Now that I am living in Delhi, sometimes when I meet someone for the first time, I surprise them with a bit of cultural insight about India. I reference my favorite Saas-Bahu serial, mention the antics of Bollywood stars or crack a joke about some other bit of Indian life that usually goes unnoticed by foreigners. My blond hair and American accent mark me as someone who is most likely not Indian, and so I am always asked the question, “How do you know so much about India?” My automatic reply is, “I grew up in Banaras.” This remark is usually met with confusion, so I explain. I was not born in Varanasi. I had never been to India before I was 21, but still I feel justified in saying that Varanasi, with all of its cows, temples and narrow alleys, is my home. Every experience I have had in India since the first day I arrived at my home by Assi Ghat has been seen through the lens of my life there by the Ganges.
I came to Varanasi a little over two years ago on an exchange program that focused on learning Hindi and conducting field projects about Indian society. I had been planning my trip to India for two years, and my mind was set on falling in love with whatever I might encounter. Though I had no idea about what to expect from the city, I did know one thing for sure: I wanted to live with an Indian host family. I figured that living with a family, especially a family that did not speak English, would help me improve my Hindi and also give me the chance to have countless cultural experiences. I was right on both accounts.
When I first met my host family, it was love at first sight. My host mother was a tiny middle-aged woman in a sari who spoke only a few words of English. She kept a good, Hindu household. The house was old and the paint was peeling off the walls, but it felt like a home and seemed like a nice place to call my own for the next year. My host sisters were what really attracted me to the whole family. All of the three girls were younger than me, sweet and spoke just enough English to scrape by in a Hindi medium school. As a younger sister of only one older brother, I had always wanted younger sisters. Without a second thought I signed the lease and moved in to my new life as a daughter in an orthodox Hindu family.
One of the first things that I noticed in my new life was that, though back in the United States even my parents consider me as an adult, capable of making intelligent decisions, in my new family I had been demoted to the status of a child. From the very first night, my host mother lovingly called me beti, coddling me and talking to me in baby talk. Whenever I asked for instructions about how to do a chore, like wash my clothes by hand, or where to buy something in the city, this reinforced the general idea that I was a child that needed to be taken care of.
In many ways, she was correct in thinking that I was a child. Though I had been an adult in the United States, paying my own bills and more or less taking care of myself, I was utterly inept and useless in my new social context. I did not know where to buy necessities like soap. I had no idea how to dress myself in Indian clothes. Even my ability to express myself was, at the time, on par with the ability of a five year old Hindi speaker. I was helpless and confused, as if I had been born again when I got off the plane in Delhi and was now only just learning to stand on my feet in this bright and colorful world of rickshaw wallahs and sadhus.
Like a child, I had no idea how to behave myself properly in social situations. Questions that no one had ever asked me in my life were being thrown at me on a daily basis. “When do you plan on getting married?” and “How much money does your father make?” were questions that I had never had to answer before and did not know how to answer politely. Once I tried to answer a question about my matrimonial plans at a wedding to an elderly woman by attempting in broken Hindi to describe the difference in the notions of love and marriage in American and Indian cultures. To this day I am not sure quite sure what I said, only that she seemed to have been made uncomfortable enough by the end of the conversation to drop the subject.
Even at dinner I faced a myriad of confusions and messes. Like a child, I was gently corrected when I forgot with which hand to eat, or when I made a mess trying unsuccessfully to shovel rice and daal into my mouth with my fingers. My host sisters laughed at me when I was unsure if the blanket being laid down on the floor at meal times was for sitting on or for setting my plate on. I did not even know my chutney from my sabzi. The worst part was that when my host mother asked me if I wanted more food, according to American etiquette, I would feel obliged to say, “yes, a little” even if I wasn’t hungry. This response was always met with heaps of food that I could barely fit into my stomach being spooned onto my plate.
Whenever I put on my shoes to leave the house, I was met with inquiries about where I was going, why I was going, what I was going to do there and when I would be back. I can scarcely remember the last time my real mother asked me those types of questions. In one instance, I was craving a chocolate bar that I could buy from the corner store, but I was so confused about how to answer the inquisitions and so terrified that my host mother would mistake my craving for chocolate as a sign that I was not being fed sufficiently at home, which was definitely not the case, that I just sat in my room for three hours thinking about how to approach the situation. Finally I gave up and decided to just buy chocolate on my way home from school the next day.
I was unsure about how to deal with the comparative lack of privacy in Indian families as well. Even as a child, my parents had always knocked on my door before entering. Here, if I did not lock my door from the inside, my host sisters would just waltz on in and borrow my iPod, returning it when the battery had run out. Sometimes when I came home after classes, I would find strangers, who turned out to be family members, in my room, sitting on my bed drinking tea and eating biscuits. This always left me feeling violated and frustrated with my host mother’s apparent lack of respect for boundaries.
Then, just when it seemed that India would never make sense, things started to fit together in my mind. It started slowly. One of my first monumental discoveries was the answer to any and all questions about my intentions to get married. “Aunty,” I would say in earnest, “right now I am still studying, so I do not want to worry about getting married until after I graduate.” It worked like magic. All questions about marriage and me stopped as soon as I uttered those wonderful, wonderful words.
I learned similar phases and magic words in those first months. I learned that with the use of the word, bhaiya, I could stop eve teasers in their tracks. With phrases in Hindi like “my stomach is full” and “I ate before coming”, I became so good at not letting myself be overfed that I almost stopped eating dinner completely just because I could. Notions, like what I came to refer to as “the rule of three”, became clear to me. The rule of three states that, if you want to say no to something being offered to you in Varanasi, you have to say no three times. If you want to say yes, you say no twice, to make sure that the giver is serious about their offer and then you say yes.
With my growing knowledge, I could feel that my status in my household was changing. My host family started seeing me less like a child and more like a teenager. People in the neighborhood started recognizing me as a polite young woman who speaks fairly good Hindi. I stopped embarrassing myself at weddings and social gatherings. Slowly but surely, I was growing up.
My habits started matching my teenage host sisters. I watched all their favorite serials and danced with them to their favorite 90’s Bollywood hits. My host mother started giving me cooking lessons. My manner of speech became softer when speaking to my elders and louder when arguing with rickshaw wallahs. I started wearing Indian fashions correctly. Even my gait when I walked became slower to mirror the slowness of the city itself. Unconsciously, I started asserting myself in the passive and polite manner of my host mother when faced with social confrontations. When I wanted chocolate, I went out and got it. When I wanted to be alone in my room, I simply pulled rank on my host sisters and told them to leave. Like a ball of knots, my world in Varanasi was slowly untangling itself before me.
Through this process, I found myself changing and growing up, not just in the context of Varanasi or India, but as a person outside of the contexts of one culture or another. Patience, which had not always come naturally to me, was forced upon me in that slow city. Listening became more natural than speaking, as I realized how little I know about the world and found that listening was the best way of coping with cultural confusions.
The moment that I let go of my cultural inhibitions, was the moment when I truly grew up. It was in that moment I learned not just to deal with, but to embrace the intrusion, the over feeding and the closeness of India. I started to really understand and function in the world around me. I finally understood that the endless acts of force feeding was really a show of affection, and that the intrusion into my life and private space that I experienced at home was me being treated like a real family member. The things that had once confused me and even frustrated me when I came are the things that I now treasure and miss most of all.
Banaras may not be the city of my birth, it may not be where my birth parents live or where I took my first steps, but still I feel like it is my home. Its people are my people, its culture in all of its roughness has become my own. Whenever I come home to Varanasi, I feel all of my old habits coming back. I walk slower, talk less and listen more. Especially when I am in India, I feel that my roots go back to Varanasi. So when I meet someone and they ask me why I know so much about India, the simplest answer that I can give is that I have grown up in Banaras.