Learning from Kolkata

It’s been hard to describe this experience to family and friends at home. Words like: busy, bright, stinky, noisy, confusing, colorful, consuming, unstable, joyful, devastating, dirty, historic, treacherous, enlightening, frustrating, spiritual, and hot, just do not quite capture the past month in Kolkata. Surely, it has been all of those things, but the degree to which I have experienced each of these has been greater than anything to which I can compare. This place is busier, brighter, stinkier, noisier, more confusing/consuming/unstable, more joyful and devastating, dirtier, more frustrating and colorful, older and hotter than any place I’ve been – and I’ve just come from eight years in New York City!

The city exploded during Durga Puja, into a giant maze of lights, food, and people. People EVERYWHERE. I now know the unpleasant feeling of having someone else’s sweat trickle down my arms, of being splashed by an extreme load of paan spit, and of being crammed in a metro car so full I missed my stop twice and thought I would pass out because I was unable to take full breaths. I now know the beauty of pandals, the artistic mastery of my neighbors, and the reverence and exuberance for the Goddess Durga in all her forms. I’ve heard drums in the evening and chanting in the early hours of the morning. I’ve learned about Tagore, Navratri, Mother Teresa, and the unique Bengali view on Gandhi. I’ve started to understand slum living and the health challenges and options for women and children with very little means.

I’m getting a little more Bengali every day. Strangers still treat me like a foreigner, trying to charge me more than anyone else I know for very simple things, but my co-workers are teaching me how to look the part. So far, I’ve been scolded for not wearing bangles and not painting my toenails. When I got bangles, I had to learn how to wear them correctly (equal parts on each wrist – neither wrist should be bare), and I got a nod of approval after painting my toes. I was told the elastic band in my hair will not do, and I was taken to purchase a clip. I’ve also been told to wear a bindi (“if your husband allows it”), so people in the slum can more easily know that I am married (and when they do, they all pester me about not having children!). I love all of this advice and counsel. Even if it doesn’t help me anywhere else, as a newcomer to India, I want to be as respectful as possible and fit into the neighborhood where I work as well as I can, blonde hair and all.

Work is confronting and can be quite sad. A severely malnourished child came into the clinic this week, after his mother refused to include him in our nutrition program. He is now suffering from severe diarrhea as well, and we had to refer him to a hospital for additional treatment because he is beyond our care. Mother Teresa said: “Do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired. Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.” Over one month into this journey, I’m trying to remember these words. I firmly believe that it is through small things that great things are able to happen. And as I begin with the small things – infant children and their mothers – I am seeing great things happening in this huge country.


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2 thoughts on “Learning from Kolkata

  1. I think someone once said Calcutta assaults the senses. You are experiencing it and seem to be adjusting to it. This is Mother’s city . You rightly draw inspiration from her words.

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