I’ve been in Kolkata for three weeks and I feel both completely at home and like a visitor in a foreign city. Kolkata has reignited my love-hate relationship with India. It has gently woken me up and reminded of the many things about India that I had blissfully forgotten about or purposely shoved out of my mind – traffic, pollution, bureaucracy, heat, poverty, social stratifications, inefficiencies. It has also evoked my sense of belonging and my sense of purpose in being in India. I love India for its rich cultural heritage, for its traditions and rituals and melting pot of religions and languages. Kolkata has stirred up the mix of emotions I feel while in India, and for that, I am thankful.
Of the three weeks in the city, I’ve only actually been to work at Anudip for a week and a half (because of Durga Puja). In that short time however, I’ve had some excellent conversations with co-workers and learned so much about their diverse backgrounds (I’ll save that for a future post). I also had the chance to go on a site visit to Metiabruz, a totally conservative Muslim town just outside of Kolkata where we conduct MAST training and have a Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) center. This trip was incredible and it was so wonderful to interact with the girls we’ve helped. Their average age is about 20-25 but there are some older women and a couple who are married. Any visiting girl walking around Metiabruz without a dupatta (scarf) on is stared down and any Muslim girl who walks the streets without her abaya or burqa on is scowled at. Regardless of the barriers women face in this society, these girls were ambitious, innocent and inquisitive. We shared some really thoughtful conversations and I can’t wait to interact with them consistently over the next 10 months.
Durga Puja interrupted my work schedule bringing with it what felt like two other cities populations into one, hotter weather, louder sounds and greasier food. It’s hard to believe that Durga Puja has both started and ended and for the first time, I’ll be seeing the Kolkata at a normal pace of life, shrunk back to it’s given population. The last 10 days off from work have been relaxing, busy, exhausting, fun and stimulating. It’s been nice hanging out at home, getting more comfortable in our apartment, redecorating and making a new city home. We spent a lot of time walking around our neighborhood at various times of the day and night to check out this Puja fuss – at the corner, in the middle or at the end of every street, there was a differently themed pandal. A pandal is basically a structure that holds the goddess Durga idol within it. The reason these pandals are so cool is because they are all unique and you won’t find any two pandals that look alike. There were also competitions, awarding the best pandal a trophy prize. It was almost like Christmas and New Year’s combined – lights everywhere, people wearing their best, singing, blowing horns, fireworks, praying, eating, celebrating. For five nights in a row, I fell asleep to the sound of birds chirping and celebratory dhol (drum) sounds and awakened to the sound of birds (still) chirping and a priest chanting over the neighborhood loud speaker.
Personally, this time of year is usually my favorite because of Navaratri – nine nights of raas-garba dancing! Unlike in Gujarat, West Bengal does not celebrate the dance aspect of this festival but rather focuses on the pandals and the Puja itself. Nevertheless, my ‘Guju’ instincts got the better of me and I discovered a venue where they would be holding Navaratri celebrations! Thus, on Monday night, Margy, Jenn, Oliver and I wore our dancing best and made our way to Netaji Indoor Stadium (an AC venue with 21 live drummers and 13 singers from Gujrat). We arrived about an hour late, anticipating IST (Indian Standard Time) but were still early – nothing started until an hour-and-a-half after it was supposed to! Although we had a fun night, Bengalis garba very differently than Gujus in Kutch, Boston or San Diego do. They skipped straight to raas and we enjoyed about two hours of dandiya dancing, hopping from group to group, making new friends. After a brief intermission where special guests were honored/made to dance on stage (Thai Consulate General and his wife), the atmosphere changed completely. Lights dimmed and DJ Akash broke out his best Bollywood hits! After a few hours of Bollywood Disco Dandiya and bonding with a fun Marwari family (the 12-year old boy had some hilarious moves!), we called it a night and made our way to the metro station. Even at 12:45am, the metro was more crowded than ever – Bengalis sure do enjoy their holidays…
As the Bengalis so adamantly believe, peht puja must always happen before Durga Puja – you must take care of your stomach before you can serve God. Therefore, I’m not too embarrassed to admit that we spent half a day at Haldiram – a wonderful Rajasthani sweets, snacks and everything else store. After being in India for one month, I finally enjoyed some chaat which was both delicious and totally hygienic and drooled over all the chocolatey desserts (including chocolate butter rosogullas!). I’m also back on my regular intake of fresh coconut water (daaber pani in Bengali) which is both hydrating and filling (and totally necessary when you’re sweating profusely).
I eagerly await the coming days in Kolkata filled with vibrant festivities, inspiring work and delectable food. Bring it on, India!