Written by Sean McMahon
I still feel a little presumptions calling this place Kolkata, as if, somehow I have become more familiar with it because of my Kolkattan family or their wholehearted and enthusiastic acceptance their latest Jamai before and after my wedding blessing ceremony.
Calcutta or Kolkata, there are parts of this city that look like change will pass them by forever.
The city’s living history comes to life in every unspectacular stroke of metal file on a new, hand built window that manages to already look old or run of a carpenters plane, throwing curled hardwood into the street in front of the sea of people, ebbing and flowing between the surging traffic; behind the discordant symphony of horns and revving engines. As distracting as all of this activity is, Kolkata is pregnant with forgiveness for the absent minded or unaware straying into its machinery.
For my penny, I have never experienced a body of people with so much skill and determination to work, strive and survive. The close proximity of man, machine, logistics and real estate doesn’t appear to be anything but an advantage to the clustered work communities. It’s biomechanical harmony is mesmeric to me, almost making me forget to keep one eye on the traffic.
I got the feeling that my five senses would not keep me feeling safe in Kolkata for long, they were filled to saturation with stimulus within moments of my arrival. I began to realise that this is a city orchestrated for the and by the sixth sense, for all the good and bad that may entail.
A few days into my stay, across the road from my temporary home I watched a girl, likely around three or four years old, washing steel bowls in a sink of cloudy water created by half a dozen missing pavement blocks, an imperfection that proved useful for this task. My focus on her diligent attention to detail was broken when, after she finished cleaning, she took a bag from her home, an ambiguous pile of possessions covers by a frayed tarpaulin, and emptied the contents neatly into the gutter. The admiration briefly washed over with a feeling of judgment and superiority as this counter cultural act took place, then, back to greater admiration even though I couldn’t bear to throw any of my own rubbish in the gutter however many times I was told it was the way here.
On an early morning journey through the back streets from Indian Mirror Street to Newmarket I witnesses a man breaking up shiny black lumps of coal into smaller pieces and later saw a group of women sifting through charcoal ashes for unburnt fuel that had been deposited on mass on the empty pavement. I felt sure they would both be gone by the time the streets filled within the first few hours of daylight, set up in their stalls to sell their daily produce.
Through all this time, the most frequent things I witnessed were signs of worship. Whether it was the shop fronts dedicated to gods, makeshift offertory’s, dedications of food, lime and pepper mandalas or the blessing offered to me before, during and after every interaction with the inhabitants of this city. Despite all the warnings nested in the pre-travel advice of friends, the only pale aggression I witnessed was a from a woman chasing a stray dog from her seat on the street of a folded jute bag. I suppose, given this was the equivalent of her living room, it was a justifiable act. The dog didn’t seem to take offence, it just moved on, happy for the few minutes of comfort that would inevitably end.
The dogs seemed to far outnumber the cats everywhere I went, except at the fish market where their fleet of foot and guile suited the nooks of the stalls. Though they received the occasional brush with the foot of shoppers and sellers alike as they were near impossible to spot when all feline and human attention was on the produce and its preparation for sale. The fish market building was old and only clean where it needed to be. Cables and ropes draped through the rafters, formed an extensive labyrinth or perching positions for the crows, somehow I was surprised how many crows there were all over the city and even in that excess, were the only subjects that resisted me taking photographs. Through all my attempts, they seemed fully aware of my intent and repeatedly out sensed me in jumping away when I got near the perfect shot, making me look like a fool every time, much to the amusement of the traders. I smiled back just to let them know I got the joke. The crows perched above the people and appeared to revel in their superiority being able, any time, to take to the wing and fly above the streets of Kolkata to anywhere else but I suspect the pickings must be too good here for such animals. Later in the day, when I saw two crows fighting over the carcase of a dead rat they didn’t look quite as dignified.
Whilst shopping at one of the many markets in the city, my new Shashuri, a mathematics teacher in the UK, was schooled in arithmetic by a trader on a large order of vegetables for the reception we had were hosting that evening. I remembered my wife pointing out when filling out my visa that the option of ‘illiterate’ was available under educational achievements. She reckoned it could only happen in India but watching this market trader, probably illiterate but with numeracy as a survival skill, a real world lesson in applied mathematics.
There were no rose tinted glasses strong enough for the harshness of Kolkata I had to see the dog with distemper drooling in a catatonic stasis outside the flat as a left for another morning walk, not the best one I experienced as I passed three heroine addicts and a group of dealers selling to prostitutes and pimps. On the same journey I was harassed by a woman begging with two children in tow, one who was maimed then from my blind side I was groped by child begging then offering sex. I managed to side step the team of men trying to get me to some underground stalls in Newmarket and ended up in a narrow street where a skinny dog was wrenching for a moment then projectile vomited and simultaneously exploded with dihoreiha. I doubled back and was almost skewered by 5 meters of aluminium rails run out of a side street by two men who then proceeded into the path of a man carrying a massive bag of cotton that completely covered his head. The cotton carrier couldn’t see but with one word from the leading rail carrier, slowed to miss the collision by about half an inch and the orchestra started again. By the time I got home, the dog with distemper had gone.
I missed most of the usual tourist spots, my father in law apologised about the lack of opportunity to visit the Queen Victoria park in particular. When I said that I could see Victorian parks back in London he feigned offence and suggested that we should express gratitude to Queen Victoria for his freedom from British rule. I was half way through explaining that she had to take it first before I realised how deep the sarcasm runs in native Kolkatans as the Celt in me appreciated how humour could be the only thing left to remind you of who you are when the cupboards are bare and purses empty. Still, he would have wanted me to see the park.
The strength of community values and practices of my new family were always happily obvious to me but I had got to know them in the UK and seeing them in their native city brought home how deep this vein of joyous common humanity runs. Evidence of this was everywhere, from the child singing along at the top of his voice to a song blaring from the radio in of a parked auto rickshaw or, closer to home as I watched the countenance of the child returning to my wife during this trip, the food dances breaking through when she was given mishti dhal and the taste brought back 30 years of the memories and sensations brought to life in Kolkata.
Passing a laminated poster of Mother Theresa, I remembered that she was known to me as Mother Theresa of Calcutta throughout my youth. It made me think of how abstract the descriptions of her ‘good deeds’ were to me in my Scottish primary school where tales of Christian beneficence through Mother Theresa’s iconic simplicity and determination appeared to lead the the masses from darkness. The truth is I believe she must have loved the spirit of the people of this city, like the good heartedness exhumed by any disaster, the grace and kindness in action of this community create a palpable result in anyone really looking in. The odd part is that this disaster of poverty and overcrowding has been prevalent for 200 years in this City, yet the conditions do not detract from the intent and the deeds of those still offering kindness, civility and happiness to natives and travellers alike.
I don’t think she would have cared which religion claimed her, the needs of the poor, then as now are so clear that whatever little each received, given with love respect and dignity, would lift that person out of the soup for a few seconds and raise them to the full spiritual height, making the coming days in the middle of the noise, pollution and ceaseless movement of the human capital of Kolkatta that much more bearable for them. If she experienced half of what I did from giving nothing but an open mind to Kolkata then I can understand why her life was dedicated to its people.
So now, by marriage, I am closer and more connected to this city, and I feel all the better for it.
And by the way, its Kolkata because the natives say so and its the city of joy because they make it so.