“The spectacle [of Calcutta] is altogether the most curious and magnificent I have ever met with.”- William Bentinck, 1805
Right from the moment I entered the city, I hear the song from the movie Kahaani “Aami Shotti Bolchi” playing as a background tune in my head. It had rained just as we landed and so everything looked green and fresh. The first sights as we drive into the city are of the yellow ambassadors, numerous sweet shops, traffic police in white and Bengali writing everywhere.
Everything about Bengali culture seems to be round. Roshogullas are round. Women wear round red bindis. Typically, Bengali people’s faces are round and to top it all the language is filled with O’s. Nandi Bagan where we get off our bus to reach work becomes Nondi Bogan. And Chandan, a co-worker, who helped us figure out using public transport to work, is referred to us Chondan! We now live close to Rabindra Sarovar metro station but to a taxi driver that would be Robindra Sorobar metro station (yes, they also make V’s into B’s)! Even the food they eat whether it be puchkas (pani puri), or lucchis (puris), or kachoris (yup, already tried all that!) are all round!
The city is super dirty, dusty and pretty ancient. People are so relaxed and I rarely find them in a hurry (travelling on the metro is a big exception). At every single street corner you see a sweet shop, a medical shop and a group of men playing cards or popping a squat next to a chaiwalla for their daily dose of adda. Coming from a fast paced city like Mumbai where everyone walks like they are on a mission, I have to slow myself down to fit in. I was under the impression that Mumbai traffic was bad until I experienced a number of hours stuck in buses and taxis waiting for it to move. There seems to be chaos everywhere. You hear honking, screaming, Bengali music blaring almost everywhere you go. The bus conductors yell out to people to get them on their buses, people yell out what they are selling on the streets, the men at the mango lassi stall entice you with their big yellow mugs of cold mango lassi topped up with dried fruits and sweets. There is congested traffic, crowds of people and shops filled with merchandise overflowing onto the street.
After a few days of being lost and confused, even within this chaos you start seeing a system. On the bus, women sit on the left and men on the right. They ask you where you are getting off and tell you where and when you should sit down. Shared autos are the weirdest, yet the best experience. A set of 5 individuals scramble into the auto and the driver is perfectly happy being squished from all sides. Each person pays Rs. 6 irrespective of where they are going, so you just use it as a hop-on hop-off service! The best experience during my commute so far was riding in this super fancy auto with brilliant green, blue and pink lighting with Shahrukh Khan tunes to enhance the ultimate auto rickshaw experience. Commuting on the metro is a huge challenge everyday. Being a vegetarian, I’ve never really seen sardines in a can, but I assume they are packed pretty tight and that is what we experience on the metro. I have never been close to so many people in my life and the aroma of freshly oiled hair and the grimy effects of humidity all engulf you as you make your way into the metro.
Despite the clouds of polluted smoke, extreme noise pollution, hordes of people and garbage everywhere, there exists a charm in this city. In order to appreciate this charm and enjoy it you have to go with the flow of the city. You see it in the elegant sari clad women who always look so put together in their crisp Bengal cottons, despite the high levels of humidity that make me look like I’ve been in a thunderstorm. Every little mud pot of mishti doi is basically a piece of heaven in a cup. The Bangla music, that gives you a sense of pride even if you don’t belong here, playing loudly at every metro station and traffic junction. The smiling faces you see and the concern shown by the old lady who wanted to make sure I take her seat on the bus as she was getting off on the next stop. The amazing downpour of rain and little Rs. 2 kulhar chai you can get while you try to stay dry under the tarps of a corner teashop. The hospitality shown by the wonderful new neighbors who came together to help us settle down offering us tea, potatoes, utensils and whatever they could offer. Last but by no means the least, the sense of anticipation, pride and excitement for Durga Puja that we can feel the whole city gearing up towards. In all these experiences, I have already discovered so many new things about India that I have never seen before while also finding comfort and a sense of belonging in things more familiar.
The best apart of it all is getting to know Calcutta Kids. They impress me more and more everyday. They have such amazing success stories and are all about the best quality of care that they can provide. Every health worker is so well trained, has a good understanding of health and the ability to motivate other women to lead a healthy life. We have been inducted into the organization by accompanying the health workers didi’s on their field visits into the community. We see them counseling pregnant mothers, mothers with newborn babies and mothers of malnourished children. They are able to express themselves so clearly and by just merely following them around you can see public health in action. The health workers talk to the mothers almost like a sister and counsel them using a strict yet loving tone of voice. They give the mothers and children dietary advice, check up on their medication and even give them inputs on how to keep their house clean.
The most interesting visit was when one of the health workers counseled a husband on the importance of being supportive towards his pregnant wife, who was crying because she felt very weak and sick. Mothers eagerly wait to see the face of the health worker in their area. It was even more exciting to be recognized as a member from Calcutta Kids when I went on field visit by myself. I have enjoyed playing with all the adorable babies that come visit the health clinic. I am so excited to work with this organization for the next 9 months and be a part of the amazing work they are doing by bringing higher learning of public health to the grass root level of Fakir Bagan.
Getting to work from the very first day that we got here and figuring out housing by talking to tons of brokers have all resulted in me being thrown into the whirlwind that is this city. Luckily, we found an apartment and we are all set to explore everything Bengali. We have already had to wade through flooded areas a number of times since we got here and have thus tested the waters quite literally! These last 2 weeks have already been a roller coaster of emotions. Excitement while trying to figure out a new city and all it has to offer, frustrations of dealing with difficult people while finding a new home, tired from being shoved in the metro and nervous about so many new experiences. I agree with all the lyrics of the Kahaani song but most of all that, “Jitne bhi door jaao, dil se na far hai, Kolkata dekho toh baaki duniya bekaar hai” (No matter how far you go, it is never far from your heart, if you see Kolkata, the whole world is nothing compared to it). For me, Kolkata bhalobasi!