So I have this problem. The backpack that I carry on my one and a half hour commute to and from work hits my back at a point which catches my kurta and causes it to slowly rise, revealing to the world a behind unmasked by a second layer of cloth. While this consistent unintentional scandelization of the citizens of Kolkata is profoundly annoying, it has helped to introduce me to a very important part of the Bengali’s character an extreme concern and helpfulness.
When the unfortunate kurta raising occurs, the people of Kolkata are relentless in informing me that I am scandalizing the people around me. However, to approaches to inform me are diverse. There are the dignified taps on the shoulder by sari-clad older woman on the subway. The tap is followed by a whisper in your ear or a slow tug on her own kurta (demonstrating the action I should take). There are aggressive woman on the street that just come up behind you and pull down your kurta themselves and then continue along their way. There is the occasional scream from a passing car, cycle rickshaw or from half way down the street, “ ma’am, your dress.” One time, a woman stopped her car, had her driver wait on the other side of the road, got out of the car and ran after me to inform me of the state of my kurta. This city has some extreme commitment to me not embarrassing myself.
Now I know that it is perhaps a bit racist to lump one of the largest ethnic groups in India together as universally demonstrating a personality trait, but it is just so different from my other India experiences. Ask directions in Delhi and I would get maybe a grunt or a finger point, usually in the wrong direction. Ask directions in Kolkata, you make a new friend. The West Bengali will not only tell you where to go, but what bus goes there, how much the auto should be and what are the best kathi rolls on the way. Sometimes, when telling you where to go is just too difficult (as it often is in a city where every street has three names) an Auntie will grab your hand and take you on a series of half a dozen buses that eventually result in a safe arrival at your destination. I can attribute the fact that I am not still wandering around the suburbs of Kolkata to a few of these very special aunties.
I get calls from office informing me not to wear jewelry for my early morning workouts due to a string of dawn jewelry thieves. People pull me out of the way of speeding cars. People pull me back from the oncoming metro car. They ward off menacing dogs with sticks. They hold my heavy bag on the metro when they are seated and I am standing. They advise me that the placement of my phone is ripe for stealing. They check that I have received appropriate change for banana purchase and then scream at the banana seller for my additional rupee. Someone ran down the street to chase after me with ten rupees that I had dropped out of my bag. Seriously.
The concern of the Bengali’s is the paramount where it intersects with the Bengali’s greatest interest, food. My mornings at the office start off with questions about whether I have taken my breakfast and what I took for my breakfast. Commentary about the breakfast ensues. My mentor announces most days,“ Two bananas will just not do . You Around 11, the discussion begins about what I will have for lunch and when I will take my lunch. Post 2, the talk of the office is what I had for lunch and post 3 P.M talk looks forward to my dinner choices. On Friday afternoons, there is a call for a full account of my weekend meal plans and Monday morning requires a recount weekend meals.
Now before you pack your bags and head toward Kolkata thinking that it is a utopia of kindness, know that there is another side, a darker side and more pushy side to the Bengali concern. Let me give you an example. I was waiting for a friend at a small hotel bar. Like most days I had the slight sniffles of a person who lives in a city where they burn the majority of their trash. I ordered a drink and asked for some ice to cool make my gin and tonic so it was not the temperature of bathwater. The waiter responded, “Ma’am you should not take ice, you have a cold.” He then walked away with the ice bucket and never returned. I was left to drink an overpriced lukewarm cocktail. I was going to this waiter’s advice whether I liked it or not.
This pushy side to the Bengali kindness is often unpleasant if not painful. Stand to close to the oncoming local train because you are distracted by an intense scrabble competition with your iPhone, ten or twenty woman in saris will scream at you. They may be screaming in Bengali, but the meaning is clear. “You stupid girl, you are listening to your music and not paying attention, you are going to kill yourself and then we will have to clean up your dead body.” Then they aunties will stare you down the whole two-hour ride to Diamond Harbor. Nothing can be a worse punishment. It makes you feel about four years old.
Maybe the ultimate example of this tough love can be demonstrated on one of my recent field visits. I was riding a bus from training center to training center with one of the Anudip trainers. I had dozed off due to extreme heat and lack of appropriate coffee intake and apparently was unable to be woken by the trainer screaming my name from the other side of the bus. The man next to me took it on himself to make sure I got off the bus and slapped me across the face. I looked at him shocked. He smiled at me and pointed to the trainer behind me. The trainer looks at my slightly reddened face and says “good your up.” We went along our way.
While this concern might be overwhelming some days, I can attribute a great deal to the concern of the people of West Bengal. I still have all my limbs. All of my electronic items are still in my possession. I have probably decreased the intensity of my sniffles thanks to the concerned waiters of Kolkata. I am slowly adjusting to this world where everyone is concerned about me without the expectation of getting something in return. I think I will eventually grow to really like it, as long as I do not get slapped again.