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Reflections from Another World

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
-Stephen Crane

It is easy to feel adrift here. Sometimes, when this place overwhelms me, I focus on something small, something manageable. Like how much fun it is to eat with my fingers.

I feel like a child, the way I squish together rice and daal and slurp it into my mouth. My fingers get a chance to explore the textures before my tastebuds. Tumeric stains the hard skin at the edges of my fingernails yellow.

I eat long before the rest of my family. The constant stimulation and the midday heat wears me out. I can barely make it to 8:00, let alone 10:00, which is when they eat. While I eat, little 5 year old Bharti with her wonderful, snaggly smile, mostly gums with a few pointy teeth sticking out, sits with her mother, Neetujji, and does her homework. Bharti curls up against her mother and takes her arm in her lap, holding it tightly. Aradhya, who is 8, puzzles over fractions, sitting nearby.

In the evening, Seelaji, my grandmother, dressed in her red flowery nightie bends over a plate of vegetables and peels and chops them for dinner. Her practiced fingers know instantly which okra tubers are too hard and as she chops, she skillfully inspects each slice to check for hidden brown spots. After dinner, I give her hunched, aching back a massage. She doesn’t speak much English and I don’t speak much Hindi, but we communicate wordlessley in the way her movements and quiet sighs lead my fingers to particularly knotty spots.

A jasmine tree grows outside my window. At night and in the early morning, the breeze from the river blows through my open windows, carrying the subtle fragrance with it. All the cows in Assi, it seems, gather in my street at night. Maybe they too are fond of the hazy morning, with its soft smells, birdsong, pale pink light. Maybe they too are captivated by the sun as she hangs low in the sky, a glowing orb, beautiful despite the fact that smog is responsible for smudging out the colors of sunrise from the horizon. Maybe they also eagerly examine the streets every evening to see if any new buildings have been adorned with strings of lights, trailing down the facades in glowing stripes, for Diwali. Or maybe they are simply seeking refuge from the chaos and clamor of the streets.

For the past few days, firecrackers have startled me at random intervals with their loud banging. The motorcycles and tuktuks in the streets honk incessantly, driving pedestrians out of their way with the same force and decibles as they do cows. Women sell mala, garlands of marigolds, neem sticks, or vegetables by the side of the road and the shops spill out into the street. The tangle of cars and bicycles and cycle rickshaws and tuktuks and motorcycles and pedestrians weaving past each other, in and out of the lanes, honking and shouting, seems orderless. But the flow merely lies hidden beneath the noise and dust. Life is always going on around you, here in Banaras. Sometimes it involves you, in the way the rickshaw wallahs slow their cycles to ask if I need a ride when they pass, or in the way the hopeful boatmen and chai sellers come up to me at the ghat, dragging me out of my thoughts and into their bustling world. At other times, when the mass of people doing their own thing mills around me, I can find peace in the middle of the crowd.

One day Saurabji explained to me a story from Hindu mythology. The gods held a contest to determine who deserved the honor of being worshipped first. The first to circle the world 5 times would be the winner. Off they raced, except for Ganesha, who, since he loves sweets and is rather portly, wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of running. So, pausing, he thought, “My parents are my world, as they created me.” He called Parvati and Shiva to him and circled them 5 times, thereby winning the competition.

Although my parents are across many seas, I have begun to carve out little worlds for myself within this teeming city, universes that do feel a sense of obligation. From our group and instructors to the incredible staff at the program house; from the dhobi wallah (washerman) on the way to Hindi class who always greets me, ever since I asked him questions during a scavenger hunt, to the newspaper stand where I buy a paper every morning; from Saleemji, my silk weaving teacher, who takes me out for chai at a different chai stand in his neighborhood after each session, to my new family, who make me feel more a part of the family with each passing day, my world is steadily expanding. So yes, my parents may be my world since they made me, but if the people I meet here and the experiences I have are reshaping me, recreating me, then what is my world now?