Sunday, March 22, 2009

Pomp Goes Global: Kolkata, West Bengal

At the start of 2009, I spent a week at Anandwan, a peaceful live-in community in central India for leprosy patients, discussing what it means to be part of a Fellowship. We were twenty some aspiring problem-solvers gathering daily in a room reminiscent of a Bengali adda, or hang-out session. Sitting cross-legged on thin, multi-colored mattresses and pillows, we analyzed our personal encounters with NGO “capacity-building” from the past five months, as sunlight and mosquitoes crept through half-open windows. Energized by the week’s brainstorms, I returned to Kolkata with Fellowship on my mind. Increasingly, I am realizing this is not one but many messy experiences, bundled neatly into a readymade ten-month program.

I left the States to join a grassroots Indian NGO, but it is Kolkata that is my full-time reality. I have a growing affection for this dysfunctional yet warm city, which has become my India, the one I know best. Perhaps I am fond of it because, like me, Kolkata is also full of contradictions.

The capital of West Bengal, one of India’s two Communist states, Kolkata is laidback to the point of complacency. Spoken English, Call Centers and online MBA courses are in vogue here as quick-fix income boosts. However, the NGO scene – flourishing in Delhi and Bombay as a site of legitimate social innovation – is decrepit and incestuous. While there are glimpses of entrepreneurship in the private sector, like my friend’s heritage walking tour company, Calcuttans largely seem indifferent to transforming their drowsy city into a bustling metropolitan (following the likes of Ahmedabad, Hyderabad or Chennai). And so, the sight of skinny rickshaw drivers pedaling furiously – or running barefoot – to keep up with cars is commonplace here. As are crowded roadside tea stands, which serve two rupees of milky goodness around-the-clock to loitering men with dubious day jobs. And though the city’s non-Bengali population is burgeoning with recent arrivals from neighboring states Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, Bengali is obstinately the language of choice in the streets over English, or even Hindi.

My relatives, incredulous as to why a single Bengali American woman would voluntarily relocate to dirty, predatory Kolkata, are convinced I must be lonely. What they don’t realize is that their Kolkata ends with overcrowded markets and Hindu temples, while mine only begins. February, with Saraswati Puja and wedding season, has been a series of sari-wearing occasions. With practice I find myself carrying the yards of fabric with increasing ease, even grace. As I look at the wide-eyed Indian woman in the mirror, the sari begins to seem like just another outfit, not a costume for special occasions as it once did. Then there is the rediscovery of Odissi dance, a long-lost childhood hobby. I spend as many as three nights a week at the studio reminding my body of hand gestures and foot movements and remembering a one-time passion. On auto rides home from class, I memorize dance sequences in my head while the wind rocks the unprotected vehicle and dries my sweaty face. I am never alone here. The competing humdrum of merchants advertising in high-pitched voices; conductors trumpeting routes as they hang from bus doorways; passerby’s arguing belligerently in Bengali about something, anything, follows me all the way home.

-Neela Pal


Anonymous said...

ooh i like this globe-trottin' blog. the pictures are amazing!

Anonymous said...

i love the picture of the lotus blossoms.

Anonymous said...

I do not know, do not know - who you are! But being born and brought up in Kolkata, I know, your post reflects the all new Kolkata spirit from conductors - to the passers by!

"I am never alone here."

Thanks! And this is the compliment we crave for the most!

Anonymous said...

there is a hidden beauty in this piece, much like the hidden beauty i have experienced in calcutta myself.