University of Wisconsin–Madison

An Up and Downhill Slope

Life in Banaras has gone back to normal after winter break, though occasionally, like when I stop to think about how I’m doing something ridiculous like spending an hour plucking fenugreek leaves off their stems while everyone back in Wisconsin is likely asleep, I still feel as though I am living in an odd dream. The spring semester students have arrived and settled in, and classes have started again, which has established a pleasant sort of routine. I have Hindi three times a week, Urdu four times a week, and history once a week. I am really excited for our history class this semester—we’re doing lots of field visits, reading some interesting articles about “modern” India, and having lots of discussions that actually seem to answer some of our questions about life here. A class that is applicable to real life… Can’t go wrong there!

This semester I will also be carrying out the research project I designed in the fall as part of my course requirements. My topic relates to Bihari migrant workers in Varanasi. Bihar is the neighboring state to Uttar Pradesh, and it is the poorest in the country. Lots of people migrate here for work, though the economy in this state is not much better. Many Banarasis seem to have a negative opinion towards the migrants, considering them “backwards” and believing them likely to cause problems in the city. My project will be looking at the migrants’ perceptions of their living situations in Varanasi, and whether they feel the quality of their life has improved since coming to the city. While their living wages will have generally increased, they are often left doing some of the most difficult and dirty jobs in the city. And while they have the possibility to break out of some constricting social hierarchies in their home state, they face the problem of being considered “outsiders” in the city of Varanasi. I had no idea this would end up being the topic of my paper when I came here, but now that I have done some background work I’m very excited to talk to more migrants and hear more about their life histories. Between the language barrier and the difficulty of establishing a relationship with the research participants, mainly uneducated males, the project will be a challenge, but a welcome one. I hope I can give some sort of voice to a group of people that is largely ignored here.

My newest class is Rajasthani miniature painting, which I’ll be studying for the rest of my time in India. I have class on the terrace of a lovely hotel on the bank of the Ganges, and I’ve been enjoying the time I’ve spent thus far sitting and sketching pictures of Ganesh (I haven’t graduated to paint yet.) My gurus, an elderly man and one of his own students, are skilled at their work and sparse with their words, so we mostly work in silence, with the occasional encouraging check in. Yesterday an Israeli woman staying in the hotel stopped to talk to me and said, “I’ve been coming to this place for over twenty years, and this artist [the older one] has always been here. He doesn’t say much or get bothered by people. It seems this is his meditation.” He can’t see very well anymore, so he does the miniature painting style on super-sized canvases now. When I see him stand up and step back to assess the symmetry of his work after an hour of miniscule brushstrokes and adjustments, I am reminded of the virtues of patience and further reminded of how much I have left to learn—in painting, in Banaras, and in my life.

A renunciate enjoying the warm winter day (while his friends watch tv inside!)
A renunciate enjoying the warm winter day (while his friends watch tv inside!)
Watching a grade school assembly commemorating Republic Day
Watching a grade school assembly commemorating Republic Day
The panchayat, or town hall, of a village outside Varanasi
The panchayat, or town hall, of a village outside Varanasi