Written by Teddy Powers (University of Wisconsin – Madison) Student Correspondent, UW in India: Varanasi, Academic Year 2018-2019
She’s a shining face from the Program House staff in Varanasi, India! Raju-ji is one of two cooks who makes stunning food of all kinds for our breakfasts and lunches. But far more important – she makes amazing chai (and coffee) four times a day. Just when you think it can’t get any better, Raju-ji is also a complete sweetheart and prankster! Raju-ji and I have running jokes about how much I like chai, last semester there was a gag about how only one of the students was allowed to eat bananas, and perhaps once or twice we’ve had competitions to see who could catch a pea in their mouth better. She’s always ready to teach an impromptu cooking lesson, full of smiles.
One of my favorite parts of this relationship, is that it began mostly non-verbally. I didn’t need language skills to have fun and connect with everyone around me. As a Hindi beginner, this realization was freeing. I was pretty nervous that I wouldn’t be able to connect to people without Hindi, and now one of my favorite people to see in the day is someone who I haven’t always been able to talk to.
This semester in particular my relationships with the staff have felt closer (I’m an academic year student). This is partially because I’ve been here for longer, but I think it’s also representative of my development. I’m more comfortable being silly, sharing who I am, and experimenting with Hindi. Because of this, I’m able to reach out more to the staff that doesn’t speak so much English, like Raju-ji. And they reach out to me, knowing I’m trying to understand and communicate. They have taught me so much! Saroj-ji, who cleans most of the Program House, also cleans up my Hindi homework, proof-reading my essays, and exchanging new vocab. Raju-ji is incredibly patient with my slow processing and speaking, and she’s willing to speak in slow motion, very simply, so that I can get a story. Slowly, slowly, I’ve been able to learn more about the people around me.
During the week, I spend a lot of time at the Program House. It’s where our classes are held – at least when we aren’t exploring the city for class – and it’s where we eat breakfast and lunch. The space became a home last semester and remained so this semester . I would attribute a lot of that home-feeling to the program staff. The community here in Varanasi is tight knit; everyone has their chai-wala, their friends from the ghats (the riverside), and even the people you see walking from your home to class will recognize you and be friendly. The Program House is no exception. Community is a big part of life in Varanasi in all spaces.
For a bit of context, the Program House is a relatively sizable home size for Varanasi, but is a small house by US standards. Everyone is in close contact with one another – a great environment for friendships and closeness. But if I need a quiet place to nap, there is a room with couches and a room with the Indian style mattresses. If I want some sunshine, the Program House has a porch on each of the two main levels – caged in from monkeys, of course – and an open rooftop. I feel very lucky that the space we spend most of our week in is so positive, encouraging, and safe. The people there have been an irreplaceable part of my experience.
Feature photo caption: This is me and Raju-ji, one of the cooks, in the Program House together. We love to tease one another and joke around through out the day. One of our running jokes is that one or both of us is a tiger. Look at our ferocious faces in the third photo, and you can decide who the better tiger is!
*The suffix “-ji” is an honorific. We use it to show respect to people older than us, or in certain positions in the family/society.