There are many characters who work in the program house, and we (as in the students) spend a lot of time perfecting our impersonations of them–all in good fun, of course. Among these characters is a man known as Pandit ji.
Every morning when I arrive at school, I am greeted by a wrinkly, toothless old man with black-dyed hair, always wearing a traditional Banarasi outfit of a dhoti and kurta. He never fails to put a smile on my face when he smiles at me with his lips curled over toothless gums and when his aged ear lobes wiggle back and forth while he talks.
For my first few weeks here, I could not figure out what Pandit ji’s role in the program house was–he seemed to me more of a program house icon than anything else. I’m still not sure what his official job description is, but every day he plants himself in the same spot on a couch on the porch of the program house and industriously writes down numbers in a small notebook.
Despite how old he looks, we once asked him about his age and he claimed, with his whistling toothless voice, “fifty-six!” Sundar ji, one of the program staff, then informed us that although he insists he is only in his sixth decade of life, he is probably about ten years older than he claims. No matter what his age, though, he is undeniably fit; the most frequent sightings of Pandit ji outside of the program house involve him cruising around Banaras on his bicycle. He is the official grocery-shopper of the program, and always returns from his errands with heavy bags of food hanging from his bike. In a conversation I had with him the other day, he proudly told me that he can bike up to 60 kilometers in Banaras. The distance might not seem too far in the US, but considering the agility and patience it takes to bike in Banarasi streets, it’s very impressive.
Pandit ji is the guard of the program house, and he takes his job very seriously; once I jokingly suggested he come back to the US with me and his first response was, “there would be no one to look after the program house!” Part of his protective role involves warding off the gang of monkeys who like to jump around and make a ruckus on the program house roof and beg for food while we eat. In honor of his job as the monkey-scarer, one of the Hindi teachers gave Pandit ji the nickname of “Hanuman ji” in reference to the Hindu monkey god Hanuman.
Another one of Pandit ji’s roles is giving us all the official “history class” call–even when it’s time for a different class. Although we have a class schedule, oftentimes professors are late, and Pandit ji notifies us of their arrival by coming into the breakfast room and saying, “history class! Niche! (downstairs)” with his toothless Indian accent, then gesturing toward the stairs and giggling at all of us.
Although Pandit ji has been working for the program since 1996, his English is quite limited. I can fortunately communicate with him in Hindi, and therefore have gained a better lens into his life. To those whose Hindi skills are more limited, Pandit ji still babbles on in Hindi, aware that they don’t understand but still enthusiastically speaking at them. Yesterday he spent about 20 minutes explaining his daily routine in detail. He told us that he wakes up at four every morning, he described his favorite chai shop where he goes after school everyday and chews on paan with his buddies, he told us how much he loves biking. One piece of wisdom I gained from him is that his goal to always be “tension free”. He spent a few minutes talking about how no matter what he does, he tries to never be stressed out. I’m not sure exactly what could possibly stress him out, seeing as he seems to live a pretty chill life, but I appreciate his attitude nonetheless.
Everyone I meet in Banaras who knows of the Wisconsin program here also knows Pandit ji. He is a legendary icon of UW in India. One man I met said that he is immortal; I don’t doubt it.