Chapter 40 — India: Varanasi


Dev Deepawali festival in Varanasi on November 21 2010

We arrived in Delhi in the late evening their time and, as soon as we got outside the plane, we smelled India. It’s an unmistakable odor of spices, incense and pollution. This was our first visit to India and we had no idea what was ahead of us. After visa control and luggage pick-up, we emerged into a surreal world of yellow fog, a seemingly enclosed space with blurred streetlights and walking shadows. We seemed to have descended into the inferno.

We were traveling with our friends, Jean and Danièle Porta, and we got two cabs for the four of us to our hotel and as John and I arrived Jean was very worried that we might not end up at the same hotel.

We climbed up three flights of stairs on a narrow, steep staircase, following a couple of strong young men who carried our luggage on their backs. We were asked if we wanted sheets and when we, somewhat surprised, said Yes, of course, we got one sheet for each room. We asked for another sheet, which seemed to surprise the man who ran the hotel and had to rummage around in a closet before he found more sheets.

Breakfast was rudimentary and it is doubtful whether it could actually deserve the name of breakfast. There happened to be a man who was listening to our complaints and it turned out that he was from a tourist agency. John had found the hotel, the Blue Hotel on Connaught Place, in Lonely Planet. In the tourist agency they arranged for a visit of Delhi by car, and it turned out to be very interesting. It seemed amazing how the Blue Hotel had found its way into Lonely Planet, but the next year it was no more there.

On this tour of Delhi we visited the old Muslim quartier at Nizzamudin where we had an excellent dinner at Karim’s restaurant. It would be a while before we had another meal that good! Then we visited Humayun’s tomb, approximately across the street, and drove around India Gate and the Indian government buildings, originally built by the British colonizers. I think we even saw the Grand Mosque, the Jama Masjid on this first tour of Delhi.

This was the beginning of a most interesting first three-week visit to India in 2006.

The following morning we flew to Varanasi, or Benarès as our French friends call it, where we were met at the old airport by Jean-Max and Tulsi. We were welcomed according to Indian tradition with the orange flower garlands (“marigolds”) and, after a little tour to visit a little temple that was being inaugurated in the village where one of Tulsi’s people lived, we were taken on the long ride into Varanasi.

Our hotel was “Temple on Ganges” which is right next to the southern end of the ghats at Assi Ghat.

Jean-Max had prepared a wonderful introduction to Varanasi for us, on our first morning. Before breakfast, so as not to miss the rising sun over the Ganga, we went down to Assi Ghat. He was wafting for us with a boat and a boatman, to take us up to Dashashwamedh Ghat. This ghat leads to the center of Varanasi, past a restaurant, where John and I had lunch several times in the coming years, and to what is 

called “the Crossing” where you get the impression that traffic never stops.

Sis is looking for a colorful Indian shawl for friend Betsy. Our first morning.

The five of us settled in the boat and the young man rowed us downstream, which takes you north in this distorted part of the Ganga. The way up in the boat with the rising sun on our right had been wonderfully exotic with the buildings bathed in the subtle morning light. After walking up the steps and taking a look at the market, we walked back on the ghats all five of us, and of course John and I took a lot of pictures.

Breakfast afterwards was on the roof of the hotel, and we had a great view of the Ganga and of Varanasi rooftops. On a roof near by a young man took a shower by pouring a bucket of water over his head. What a wonderful surprise Jean-Max had there, and what a splendid first morning on the ghats.

There were, here and there on the ghats, the never-ending steps decorated with the colorful saris the laundrymen, the dhobis, had spread out after washing them in the river. There were bathers and dhobis, beating their laundry on flat stones. Among the dhobis at the edge of the river were bathers and buffaloes. We marveled at these exotic scenes that were definitely from another world. On this first meeting with the Ganga and the bathers, we did not think too much of the dirt or pollution.

On our way back, it was actually I who took the photo below. As John says, it is our iconic photo of Varanasi. It has even been enlarged and framed and is decorating a wall in our new downstairs bedroom.

The morning sun on the ghats of Varanasi

We became very involved in Dr Tulsi’s ‘s  DISCC/DEVA organization and we still today have through them a foster daughter, Sampa, who is now 20 years old and in her third year of studies at a university in Hyderabad, one of India’s top universities. Sampa has been with us for about ten years and we are always invited to dinner at their place when we visit Varanasi. And a delicious dinner it is too! (Not too spicy, for us.)

Tulsi deals with mentally and physically handicapped children and he is doing a wonderful job. Our very good friend Jean-Max is the president of DEVA-Europe which organizes financial and moral support for DISCC India. Without Jean-Max, the DISCC would not be able to go on existing.

Since it is considered shameful in India, as in many other poor countries, to have a handicapped child, these children are very often hidden away, so as not to give an evil mark to the family. It is well known that far more handicapped children are born into families that are malnourished, and this adds to the problem of getting special care for these children. In India roughly half the population lives below the level of poverty, a fact which makes the problem of handicapped young people be of a tremendous magnitude. It is, after all, possible to help these unfortunate children to find a way to help them lead a livable life.

Vimla teaching pre-school children about letters

At the time when we very actively supported DEVA /DISCC, there were two schools supported by them -– Gangotri, where our dear friend Vimla and her assistant taught pre-school children, starting with the alphabet and the simplest form of reading; teaching colors, numbers and other rudimentary things. And of course they also have them dance and play.

Vimla is the widowed mother of our most dear foster daughter, Sampa, who is now in her third year at a university in Hyderabad, where she uses her artistic talents to study design, dressing of shop windows and other things that require the use of a computer, a top-quality camera — and a lot of talent.

There was also a second “pre-school”, Ambedkar, in a small village at some distance from Varanasi where somewhat older children were taught to read and write. However, there has been a complete reorganization of DISCC/DEVA and those two schools do not exist any more. We are assured that the children concerned are now taken care of by communal schools. Vimla now teaches a group of very young children in an open-air school  (photos taken by our Sampa) near where the Gangotri school once was and it seems to work very well

Teaching English

In 2008, I had the idea of teaching English to a group of DEVA personnel. I had carefully prepared a set of questions and answers of a basic kind. What they needed most, or so I thought, was to manage simple conversation. I had printed a good number of sheets of the sentences I was going to use and I had recorded the sound, by me of course, on a CD, which we made several copies of.

On the first day, there was a group of DEVA personnel. Deepika, a friend and Tulsi’s wife who is an English teacher was in the front of the room with me and on the bllackboard she had written SPOKEN ENGLSIH WORKSHOP.

The Deva medical doctor, Sharma, was there, and he assisted me with the CD player. We first let the group hear what they would have a chance to listen to that would stay at DEVA and also at the other centers where there was a CD player.

“Am I talking to you?” – “Tes; you are talking to me.” — Sitting are Vimla is and Vidya, in white, who manages Annapurn, Manju is standing up smiling.

Some of the participants were very shy, or had a very poor understanding of English. When they stood up, the way they always did when I called on them to answer my questions, and if the process got to be slow and difficult, everybody in the group would laugh, in a good-matured and amused way. Sometimes they would give the answer that would not come forth from the person I had called on. But it was all in a very good and relaxed mood.

On the day after I met with a group of CEP workers. CEP stand for Children’s Edication Program, and these young people had a better level of English. It was a pure pleasure both days to get them to answer my questions.

Our dear friend Vimla and others, amused by my efforts to make a “student” answer my question.

The next year I had also prepared questions and answers, but of a somewhat higher level (Do, doers, did). As I arrived at DEVA Center, I happened to meet with a man who had been in my group the year before. I asked him how his English was doing. He said Good, thanks to you. That’s the kind of thing you never forget.

That time I remember we had a break in the middle of sessions that lasted for hours. My “students” gathered around me, talking and asking questions. It was wonderful to see how positive they were, now that they knew how relaxed a class with me could be.

My method of teaching basic English– as well as French by the way — has always been the question and answer way. The shift from “I” to “you” and from “you” to “I” is the first very basic thing the students must learn to master in a dialogue.

Dev Deepavali

In 2010 we went to India as late as in November so as to be in Varanasi for the great Hindu festival of Dev Deepavali, which is celebrated with the most fabulous light and fire spectacles.

We invited Tulsi, his wife Deepika, Sampa and her mother Vimla to come with us in a boat to admire the spectacular festivities of Deepavali along the ghats and most particularly at Dashashvamed Ghat. It was chilly on the water in the long evening, and I had to lend Vimla and Sampa a pashmina and a sweater.

John and I took oodles of pictures of course, and we also took a couple of videos which I made into Youtube videos later..

It was a fabulous event, the entire town was participating in it. Looking at the masses of people on the ghats and in boats, you certainly got the feeling that everybody was out that evening.

After the boat ride, Tulsi invited us all to dinner at a restaurant close to where Vimla and Sampa live in an old maharaja’s palace which has been converted into apartments. Altogether it  was a wonderful evening which we all enjoyed.

Continued: Chapter 40 Part 2 — Incredible India