We have left India behind us at Howrah Station, and now we enter foreign parts. No, not wholly foreign. Say rather too familiar. –Rudyard Kipling, English author of The Jungle Book
The Setting: Kolkata, West Bengal, India
India is a country of many paradoxes, goes the honest cliché. For anyone who’s ever visited, it’s a little bit disorienting. Viewing it from my American eyes, and my limited experience in India, it’s insane that anything works at all. The flow of traffic, for example, is spontaneous and yet seemingly calculated; like blood flow in capillaries, the pressure gradually builds until one side of the intersection bursts forward in a gush. I’m usually in a state of constant amazement. The senses are overwhelmed with smells (delicious and disgusting) and sights (colorful and mundane), and somehow it all becomes coherent. The line between ugliness and beauty, chaos and order, symphony and cacophony are blurred, and all the while life progresses. Tagore, seeking to explain this phenomenon, stated, “To a western observer our civilization appears as all metaphysics as to a deaf man piano playing appears to be mere movements of fingers and no music.”
Calcutta, within this landscape of extremes, is one of the most extreme cities. I’ve never been, but these are the most common reactions, in order of frequency, I’ve gotten from family and friends who have been to Bengal:
- Eye-widening and a general sense of disbelief that I was voluntarily going to Calcutta
- Descriptions of the crowdedness (the greater urban area has 14.1 million people without, obviously, great urban planning- and that’s what’s on the books. That’s more than the state of Ohio in one small, cramped area) or intense heat/humidity.
- Opinions of the food as either delicious or horrible, depending mostly on a person’s opinion of seafood. (“Rice and fish make a Bengali” the saying goes. The other phrase I’ve heard is “Give a Bengali a fish, and he’ll feed his family. Teach a Bengali to fish, and there won’t be any fish left.”)
- Waxing poetic: Calcutta was (and is?) the cultural capital of India, and produced the greatest artists (the director Satyajit Ray, for example, who influenced Martin Scorcese, Wes Anderson, and George Lucas), authors, musicians (George Harrison’s bud sitar great Ravi Shankar), and poets (along with revolutionaries, when those were needed). There’s a kind of artistic and intellectual gene that runs through the populace of Calcutta.
As for me, I had little expectations of Calcutta (or Kolkata speaking bureaucratically) other than that it was the home of the Hulk in his off-season.
What I did know of Calcutta, though, was what most people know about it: a site of enormous and unparalleled poverty and deprivation, and a place of similarly huge service and compassion from visiting missionaries (but one that would never be sufficient to ease the massive suffering). Mother Teresa is the dominant figure of course, with her slogan of “Calcutta is my workshop.” The Albanian-origin, Roman-Catholic nun won the Nobel Peace Prize, and served as an inspiring example of dedicating one’s life to helping the less fortunate. In my home as a child, as in many homes across the globe, Mother Teresa was put up as an icon and someone to imitate for dedicating her life to bettering the lives of others. Despite complication around her legacy in Calcutta and on so-called development work in general, the purity of her motivations cannot be denied (and have been sanctified, it should be noted, by the Catholic Church through her beatification). 
What I’m Doing in Kolkata Why I’m Doing What I’m Doing in Kolkata
“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” –Kurt Vonnegut
Why exactly am I going halfway across the world? I definitely won’t be vacationing (which is the first thing the stewardess apparently thought as she saw my final destination of Calcutta: “Enjoy your vacation!”). And I’m definitely not voyaging into heavily unknown territory to play pick-up street soccer for a year (although that’s an added benefit).
Officially speaking, I’m an America India Foundation (AIF) William J. Clinton Fellow for Service. AIF places fellows with organizations (mostly non-profit) working in India in a broad subset of fields, including human rights, education, alternative energy, and public health. I’m working with Calcutta Kids, a group that works with the health of mothers and children in the Fakir Bagan slum across the bridge in Howrah. Reading the story of their creation from Calcutta Kids’ founder Noah Levinson is worthwhile, and it gives keen perspective into the driving force of Calcutta Kids. It’s riveting, and thoughtful, and part of the reason why I put down Calcutta Kids as my top choice.
But the “what” interests me less in this post (since I’m sure will be covered in future posts in excruciating detail), than the “why,” and especially concerning that last tricky word in the too-long job title : Service.
It gives me pause whenever I undertake something someone classifies as “service.” It troubles me for two reasons, both having to do with the ugly reality of the existence of my Ego:
1) How much of this is just to create an image of myself for others?
2) Am I doing this to make myself feel better about myself? And my own sense of self-worth? (The old White Man’s Burden problem, but I guess in this case it would be the Brown Man’s Burden.)
These two questions bother me, and itch at me slightly, and of course there’s a certain irony to exploring these questions through the blogosphere. A third motivation, a non-egotistical one, is doing service compassionately, by which I mean for its own sake. Figuring out when my motivations fall into the third category though isn’t easy, and in order to discern whether I’m doing something for the right reason, I have to dig back further in my own familial history.
This was my grandfather. A Cliffnotes version of his life: he grew up in rural Andhra Pradesh. His father worked on a farm, and his father’s father worked on a farm. My grandfather, however, had different plans, and different ambitions for the future. He studied hard, traveled to the New World with his family and few connections, and became a university physics professor.
We all have this story at some point in our familial history; a story of sacrifice and risk in order to ensure the next generation lives better lives. In the end it’s a universal desire: people want to better their circumstances, both for themselves and for their families. My deepest motivator is to help people do that for themselves, and the way I’m doing it is by being involved with improving health, a key prerequisite for accomplishing any of those things.
In the end, I feel fortunate. Forget the “1%”; anyone reading this with a computer, including me, is in the top 0.00001% of human lives that have ever graced the earth. But the other side of feeling fortunate as the recipient of the benefits of someone else’s struggle, I also feel a sense of deep obligation and responsibility stemming from living a life that was gifted, a life of relative abundance.
What to Expect
From the get-go, I’ll try to promise two ideals that I’ll try to reach for, but probably won’t reach fully in every post: Authenticity and Interestingness.
I place a premium on honesty, and I hope that this blog, as a reflection of my experience, will ring true. I want to present reality as it is, not as I want or hope it to be. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The glass here isn’t half-full, or half-empty. It’s just a half glass of water.
The second, interestingness, is also dependent on you and your attention span (which, if you’re this far, you’re doing pretty good). But I refuse to blog everyday (“Here’s my breakfast today, again!” or “Here’s the crazy traffic, again!”), and will probably be posting once a month, with longer posts like this one.
To sum up, when I spoke to people, what I heard was that the whole enterprise sounded painful. Why suffer through unbearable heat and overpopulated buses? Why attempt to engage in the so-called development process, and join Calcutta Kids? Why go through all this trouble? To respond to them I can only quote a wiser man than I:
Trouble?! Life is trouble. Only death is not trouble –Zorba the Greek
 Quoted from a great book on India by Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India. Rabindranath Tagore was a brilliant author and musician from Calcutta who won the Nobel Prize for Literature and wrote the national anthems of not one, but two countries: India and Bangladesh.
 Martin Scorcese on Satyajit Ray’s influence: “I was in high school and I happened to see ‘Pather Panchali’ on television. Dubbed in English. With commercials. “It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter. The image of the Indian culture we had had before, and I’m talking I was 14 years old or 15 years old, were usually through colonialist eyes. And when Satyajit Ray did his films you suddenly understood not the culture, because the culture was so complex, but you became attached to the culture through the people, and it didn’t matter what they were speaking, what they were wearing, what their customs were. Their customs were very, very interesting and surprising, and you suddenly began to realize there are other cultures in the world.”
– Washington Post, February 28, 2002
 Indian cities switch their name to more “authentic” spellings and pronunciations depending on how they feel about the whole “British colonization and domination” period of their history. See also: Bombay/Mumbai, Madras/Chennai, Bangalore/Bengaluru. There’s about thirty more where those came from. Indians (very generally speaking) have mixed feelings about the abuses of colonialism, but are generally positive about the benefits of trains, tea time, and the language of English.
 An interesting anecdote from Calcutta: A Cultural History: “At a rudimentary rehabilitation center for refugees from Bangladesh, Senator Edward Kennedy spotted one of Mother Teresa’s nuns, Sister Agnes, washing the clothes of a cholera patient and wanted to shake her hand. When she said her hands were dirty, he replied: ‘The dirtier they are the more honored I am.’”
 The recently passed-away writer/public intellectual/face of New Athiesm Christopher Hitchens, who I almost never agree with but always enjoy reading, wrote an extremely critical article of her entitled “The fanatic, fraudulent Mother Teresa” and wrote a full book condemning her. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/fighting_words/2003/10/mommie_dearest.html
People native to Calcutta have mixed opinions too: “The main reason for discomfort is that Mother Teresa made Calcutta synonymous with poverty and slums in the mind of non-Indians.” (Calcutta: A Cultural History, Krishna Dutta)
“Sudip was one of the kids still in line when the medicine and bandages ran out. I remember watching him and feeling particularly bad about his unattended injury. He had bumped his forehead against the head of a rusty nail just days before and urgently needed treatment. Now, a year later, here was Sudip, dying of that head injury and lying on a cot at the Home for Dying Destitutes. I was with Sudip constantly until the following day when he died in my arms.”
 For the record, I am being paid a salary through the American India Foundation, enabled by the generous donors to the trust. I am indebted and grateful. It’s an important fact to note, though, when we’re talking about the notion of selflessness in service.