Midlertidig Varanasikorrespondent i Kolkata.

I forrige uke couchsurfa jeg i Kolkata, Vest-Bengal. Hun jeg sov hos, Madhu, jobba i The Bengal Post, og før jeg visste ordet av det satt jeg en sein natt i leiligheten hennes og hjalp kollegaen hennes ut av hvem-skal-skrive-lørdagens-reiseartikkel-knipa.. Så jeg skreiv om Varanasi, og om å lære hindi der. Du finner den på side 9 i denne e-utgaven, men jeg bestemte meg for å likesågodt poste artikkelen her. De brukte ikke noen av bildene jeg gav dem i avisa, så jeg tillater meg å bruke noen av mine egne her.

There are very few people studying Hindi in Norway, and I happen to be one of those rarities. When a new semester began in August, I found myself not on my way to an auditorium in the largest university in Norway (University of Oslo) for a lecture, but rather, sweating and slightly culture shocked in a makeshift classroom with a bunch of other Scandinavians in Varanasi, India. We were going to start speaking Hindi.

For one year, up until this fall semester, I had been practicing the retroflex and nasal sounds, reading children’s stories and memorizing an enormous amount of verb conjugations, and got away with mainly written exams. Suddenly I found myself in the city where this language, distantly related to my own, is spoken. And not just in any Hindi-speaking city, but in the city to which thousands of Hindu pilgrims flock every year to take a holy bath in ‘Ganga maiya’, and where there are lanes so narrow that riding even a cycle rickshaw there would mean a total blockage of traffic.

Varanasi is a city where chances of meeting a sadhu, a backpacker or a cow on the street are equally likely. It is also a city where life used to be very tranquil back in the old days, when the narrow lanes had plenty of space for the few people who happened to live there. However, the city which claims to be one the oldest continuously living cities in the world has now become congested with heavy air pollution, thereby suffering a fate similar to a lot of other rapidly developing Indian cities. Moreover, Varanasi has become a mandatory stop for any dreadlocked backpacker with baggy pants and a Lonely Planet guide in his hands. There is a guesthouse behind every ghat, there is not one rickshaw puller that will tell you less than double the fare if you happen to look like a foreigner, and all the restaurants have banana pancakes or pasta on their menus. If a
firangi girl like me wants to take a peaceful walk along the ghats to look at the variety of activities going on there, it will not be peaceful because every 50 metres on the way, there will be boatmen shouting, “Madam, boat? Hello! Madam! Boat?” Even if you walk fast with headphones on, there is no escaping the offers.

Varanasi has a lot of problems, but it also has a charm that it took a while for me to really appreciate. Being a Norwegian, I come from a country where the population is less than 5 million, and where most things run quite smoothly compared to India. When I came to Varanasi to start my third semester as a Hindi student, there were a lot of things that I normally take for granted, that suddenly had to be figured out; such as, how much should I pay for half a kilo of apples, or where do I get fabric to make kurtis? Haggling is a practically non-existent practice in Norway,and getting a tailor to sew your clothes is totally out of the question unless you are really rich and perhaps a bit old-fashioned. But as soon as one detail after another started to fall into place, I felt more and more at ease. My Varanasi life was finding its shape.

I can firmly say that my Hindispeaking ability has grown radically better compared to how it was when I first arrived in India. I believe that learning the language is the best way of opening a door into the culture and customs of the place you are living in or visiting. There are certain aspects and nuances that are hard to grasp in a language unless you are actually in the place where it is spoken. At the same time, listening to what people are saying around you and reading their newspapers gives you a totally different idea about a society than if you were to only experience it through heavily accented English (which, in my case, is neither my mother tongue nor theirs).

Going by my own experience, speaking Hindi with Benarasi people allowed me to gain a certain sort of respect and have different kinds of conversations than if I were just a tourist that would take a train out the next day. Once my Hindi got better, I did not get ripped off as much as before, and towards the end of my stay I never had to haggle with the local vegetable sellers. But becoming more fluent in Hindi also meant that I was able to have longer conversations with the people I met, and more often than not, I would be left with a lot to think about. By the final week of my three-month-long Hindi course I was not only able to settle a decent price with a rickshaw puller, but also ask him whether he had eaten anything that day. And after hearing that he hadn’t, I would give him a couple of ten rupee notes more and tell him to go and have some food.

With knowing more about another culture and speaking its language comes certain responsibilities — you become a part of that society in a way. Understanding more also gives you an opportunity to give something back. I think a lot of tourists that visit Varanasi go there to have their share of whatever Varanasi has to offer them, to ‘get’ something from the spiritual ambience. Then they go back home and tell their friends and family how utterly bizarre and exotic the place seemed, and how they sat and drank chai in these tiny tea stalls in the narrow, busy gullies, or stood and watched the cremation fires on Manikarnika ghat. What finally made me adjust and feel at home in
Varanasi was not concentrating on all the things I found strange and exotic about the city, but rather, doing things like riding my rented bicycle in the chaotic traffic or talking to the man that fixes people’s sandals. Speaking Hindi was mydoorway into this religiously and historically important city in India.

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