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A woman sitting in a chair at Hawa Mahal (Palace of Wind) in Jaipur, India. Photo by Eliana Rothwell (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest Finalist).

Jeevan in Banaras

Since arriving in India nearly two months ago, we have entered our own form of samsara, whereby India – its history, people, culture, language, and land ­­­- has begun to challenge and transform our body, mind, and spirit. This change, a ninth month process only now in its incipience, is slow, but noticeably present.

After 4 weeks in the beautiful Himalayan foothills of the northern state of Uttarakhand, the team has settled into homestay families in Banaras. The ancient name for the city of Banaras is Kashi, meaning light or brightness in Hindi; I found a fitting place to be. My name, Ziv, is Hebrew, meaning brightness or glow, and Haim, meaning life. Ziv has always been my identity, a vessel for my values, personality, passions, relationships, ancestry, and experiences. I am proud of the name my parents chose for me, both for its uniqueness in my community back home and for its meaning, which reminds me to be optimistic, truthful, and joyful.

Upon our arrival to Kashi, each team member received a brightly colored thread, and with it a new name to symbolically mark this new life we are beginning in the City of Light. A Raksha Sutra thread of intertwined yellows, oranges, and reds tightly grasps my wrist; a strong knot firmly affixes the name Jeevan to my new identity. Fittingly, Jeevan means life, as does Haim in Hebrew. Both names travel with me as a reminder of the life I left back home and my new Jeevan here in Banaras.

My days begin at 6AM with yoga and meditation. I begin lying in shavasana with my legs apart and palms up, gently examining the body and releasing its tension; the weight of the previous day’s work is cleared from the mind. I transition into a more active asana practice, with my hands holding the weight of my body in wheel pose, peacock, camel and chaturanga planks, among many other asanas. Hands together, placed against the chest, I conclude with kapalbhati (rapid exhalations), nadi shuddi (alternate nostril breathing), and bhramri (bee humming), which force me to be conscious of my breath and enable me to enter a brief state of peace and calmness.

“Aaht aahht bloooot, beep beep, nee-eu.” At 7AM, that peace is lost. Head wrapped with a gamucha, hands tightly grasping the handle bars, and fingers prepared on both brakes, I attempt to navigate among the unpredictable bulls, zippy rickshaws and motorcycles, vegetable carts, pot holes, and cow pies. My journey to the program house for breakfast takes me along Lanka Road, past the Green Lassi shop, the Dobi, and Assi Ghat.

At 9AM, I arrive at the Aghor Foundation. My morning there begins at Vision Varanasi, an eye hospital providing free check-ups, cataract surgeries, and glasses to the people of Banaras and surrounding communities. At 11AM, I transition away from the computer, pick up my lesson plans, and walk to the Anjali School, a non-profit school for children living in the Samne Ghat and Nagawa neighborhoods of Varanasi. “Good morning Jeevan Sir!” My English, Math, and Computer class of 28 bright and happy students from Class 4 and 5 has begun. The students share their favorite colors, fruits, sports, songs, and subjects, and their dreams for the future. On the board, I teach the students new words and sentence constructions that I learned in Hindi class the night before, this time in reverse. Right hand patting my head and left hand on my knee, the class is concluded with a game of “Simon Says.”

At 12:30PM, I transition to the Bal Ashram, a safe home for twenty boys of all ages, and have lunch with the boys who have graduated high school. “Wingardium Leviosa.” At 1:15PM, I sit with the oldest boys as they practice reading aloud “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.” My right-hand scribbles down words new to them; I teach them the meanings, and they share with me the word in Hindi.

At 3:00PM, all the Bal Ashram boys return from their schooling, and my class with the Ashram’s Class 10 and 12 boys (Monday and Wednesday) or younger boys (Tuesday and Thursday) begins. We focus on English grammar, physics, computer skills, and mathematics. We share about our lives, and enthusiastically discuss our love for physics, biology, economics, and mathematics, and our aspirations for the future.

At 5:00PM, I re-enter the bustling streets and navigate my bike across the city to Itihaas Kitchen to prepare my Hindi homework. My hand anxiously yet eagerly scribbles the Hindi characters and connects them from above with a shirorekha line as I translate the day’s assigned sentences into Hindi.

At 6:00PM, strange sounds begin to emerge from the back-alley room near The Bed of Assi Ghat. Our daily two-hour Hindi language session with Binit-ji has begun, seemingly returning us to infancy as we re-learn how to speak. The Hindi language consists of 13 vowels and 33 consonants, each of which is assigned to one of 8 groups according to the location responsible for its tone. The tongue, the lips, the teeth, the throat, and the cave of the mouth are forced into their 46 newfound forms as we learn Hindi grammar and construct more complex strings of characters.

At 8:30PM, I return to my home and share a warm meal of sabji and parathas on my bed with my family. For the next few hours, my 5-year-old homestay brother keeps me engaged with a ball or his new drawings. At 10:30PM, I prepare my class lessons for the following day.

11:30PM: Lights out and a final shavashana into sleep.