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Good Morning Varanasi

Varanasi: A Second Home

Written by Katelyn Zaremba and Sarah Norman, 2014 India: Gender & Religion.

Our last night in Delhi was hectic, as are most nights in Delhi. We hoofed it to meet our microbus amongst the crowds of people, motorbikes, dogs, and vendors. We piled all of our backpacks on top of the bus and set off on our very bumpy journey. After about 15 hours on our hot and sweaty bus, we arrived in the magical city of Varanasi.

Our first experience, after everyone freshened up, was meeting with the leaders of World Literacy Canada (WLC). In this meeting we discussed WLC’s mission as well as what our roles in the organization would be for the upcoming days. This was also the first time our group met Gemma, who was an intern for WLC from Canada. Gemma helped us organize our time with WLC, but quickly became a dear friend. She showed us around Varanasi, informed us about the culture of the city, chatted about gender in many different contexts, and she even invited us to her birthday party. We will never forget the kindness and compassion Gemma showed us. She made Varanasi instantly feel like our second home. We are all very grateful for the love of this enchanting city that she shared with us.

Gemma at World Literacy Canada
Gemma’s birthday party was the first time many of us met Roli and we quickly learned that she is a spunky force to be reckoned with. She welcomed us into her home, shovelled food down our throats, and taught us many lessons in the short amount of time we got to know her. One of the main lessons she taught us was that not every Indian woman conforms to the norms and societal expectations in India. Roli is a fierce and independent woman that plans to start her own NGO to help her community back home. She stood out in our minds as someone who advocates for change in India and is not afraid of it. Roli is a woman we admire and we intend to match her passion and ferocity in all our work and lives back home.

The day after, we made the 45 minute trek to Lok Samiti in Mehidiganj. There we met Nandlal Master, his wife Ranju, and their daughter Anjali. This family, as well as many teachers and community members, made sure Lok Samiti remained a safe and communal space for the surrounding villages. They provided education for people and kids that may not have access to education normally, while supporting women’s self help groups in local villages. They also support and advocate local politics and try to make the surrounding communities the best they can be.

In one local village, Coca-Cola opened a factory that sucked all the fresh water from the surrounding area to make their products. For seven litres of fresh water only one litre of Coca-Cola products was produced. This left the people in the surrounding villages without water to farm or drink, leaving the people thirsty and without a way to support their families. Nandlal Master and the supporters at Lok Samiti have been fighting tirelessly for over 10 years to expel Coca-Cola and Pepsi companies from India where they continue to take advantage of rural communities and their resources. His passion and dedication to this cause were an inspiration to us all. We thanked Nandlal Master and everyone at Lok Samiti for the amazing experience by pledging to no longer consume any Coca-Cola or Pepsi products.

New friends at Lok Samiti
Not only did they welcome us with open arms, amazing food, and a wealth of knowledge, they gave us the opportunity to sleep on the roof of one of the buildings in the complex. When we walked up the stairs of the building and saw the set up they had for us, it took our breath away. We slept on cots with no barrier over top of us with a spectacular view of the clear starry night sky above us. We were lulled to sleep by the devotional chanting of a temple nearby, which, when we asked Nandlal Master when it might end he said “Oh, 30 minutes”. It lasted all night and into the morning. That’s true devotion!

Sleeping under the stars after experiencing such an amazing day stirred up many emotions for everyone present: humility, vulnerability, and appreciation. It was a perfect end to a perfect day.

The following day was no less humbling as we visited the work site of the government scheme NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act). We saw how the government scheme funded work for people when they had no other employment opportunities. Still, the wages and the hours were often not enough to support the people and their families. Lok Samiti empowered the workers to advocate for higher wages and longer hours. The situation offered our group a new perspective on manual labour and while we struggled with heat and carrying baskets of clay and dirt for only minutes, the men and women here performed this task for countless hours every day.

We returned to Varanasi that evening and took in the energy of the city by the banks of the Ganga.

Ghats and Ganga

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our journeys and adventures in Varanasi!

Katelyn and Sarah
2014 India: Gender & Religion

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