But For the Sky
14Feb/12Off

Kolkata: Two Sides to Every Story

Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta, as the British named it), our first stop in India, was something of a tale of two cities for us: we had fairly different experiences, so we thought we'd split its post in two so we could each present our experience.

Claudia

Kolkata was an interesting choice for our first stop in India. Everyone tells you there is no way to prepare yourself for India, and this rang true to me before we even arrived at our hotel. Kolkata is one of the three largest metropolitan areas in India, and is often described as a place that embodies all of India's most pressing problems: poverty, pollution, overcrowdedness, gridlocked traffic, etc. I would agree.

I generally enjoy the hustle and bustle of large cities, but I will readily admit I was not prepared for the insanity of large Indian cities (or at least the one that we have been to so far!). There is just entirely too much going on at once: men peeing on the sidewalk, chai-wallahs yelling at you to buy their tea, humongous piles of trash topped with scavenging pigs and birds having an all-u-can-eat feast, tiny naked children begging for something to eat, six-lane-wide avenues chock full of constantly honking buses and taxis, groups of men bathing in gushing water from hand-pumped spouts on the side of a busy street... if you have a mental picture yet, multiply it by 100 and that is Kolkata. At one point I told Nick I felt like I was walking through people's houses as we walked down the streets: there are hundreds of poor families who live on the sidewalks, where they have created makeshift beds and kitchens; at any time of the day they may be cooking, eating, or sleeping on whatever surface they have made for themselves. It is incredibly sad and difficult to see this indescribable poverty in your face at all times. And these are probably the better-off families: they actually have a little food to cook.

Pigs and Trash

Pigs and Trash ...If Only Photos Could Convey Smell

Leaving the hotel and walking down the street for me was, therefore, an act of courage and strength. The honking horns, thick smog that left its mark in my eyes, nose,  ears and mouth at the end of each day, and hundreds of people around me at all times gave me headaches and a sudden, gripping fear of public spaces that I have never felt before. Simply put, it was extremely tiring and saddening. It makes walking through Times Square, which I always found to be annoying, look like a stroll on a pristine, deserted beach.

It wasn't all bad though: I loved my first taste of (real) Indian food and the ubiquitous milky and cardamom-spiced chai. I also mostly enjoyed our trip to the colorful flower market, held every day under the famous Howrah Bridge and filled with hundreds of men and women selling beautiful strings of bright yellow and orange marigolds, along with piles and piles of other flowers and green leaves. I say "mostly" because the market was where the groping was at its worst: apparently some Indian men find themselves a bit too tempted by the opportunity to grope passing women in large crowds. I had read that staring and groping can be an issue in India, but of course nothing can prepare you for actually being grabbed (in the front and back) by random men. It's angering and just made me even less excited about walking around. And before you start wondering whether I was wearing anything "revealing" and therefore "brought it upon myself": I wasn't and I didn't.

Flower Vendor

Flower Vendor

Groping aside, I think Nick had a pretty different experience in Kolkata...

Nick

Well when you put it that way, I'd be a monster to disagree. I think that we each--as does everyone on earth--have different limits when it comes to the standards of cleanliness we expect or tolerate, and when it comes to how far out of our comfort zone and away from our concepts of cultural norms that we're willing to go. Also I think Claudia has a stronger sense of smell than I do.

It's true that Kolkata is a noisy, dirty, crowded, and polluted place, but I think I was better able to look beyond the bad parts of such a city, which enabled me to see it as a huge, bustling metropolis, a city with a very energetic and excited population, and as a welcome introduction to a country as big, complicated, and messy as India.

Laughing Woman at Howrah Flower Market

Laughing Woman at Howrah Flower Market

I think Claudia got it right when she said that walking the city's streets is like walking through everyone's home (never more apparent than when we saw a man walk through the jam-packed Howrah flower market shirtless and brushing his teeth!). But whereas that experience turned Claudia off, it excited me (at least after the initial shock wore off). The city is everyone's home, and while Indians attend publicly to much of the daily maintenance we confine to private spaces, once you accept that fact, things start to look a little different: the streetside bathing, cooking, cleaning, and sleeping stop being disgusting displays and start to be the simple daily rituals that we all take part in. These people are not embarassed to be doing these things in public, just as the wealthier passers-by are not embarassed to be witnessing them.

We happened to be visiting on a national holiday, so we saw the city's central park, the Maidan, at its busiest and most alive. While Claudia wasn't able to see beyond the litter, naked children, and defecating animals (all of which were widespread), I think for whatever reason it was easier for me to do so, and I spent a rather pleasant hour walking among the picnicking families, the many, many cricket games, the children and grown men flying kites on impossibly long strings, and even a little girl doing impressive tricks on a homemade tightrope.

Tightrope Walker on the Maidan

Tightrope Walker on the Maidan

One thing I'll never truly be able to experience is what it's like to be a woman in a city like this. I only had to find a way to deal with the filth, the poverty, the overcrowding, the noise, and the pollution, but Claudia had to put up with all of these things, while constantly being stared at, objectified, judged, and all too often touched inappropriately. It's something that makes me embarassed to be a man, angry at a society where this is permissable, and sad for the many women of the world that have to put up with it (and worse) every day. I hope for Claudia's sake that she has a better experience in the rest of the cities we'll be visiting in India.

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