City of Joy
I looked into the eyes of a rapist at a criminal court case hearing on a Friday afternoon in September. I kissed the tomb in which Mother Theresa’s body rested on Tuesday. I listened to the rhythmic beats of a dhol (drum) at a puja (prayer session) on a late Wednesday night, as the scent of burning sandalwood incense filled the air. I read excerpts from my favorite poem written by the Bengali writer, Rabindranath Tagore, at a train station yesterday evening.
Kolkata, you’ve taken my breath away.
In many ways, the sights and sounds of the city reminded me of New York. From the immense crowds in Tollygunge to the sprawling outdoor markets at Lake Market, Kolkata, like New York, was a city of activity. My morning commute, which consisted of a 15 minute ride on a metro, to a ten minute ride on the auto and finally, a 15 minute bus ride to work, was no different from my commute to work back in New York (a ferry in lieu of the auto of course!) I felt strangely grounded in a city I was not familiar with, in a country 7,000 miles away from home.
Perhaps it was my personal and emotional connection to West Bengal that helped make the transition easier. My parents were born in Kolkata and my grandparents lived in the city for more than twenty years. Though we eventually moved to Bangladesh shortly after the Liberation War, our connection to West Bengal remained as strong as ever. I grew up listening to Robindroshongit (songs written by Tagore) on my father’s old cassette player. He would sing along while reading the local Bangla paper, with a cup of chai in one hand and plate of sondesh (Bengali dessert) in the other. I have fond memories of watching my mother cook a traditional Bengali meal of maach with baath (rice with fish) for dinner. We would celebrate the Bengali New Year and attend social functions that showcased the arts and culture of region. Though the memories were vivid, I must admit I never fully appreciated these things as a child. I was more interested in assimilating and preferred spending time with my American friends.
Years later, I would eventually understand the importance of preserving one’s own language and culture and crafting one’s identity. My parents helped instill a sense of belonging in us. Some people spend their whole lives struggling to find a place to belong to and to find that personal connection to one’s own cultural identity. I was fortunate enough to develop that sense of identity at a very young age. My journey to Kolkata was really, my journey to that place of belonging. I have, in essence, returned home, to the “City of Joy”.
City of Charm
Bengalis are very proud of their heritage. One does not need to look further than the metro to find large murals dedicated to Tagore and Uttam Kumar, the famous Bengali actor, director and producer (both have train stations dedicated to them). The songs I listened to as a child are still played in loudspeakers in local bazaars throughout the city. In every street, there are cultural centers that teach art, poetry and dance for students of all age levels. We were fortunate enough to arrive right before the Durga Puja, an important Hindu festival that celebrates worship of the Hindu goddess, Durga. Pandals (religious structures), each more beautiful than the last, are set up throughout the city. It is a joyous time for all Bengalis, regardless of one’s religious identity.
In addition, this year marks Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary. There are various plays, musicals and poetry recitals dedicated to the Nobel Prize laureate’s works. We attended one wonderful show organized by young students from several schools around the city. Though the Bengali was too advanced to fully comprehend, the way the children grasped the language so well and captured the artistic elements of Tagore’s short stories was incredible.
City of Hope
One cannot escape the signs of poverty in Kolkata. Just a few steps away from our flat, there is a water pump located in the center of our block. Here, young men bathe in the morning while women wait patiently to clean their dishes and collect water. My walk to the Kalighat metro station is heartrending. Abandoned babies sleeping on the street, young children bathing with dirty water, mothers cooking a small meal to feed an entire family: these images are difficult to simply forget.
Yet, there is a sense of hope and resilience in Kolkata. Though poor social conditions exist, there is a strong desire to fight for changes in the system. The men and women I’ve met through my work at my non-governmental organization (NGO), Jeevika, are some of the most dedicated and inspirational people I’ve ever worked with. Jeevika is a women’s rights NGO that works with underprivileged women in 46 villages in the district of South 24 Parganas in West Bengal. All of Jeevika’s interventions center around one primary goal: to ensure and further women’s rights. As part of its Alor Disha program, Jeevika trains women who were once victims of gender-based violence (GBV) to become women’s rights advocates themselves. The System of Rice Intensification program (SRI) teaches villagers how to cultivate rice using cost-effective methods, so they may take control of raising their own crops.
Though I’ve studied and written about development for more than eight years, nothing is as fulfilling as working in the field. I’ve spent only a few days in the villages and have already learnt so much from my observations. I often feel a sense of hope when I watch the villagers engage with our staff members. They refuse to be “victims” of poverty and GBV and have a strong desire to empower themselves through our various programs. My strength is directly tied to the strength of the communities we work with.