcycles, rickshaws, and bikes intersecting in every direction. The breezes running through the city’s maze of gullies produced much-appreciated relief from the 100 degree heat permeating the main roads and, while meandering through the gullies, I stumbled upon scenes such as an elaborate birthday puja (worship) for Hanuman (a Hindu deity) obstructing the path or piles of what is arguably the most delicious jalebi (an Indian street food sweet) in all of Banaras. The typical-Banaras-type things such as these, as my departure crept closer, became all the more exciting.

As the program wound down, though, so did the Banarasi pace of life. With the rising heat the locals stayed inside more during the day, seeking refuge and naps in dark spaces under fans; those who were outside adapted to a literally slower walking pace. I slowed down with them, meandering my way around when necessary and still accumulating what felt like cups of sweat. The fact that by the end the locals were complaining about the heat made me feel less like a wimpy foreigner.

There were other ways in which I felt that I blended into Banarasi lifestyle by the end as well, despite my obviously foreign appearance and non-fluent Hindi. After feeling conflictingly tempted by Varanasi’s Ganga jal (Ganges water) ever since the heat started rising above 80, with a few days left in the city I spontaneously took a dip in the Ganga off of a boat shortly after sunrise one morning with my housemate Jon on his birthday. Though Madison lake water seems like drinking water compared to the Ganga jal in Varanasi, I can’t say I have any regrets.

Overall during my last few weeks in Varanasi I felt especially well-adapted to the lifestyle and my routine I had adapted, which made the last few days there especially difficult. I had become so familiar with the neighborhood I lived in and the people I interacted with on a daily basis. Pandit ji, one of the oldest members of our program staff and also a truly pakka Banarasi (hardcore Banarasi) even granted me the title of a pakka Banarasi, to my great satisfaction.

During my last leg of time in Banaras I walked through the streets as an observer more than a participant, letting my mind step back and watch the patterns that had unfolded during my 3 months there. It is strange to think about leaving a place you have connected with and realizing how much that place impacted you but how, in the long run, that place will continue to function more or less as it always had. Shivam, the chai waala at Assi Ghat, will keep selling chai. The sweeper along my route to school will continue to clean up Banaras’s perpetually dirty roads every day. Bharat ji, the bike repairman with the friendly face, will continue to pump passers-by tires for 5 rupees. Smriti ji, my yoga guru, will replace my daily lesson time with another student. The postcard seller by Open Hand Café will find more potential customers to pester. In another few months, a new study abroad student will move into my room and take my place at my host family’s table. The red-one-dreadlocked-American-lady from Aum Café will always sit on her stool at the top of Assi Ghat and watch the sun disappear every evening. Sundar ji, Nitish ji, and Vidya ji will continue to work hard at the UW in Varanasi program house, soon meeting new students and adapting to a new dynamic of people each year.

But, perhaps most importantly as far as my own life goes, I will continue my adventure in India, inevitably taking what Banaras has taught me and allowing my brain to absorb whatever else surrounds me wherever I am in the world. When I think about Varanasi, I will recall all of the above memories and will remember them with a strong feeling of appreciation for the experiences I am fortunate enough to have had. The best thing I can do with the experience I have gained in the past few months is tell my stories to those who will listen and to use what I have gained to benefit both myself and those in my life. While my place in Varanasi was not permanent, neither is my place in any given location, and recognizing that makes it easier to move on to the next stage of my adventures.

And, lucky for me, my time here so far has definitely presented me with plenty of adventures, so many so that I have barely thought back to Banaras. I arrived in the Dharmshala area with four friends—three from my program and the fourth one of their moms. They stayed for about a week and, a few days after they left, a few more friends from my program arrived. After talking about this place for the past few months, it’s been great to finally introduce my friends to my family and home life here. We have basically filled our time with relaxing, hiking, and eating.

Coming directly from Banaras to here was a kind of culture shock in itself; for the first few days, the silence here was incredibly loud. I don’t remember the last time I was somewhere this quiet. It also seems radical to breathe fresh air without worrying about the dust and pollution filling my lungs with every breath. I could not have asked for a more pleasant climate, either; most days have been sunny and in the mid to upper 70s, and a few brief showers have swept through the mountains in the past few days. My energy level has also increased considering I am no longer sweating buckets.

Here are some snippets from my past few weeks:

Some of the members of our program before taking a final group photo

Some of the members of our program before taking a final group photo

Nitish, Sundar, and Hari, our student coordinators who work tirelessly

Nitish, Sundar, and Hari, our student coordinators who work tirelessly

Evening chai with Pandit ji in his favorite chai shop

Evening chai with Pandit ji in his favorite chai shop

UW in Varanasi goes Himalaya

UW in Varanasi goes Himalaya

Sheeps grazing on a mountain

Sheeps grazing on a mountain

Students from Banaras Hindu University who were some of my informants for my research project

Students from Banaras Hindu University who were some of my informants for my research project

A bangle shop in a Banarasi alleyway

A bangle shop in a Banarasi alleyway

Dogs and a cow lounging by a temple on the ghats in the morning

Dogs and a cow lounging by a temple on the ghats in the morning

A puja for Hanuman’s birthday which I stumbled upon in a Banarasi alleway

A puja for Hanuman’s birthday which I stumbled upon in a Banarasi alleway

Jon, pre-Ganga dip

Jon, pre-Ganga dip

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