When I was leaving Sadhana Forest, one of the other volunteers reacted when I told him I was heading to Kolkata next. “Why would you want to go there?” I heard it many times and was always surprised at the question. While the palm trees and warm breezes were wonderful, I couldn’t wait to get back to the North in all its rawness. That IS India to me and I couldn’t wait to see more of it. I got it in Kolkata..
My writing on my travels over the last 8 months has been full of superlatives. I have, after all, seen a lot of incredible things. So I’m left feeling like the boy who cried wolf on this one. But I can honestly say that Kolkata is far and away the most awesome place I’ve seen yet. ‘Awesome’ in the true sense of the word.
Kolkata is like a caricature of all the filthy, gritty, raw, colorful, exciting and rotten things about India that I’d ever imagined. It was mind-bending. As I walked, I felt compelled regularly to just stop and watch. Compelled to observe and plainly stare dumbfounded at how people in this city live, what passes as normal, how callous they’ve all become in their struggle to survive.
It is an ugly place. A place in an advanced, sometimes staggering state of decay. But as I wandered for five days, stunned at times, through the city, I realized that it was decay with incredible character. And I loved it. It was like a wet dream for travelers like me. Everywhere I looked, there was something incredible happening. Not to them (just another Wednesday) but amazing for me, an outsider looking in on what life had become here for those living so close to the street, literally and figuratively.
As I walked down Mirza Ghalib street from my hotel on my first morning in town, I experienced the most surreal 45 minutes of my life. It felt like I was walking through a Discovery Channel special or some old gothic film. Yet it was all very real, right in front of me. There was the guy who slept on the sidewalk outside my window every night,
the six additional guys who slept on sheets on the sidewalk around the corner after spending the entire day excavating the road with only hand tools, the rickshaw puller (like a chariot but powered by his feet instead of a bicycle or engine) that parked his rig on the sidewalk, pulling the seat cushion off and using it as a pillow as he slept on the bare ground each night,
the mange-covered and constantly mating dogs laying in the road oblivious to passing cars and stomping feet (or under a taxi if you’re smart),
the men soaping and scrubbing themselves daily at any available open pump or drain pipe on the sidewalk with people walking all around them,
the man sprinkling bleaching powder along the effluent-draining ditches on the side of the road to kill the stink, the men sitting on the ground tearing huge lead batteries apart with hacksaws and bare hands for scrap plastic, bodies covered in chemicals, the fishmongers sitting on their haunches cutting and scaling fish on ancient looking rusty knives wedged between their feet, flies swarming over piles of dirty fillets lying on scraps of newspaper on the sidewalk, ‘ragpicker’ families rooting through massive piles of garbage with bare hands, searching for anything they can sell,
children bare-bottomed sitting in filth, crying with runny noses, an old man rolling three massive truck tires down the middle of the street with one hand, a man walking monkeys down the street behind two advertising stilt walkers?,
rail thin rickshaw pullers clanging silver bells on their rigs hoping to get your attention and your business (I often wondered if they could make enough to buy enough food to compensate for the thousands of calories they burned each day hauling people around town), food vendors washing dishes with dirty hands without soap in filthy buckets behind their stalls, men in lungis and sashes wrapped around their heads like turbans gathered around chai stands sipping $0.10 cups of tea and puffing hand-rolled leaf cigarettes tied with tiny pieces of red thread, men sitting on street barber chairs (sometimes piles of bricks on the sidewalk) getting lathered up and shaved with straight razors in the sun, some with cars whizzing by leaving just inches between razor-wielding barber elbow and car door,
countless beggars with horrible disfigurements (managed, I’d learn, by begging ‘pimps’ who dole out territory and take a percentage – and sometimes inflict the disfigurements), putrid open outdoor latrines where years of urine cake the once white walls in yellow and orange crystals, women carrying infants and thrusting empty baby bottles in my face as they beg for money, old 60’s era yellow Ambassador cabs careening through street traffic with horns blaring, being reminded of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre as I stepped over rivulets of feces and blood in ancient gothic looking meat markets where blood smeared men nap on the same gore-covered tables where they butcher,
goats wandering around that market oblivious to their coming fate, dogs waiting for scraps, flower markets where the fragrance from thousands of pounds of marigold garlands sold for religious offerings mellows with the stink of urine and garbage into a strange sour,
children living in the bowels of train stations living off of the cast-off scraps of others..
I wrote for hours each day about everything I saw. I wrote feverishly but couldn’t capture all of it. I was astounded by everything, by the way in which it all just.. happens. People have become used to living like this, used to the crush of 15 million people in each other’s faces resulting in a lack of privacy in any form, a lack of shame, a lack of anything in some cases. Many seeming to struggle daily to find food while a sprinkling of the new middle class of Western-influenced young people with clean skin, sunglasses and new shoes step over them while gossiping on cell phones. If it weren’t for the occasional reminder of the massive influence of the West on this culture, I might have thought I’d traveled back in time. It’s as if parts of this city stopped evolving 40 years ago and started decaying, everything becoming more worn, soot-covered and crumbing but more rich in incredible detail and frenzied in pace in the process.
By the way, if you’re wondering where the color went.. I’ve taken pictures almost exclusively in color since I started traveling but almost immediately upon arriving in Kolkata, realized black and white is the only thing that would truly capture the feeling I had walking around its streets. A bit depressing but, again, with such amazing character.
Kolkata is obviously a rough place. You Indie movie buffs might remember the film ‘Born Into Brothels’, about the struggles of children born to prostitute mothers in its slums, which was filmed here. It’s also where Mother Teresa came to spend her life helping those living and dying on the streets in the city. Fascinated by her story and eager to understand just how bad it can get, I spent two afternoons volunteering in Nirmal Hriday, the home she created for the ‘Sick and Dying Destitutes’ in one of the rougher neighborhoods in the city.
They say it was her favorite place to be. The walls are covered in her inspirational quotes and pictures of her, some with the pope during one of his visits in the 80’s. I was full of anxiety before I went, sad, amazed and inspired when I left. Ninety-eight people were living there, sex-segregated, all plucked from near death situations in the streets around the city, all still in bad shape and living on cots on the ground in a drab cement building. During waking hours, a dedicated team of nuns (in the traditional blue and white frock made famous in pictures of Mother Teresa) and volunteers care for them constantly, washing soiled clothes and linens by hand, doling out medications and meals, massaging sore limbs, telling jokes and chatting in broken Hindi, generally doing anything they can to give these people a little love while their bodies fight to get better. Some do get better but many never walk out.
I met volunteers from several countries, some of whom were in Kolkata for their 4th or 5th time to help, like Giuseppe from Italy and Allen from Denmark, spending up to a year at a time keeping Mother Teresa’s work moving forward. After meeting people like that, it’s hard not to feel guilty at how little I do to help those people in my own country, but inspired to change that.
Just as I started to wrap my head around it all, the horrid sanitation and air quality in the city finally took its toll on me in the form of yet another cold and stomach bug. It was time to go. Part of me didn’t want to leave – the part fascinated in the most visceral way with all I’d seen, so far from any life I’d ever know, so raw, true and surreal. But the other, larger part, knew I could never survive in a place like this, like these hearty people living on the razor’s edge.
I’m just a soft white boy.