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Princeton Bridge Year: India 2016-17


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It’s impossible to feel the

Sweet caress of fury

In a world

Where every man peeing in my alley

Is my uncle

Where every woman cutting me off on her scooty

Is my aunt

And the scraggly dust blown in my face

Is only her farewell kiss.

Just like the parents I was born to

This is not my family by choice

We puppets play a lifelong game of name-calling

I long for alleys who call to me

Mouths full of garbage

No matter the name on their grime coated lips

I come

I come to be twisted by language I don’t understand

To be almost but not quite impaled by Gods who also give milk

To be empty of the weight that is visible on my innermost soul

But the constant mechanics of the crowd

Push me

into the arms of my so-called family.

I am the daughter

Of every

Sunset draped woman

Who cups my face in railroad stations

And demands to know if I’ve eaten enough

I am the cousin of every

Girl dancing to the beat of

Wedding drums

Barefoot feet cushioned

By money

So holy it can only be thrown on the ground.

I am emboldened by my brother’s voices

Shouting

To be careful

As they hang out of windows

Ecstatic with the power of

Being young and

Carrying a chromosome named Y

I can’t remember if I’m one of four

Or of 10 million

And really

With my name floating farther away

Than all of my siblings’ lost balloons

Does it even matter?

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10 Million

Malka Himelhoch,Princeton Bridge Year: India 2016-17

Description

It’s impossible to feel the Sweet caress of fury In a world Where every man peeing in my alley Is my uncle Where every woman cutting me off on her scooty Is my aunt And the scraggly dust blown in my face Is only her farewell kiss. Just like the parents I was born to […]

Posted On

03/31/17

Author

Malka Himelhoch

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    [post_content] => Day One

Book 306

My love-hate relationship with teaching has skewed more towards hate recently. When I was informed that March was exam month, I was thrilled. No teaching, just proctoring quiet test rooms, ending work each day after lunch. Great. Then I was called into the library.

To satisfy the finicky school board and gain some certification, the school needs, among other things, a catalogue of 1,500 of its library books. My job is to make it by hand, starting today. I will work with the Librarian, who has done the previous 305 books. She stamps, I write.

Book 312

I quite like this. It's mindless work, true, but maybe that's what I need. I hear the sound of kids yelling in the next room over. With joy I remember that it is not my job to deal with them.

Book 334

I hate this. Nobody will ever read these books, and nobody will ever read this catalogue, and my hand is cramped.

Book 386

Is the author of the Magic Tree House series 'Pope Osborne, Mary' or 'Osborne, Mary Pope'? Whichever I choose, I will have to run with for the next thirty entries. I choose the first.

Book 411

Another teacher comes in to hang out with the librarian. They don't think I understand Hindi, and they are mostly right. They are talking about me, I know that much. I pretend not to notice. They say my haircut is very smart.

Book 418

The Librarian shows me a picture of her young daughter. I look without seeing, say the usual things. She tells me that her daughter is sick.

Book 451

I arbitrarily decide that I am done. I'm a volunteer, anyway. I have catalogued 150 books, give or take, and only 5 have been by Indian authors.

Day 2

Book 460

I am resent that, in the two full hours after I left yesterday, the librarian only managed to catalogue nine books.

Book 511

Class 5, done early with their exams, comes into the library. They are a rambunctious class, but I like them a lot. When they are loud, the librarian takes away whatever they are reading and puts them to work, silently stacking books. I look up and see Anand, one of the boys. Ever since I taught the class what it means to shrug, he has always greeted me by shrugging. He is good at it. His body and face curl so that he resembles a human question mark. The librarian notices him off task and slaps him. I hate her for it. How could someone so joyless work with children?

Book 540

Lunch. I go buy some oranges, everything seeming vivid and full of life after three hours in the library. I eat, watching the students play cricket- the day's exam is over. The midday sun covers me. I feel a profound fondness for my students. A boy comes to tell me that the librarian is looking for me.

Book 587

Near the end of the day, a blessing. I have reached the Animorphs books, which have the dopest covers ever. I linger in my cataloging to look at the boy morphing into a bee, the girl into a dolphin.

Book 625

The librarian is trying to listen to music. The wifi is slow, so the YouTube videos stutter. It is ten seconds of loud Bollywood, twenty of silence. I want to scream at her to turn it off.

Day 3

Book 658

The librarian asks if I have had breakfast. She ignores my answer and gives me a little white thing. It is a dry rice treat, with some salt and garlic. I say that I am too full to eat a second.

Book 666

The devil's number. I had been looking forward to seeing what book would receive this stamp, hopefully something funny so I could tweet about it. It is a history of West Africa.

Book 694

The librarian tells me about how her daughter got food poisoning a few days ago, from eating street food. Her daughter is still sick, at home alone. I think the librarian is sick too- she has rings under her eyes.

Book 715

The library officially has more books about the NFL than it has books by Indian authors.

Book 720

The librarian shows me a picture of a starving child she saw on Facebook. She asks me if the picture is real. I glance up from my work and say that it is real. She seems shaken.

Book 726

The librarian is listening to a talk show. A younger teacher comes in to the library. The librarian tells her to listen to the wisdom. The younger teacher listens for a little, then makes a dismissive joke and leaves. The librarian seems annoyed. The talk show annoys me, so I put on earphones and listen to Kanye West.

Book 772

When doing service, should you do what is necessary or should you do your best? If you do just what is necessary, is that still true to the spirit of service? I ask because I am cataloging 'The Babysitter's Club' books. Would it be okay to just write 'Claudia and Mean Janine', or should I write 'The Babysitter's Club: Claudia and Mean Janine'? I decide on the latter. The library has almost the whole series.

Book 813

Done, for the day. Tomorrow the librarian won't be here, so I will work alone.
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Princeton Bridge Year: India 2016-17

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Catalog

Alonso Perez-Putnam,Princeton Bridge Year: India 2016-17

Description

Day One Book 306 My love-hate relationship with teaching has skewed more towards hate recently. When I was informed that March was exam month, I was thrilled. No teaching, just proctoring quiet test rooms, ending work each day after lunch. Great. Then I was called into the library. To satisfy the finicky school board and […]

Posted On

03/27/17

Author

Alonso Perez-Putnam

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    [post_content] => I had lived in Banaras for two and a half months before I realized that I was walking an extra seventeen minutes out of my way every single night. Each day, I would get off the bus in Lanka, walk into the shop directly across the street, and work there until half an hour before my Hindi class. I love that shop, with its welcoming if not slightly clueless staff, fresh baked goods, and aura of its acceptance and support which serves as a haven for all those who are differently-abled. The Suryoday Café has quickly become one of my favorite parts of working for the organization of KIRAN, yet I was always *upset by the idea of limiting my work there to only an hour and forty five minutes in order to walk to Hindi on time.
That all changed the day Dolly ji passed me on her Scootie, stopping to ask why I was walking the wrong direction.
As it turns out, the route I was taking back through our home neighborhood into the neighborhood of our Guru ji’s house was basically like walking three sides of a square instead of just going from point A to point B. IN MY DEFENSE, I- a person fairly uncomfortable with urban navigation- was just walking the only way that I’d ever known was a possibility. I had heard of some of my friends who lived in Lanka trying to search for a shorter route from their homes to Hindi class, but as far as I was aware of, no such middle passage had ever been discovered.
I was skeptical at first, but decided to go back and try this mysterious new way. After asking no less than 7 people and getting thoroughly disoriented in what seemed like a million turns at the cross roads of small alleys, I arrived on the street of my guru’s home. Frankly, I was still unconvinced; my walk had taken only three less minutes, and it was certainly NOT the “straight shot” Dolly ji had proposed it to be…
But, going by the phrase Alonso has integrated into our group: “Momma didn’t raise no quitter.” So the next day, I decided to try again.
Magically, by taking my first turn one street earlier than I had the day before, I managed to get to Hindi in half the time and with far less than half of the turns.
By the third day, of my traveling by my new passageway, I felt fairly confident in knowing my route. That is, until I came up to the street I was 99% sure led to my final destination and found it entirely blocked by a massive puja. Mind you, this was no small gathering. It seemed to contain every child who lived in the multiple story houses on the neighboring streets, basically a middle school Hindu version of a summer block party. The goddess Saraswati- a goddess of knowledge whose puja is greatly celebrated by school children- stood in a bath of flashing neon lights on a elevated stage, while all the students danced to the deafening Bollywood music coming from speakers taller than they were.
I turned around, finding an old woman in the vicinity, and asked for a detour. She gave me the directions willingly, but, upon me repeating them to her, just to make sure I had them correct, she decided against it. She told me to go right through.
Should I have listened? Probably not. I was IMMEDIATELY surrounded by dozens of children, all dressed up for the occasion, begging me, a random videshi, to PLEASE come dance with them. “Nahi, nahi. Mujhko Hindi class jana hei! Mei bahoot der se hu!!” Yet even as I told them that I had to go to class because I was very late, they were insistent. “Just ONE Song!” they said, as I unsuccessfully tried to free myself from the eager hands that had grabbed mine. But I was overpowered. There was no way I’d make it out. And really, what was I protecting? My pride? I’d never see these people again. And if I did, it we’d be able to smile with shared memory at each other as I passed through the alleys. So I let them take my things and set them aside. I did nothing as the crowd of adults gathered to watch this spectacle of me joining despite the fact that I clearly did Not know how to properly dance. But it didn’t matter. For the first time, when people took their phones out to record, I just couldn’t find it in myself to care. Because, frankly, it was an absurd enough situation as it was. (Not to mention the irony of stopping to celebrate the goddess of wisdom being the thing keeping me from going to class to study…) In that moment, though, I realized that I was at a cross roads in my time in India: I can keep holding onto the shy-ish and hesitant person I feel I always have been, or I can take these last 3 and a half months to really try to embrace the ways that India has opened me up.
I’ve already written one Field Note- fairly early on, too- about saying “I never would have done that.” and my lovely co-instructor, Jenny-ji, saying “You just did.” I’ve tried to stop putting India in a box, I guess I really need to stop doing the same to myself. Because as I stood there, ridiculous as I felt, it was in that moment that I felt I was getting the most out of this experience. ‘Getting the most out of it’ doesn’t necessarily seem like it means packing as much as I can into my time anymore as much as it means more just embracing what I come across. I’ve learned that when you’re when you’re not looking for something for anything, what you come across can be quite entertaining.
So there I was, giving my all to y time in India. I was trying to ignore everyone else besides the one tween girl out of the four directly in front of me who I’d rotate watching and trying to mimic. I was failing epically with each hip raise I attempted, but no matter how uncoordinated or culturally inept I was, I impressed everyone when I sang along in the suspenseful building up to “arre lardki beautiful kar gayi …..CHULLL.” And I just let it happen: laughing, moving, smiling, detaching from my insecurities and just living.
I made sure not to go completely crazy, greatly preferring to dance with the little girls than the uncle who tried to break in and dance at me. But even then, where in the past I would have frozen and shut down, I just stood there, respectfully giving this cha-cha a well deserved round of applause as I was doubling over in laughter.
A girl about my age finally came and rescued me as I had been caught by dozens more tiny hands when I’d tried to sneak away after “one song.” But I didn’t get on my way to Hindi before spotting two of the teenage boys from the KIRAN bus I rode every day in the back of the crowd. I began nervously laughing- to about 1/10th of the extent I’d imagine a teacher would in her mortified stance seeing students after dancing out in public. But they just smiled and laughed more, still calling me the slightly respectful Hindi term for older sister, “didi,” as they smiled and waved goodbye.
At the end of it all, my only regret is that I didn’t ask for one of the videos.
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Thank God for Good Directions

Kayla Memis,Best Notes From The Field, Princeton Bridge Year: India 2016-17

Description

I had lived in Banaras for two and a half months before I realized that I was walking an extra seventeen minutes out of my way every single night. Each day, I would get off the bus in Lanka, walk into the shop directly across the street, and work there until half an hour before […]

Posted On

02/24/17

Author

Kayla Memis

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    [post_content] => The (Half)white Man's Burden

I am halfway through a lecture to my Eighth Graders about colonial art in India. Why is it that Western painters mainly painted landscapes with hardly any people in them? Why was it so common to paint scenes of violent local traditions like Sati(widow burning)? Why is it, as one girl pointed out, that tourists here take so many pictures of garbage?

Though it is not in their textbooks, I thought the key explanation for all this was 'The White Man's Burden'. This was the justification of European colonialism around the world. It was the concept that the burden of the white peoples was to spread their civilization to the dark savages who lurked in the recesses of the earth. "We are not invading you, we are helping."

At this my students' faces ranged from contemplation to confusion to boredom. I searched for an example. "Why did I come from the United States to teach you? Why are you not in the United States, teaching me?" A few girls giggled. I realized how that was a confusing example, so I gave a rambling explanation, full of backtracking and qualifying. By the end a few of the girls were giggling, knowingly.

When I first wrote this essay I gave a long list of examples of how I am embodying 'The White Man's Burden' in my time here. It was a legitimate argument with plenty of evidence. And then I looked up from my writing and saw, out the window, 20 school kids cramming into the back of a cycle rickshaw.

The first part of my art class was about portraits. I introduced the topic by asking the class to raise their hands if they ever took selfies. Hands shot up. in colonial India, westerners of stature would often commission portraits of themselves. In these portraits they stand illuminated in the center. India was the background, in the form of a colonial mansion, some trees, some turbaned servants serving tea. The staging had a clear message. And here was I, 200 years later, a westerner putting himself and his concerns front and center.
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The (Half)White Man’s Burden

Alonso Perez-Putnam,Princeton Bridge Year: India 2016-17

Description

The (Half)white Man’s Burden I am halfway through a lecture to my Eighth Graders about colonial art in India. Why is it that Western painters mainly painted landscapes with hardly any people in them? Why was it so common to paint scenes of violent local traditions like Sati(widow burning)? Why is it, as one girl […]

Posted On

02/24/17

Author

Alonso Perez-Putnam

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    [post_content] => "Sir, tomorrow you will play cricket with us." A command, not a question.

When I pulled up outside the school gate at 8:05, five minutes late, five of my students were already gathered there. They seemed surprised that I had shown up. It was a Saturday, so they wore street clothes, and their hair was less combed than usual. The five who had shown up were the most troublesome students in my most troublesome class, Class 7. One of them had a new  temporary tattoo of a tiger across his neck.

In Banaras there are very few open spaces. Cricket is often played in narrow alleys or trash strewn fields. The boys and I set off to the athletic center at the local university, about a 15 minute walk away. There was a panic when the only boy who owned a ball had to leave. I split off with two of the boys to go buy a new one. To make up for time we had lost they both rode on the back of my bicycle. In India fat is a sign of privilege, and neither of these boys come from wealthy families. Still, their combined weight made biking difficult. When one of them suggested it would be faster to walk, I tried to salvage my pride by standing up on my pedals and biking as fast as possible.

We met the others in a dusty field. Most of the space had already been taken by older cricketers. We settled for a patch in the corner, and the boys spent a long time wandering around the trees trying to find nine bricks to use as wickets. When they found them, the bricks seemed far too big for their gangly arms to carry. Then, the tennis ball needed to be burned to the proper texture. One of the boys went over to some drifters and used their lighter. The ball was hot to the touch all morning. All this trouble for a game of cricket. I asked my students how much a set of wickets and a real, heavy ball would cost. 500 rupees, about 7 dollars.

I did not understand cricket and I still do not. The first boy to bat was easily the best, and after his streak was finally broken he announced that he had gotten 68. I had no idea how he had come up with that number. When it was my turn I was patiently coached on where to stand and what to do by the boy playing catcher behind me. I succeeded in drilling the ball low a few times. Finally a speedy pitch got past me and knocked over the pile of bricks. I was told that I had gotten 32. I felt some absurd pride.

I used to play soccer or football, every afternoon, on a dusty schoolyard, with my brother and our neighbors. We became friends through years of insulting each other. Only long after it became too dark to see the ball would we go home. The daily games stopped when I was around the age that my students are now. The cricket game felt familiar to me, and I fit into it as I had all those games from 'my youth'. I am far too young to feel nostalgic, too young to use the phrase 'in my youth'.

When I had to leave, one of my students told me that he hadn't had breakfast this morning, and asked me to give him money to buy some. I gave him 50 rupees and told him to buy breakfast for all five boys. We agreed that we would play again next weekend, same place, same time.
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Cricket on Saturday

Alonso Perez-Putnam,Princeton Bridge Year: India 2016-17

Description

“Sir, tomorrow you will play cricket with us.” A command, not a question. When I pulled up outside the school gate at 8:05, five minutes late, five of my students were already gathered there. They seemed surprised that I had shown up. It was a Saturday, so they wore street clothes, and their hair was […]

Posted On

02/24/17

Author

Alonso Perez-Putnam

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    [post_content] => GQ(Gentleman's Quarterly) is a fashion magazine that, as any Bridge Year India participant would tell you, I revere to an embarrassing degree. GQ has editions for the United States, India, and the United Kingdom. I had been searching for the elusive GQ India for the entirety of our stay. In Varanasi, our homebase, I have yet to see a copy. Imagine my delight at finding one at a newsstand in a Rajasthan train station.

Look, I'm not unaware of the irony of reading articles about (chosen at random) how I should be buying 26,000 rupee Glenlivet whisky, as stooped men walk by, selling 5 rupee chai. Nobody would claim that GQ India represents the 'real India', whatever that is. GQ is, to all of its readers, more aspirational than anything else. Even back home I'd have a hard time explaining the point of buying a 200$ leather pillbox to a man next to me on a Pittsburgh bus.

In a stunning feat, GQ India is significantly more materialistic than its American counterpart. Most of it is taken up with advertisements-as-articles for things like luxury condos or smartcars. In the style advice section, the questions (ex. Leather jackets are cool, but is there a way to wear them without looking like a Hell's Angel?) come from young men in New Dehli and Bengaluru. New Dehli, as the capital, is the home to many wealthy and cosmopolitan Indians. Bengaluru is the hub of India's IT industry, which has changed Indian society because of the wealth it brought its young workers. IT boomed in the mid 2000s. GQ India(now on its 100th issue) was first released in 2008.

GQ India offers advice to the young and newly wealthy, both buying advice and advice of a more abstract nature. "Money buys you the one thing that is really worth buying- time. Poverty makes a prisoner of every man. But if you love money too much, you're worse than a prisoner, you're a slave". Bhole Shankar, my host brother who works as an oil prospector in Assam, offered me a very similar piece of advice. So has my host father, noted Vedic Astrologist Rakesh Pandey. It is advice that only matters if you have money. If you don't, you know it already.

At first glance, GQ India seems a rejection of India. Inside the clothing-filled pages, I counted 2 examples of traditional Indian fashion. Tonal grey is "The only way to wear Indianwear in the new year". At the weddings our group has attended, we have been the only men in Indianwear. Perhaps the clearest example of the magazine's rejection of India is the most obvious. The whole thing is in English. This is not atypical. While English is taught in almost all of India's schools, it is also representative of young, global cool. I can understand a lot of Indian TV because the movie star guests conspicuously speak in Hinglish patois. Jacqueline Fernandes, the host of Jhalak Dikhlaja, is known for saying things like "Bahut cute". My host mother hates this.

Central to India's independence movement was the idea of 'Swadeshi', self reliance. Ghandi used homespun cotton as the symbol of the movement. GQ India is all about 'Swadeshi'. It includes things like a review for a new video game, developed in India, which is based on local demon mythology. A luxe carpet is advertised with the slogan "Proud to be Indian". A featured quote from a fine rug CEO, Ayush Choudhary, is telling. "As a country, we've always been fascinated with imported goods. What we are slowly realizing is the potential India has". GQ is aspirational. GQ India aspires for India to be a global country, yet on its own terms.

Here, as at home, the people around me can't understand my passion for GQ. The Indian boy next to me, who was modeling this season's trend of sweaters featuring "graphics, stripes, and sumptuous colors", in a brick red number, tried to follow along. He soon got bored and left, shooting me a confused look.
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Princeton Bridge Year: India 2016-17

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GQ India

Alonso Perez-Putnam,Princeton Bridge Year: India 2016-17

Description

GQ(Gentleman’s Quarterly) is a fashion magazine that, as any Bridge Year India participant would tell you, I revere to an embarrassing degree. GQ has editions for the United States, India, and the United Kingdom. I had been searching for the elusive GQ India for the entirety of our stay. In Varanasi, our homebase, I have […]

Posted On

02/24/17

Author

Alonso Perez-Putnam

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    [post_content] => This is an introduction to a short story that may very well come to field note board near you!

We spent much of the first month of our program in the hills of Sikkim, a region whose culture was influenced, in sharp contrast to the ubiquity of Hinduism in Varanasi, by Buddhism. It already seems like so long ago.

And of that time in Sikkim, we spent the better part of a week hiking every day to the top of a hill. On the hill was a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. In the monastery were dozens of monks of all ages, from waist-high to adult, praying, playing, and studying, resplendent in purple-red and orange robes (and crocs!)

A monk we called Lama-la taught us there; we sat on mats for hours as he sought to loosen our ignorance on Tibetan Buddhism. He shared about the Four Noble Truths and Eight-Fold path, how monks chanted for days over the dying, and the distinction (still hazy to me) between physical and absolute reality.

But what I found most striking was the concept of the six realms of rebirth. Karma, of course, is the idea that actions an individual take are recorded in some cosmic ledger. In Tibetan Buddhism, your karma also determines which plane of existence you would be born into. Could you accrue enough cosmic goodwill and join the realm of the gods? Or perhaps the realm of the demigods, who are cursed always to be in conflict with the gods?

One could only reach enlightenment -- escape from the cycle of rebirths -- in the realm of humanity, but if you weren't careful you could be cast down into the realm of the Animals, cursed always to be ignorant of rebirth. Or perhaps you had been evil, and would be reborn as a Hungry Ghost, doomed always to be hungry but have a tiny throat and mouth -- or if you were especially bad, into the fiery realm of Hell.

GodDemigodHumanAnimalHungry GhostHell.

I was taken aback by the rich imagination of this conception of the world, and I began to sketch out a story about two heroes that would, through several rebirths, traverse all six realms of existence.

I asked question after question about how much karma was needed to be cast up or down in the six realms, and how karma was gained and lost by certain actions, how much karma was cleansed by enduring punishment. Lama-la was unable to provide specifics for much of these questions; it seemed like karma, despite being so specific and near mathematical sometimes (chant this mantra and gain positive karma) was so vague at others. Almost like the six realms were the product of some kind of extremely complex, black-boxed function.

So reflecting those thoughts, the story became one where the six realms are governed by an artificial intelligence, where souls flow between them through a network of glass and wires. Gods and demi-gods became androids, built to reach perfection. Animals became humans with artificially lowered intelligence and mechanically augmented strength. Hungry Ghosts became brains in jars, doomed to feel physical desires without physical bodies. And Hell became where the servers of that artificial intelligence, burn with an incredible heat.

Most religions have a mechanism, analogous to karma, for the regulation of their followers' actions. Caste, underworlds, Last Judgements, feathers hearts and scales. Karma, like any of these others, can serve as a tool to keep people downtrodden and dampen empathy. During our time in Sikkim, we saw first-hand how people cited karma to justify the state of the unfortunate or poorer -- they did something in the last life, and now they were being punished.

So reflecting those thoughts, I gave the two heroes a simple goal: break the machine. End karma.

The formation of this story is just one of the reasons why I will always treasure our time together with Lama-la. Though there many things I didn't understand or agree with in his, I'm grateful for the richness of ideas I absorbed by learning about a different belief system. Obviously, there is so much that we never learned about Tibetan Buddhism, and "Cyberpunk Buddhism" in a way serves as a snapshot of my personal beliefs reflected against my limited knowledge, a cross-section of a three-dimensional thing.
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Introduction: Lama-la and the Six Realms of Rebirth

Nicholas Liu,Princeton Bridge Year: India 2016-17

Description

This is an introduction to a short story that may very well come to field note board near you! We spent much of the first month of our program in the hills of Sikkim, a region whose culture was influenced, in sharp contrast to the ubiquity of Hinduism in Varanasi, by Buddhism. It already seems […]

Posted On

02/24/17

Author

Nicholas Liu

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The little boy stood in front of us, one hand grabbing the arm of a small girl, the other outstretched offering a small tin plate. “Dedo,” he said in a monotone. Give. Connie Ma’am and I kept talking, not moving from our perch on the top of Assi Ghat. I was hoping he would understand we weren’t going to give him money and move on. But he didn’t. “Dedo,” he said again softly, edging closer. Connie ma’am looked up, “I don’t give to children on the street,” she explained firmly in hindi, “Jao”. Get out of here. But he didn’t. “Dedo,” he repeated, pushing his plate into Connie Ma’am’s knees pulling the little girl along. “Jao!” she said again.

By now a small crowd of beggar children had gathered, curious to see if the white women would give in, if there would be money for all of them. The little boy pushed his plate further into her knees, “Dedo!” And then Connie Ma’am grabbed the plate and pulled. For an infinity that lasted ten seconds the tall white woman and the small ragged boy wrestled for the tin plate. Connie Ma’am won. She put the plate behind her body and looked at him. “Will you go now?” she asked. He stared back with blank eyes, “Yes! Yes I’ll go.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes”

            She handed him the plate. He walked away, little girl in tow without looking back. I looked around at the group of children still crowded around us. None of them looked as surprised or horrified as I felt. Connie Ma’am turned back to me and continued our conversation as if there had been no interruption. I followed her lead because I didn’t know what else to do.

            But after we’d said goodbye, as I walked home, I cried. I cried because the little boy hadn’t seemed at all surprised to be treated in such a way. I cried because Connie Ma’am is one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met. I couldn’t understand how the same woman who had yanked the tin plate from the beggar child could also regularly shelter children afraid to go home to abusive fathers.  I felt certain that somehow Connie Ma’am had been doing the right thing. That there was some lesson she was teaching that I was unable to understand. And while I am resigned to the fact that I will never fully comprehend most things that go on in this city, I couldn’t reconcile not being able to understand this.

            I don’t want to live in a world where there are so many children like that beggar boy, so many children who are unaccustomed to kind words and casual joy. In my life in America, it was easy to forget that this kind of suffering exists. I went about my days only interacting with those who, like me, were privileged. But here, in Banaras, this harsh reality is impossible to ignore. I see that little boy’s expression of resignation in the eyes of so many of my students, who have no choice but to return home to abusive families every night after school. I see his blank sadness on the faces of beggar women asking me for money so that they can feed the babies they carry on their hips. I feel unbelievably helpless.

But I go to work every day and try to be a shoulder to lean on for my students.  And, I am trying to practice greater compassion in the hope that one day I might be strong enough to know what to do the next time a little boy approaches me on the ghats.

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On the Ghats

Malka Himelhoch,Princeton Bridge Year: India 2016-17

Description

The little boy stood in front of us, one hand grabbing the arm of a small girl, the other outstretched offering a small tin plate. “Dedo,” he said in a monotone. Give. Connie Ma’am and I kept talking, not moving from our perch on the top of Assi Ghat. I was hoping he would understand we […]

Posted On

02/16/17

Author

Malka Himelhoch

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After an hour of trying to find internet at a local café that caters to Western tourists and emerging with only a stomach filled with an ice cream sundae, I walked outside to see a pile of pitch-black sludge piled two feet high as a team of men hauled it out from Varanasi’s vast and ancient sewage system. I was immediately repulsed by the vile smell, and the sinister appearance. It looked as if charcoal had taken on a muddy-liquid form, but very little of the pile could have actually been charcoal. State elections are coming up in Varanasi, and there’s been a rush of public works projects to win votes and cater to interest groups. I assumed the city-wide sewage draining I has seen from a more comfortable distance in other places around town was just one of those projects.

As I prepared myself to walk past the scene, my attention shifted to the two men who were hauling up buckets of the sewage to deposit it in the pile. They wore no uniforms and no protective equipment, only an outfit of what my family would call old work clothes shielded them from the work. I walked by holding my breath, but as I did, I couldn’t help from peering down into the hole. There was a man in there, squatting gut-deep in the filth, wearing no shirt, no gloves, no mask, and covered from head-to-toe, steeped in his work. His job was to fill the buckets the other two sent down.

Even directly in front of me it was impossible for me to comprehend. This incredibly repulsive reality was someone’s job. This was someone’s nine-to-five life every day for at least as long as it takes the city to clean the system out. But I thought a job was supposed to give dignity to its holder. How desperate was this man that he would put himself through such labor? Did he have a family depending on his paycheck? Did the work pay well? Was he there partly because of his caste?  How could the government send these people down there without any protective uniform? Without the boots duct-taped to water-proof jumpsuits, gloves, and masks like they would in America? How far did this man have to travel after work before he could clean himself?

I didn’t stay on the scene for long, but I thought about it for days, forcibly reminded each time I saw buckets rising from other sewers around Varanasi. It disturbed me. I never conceived of that reality being someone’s life. Perhaps as a psychological defense mechanism, empathizing with the man in the hole was nearly impossible.

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Princeton Bridge Year: India 2016-17

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The Man in the Hole

Jack Aiello,Princeton Bridge Year: India 2016-17

Description

After an hour of trying to find internet at a local café that caters to Western tourists and emerging with only a stomach filled with an ice cream sundae, I walked outside to see a pile of pitch-black sludge piled two feet high as a team of men hauled it out from Varanasi’s vast and […]

Posted On

02/16/17

Author

Jack Aiello

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    [post_content] => "Have you seen X soap opera?"
"No, they don't have a TV."
That was back on one of our first days here in Banaras, and I didn't realize until I'd said it that my family was different from the others. Not different in a big way, not by a long shot. But it took only that small moment of response to make me contemplate a lot of things about my experience. A.) For the first time, I really pondered the background of my family. What were their finances like? Mata-ji certainly didn't dress as fancy as Leila's married host sister, Sweetie-ji... Were they from the same caste? Did it matter? B.) Was it bad that I didn't realize that other families would have TVs? Did I put India in a terribly uneducated and stereotyped box? I hoped I wouldn't do that so often in the future. I really, truly did. C.) I didn't care in the least. Maybe that, too, was bad on some level. Maybe I had in my head that I would be deprived of simple pleasures and luxuries over the course of this year and having something as Western as a TV didn't fit that bill. (When did I even start referring to things as "Western"?) The soap operas themselves clearly were Indian, anyway. With Indian actors, unmistakable head bobbles and classic dramatic stares at the camera (or so I'm told.) But this is one form of extra Hindi practice I wasn't receiving. And that was okay. Because as I thought about the TVs, I wondered if they even were a privilege. Yes, it is a blessing to be financially secure enough to make so large a purchase and continue to pay a monthly bill without worry… But is it really a luxury to spend hours a day- who knows how much of your life- sitting next your family members but never interacting besides your shared position with eyes gazing at the millions of little colorful pixels on the rectangle in front of you? 'Welcome home, this is your intensive cultural immersion experience. Please learn about our culture through these actors thousands of kilometers away.' Maybe I'm too critical. Maybe that is a good way to learn the real life of India. Because it is. It is real life for many people. That's what we're here to see, to observe, to ponder, to live. And if that living includes an hour or two of soap opera watching that's as religiously in the schedule as the morning pooja, then so be it.
That's just not the experience I've come to know. I forget sometimes that this is the reality of other Indians, and get thrown off sometimes when they inquire about it.
"Your family locks up by 9:30? They must not watch TV then??" our guru ji asked incredulously last night at Hindi class.
"They don't have a TV." And again, I thought about all the perceptions I'd had about that sentence when I'd said it the first time. And I think of all the memories I have now because I am able to say it. I know my family in greater intimacy because we're the only entertainment there is. No TV, no games, just us. My uncle often jokes that we should "turn on the TV" and points his imaginary remote at my little brother when climbs up and starts dancing on the three legged table in the corner of the room, but he's not so far off- We the people are the entertainment. That means the dialog I listen to before bed are the sarcastic jokes of my uncle or my mata-ji wishing me "shubrathri." It means the drama I witness is the intensity in my 12 year old sister's eyes as she tells me in hushed tones about her best friend's boyfriend, or which of her lifelong friends are now her "enemies." That means my nightly comedy comes in the form of organic laughs that bubble from deep inside me as I see the pure joy and exhilaration on my four year old brother's face as I hold his hands and spin him in circles so it feels like he's flying, his little body parallel to the frigid cement floor. I don't need a screen to show me what love is when I can feel it radiate from the smiles of my host grandparents. And I don't want a box to distract me from the rare art form that is interacting with the family in the flesh right beside me.
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Days of Our Lives

Kayla Memis,Princeton Bridge Year: India 2016-17

Description

“Have you seen X soap opera?” “No, they don’t have a TV.” That was back on one of our first days here in Banaras, and I didn’t realize until I’d said it that my family was different from the others. Not different in a big way, not by a long shot. But it took only […]

Posted On

01/31/17

Author

Kayla Memis

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