Under Angels' Wings: Kolkata (Calcutta), India
Stories within this chapter:
Calcutta Scenes (posted October 11, 2011)Empower The Children schools (posted October 16, 2011) Life in a slum neighborhood (posted October 25, 2011) Cauldron cooking and other enterprises (posted October 30, 2011) India and America: different or similar? (posted November 8, 2011) Dalai Lama and Tibet in the news (posted November 22, 2011) God's children in Kolkata (posted December 25, 2011) Diverse religious holy days: Hindu, Islam, Sikh (posted January 17, 2012) A Sunday walk in the park (posted January 27, 2012) Cross-cultural plumbing (posted February 28, 2012) Final comparisons (posted March 20, 2012)
Calcutta Scenes—Kolkata, India; September 17 to 19, 2011
"Thank you for sending your wonderful stories of your travels and experiences. I know that I will not be traveling where and as you do, so I relish these stories.
I do my virtual travels reading about the engaging people, places and your life adventures wherever you are." —J.G.
"What an experience you are indulging in as you
absorb, taste and feel and almost become
one with your surroundings." —P.E.
Saturday, September 17: In this city of 16 million (2001 stat), Howrah Train Station contains 24 passenger platforms. Easily 20,000 people are coming and going at any given time.* Rosalie and I wait 25 minutes for a prepaid taxi, which is cheaper than riding with regular taxi drivers who negotiate fares rather than use a meter. Traffic is normal: more stop than go. It takes an hour to travel five kilometers to her flat. (*per Wikipedia: Howrah Train Station is one of four in Kolkata; it handles 600 trains and one million people daily.)
Sunday, September 18: The population density in Calcutta is an astounding 25,000 people per square kilometer (2001 stat). Shoulder-to-shoulder people are shopping for Durga Puja, the most major Hindu holiday, which starts in two weeks. The sidewalks are impossible with pedestrians and vendors. People stream in all directions with no sense of order. Even on roads, we can’t walk side by side for more than three steps.
The New Market contains thousands of tiny shops packed together in a building as large as most shopping malls in America, but the aisles here are one-fifth the width. Signage is minimal. Goods are piled high. Exits are out of sight. Turn around and get lost. For a baksheesh (tip), wallahs (people of a particular work) will help us find whatever we want. This is their job. They hover like hawks. Browsing is impossible.
Later, we sit in lounge chairs in a luxury hotel. It’s a different world here: plush, air conditioned, quiet. The restaurant serves beef. Rosalie says, “Some Indians have money.”
Monday, September 19: The monsoon dumps rain for nearly two hours. The water on the narrow street around Rosalie’s flat is ankle deep. The open-air public toilet, used by most of the people in this ‘hood, regurgitates previous deposits. Trash floats. Rosalie has an appointment. Rather than risk infection, she hails a rickshaw wallah who, by hand and (perhaps bare) foot, conveys her to the main road where Mr. Kahn, the taxi driver she’s hired for years, waits. She says the water is more than knee deep there. After four hours, the water recedes.
Walking even on dry concrete is a challenge. “Watch your step” is the watchword. Cookers with propane-fired stoves, buckets of charcoal, and vats of boiling grease force everyone to single file or risk burns. Sidewalks are broken and partially repaired with loose bricks. Little construction projects and low-hanging wires abound. Beggars’ legs protrude. Toddlers play in small piles of sand while their parents labor. Babies lie unattended. At night, dozens of people sleep here on cots or sheets of cardboard. It’s easier to walk in traffic. But cars and motor scooters “horn” (honk) their presence, and the pulling forks on a hand-drawn rickshaw are silent menaces to the chest, back, or face.
Above: A man with an umbrella walks in ankle-deep water in the neighborhood commons outside Rosalie Giffoniello's flat. Monsoon rain that fell for an hour required four hours to recede.
Above: A toddler plays in sand that will later be used to mix concrete for a sidewalk repair project. Two women laborers, dressed in colorful saris, watch.
Below: A Calcutta laborer stands barefoot to mix concrete. The blue structure is a food stand, partially blocking the sidewalk, at which Indian meals are prepared and served.
Empower The Children schools—Kolkata, India; September 20 to 30, 2011
Rosalie and I visit six schools and a children's orthopedic hospital. Her organization, Empower The Children, operates and totally funds three of these schools and partially funds the other facilities. The children range in age from three to teens. Some are physically or mentally challenged. Some are talented and determined to escape the slums in which they live.
Rosalie tells her teachers, “Love the children first. If you love them, they will learn.” Striking a child is forbidden in an ETC school.
Durga Puja, a major Hindu holiday in which most people participate, is a few days away, and Rosalie’s mission is to distribute new clothing to each child. Some of the clothing is fancy, some practical. The beautiful, charming teenage girls in ETC’s vocational school choose to receive yards of fabric from which they will make their own salwar kameez clothing. Plans are under way to, soon, introduce them to computers.
Two of the ETC schools are decent buildings. The third building is slated to be razed and replaced within the next few months. This is a major accomplishment.
The hospital provides free orthopedic surgery and treatment. It’s a great service to hinterland children who, otherwise, would live a disabled life.
Two of the schools not under ETC care are poorly maintained with broken floors, poor electrical wiring, and leaking roofs.
Class sizes are about 40 students with one to three teachers. Ninety-nine students, age preschool to teens, fill a 20-foot by 20-foot space at one school on the day we visit.
Obviously, there are no desks. The chalkboards are only about 3 feet by 3 feet. There are no individual student textbooks; they wouldn’t survive the humidity, dirt, and mice. Storage cabinets, whether wooden or metal, deteriorate quickly and are replaced annually. With no toilet, children use primitive, public facilities in the surrounding neighborhood.
Ventilation comes from open doors and windows, which are very few, and ceiling fans, some of which hang precariously, held by twine, to rafter poles.
Schools are open year-round. “The parents want them in school because they get one hot meal a day and they're in a secure environment,” says Rosalie. “In the summer, the temperature in here is above 100.”
The adjacent buildings are slums, some of concrete and some of wood scraps and tin. The population density is intense. Schoolyard? Playground? No way. No space. In front of one non-ETC school, women wash clothes at a public pump and clothesline; the closest home is two steps from the school’s front door. Within a few feet of the ETC school that will soon be replaced, a man keeps cows in a corral.
Preyrona 1 is an ETC vocational school, where pre-teen and teenage girls learn to sew and will soon receive computer training. The word preyrona means "inspiration."
Below: Preyrona 1 exterior with green plastic covering above a large rooftop area for theater practice.
Second: Girls in one of two desk-less classrooms.
Third: The girls express delight with fabric to make holiday clothing.
Fourth: A residential building adjacent to the school.
Atmaraksha is a one-room school for which ETC pays teacher salaries, provides hot food, and buys holiday clothing for 50 children, ages 3 to 5.
Below: The school is the pink building. Women wash clothes between the street and the school. Inside, the children receive lessons on the floor.
Preyrona 2 is a one-room school, attended by 99 children ages 5 to 15, that ETC will soon raze and replace.
Large left: The children, teachers, and staff in the schoolyard adjacent to the school.
Far upper left: Man washes a cow in his corral adjacent to the school.
Far lower left: Interior with teachers and children.
Near left: Children being served a daily hot meal of rice, vegetables, and a banana.
Large left: Rosalie with some of the older girls modeling their new holiday salwar Kameez.
Below: Rosalie with one of the boys in his new holiday shirt and shorts.
Life in a slum neighborhood—Kolkata, India; October 25, 2011
Rosalie's apartment is in a relatively nice slum. The buildings are made of concrete as opposed to scraps of wood or tin—and I've seen those too. Yet, neighbor families of eight to twelve adults and children dwell in a single room that might measure 12 x 12. Some rooms are sleep-on-the-floor dormitories for, perhaps, a dozen men who lie on thin blankets or pieces of cardboard. The intense heat in these rooms motivates many men to sleep on sidewalks and building steps.
People bathe and get their water, pumped into buckets or bladders made from goat skin, from community hand pumps. A large bin, made of bamboo poles, holds hundreds of other bamboo poles that people borrow for construction scaffolding. Several outdoor toilets dot the area; the one I can see from my window isn’t enclosed. An uncovered garbage wagon sits between the pole bin and the toilet. Crows and cats scavenge as do a few men with dirty clothes, scraggly beards, and burlap bags over their shoulders. A Muslim mosque uses loudspeakers to call people to prayer five times a day, starting at 4:30 a.m.
Rosalie's apartment is on the second floor of a four-story building with a flat roof and half wall for parties. Compared to homes in neighboring buildings, her place is luxurious: two bedrooms, living room, kitchen, and bathroom with Indian-style toilet and showerhead, terrazzo floors. There’s no shower stall and water from the showerhead wets the entire floor, so we squeegee the excess into a drain under the toilet. The kitchen appliances are a water filter, electric pitcher to heat water, and a toaster oven but no stove. The fridge, bright red, is in my bedroom. The six other apartments in this building are comparable or larger. No one has screens on their windows nor carpet, which would mold quickly. Live-in geckos and spiders keep insects under control.
The wide ledges on the living room windows hold a jungle of houseplants that live outside year-round, watered well by Mother Nature in the summer monsoon season and by Magdalene, Rosalie's cleaning lady, in the winter. The ledges are plant-sized only, serving to hold decorative wrought iron security grills and not human weight. The grills are immovable, which makes escape from the inside impossible. For this reason, when we're in, we padlock the deadbolt on the door's outer side in its open position so mischievous persons can't entrap us.
Our water supply comes from the community system. Someone uses an electrical pump to lift it to a cistern on the roof. The landlord pays a woman in the neighborhood to open valves once or twice a day to allow water to flow by gravity from the cistern to storage tanks in individual apartments. Our tank, which holds 40 gallons, sits on a platform over the bathroom door. On any given day, this woman may or may not resupply our tank. If she doesn't, we ration. If she gives too much, the tank overflows and floods the bathroom. Until yesterday, when I patched a hole in the bathroom wall, it would also flood the living room. Water heater? You’ve got to be kidding! Fortunately, the water is partially warmed from solar absorption, so it's not too cold.
We eat most meals in restaurants. At expensive places, we pay the equivalent of $15 for a pair of fine meals. Most of the time, we eat in smaller places for about $2 each. The food is descent and the service half-hearted. If a meal isn’t prepared properly, the waiter won’t take it back but simply says, “Tomorrow, sir.” (Translation: We’ll get it right next time—maybe). The lack of sanitation at small cookeries that block many sidewalks with charcoal-fueled woks for rice and cauldrons filled with boiling grease makes that food totally unappealing. And we drink only filtered or bottled water.
This is Rosalie’s eleventh year among these people, living here six months at a time. For the first three-and-a-half years, she lived in a guest house, furnished with only a bed, on Calcutta's famous Sudder Street.
The women and children of Sudder Street sleep in tarp encampments on the sidewalk. They're experts at picking lice from hair, a service for which Rosalie once employed them. Many have homes in their native villages. She asked them, "Why don't you live there?" "The village is boring! Calcutta is exciting," they replied.
She knows many in this 'hood: her landlord, his older brother who lives upstairs, and their families, the men who gather on marble benches in the neighborhood “commons” outside her windows to discuss politics and religion long into the night, the dhobi wallah (laundryman), the tailor, the cobbler, the frame maker, the man at the international courier stand, the Internet café operator, the wandering flute vendor, the man who sells women’s yoga pants from a single rack by a tree, numerous rickshaw wallahs, waiters at many restaurants, beggars, and, of course, her favorite taxi driver, Mr. Kahn, who has come to agree with her that horning only makes noise and doesn’t make traffic move.
All of these people greet her lovingly. “Aunty, Aunty,” they say, using the traditional term when addressing a foreign woman. “The West Bengalis are very friendly people,” she says often.
Her neighbors in the adjacent building across the narrow alley that separates us certainly are. Living on the same level, we often greet each other through open windows as we prepare cold food in our kitchen and they hang laundry on twine attached to their wrought iron security grills.
And the children who play and chatter in the commons below my window are a joyous choral background while I work on the book project that has brought me here.
Mr. Kahn and his "new" ten-year-old taxi with a broken speedometer and hard, hard rear seats. With his family and home hundreds of kilometers away, he sleeps in or on the hood of this vehicle along Calcutta's famous Sudder Street.
Above: Rosalie's apartment building (center right). In the foreground, a teen pumps water and a boy carries laundry. A bin for bamboo poles and another tenement are on the left. The narrow walkway is Syed Ismail Lane, wide enough for pedestrians, motor scooters, and rickshaws. Because it's too narrow for automobiles, we aren't subject to horning.
Below: A youth pumps water into a bladder made from a goat's hide.
Above: A businessman who also barbers on the street cuts his son's hair in the commons of Rosalie's neighborhood. In the background, a dobie wallah carries ironed laundry while more clothes hang adjacent to a concrete wall.
Below: Boys expertly play with tops near the man cutting hair and the community pump and ablution area.
Above: Rosalie with the frame maker who works while sitting on his shop floor, holding frame pieces with his toes while gluing with his hands.
Below: The flute vendor can make his simple instruments sound amazingly like a tenor saxophone.
Above: The dobie wallah and his wife and daughter in their laundry shop, which measures about six feet by twelve feet. They wash laundry at the community pump, hang it to dry on lines or fences, and iron it on this table on the right. When finished, he delivers in a neat stack for a cost of five to fifteen rupees per item. He uses two irons: while ironing with one, the other is heating on a metal plate atop charcoal embers. At night, the dobie sleeps on the ironing table, and his wife and child sleep on the floor.
Cauldron cooking and other enterprises—Kolkata, India; October 30, 2011
It’s nighttime, and, in the commons, close to the pump and toilet and garbage wagon, men are cooking in two huge cauldrons set atop bricks and heated by wood flame. One man says this is for a party on the roof, a pre-celebration for his daughter’s upcoming wedding in November.
He grabs me by the shoulders. “You must come,” he insists, referring to both the party and the wedding. In this patriarchal culture, he ignores Rosalie, who is the resident here, and focuses on me, her guest.
The ingredients, being prepared by a professional cooking team, are 40 kg of potatoes, 40 kg of rice, 80 kg of mutton, plus onions, chilies, curd, and spices. Enough to feed 250 people, I’m told. More than that, I think. 160 kilograms of the main ingredients is 350 pounds—well more than one pound of food per person. That night, the attendance is less than 250 people. Leftovers, anyone?
The tailor is putting six new belt loops on a pair of pants for me; the cost is 25 rupees (50 cents). The cobbler, who plies his trade on the sidewalk, removed a broken snap and installed a button and buttonhole on the same pants and also fixed a pair of broken sandals for a total of 100 rupees (2 dollars). I feel like I should pay them more, but those are the going rates, and Rosalie reminds me that it's also proper to financially fit within their system.
At the New Market, Rosalie and I look for oil to lubricate the heavy, steel, accordion-style security gate outside the wooden inner door to her apartment. One of the shopping wallahs tells us to wait and runs off. In less than five minutes, he returns and hands us just what we want. The price, stamped by the manufacturer on the bottle, has been blacked out with an opaque marker. “How much?” says Rosalie. “One hundred, eighty-five rupees.” She's shocked. She looks closer at the bottle and discerns the manufacturer's recommended price is 25 rupees. She questions him. He holds true to his original price. She declines. With the help of a different wallah, we find the same product in another store—for 25 rupees.
A new neighborhood water pump is being drilled—by hand. Seven laborers have utilized a few bamboo poles from the community pole bin to construct a conical scaffold. The bamboo poles are laced at their junctions with twine.
One young man is atop the scaffold, attaching new lengths of pipe as necessary. Two more young men below use friction chain wrenches to rotate the existing length of pipe. A fourth man plays out rope, wrapped around a horizontal pipe, to hold the vertical pipe upright and maintain proper tension. Nearby, two more laborers use a fulcrum-style hand pump to pump water, as a lubricant, into the drill tube. And a seventh man carries five-gallon buckets of water from a nearby well and pours it into a reservoir for the hand pump.
The process takes three days. When finished, the pump is installed. It’s bright green. And it works fine. The men are pleased. The neighborhood is a little more blessed.
Above: Five young men drill a well and set a hand pump. The two walking on the left use chain wrenches to turn and lower the water pipe, the man in the foreground slowly plays out a rope that holds the pipe upright, while the two on the right use a fulcrum pump to feed water, as a lubricant, into the hole being dug. Not shown are a sixth man atop the conical bamboo scaffold who also helps hold the pipe upright and a seventh man who carries water in yellow pails that are the lubricant for the drilling process.
Above: A man tends the fires under two cauldrons of biryani (rice, potatoes, meat, onions, chilies, and spices) in the commons near Rosalie's apartment building.
Below: Two men use long poles to transport the cauldrons of food to and from the cooking fire. When atop the flame, the cauldrons sit on pillars of bricks stacked four high. I took this photo from my bedroom window. When the wind blows toward my room, I have to close the windows to prevent smoke from coming in.
Above: Hari the tailor poses at his sewing machine with Rosalie.
Below: Hari, his bare feet, and the foot treadle he uses to operate his sewing machine. When the electricity goes out, he keeps on working. Hari made for me a kurta, a traditional Indian garment like a long nightshirt, and a pair of Western style trousers of fine blended cotton for a cost of 900 rupees (about $20).
Above: A cobbler on a Calcutta sidewalk. At night, there's no trace of his "shop," but in the daytime he's always in the same place.
India and America: different or similar?—Kolkata, India; November 8, 2011
Altab, a young neighbor man of 16, takes me to the home, 80 feet from Rosalie’s apartment, in which he was raised. The entire residence is one room, about the size of a modest American bedroom. His family of ten—parents and eight children—lived there. They’ve since moved into a newer, four-room apartment but maintain this home because of the memories it invokes. With pride, he shows the accommodations.
Six slept in the single bed, which was elevated three feet off the floor to store their cooking cauldrons beneath. Clothing for the entire family hung from a half-inch metal bar that runs from side to side just below the rafters. A cabinet, maybe six feet wide, held all of their remaining possessions.
The only window is pane-less. The outer roof is slate and the inner roof, a loose wicker weave. A single ceiling fan hangs from the peak. Plates sit vertically and cups hang from a sturdy wire wall rack, which was their cupboard. Two people could not stand next to the small counter for meal preparation.
Outside, three cubbyholes, collectively the size of a steamer trunk, housed chickens, ducks, and pigeons that they kept as pets. Amazingly, in this home, this generous family prepared meals for monthly parties of 15 people in Rosalie's apartment.
Rosalie says this family had a young child who didn't walk, but when the child came to visit her apartment for the first time, he ran from room to room—because there was room to run.
Here, many homes of similar size and population density are clustered like cells in a beehive. Families get their water from the community pump. They share communal toilets secreted in closet-size enclosures. Presumably everyone has electricity but air conditioning and furnaces are nonexistent. Laundry hangs on clotheslines where women gather in an outdoor area of about 20 feet by 16 feet not far from where men have staked their domain for dialogue.
Everywhere, a chorus of voices, playful or serious, resonates the symphony of a close-knit "village" tending to each other’s needs and collectively raising their children.
A teenage boy stands among the drying clothes flying a kite. A kite? Yes, solid red with a basic diamond-design and no tail. I don’t feel any breeze, yet, amazingly, Altab has launched it, and the boy has played it out several hundred feet. We watch it dance over dozens, if not hundreds, of rooftops. Four other kites, all of the same design, dot the sky. A few others, their strings snagged, dangle or lurch from chimneys or roof railings. Suddenly, the kite comes down. “How will you get it back?" I ask. The boy answers, "Somebody else will (get it and fly it),” cutting the string to salvage what’s left on his spool.
Often, I’ve thought about how different the world would be if European explorers and settlers of the 1500s to 1800s—and still today—had come to the Americas, Africa, Australia, and India with a mindset of “What can we learn from these people?” rather than “What can we take from these people?” This young man has just taught me impermanence and detachment: to enjoy the present and to release expectations.
The Dalai Lama, whose teachings I attended at the Buddhist Main Temple in McLeodGanj (Dharamsala), India, two months earlier, would agree.
Above: In the small courtyard that fronts their home and many others, brothers Altab and Mehtab Alam hold their niece while women look on.
Below: Altab stands in the single room that was the home in which he and his five siblings were raised. The bed is elevated to hold cooking cauldrons beneath. The family kept most of their possessions in the cabinets on the right.
Below: Women and young girls tend to the community's children, a living example of how this "village" collectively raises their children.
Above: A teenage boy holds his kite, which, amazingly, he is able to get airborne from a tiny space between homes.
Below: The same boy stands with his spool of kite string after his irretrievable kite came down atop some distant home.
Dalai Lama and Tibet in the news—Kolkata, India; November 22, 2011
The government of Tibet has a new leader. Lobsang Sangay, 43, officially assumed that role on August 8 after having been democratically elected by Tibetans throughout the world.
This is significant for both political and spiritual reasons:
First, Sangay’s ascension to political leadership of the Tibetan people is the result of action by Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the Fourteenth (current) Dalai Lama, to end his dual responsibilities as both Tibet’s temporal leader and Buddhism’s spiritual leader. The Dalai Lama’s decision is profound because these dual leadership roles began in 1653 with the Fifth Great Dalai Lama. Thus, the decision by His Holiness marks the end of a 358-year precedent.
Secondly, following the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1949, the nation of Tibet has not been recognized by other world governments. For presidents and prime ministers pressured either politically or economically to recognize China’s claim that Tibet is now a part of China, this is a political hot potato.
For example, when the Dalai Lama visited Washington, D.C., to lead a Buddhist Kalachakra initiation in June of this year, an audience with President Barack Obama did occur—but only on the last day of the ten-day event and only after it appeared that an audience would not be granted. Interestingly, both men are recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Similarly, the Union of South Africa, in September, denied the Dalai Lama a visa that would have allowed him to participate in the 80th birthday celebration of his good friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu, also a Nobel Peace Laureate.
TIME Magazine World, in its online issue dated October 01, 2011, has a comprehensive article about Lobsang Sangay.
Encore magazine of Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA, is currently running my article about the Dalai Lama’s teachings (page 14) at the Kalachakra in D.C. and at in his home in exile, Dharamsala/McleodGanj, India.
My web site contains collections of in-depth stories on the Kalachakra, the teachings in India, and interesting people I met in Dharamsala and McleodGanj.
The stories about the teachings in McleodGanj convey the wisdom of the Dalai Lama and conclude with a very informative conversation with Thubten Samphel, the person in charge of communications for the Central Tibetan Association (the Tibetan Government-in-Exile). Mr. Samphel explains the history of Tibet and its centuries-old autonomy from China, the lack of freedom among Tibetans today, and extreme desperation there that has prompted monks and nuns to set themselves on fire in protest.
The Dharamsala and McleodGanj stories describe:
I enjoy sharing these stories with you and hope you enjoy reading them.
"Your report on the Dalai Lama's teachings is very inspirational." —L.K.
Above: The Dalai Lama enters the Buddhist Main Temple in McleodGanj to begin teachings on compassion for all sentient beings.
Below (two photos): Bedecked Buddhist monks perform ritual dances at the Kalachakra initiation in D.C.
Above: The principal at the Harmony Through Education school in Dharamsala helps a student learn a skill.
Below: Children at Upper Tibetan Children's School where a sign on the playground pronounces "You Can Make a Difference."
Above: Three of the monks to whom I taught English and with whom I shared much insight and laughter
Below: The Dalai Lama's former physician, Dr. Yeshi Dhonden, who still sees up to 60 patients a day.
God's children in Kolkata—Kolkata, India; Christmas, 2011
The choir at St. Francis Catholic Church sings English carols of the variety I’ve known since my youth. The congregation for Midnight Mass has packed the church to standing room only for this candlelight service. A padlock on a steel security gate and five security guards prevent the throng outside from also entering.
There, people in a festive mood chatter and take photos of each other on their mobiles. Many wear red-and-white elf hats with red blinking lights being sold by roaming vendors, boys of about 12. Four older teens give me two candy bars, wish me Merry Christmas, and ask the standard questions: “Where you from?” and “You like Calcutta?”
I meander home, casually observing.
Lights are strung across Park Street, a five-lane thoroughfare. A crowd of thousands, some moving and some lingering with plates of ice cream, fill the sidewalks and spill onto the street. Drivers, mostly in taxis, “horn” (honk) incessantly, expecting the noise they make to unsnarl the jam in front of them. The MacDonald’s, which normally closes at 10:00, is still open.
On Free School Street, which is not quite as large, a boy no older than 10 washes a large wok, using water from a community pump, in front of a food stall; his work surface is the sidewalk. People sleep under threadbare blankets. Each person is covered from head to feet and looks like a lump in a shroud. One is curled fetal-like atop two armchairs that have been precariously pushed together, seat to seat. One bundle, on a thin sheet of cardboard, is wide enough for two bodies, spooning. Another sleeps atop an ironing table. These people aren’t indigent. In the morning, they’ll awaken, bathe with water from the curbside pump, and run the tea stalls or food stalls or fruit tables or laundry services that are their businesses – in the same spot of sidewalk.
The daughter of a cobbler who has repaired my sandals is closing the door to their shop and home, a single room about four feet by ten feet with a shelf, four feet above the floor in the back third, that serves as an “upper level." Three people, representing three generations, live here. The daughter might be in her 20s, the cobbler in his 40s, and the grandmother looks ancient with no teeth, puckered cheeks, and glasses thick like the bottom of a soda bottle. In the daytime, she sits on the single step, cast in sunshine, and is quick with her smile and wave.
On narrow Collin Lane, a portly man, probably a grandfather, walks and sooths an infant in his arms. And on the even narrower Syed Ismail Lane on which I live, two women who appear to be a weary mother and a withering grandmother, their bodies and heads fully covered by burkas, move slowly in supportive embrace.
Only two men are sitting and talking on the bench in the commons, so the neighborhood is relatively quiet. Someone is sleeping on the stack of wooden tables under the stairway that forms the interior core of our tenement building.
The Internet says the outside temperature in Calcutta is 57 degrees Fahreneit tonight. It’s cool in the flat where I’m staying, which, like all the homes here, doesn’t have a furnace. Outside, many people wear sweaters and wrap their heads and necks in scarves but clad their feet only in flip-flops. Tonight, I’ll cover with my sleeping bag.
This afternoon, I attended a Christmas program at Rehabilitation Centres for Children, an orthopedic hospital that performs extensive surgeries on children with extreme deformities of their limbs, primarily feet and legs.
Sarena, a 14-year-old girl with a tremendous smile and spirit, normally wears an orthopedic boot on her left foot because the bones in her foreleg are severely bent. Tonight, she performed a dance of three or four minutes, barefoot and bootless – on one leg. A group of teenage girls – a mix of Christians, Hindus, and Muslims – performed a drama, “The Birth of Jesus,” speaking their lines in Bengali. One of the “Wise Men” became embarrassed when I complimented her “beard,” drawn with a black marker on her face.
Walking back to the Metro, I lingered outside the subway station and strolled through the bevy of sidewalk vendors, chai stalls, and food stalls there – all small, four or six feet across with a depth of about the same. A special moment occurred when a holy man took my hand, placed it on his heart, and initiated a silent prayer. The photographs accompanying this story begin with Sarena and continue with the shots taken there.
On Christmas Day, I’m volunteering for the third day at Daya Dan, Mother Teresa’s orphanage for disabled children. More than a dozen volunteers from around the world, youths in their 20s and retirees, are here. I’m working the first floor, the home of about 20 boys who are the more-abled kids. Children of both genders who need constant care for all aspects of life live on the third floor. Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity reside on the second floor.
One of these first-floor boys is a drumming prodigy, another is a natural singer and entertainer, a third, gymnastically inclined, loves being hoisted high in the air. But none of these will likely ever be able to live on their own, much less perform professionally. Other children, like one with a scoliotic, L-shaped spine and legs as thin as a broomstick, need total care.
At Christmas Sunday Mass, eight of these special children, seated in contour chairs and propped by pillows, occupy the last row of the small chapel. The Mass, the priest’s message, and the wall murals throughout Daya Dan attempt to bring joy to the residents. But these eight, with their un-responsive bodies and un-present eyes, don’t seem to have the capacity to grasp conscious joy. Yet, they are souls. And they have a purpose here in this life – just as do the nuns and the volunteers. In that, they join with all to both bring and receive joy.
"Christmas comes in many shapes and ways. Yours was very touching, especially the young woman with courage and grace to dance with one leg. — M.W.
Above: Serena with her friend Julie, a nurse from San Francisco.
Serena's booted leg.
Below: Serena dancing on one foot at the Rehabilitation Centres for Children's Christmas Eve program.
Below: Street vendors, such as these with their stalls on sidewalks or goods spread curbside, are common throughout Kolkata.
Diverse religious holy days: Hindu, Islam, Sikh—Kolkata, India; January 17, 2012
Most of people in the neighborhood where I live are Muslims. Five times each day, starting at 4:45 a.m., a man’s singing voice pours forth from electronic megaphones attached to the nearby mosque calling everyone—regardless of faith—to prayer. Sometimes, a congregation, their voices chanting, echoes the lead voice. In the distance, singing from other mosques float across the city.
The laundry dobie and many other people we know are Hindus, noticeable by a symbolic, protective tilak on their forehead between the eyebrows.
Hari the tailor and Nazi who runs one of my favorite diners are Sikhs, the men always distinctive in their turbans.
My accupressurist practices Jainism.
At a Christmas Eve event at an orthopedic hospital for children with malformed legs and arms, children of several faiths performed the story of Christ’s birth. There, I met a Zoroastrian, proud of the fact that hers is the world’s first monotheistic faith.
The Christian population is modest. Among them are Magdalene, Rosalie’s cleaning woman who is named after Mary Magdalene, and her family who took me to Mass at two nearby Catholic churches.
There are some Jews, but the population is miniscule compared to the years prior to the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948; then Jews in Kolkata numbered 6,000.
I see a few Buddhist monks from time to time, but these—as well as Kurds—were much more prevalent in the Himalayas during the earlier part of my journey.
Thus is the religious diversity here, a diversity that stretches far beyond the minor distinctions between denominations within the Christian world that I knew as a Catholic boy: Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal. Here, I experience the eye-opening revelations of my college class on world religions in which I heard, for the first time, that Catholicism and Christianity don’t hold a spiritual monopoly on numerous tenets, including the Golden Rule and belief in a savior born of a virgin. Here, today, unlike my boyhood village, which was 97 percent Catholic, I’m living and interacting daily with members of the world’s major faith groups.
It’s exciting. And the experience is rich with holy days and holidays—so many, in fact, that I wonder how does anyone get any work done. Eventually, the better question dawns: What does it matter how much work we get done when we have so many opportunities to grow spiritually.
Hindu: Durga Puja, Oct 2011
The city comes alive for Durga Puja, the principle Hindu holiday that honors the deity Maa Durga. For weeks in advance, huge billboards proclaim the community intent to celebrate. In response, every neighborhood creates temporary temples called pandals. Some are huge and elaborate while others are small but imaginative. The craftsmanship is exquisite as professional artisans work side by side with others to build each pandal according to a particular theme.
Then for four days in the fall, people go pandal hopping, visiting as many temples as possible. Young people boast of starting in the early morning and going late into the night, enjoying what is considered the world’s largest outdoor art festival.
One pandal that Rosalie, our hostess friend Madhu, and I visit uses cloth in seemingly hundreds of shades of red, from pink to purple, and numerous patterns to depict dozens of deities. This pandal is about 40 feet tall, totally covered with cloth. Inside, its four-story dome is crowned with a crystal chandelier.
The centerpiece, as it is in all pandals is the altar that features Maa Durga and her entourage of four children: Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity; Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, music, arts, science, and technology; Ganesha, lord of beginnings and remover of obstacles; and Kartikeya, god of protection and purification of human ills.
Maa Durga, herself, is “goddess of the inaccessible or the invincible,” “the one who can redeem situations of utmost distress.” Consistent with legend, the altar in each pandal depicts this bejeweled, multi-arm deity astride a lion, a slain water buffalo at her feet, and in the process of thrusting her spear into the chest of the demon Mahishasur.
The final pandal that we visit is the grand prize champion. It occupies a street, wide enough for two cars, for about two blocks. The theme is metaphysical with a sculpture of a body-size hand holding a floral-petaled sun in its palm, a giant "third eye" illuminated with blue lights and suspended in an elevated cave of gray, a life-size golden human form standing in a boat with arms upstretched to gather golden rain, portals and crystals suspended aloft to represent the path of human evolution, and a towering waterfall of cascading, glowing red energy imaginatively created with motorcycle tires.
The entire length of this pandal is crafted to represent the ship of life. The one-way flow of compressed humanity is ten abreast, and the walls of the ship are eye-high to an adult. But the visual emphasis is entirely upward, encouraging people to choose an ascended view.
Even Maa Durga and her entourage, finally visible at the end, seem to float in mid-air in a watery, three-dimensional field of blue shapes that could be eyes or boats or fish.
These figures are carved with intricate detail in simulated bronze. The overall effect—gazing at the universal guiding hand, the "third eye," and the glorious golden human; moving with a slow, pressing part of humanity on a ship of life; looking up to see an ascending crystalline path; then coming upon the beautiful deities—is inspiring, magical, transformative.
It’s love—and maybe that is why this pandal took top honors. Even Maa Durga’s spear is not thrust into the breast of the demon Mahishasur as it is in other pandals. Here, the spear is poised near a serpent that creeps across the deity’s right knee, while Maa Durga, empowered with Universal Love, tames the demon with simple strength of her big toe.
We linger by the deities for as long as possible, aided by a security man who shelters us as we take more than our fair share of photos. Then we move back into the streets and into the grip of buses, taxis, autorickshaws, and pedestrians.
Madhu reminds us that the pandals we visited are all within a few minutes’ walk from her home, and they are but a few of thousands within Kolkata. “At the end of Durga Puja, they will all be taken down and the deities taken to the Hooghly River for the immersion (set afloat),” she says.
Islam: Eid al-Adha, Nov 2011
Syed Ismail Lane, only 200 feet long and six feet wide, and the entire comparably small chaupal (commons) by Rosalie’s flat are filled with 50 head of cattle, two dozen goats, and a camel. The first arrived a month ago. All will be slaughtered in the Islamic celebration of Eid al-Adha, the “Festival of Sacrifice.”
My young friend Mehtab explains, “Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son because God told him to. But God was only testing him and showed him to sacrifice a ram instead. Maybe it’s true that, if God had let Abraham kill his son, that would be our tradition today.” He pauses. “I’m glad it’s not.”
The slaughter and butchering for our locale occurs in the chaupul, literally outside our door and below my bedroom window. The killing is done by professionals who, with ropes to restrain the animal and a sharp knife to the throat, perform their duties efficiently. Butchers, working in the chaupal bathing area, use knives to dissect the carcass and hatchets to chop the meat and bones into fist-size clumps that are soon cooked to become the main ingredient in biryani, a stew of rice, potatoes, meat, and spicy herbs.
The concrete runs with blood even though it’s frequently rinsed with water. Some find the scene offensive. The English couple who live upstairs move into a hotel for four days. The Hindu laundry dobie closes the door to his home and business for three days. Magdalene, a Catholic, doesn’t come to clean for two days because she doesn’t want to walk through the blood.
Honestly, I don’t blame her. When I venture forth to take photos, I stand on a van, that is, the back of a wagon permanently attached to a bicycle.
Those opposed to cruelty to animals would object on principal. Yet, the slaughter of Eid al-Adha is part of this faith community’s religious tradition. It’s a celebration that begins with prayer in the mosques early, early in the morning of the first day. And the entire community is involved.
Men, women, and children observe the professionals in the same way that families in America assemble around a barbecue at a picnic or community cookout. In both cultures, meat and sharing are the reason to gather. The only difference really is that in America the blood-letting is done behind closed doors and here it’s out in the open.
Not everyone in the community can afford to contribute an animal, yet all are included. Those who have purchased the animals retain one-third for their annual consumption. They give another one-third to their extended family and others in the community. And they give another one-third to the poor.
Rosalie’s landlord, Qadir, tells me on the Festival of Sacrifice’s second day, “The poor have already come to get their share.”
Sikh: Birth Anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh, Dec 2011
The parade to honor the 345th birth anniversary of Shri Guru Gobind Singh Ji, the Sikh faith community’s tenth of eleven gurus, covers a distance of about two kilometers on one of Kolkata’s major divided roadways.
A color guard of men in bright orange robes and dark blue turbans, carrying either a sword or a flag on a staff, leads the parade. Behind them, process more men attired in white khurtas accented with black vests. Then comes a large “goods carrier” truck with a huge kettle drum and a pair of drummers atop the cab. These are audible and visible in the distance as I look past a squad of Kolkata police officers who are diverting traffic.
Later, come youths on motorcycles, men on horseback, two long lines of men and boys with orange turbans and blue spears, lines of women and girls, then an open, flat-bed truck with men and women too elderly to walk.
In total, the participants number in the thousands. Many more spectators walk along the road’s periphery.
The men are turbaned and many are barefooted. Beards and mustaches of the older men are long and distinctive. Women and girls also wear a covering on their heads. The hair of teenage girls and younger women flows gracefully to their waists, some to the knees.
“Sikhs never cut their hair,” says Hari, my tailor, as we walk along beside the parade. “Sikh men never trim their beards,” he adds. “Never. From birth to death.”
At a major intersection, the parade stops so that everyone can observe martial arts performed by several skilled men, one woman, and a boy. Deftly, they wield swords, knives, and chakars, which are ropes, woven into a circular web and weighted at the circumference.
The martial artists place their hands on a center ring, the size of steering wheel, and spin it until the ends flair out to become a large, engulfing shield. In the spirit of showmanship, they flip the spinning web into the air, then, when it comes down, another grabs it and continues to keep it in motion.
One week later, in the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, I go to a park for the final events of this seven-day festival. A tall, official-looking man instructs me to don a head covering and remove my shoes and socks in before entering a circus-size tent that serves as a temporary temple and an open-air food area, both of which are sacred places.
In the temple, men are extolling, singing, and playing musical instruments on a stage. The congregation is divided so that men sit in semi-lotus fashion on thin carpets on the right and women on the left.
The people also eat sitting on mats rolled out on a patch of dusty ground. The meal is free to all. “Without chairs and without the need for money, everyone is equal,” explains a young man. “Poor people might be sitting next to rich people. Here, all are the same.”
One of the main food components is chapattis, an unleavened flat bread, also known as roti, that’s a staple in much of South Asia and other parts of the world. The flour-based dough is hand-mixed by youths in large vats, rolled into round pieces by women sitting in a long, long row on the ground, then cooked by more women on a number of large metal plates (griddles) heated with natural gas. “Everyone is a volunteer,” the young man adds.
Then the martial artists perform again. They feature a variety of weapons and defenses, ranging from spears and swords and chains to their bare hands. The most audacious weapon is a steel band, about two inches wide and perhaps 25 feet in length, honed to razor sharpness on both edges. By shaking and twirling a leather-hilted handle only a few inches, the person holding this dangerous “shield” causes its length to writhe and dance in unpredictable fashion, thus keeping attackers well at bay.
Even the young boy, a lad of no more than seven, participates in “combat” with a sword-length stick and padded gloves.
Regardless of the religion, certain themes permeate these activities: community, practicality, ceremony, religiosity, food.
In spite of attempts by some religious sects and denominations to claim exclusive rights to a heavenly afterlife, I see so much here that debunks that concept. The attire and nature of the events may vary, but the common similarity is found and bound in humanity’s oneness with the Divine Creator. As our Muslim neighbors Qadir and his brother Qayum—and others—often say, “God is good. God is all.”
Below: Hindu cloth pandal, October 4 to 7, 2011
Below: Hindu metaphysical pandal, October 4 to 7, 2011
Below: Islamic Eid al-Adha, November 6 to 9, 2011
Below: Sikh celebration parade, Dec 25, 2011
Below: Sikh celebration festival, Dec 31, 2011
A Sunday walk in the park—Kolkata, India; Sunday, November 27, 2011
Kolkata Maidan Park is a huge playground for people of all ages. Numerous athletic clubs foster one sport or another. There are Police Club facilities and other clubs with nondescript names that indicate a purpose other than athletics. And it’s within walking distance of where I'm staying in Kolkata.
So, on the Sunday afternoon of Thanksgiving weekend, I cross Chowringhee Avenue, a major boulevard, at Park Street and enter the maidan. The place is alive with hives of people picnicking, playing, passing time.
An amateur cricket match is in progress. Nearby, dozens of cricket batsmen and bowlers practice in netted batting cages. The crack of a batted ball is everywhere, and everyone seems to be wearing white cricket attire.
In another part of the maidan, teenage girls play a basketball tournament on three open-air courts, beautiful horses are saddled and ridden by horsemen who might be police officers, and numerous soccer games are in progress.
One soccer match is inside a fenced area, viewed by thousands of people sitting on bleachers. I join a queue, but when I arrive at a fence, it appears that my entrance is blocked. A man directs me to buy a ticket and points at the fence. I look and see nothing but the fence. He puts his hand closer to where he’s pointing. Then I notice a small hole about three inches across and five inches high with a rounded top—perfectly cut, like a cartoon mouse hole—at slightly above waist height. "Ten rupees (five cents)," the pointing man says. I put a ten rupee note into the hole. It’s taken from my hand. A moment later, a ticket comes into view. I glimpse fingertips. The ticket vendor? The entrance is a long, narrow wooden passage that, like the fence, is unpainted and weathered. Once inside, I find a seat in the bleachers, watch the teams exchange the ball three times on a beautifully manicured green field, and then the match ends. Oh, well, the experience of buying a ticket is worth the ten rupees.
Choosing to leave this arena by a different route, I follow a line of people on a well-worn path through tall weeds—that leads to a toilet. I walk past them and past the bleachers, the ground under which is thick with shoulder-high weeds, to a place where I see other people congregating. I walk through them and past three armed security guards. Then, within a few more steps, I realize I’m in the players’ and coaches’ area next to a decrepit concrete building that apparently serves as a locker room. I continue on, passing under the bleachers and come to within feet of the field where two more teams are warming up. If staying were my intention, I probably could have—and taken some great action photos from the sidelines. But there’s much of the maidan to see, so I retrace my steps back through the security guards and the people there—all men—who number in the dozens. The guards are holding them back, but I pass through with no restrictions. It's amazing where a white man with a camera can go unimpeded.
Curious about the name, I walk into the nicely landscaped Rangers Club (members only) to see what it is. Nothing there but a bar, a snooker table, and a few tables and chairs. Amidst relative quiet, I drink a lime Coke and watch two guys—one American and one Indian—shoot snooker. An Indian, dressed to indicate a lower caste, keeps score. The bartender tries to introduce me to the American, but he isn't interested. There are no walls on the building, and a few dogs and crows pass through.
Eden Garden is on the north side of the maidan. The stadium, where international professional cricket matches are played, is closed, but a pleasant garden with a variety of shrubs and trees, including huge Filipino palms, is open. A few families roam. Two children greet me in the typical fashion of "Halo, halo, halo. How are you?” I offer the standard response, “I am fine. How are you?” They reply, “I am fine.” Then they echo, "Halo, Halo, Halo.” I echo. They echo. I echo. They echo. "This could go on forever," I finally say, smiling, waving, walking on.
Mostly I roam in my favorite fashion, changing direction as whimsy speaks. I ask for guidance only once then quickly discover I don’t need to. " Hooghly this way?" I say to a man, pointing toward the Vidyasagar Setu Bridge, in reference to the major river that borders Kolkata’s west side. He points yes. I take two more strides and catch a glimpse of the river much closer, immediately across the street. With no need to go all the way to the bridge, I cross the road, cross a pair of railroad tracks, and pass a "riverfront improvement" sign. I walk amidst slum shacks made of scrap material and arrive at the Hooghly just as a little flat-bottom, sampan-type boat discharges a young couple.
Without breaking stride, I step aboard, asking, "How much?” The price is 200 rupees for 30 minutes. The helmsman, the only other person on board, shoves off. Using his oar to scull, he propels us into the current. He sculls out for ten minutes, sculls less to hold us in place for ten minutes, and then lets us drift back to shore. The boat is tender (tippy) but stabile enough. I sit, stand even though he tells me not to, lie on the deck looking at the sky, eat an apple and piece of cheese. Ah, sweetness on the river.
Back ashore, I walk through the slum, along the railroad tracks. A man chastises me for entering a small shrine—that doesn’t look like a shrine—with my shoes on.
Many people stand around a ghat where images of deities of Durga Puja pandals didn't quite make it to the river for immersion. The cost to hire a boat to carry the images out into the river is expensive, so many are dropped here, some of them dismembered or beheaded.
I step over the railroad tracks again and pass through Eden Garden Railway Station, a stop on Kolkata’s Circular Railway that completely circles the city.
At a nearby bus stand, young men load cargo atop Volvo-type, luxury, "sleeper" passenger busses. The bales of goods are four or five feet across and more than a foot, maybe two feet, tall. The young men balance these atop their heads while, with both hands, gripping a vertical ladder attached to the back of the bus. Other men, atop the bus, stack the goods up to six or seven feet high. I hope they don't encounter a low bridge.
Walking farther, parallel with the railroad tracks, I buy peanuts in the shell from a rail-side vendor then share them with a slum family as we enjoy the bright orange sun slightly above the river’s horizon. These are pleasant people, obviously poor, judging from their apparel and the tininess of their shack homes that occupy a narrow strip of land between the railroad tracks and the riverbank. The teenage boy speaks very understandable English even though he has never been to school. We joke that they have “riverfront property.” They ask me to take their pictures.
Five minutes upstream, I reach Baboo Ghat. The entrance is an open-sided building in which people have built cabinets to store cooking stoves, cauldrons, and various items necessary for ghat-side activities. The building serves the function of a beach cabana, but the impression is like passing through a short, dark tunnel. On the water side, concrete steps descend under a brick arch to the river. Here, people, some of them wearing gorgeous saris, picnic and lounge. Some bath in the Hooghly’s dirty water. Two men wash gold-plated cauldrons.
The neighborhood continues to be marked with idols of deities, painted primarily in high-contrast blacks and whites then adorned with leis made of marigolds. Fortunately, these are still standing and people gather around them to worship, a sign of this nation’s clearly visible religiosity.
As afternoon light wanes, I walk the shoreline where working river craft are lashed to the shore. Then I hop aboard a ferry that takes me from this side of the Hooghly to Howrah Railway Station on the other side. This is for fun and future reference, an alternative way to get to Howrah rather than by taxi, which, due to road congestion can take up to an hour. The ferry ride is 15 minutes. The cost is a mere four rupees (eight cents).
It’s now 5:00 pm and dark. Seven young people from Bangladesh, bright and lively, are excited to have their pictures taken with an American.
Back on my side of the river, I disembark at Motiseal Ghat, which is near BBD Bagh Railway Station, also on the Circular Railway line. This is some distance upstream toward Howrah Bridge than where I got on the ferry near Eden Garden, which means I’ve just given myself a longer walk home. But this location is also near Millennium Park, one of Kolkata’s unique riverside public areas, so the stroll continues.
Well landscaped with decorative flowers and shrubs of various sizes, the park has three parts. Part 2, in the middle, is a pass-through park, but Part I and Part 3 are not, so I walk to the end, turn around, and exit at the only gate. It seems like thousands of people are here, mostly families and cuddling teenage couples, sitting on riverside benches, garden walls, and the ground. The lighting is minimal, like a weak nightlight in a cathedral. The energy is romantic and mysterious, a place to kiss in a city that frowns on public displays of affection.
In Part 3, I ride an amusement ride that, as a boy, I knew as Tilt-A-Whirl and which Indians call Break Dance. The cars hold two people. Five teenage boys are in three adjoining cars, so I get into the car that holds the single youth. His friends laugh, and he, at first, acts embarrassed of being doubled with an “old man.” But it isn't long into the ride when he puts his arm around my shoulders and hangs on tight, looking stupefied, as I lean into the car's momentum to make it spin faster.
Then I dine at Floatel, a floating hotel just south of Millennium Park. The meal is a large piece of beef, mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables, rice pilaf, and a small Kingfisher beer for only 500 rupees ($10.00). When it comes time to pay, I wait and wait, observing my waiter as he places napkins and silverware on nearby tables and performs other household chores. And this is after I have asked for the bill. Finally, I arise and put my daypack on my shoulders, slowly preparing to leave. Finally, the waiter comes to me and says, "The computer is down." "Figure the bill on paper then," I instruct. "I can't." "Sure we can."
It takes four people to resolve this, each of them telling me to sit down. Of course, I don’t sit. I’ve already learned that to follow this common command, even though spoken politely, is the first step toward acquiescence and being overlooked and eventually ignored. To sit now could lead to waiting for who knows how long until the computer is fixed. So, instead, I insist that we figure the bill by hand.
"We can't," they continue to say. "Yes, we can. I had a 400 rupee entree and a 100 rupee Kingfisher. That's 500 rupees."
They want to charge 800 rupees, first saying the entree was 500 rupees, then that I had two Kingfishers, then one large Kingfisher. Plus taxes, of course. Looking at the menu together, three of them and I finally determine an accurate price. I hand them 600 rupees and leave, complimenting the meal as they apologize for the inconvenience.
From there, it’s a brisk 60-minute walk back home. Twice, I ask police officers at intersections the way to Park Street—just to be sure I take the most direct route.
Back in the basti, I sit and talk with the men in the chaupal (commons) for 15 to 20 minutes while a pair of politicians blare their messages through the neighborhood mosque's outdoor loudspeakers.
Out of the flat for more than eight hours and on my feet most of that time, I’m soon asleep in my bed, exhausted from a mere walk in the park and a couple of rides on the river—and much for which to be thankful.
Cross-cultural plumbing—Rosalie's flat, Kolkata, India; Sunday, December 4, 2011, to Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Let’s just say … the project didn’t go as planned.
The plan was that I would serve lunch to Mehtab at 11:30, the plumber would arrive at noon, and, by 3:00, the overhead water storage tank in Rosalie’s flat would be cleaned and the float-ball shut-off valve would be installed so that the tank would no longer overfill and overflow when the person in charge of supplying water from the cistern on the roof gives us too much. Then, Mehtab and I would discuss his school lesson and go out for a casual dinner around 5:00. Tutoring and treating him to a meal was to be my gift for his 22nd birthday—and a sign of my gratitude for him making arrangements and translating with the Bengali-speaking plumber.
It was a good plan and a good way to spend the first Sunday in December.
At 11:00, I’m beginning to prepare lunch and about to start emptying the water tank and removing various in-the-way items from the bathroom. There’s a knock on the door. It’s the plumber and his assistant. In an instant, they’re inside the flat and into the bathroom.
“Mehtab, the plumber is here. Can you come over now?” I say into my mobile.
“Yes, Bob. I’m coming.”
In the few seconds I was on the phone, the plumber and his assistant, who had scouted the job three days earlier, moved Rosalie’s dining table from the living room into the bathroom. The assistant, a very short man of about four feet plus an inch or two with black, wavy hair, rich by even Indian standards, is standing on it—fortunately, in bare feet because both men follow the Indian custom of removing their flip-flops at the door.
Yet, I don’t like this and keep repeating, “Be careful of Rosalie’s table. Be careful of Rosalie’s table. Be careful of Rosalie’s table.” Of course, they don’t understand my English, and any physical attempt to thwart their use of the table is for naught—it’s already in the bathroom, and it’s not coming out until two people lift it out.
On the single water pipe that runs into the tank, the assistant turns the knob of an antiquated valve, and this shuts off the flow of water from the rooftop cistern. He starts to disconnect that pipe—standing atop the table, of course.
“No. No. The tank’s not drained.” With the table filling the bathroom and the plumber in the doorway, I can’t reach in to open the utility faucet next to the in-floor, squat toilet and start the draining process.
They don’t understand and keep working. Water drips on the table.
“The tank is full. The tank is full.” I space my hands, one above the other, to show a depth of more than a foot, the height of the tank.
The plumber, also a short man who has now removed his plaid outer shirt to expose the common working attire of an A-vest undershirt, nods that he understands. He gestures back with the width of his palm. This is the depth of the water according to his estimation.
I can see why he thinks that. The tank is made of thick, milky-white, translucent plastic. But it hasn’t been cleaned in years, and the inside is now stained, especially in the lower half, from holding various amounts of standing dirty water. It took me several weeks—and Rosalie’s tutelage—to finally read the water level properly, and then I wasn’t always sure. But I’m sure today. I’ve been monitoring the inflow and my usage for the last several days. I can read the level when the water is high, where less scum has accumulated. I know the tank is full. “The tank is full. The tank is full.”
The plumber smiles and nods. The tacit equivalent to the common Indian statement, “Yes. Yes. I know. No problem.” But of course the common reality—and the actual reality here today—is “No. No, you don’t know. And there is a problem.”
The plumber’s assistant continues to work. He uses one pipe wrench, then another. He sets the first wrench on the table top. I get a towel, fold it to 18 inches square and put it on a corner of the table, directly in front of his feet, where he will see it when he bends over. I pick up the first wrench and place it on the towel, figuring he will understand. The assistant switches wrenches. He sets the one he’s no longer using on the table—beside the towel.
I move the wrench to the towel. “Be careful of Rosalie’s table.”
The assistant switches wrenches again. He sets the one he’s no longer using on the table—beside the towel.
I move the wrench to the towel. “Be careful of Rosalie’s table.” Why am I bothering to say this?
The pipe separates. Water pours forth, a steady half-inch flow for the next 15 minutes, soaking everything on the toiletry shelf, including a spare roll of toilet paper, that I had planned to remove from the room before the plumber arrived. The tank was full.
Mehtab is here now. He and the plumber are discussing the project. The plan, as I designed it, is to split the water pipe so that it no longer attaches only at the bottom of the tank—as it did until a moment ago—but also at the top. Water will flow from the rooftop cistern through the pipe and into the tank through the top port. And water will flow from the bottom port back into the internal plumbing system, hidden in the walls, for our use in the flat. To make sure we don’t get too much water, we’ll install the float-ball shut-off valve inside the tank at the top port.
Both Mehtab and the plumber are talking at the same time, exhibiting the uncanny Indian ability to speak and listen simultaneously, a trait beyond my American comprehension. Or maybe they just speak and don’t really listen. If I had to make a bet, I’d put money on the latter, although I’ve witnessed this so often and in so many situations that, maybe, Indians do have that uncanny ability.
They speak rapidly and for many minutes. And very loudly, also an Indian custom.
“What’s he saying? What’s happening?” Neither one looks at me. Why am I bothering to ask?
Outside, either a Sunday preacher or a politician has invaded the neighborhood with electronic megaphones attached to the top of an autorickshaw. He’s directly below the windows to the flat. With his greatly amplified voice echoing off the concrete walls of buildings that form the narrow alley of Syed Ismail Lane, his voice is much, much louder than the two loud voices that are inches from my ears. I walk out of the plumbing conversation and shut the windows, which has no effect of shutting down the volume from the voice outside. Why do I bother?
“Chai. Chai,” says the plumber. He wants—expects?—me to serve tea.
Well, the water is still draining from the tank. Why not? “Green tea or black tea?”
They’ve never had green tea and decide to try it. Within a few minutes, the four of us are sitting around the coffee table, drinking tea. They take theirs with spoonfuls of honey, certainly to satisfy the Indian penchant for sweets and probably because I didn’t have, nor serve, the brown type of chai common at curbside stands that, to me, tastes more like well-sweetened hot chocolate.
Outside now, drummers are pounding a celebration of the Islamic New Year. They’re louder than the now-departed megaphone speaker.
When the water stops shooting against the far wall, Mehtab and the plumber remove Rosalie’s table from the bathroom and return it to its rightful place in a corner of the living room. The tabletop is soaked but unmarred. Mehtab uses a fresh towel to dry it thoroughly.
The plumber leaves, and Mehtab says, “He’s going to get a stepladder.” I could ask why he didn’t bring a ladder in the first place, but I don’t bother.
When the plumber returns and with the water level now low, he and his assistant pull the tank forward, partially off its shelf above the sink and showerhead, and tip it to facilitate the final gushes. Those last liters are filthy brown, like hot chocolate chai, as much sediment as liquid, now all over the toiletry shelf, the white porcelain toilet, bottles of cleaning solvent, rubber fishes and frogs atop the toilet bowl tank—everything that I was going to move in that lost hour prior to their arrival.
They carry the tank into the living room. Its top exterior is covered with cobwebs and is as dirty as the sediment on the inside. The plumber picks up a broom and begins to sweep the dirt onto the floor.
“No. No. Do that outside.” Because of remaining gunk on the inside, we have to take the tank outside to the community water pump anyway. “We can clean the top out there and not add dirt to the floor in here.” The plumber seems to understand this without translation. Maybe he reads my expansive gestures. Maybe Mehtab gives him a signal. So they carry the tank outside to the chaupal, the common area next to our building where neighbors gather daily and nightly to play, wash, and talk.
"You are such a terrific writer in the way you make everything so clear and enjoyable." —H.C.
I follow to make sure they clean it thoroughly. They do, and, I believe, they would have even if I were not there. I mean, the plumber really seems to enjoy cleaning the tank as well as the attention he’s getting from observers of all ages. He’s especially fond of the bottle of liquid dish soap—from Rosalie’s supply—that I’ve contributed to this part of the project. He examines the label. It’s in English, and he tells Mehtab that he wishes he could buy such good soap in Kolkata.
Everyone’s mood is good. The plumber is a joyous man who’s quick with a smile. He willingly stops his work and poses when I take photos. He squeals with delight when I show him the captured images on the camera’s digital display screen. With the beaming face of a cherub, he reaches his right hand to my chin, brushing it with his fingertips then lightly squeezing it while chattering words I don’t understand. Mehtab translates, “He wants you to make prints for him,” another common request I’ve fulfilled on previous days for the laundry dobie and his wife, the cobbler whose "shop" is a blanket on the sidewalk, Rosalie’s favorite taxi driver Mr. Kahn, and the bamboo saxophone vendor who strolls Sudder Street emoting melodic sounds from his long, slender instruments.
Inside, the meal for Mehtab and me has completed cooking and is cooling in the toaster oven. Shopping at a street vendor’s stand the night before, I had only purchased enough for two—potatoes, onions, green beans, garlic, one cucumber, and one tomato plus a six-pack of fresh muffins from the grocery store.
My first thought is that it’s okay to eat in front of the plumber and his assistant. We’d have finished eating before they arrived had they come at the appointed time. But, no, it’s not right. So, I use all of Rosalie’s blue glass plates and some of her red-handled tableware to serve up four small helpings. When offered a second cup of tea, both the plumber and his assistant choose black—with lots of honey.
I also open a bottle of sparkling non-alcoholic white grape juice—something that the other three have never tasted. They each try a little then readily accept more. Mehtab, who has never drank beer or wine, considers this to be his “first Champaign.”
The meal is a moment of joy—and another opportunity for photographs. The plumber now wants an 8 x 10 print to frame and hang in his home. “Every job should be like this,” he gleefully tells Mehtab.
The plumber suggests that his assistant paint the angle iron bars that support the tank. A good idea. Mehtab goes for the remainder of paint he had purchased to coat a new platform board that rests between the support bars and the water tank—the old one being well-rotted from absorption of too many previous overflows. The paint is a nice shade of brown, a good complement to the bathroom’s pale green upper walls and white-and-green-and-smoke gray tiles on the lower wall.
The assistant paints while the plumber, Mehtab, and I talk. The plumber and his family—wife, three sons, and three daughters—are leaving the next day for a week with relatives in their native village, traveling by train four hours. He invites me to join them, and I seriously consider his offer. A few days in an indigenous setting with a family of people with whom I don’t share a language would be an interesting experience. But I have other commitments, including monitoring the new valve to see if it’s working, and decline.
The assistant has finished painting the support bars—leaving more than a few spots unpainted that I tacitly decide to touch up later—and we position the new platform board. It’s sturdier than its predecessor but too thick, and the tank, once hoisted for reinsertion, won’t squeeze back into the narrow space between the bars and the ceiling. The plumber rushes out and finds another, smaller, unpainted board that will have to do for now. “We can drain the tank, lift it, and replace the board with a better one later,” Mehtab philosophizes, disappointed that his contribution of a nice, thick board didn't work.
So, with the temporary board in place and a new hole for water inflow at the top of the tank, the three of them carry the tank into the bathroom and begin to slide it in place. I happen to glance at a living room chair. On it rests the float-ball shut-off valve. The plumber and his assistant are reinserting the tank without the centerpiece of the project. I draw this to their attention, and they sheepishly bring the tank back down and install the float—at first, upside down. Thank goodness I checked. Then they return the tank to its proper place in the bathroom.
But there’s a much bigger, more significant fly in the ointment. It now dawns on me that that single pipe is both the water inflow pipe and the water outflow pipe—a two-way pipe. When water comes from the rooftop cistern, it flows through this pipe into our storage tank. When we open a faucet or turn on the shower, water flows, somehow, from the tank into the internal piping system for use in the flat.
It’s all gravity-fed, so it works. But it’s also foreign to me because water where I’ve lived in America is pumped upward from a well and flows in only one direction in any given pipe. I mean, I had seen that there was only one pipe but it didn’t dawn on me until now that there is only one pipe.
Had I been astute enough—when planning the project—to have deduced how this two-way Indian system functions, I would have planned differently. But, then, that’s the advantage of retrospect, isn’t it? And, at this point in the evolution of events, my knowledge of the overall picture is still woefully incomplete. Only later would Mehtab and I discover a T in the supply line—on the outside of the building, hidden behind a larger sewage drain—where water, flowing in that reverse direction, comes back into the flat.
But, now, the plumber has determined that we need to run another pipe from the bottom of the tank, along the bathroom wall, to a utility faucet near the toilet where he will tap into the internal system.
He has to go after supplies and asks for 900 rupees to buy a length of PVC pipe and the necessary Ts and elbows. I give him the money, and off he goes.
While he’s gone, I come up with what I think is a better solution. The plumber is gone a long, long time, which gives me ample opportunity to explain my new plan to Mehtab and obtain his promise that he’ll explain it to the plumber.
When the plumber returns, Mehtab begins to speak. Both men talk, loudly and at the same time, for many minutes.
“What’s he saying? What’s happening?” Why am I bothering to ask?
Finally, I get a notepad and pencil and communicate my idea with a sketch. The plumber strikes his palm on his forehead as if to say, Aye-yi-yi, crazy American. He sketches something on another sheet of paper, trying to make me understand. But I insist on being right. So, off he goes to the plumbing supply shop to get a T he needs to make my idea work. He’s gone a long, long time.
While he’s away, Mehtab convinces me of the craziness of my idea. I come to realize that he’s right, and I’m wrong.
When the plumber returns, Mehtab relates that I’ve come to my senses and tells him to run the length of pipe along the wall as he had planned. He strikes his palm against his forehead three times and sits down on one of Rosalie’s dining chairs. For many moments, he doesn’t speak.
Because he swapped the original T of a certain size, which he needed to run the pipe his way, for a different T of a different size, which he would have needed to implement my idea, he has to return to the plumbing supply shop—again. This time, he asks for 200 rupees so he can take a taxi instead of walking. I know from experience that 200 rupees will buy a taxi ride all the way across town, but this isn’t a time to quibble, so I hand over the money.
When the plumber returns, still some time later but not as long as his earlier excursions, he tells Mehtab that we are to stay out of the bathroom and let him do his job, including the repair of a leaking faucet in the bathroom sink. He’s smiling, but his tone emphasizes that this point is not negotiable.
So, Mehtab and I sit in the living room and discuss what I’ve learned through this endeavor.
“In America,” I tell him, “plumbers drive big pickup trucks. In the back of the truck, they carry one or more stepladders, a dozen or more Ts and elbows and other fittings, many lengths of pipe—enough to fix many, many jobs. If plumbers need a part, they walk a few feet to the truck and get what they need.”
“Here,” Mehtab replies, “the plumber travels on foot. His tool kit and supplies fit in a single cloth bag (not much larger than a woman’s purse) that he slings over his shoulder. He doesn’t have space in his home to keep supplies and even if he did someone would come in and steal them because there are no doors. So he buys what he needs for each job from the supply shop. If he needs something else, he goes back to the supply shop. And this plumber said he doesn’t work every day. Most people don’t have water in their homes, and many who do can’t afford a plumber.”
By this time, the hour is approaching 7:00 pm. The plumber and his assistant have been working—or going to and from the supply shop—for nearly eight hours.
“How much extra should I pay him?” I ask Mehtab.
“He asked for 1,000 rupees. Three hundred for the float and 700 for him and the assistant. But maybe 2,000 now.”
“That’s not enough.”
“How much would this cost in America?”
“That’s what I have to keep in mind. In America, plumbers earn $50 to $70 an hour—more in big cities like Kolkata. For seven hours, this job would cost at least $350 to $500.”
We do the math, using the current currency exchange rate of one dollar being equal to approximately 50 rupees. Mehtab whistles his astonishment. “At $500, that’s 25,000 rupees.”
“Right. So, 1,000 rupees isn’t enough, and 2,000 is still cheap—by American standards. Plus, he’s a good man. He’s happy. He works hard. It’s Sunday. He’s leaving for his village with his family tomorrow.”
“And he wants to finish the job.”
Without fanfare, the assistant is packing the plumber’s three pipe wrenches and a few elbows into the cloth tote bag from which the handle of one wrench protrudes through a large hole in a lower corner. The job is done. But testing will come three days hence when the water level in the tank reaches the top again. Right now, it’s a time for faith.
And for payment. “He wants another 1,000,” says Mehtab as I examine the work in the bathroom. The PVC pipe on the outside of the wall looks okay. But I’ll need to paint it and the upper wall—to cover fresh handprints—before Rosalie returns from the U.S. five weeks from now.
“That’s not enough.” I check my instincts to see what feels right. This is a sticky issue. With a favorable exchange rate, it’s tempting to pay too much. Yet, self-induced inflation sets a bad precedent and even gives an air of superiority that can cause problems later. What feels right?
In addition to the initially agreed upon 1,000 rupees, I remove another three 500 rupee notes from my wallet and give them to the plumber—a 50 percent increase above the extra amount he requested and, being equivalent to $10, the cost of a meal in an American diner. His face illuminates with a huge smile. Then I give another 500 rupees to the assistant who also shows surprise. This feels right.
The plumber reaches out, hugs me to the left cheek and to the right. He takes my hand in both of his in the Indian gesture of greeting, good-bye, and gratitude. The assistant also takes my hand, but we don’t hug. And then they are off into the night, descending the dark stairwell outside the flat because electricity in this part of the building as well as in the chaupal isn’t working again.
Total cost for the project is 2,700 rupees in labor plus 1,200 in supplies plus 200 for a taxi. 4,100 Indian rupees, 82 American dollars for eight hours of work. Five dollars per hour each for two adult men. Less than the minimum wage in America.
The rewards are a clean tank, an improved plumbing system with a float-ball, shut-off valve to be tested when the tank refills, a shared meal, international fellowship in a situation where tempers and ill-will could have prevailed, understanding of another person’s way of business—and a story.
But there’s more. Three days later, the tank overfills and overflows. Of course, it does. I mentally slap my palm to my forehead. It’s clear now. All we did was replace one two-way pipe with two two-way pipes. Even if the floating-ball shut-off valve is working—and we can’t see it through the tank wall to be sure—water is still flowing into the tank through that T on the outside of the building, through the internal system, back up the pipe we attached to the utility faucet, and into the tank through the bottom port. The same as it did before, but by an alternate route.
More than a week later, we invite the plumber and his assistant back to discuss the situation and to have them refix the leaking faucet in the bathroom sink. In the process, we discover that they apparently pocketed the replacement valve for that faucet rather than install it. As we watch them complete this part of the job, Mehtab chastises the plumber for destroying his trust. Then we dismiss the pair.
A few days later, Mehtab finds another plumber who, with his assistant, comes to examine the situation.
We determine to install a hand-operated shut-off valve on each pipe, using the type of valve that has a lever handle that rotates 1/4 turn to readily distinguish the open position from the closed position. We will also move the second, newly installed pipe from deeper in the bathroom, close to the toilet, and reattach it to another utility faucet near the bathroom door.
Technically—now that I understand how this Indian two-way system works—I realize that we don’t need this second pipe and valve. The simpler solution—had I known and planned the project properly from the outset—would have been to replace the previous, antiquated knob-type valve on the original pipe with this new, easy-to-use valve. One simple fix rather than a total of seven plumber visits and a series of misdirection that cost, in total, about 7,000 rupees ($140.00).
But that original pipe is high above the floor. Rosalie would need a stool to reach the valve there, and Magdalene, the cleaning woman who is shorter and walks with a limp from polio, wouldn't be able reach it at all. So, I decide to simply close the upper valve, designating the lower valve for convenience.
This second plumber and his assistant can only work at night because they plumb at a construction site during the day. They come three times: once to evaluate and twice to do the work. The last night, they arrive at 7:00 and work until 9:30 pm—on New Year’s Eve—and they even scrub the showerhead so that water flows from it more freely.
Three days later, there’s enough water in the tank to test the valves. They work. Then I paint the upper walls to cover a multitude of hand prints and tool scars.
When Rosalie returns on January 10, the aroma of oil-based paint has dissipated, Magdalene is learning when to open and close the valves, and Rosalie is thrilled. “Plumbers have been telling me for eight years that this can’t be fixed,” she exclaims. “Is the showerhead new?”
I’m pleased too. The tank is clean, the walls are painted, and—as long as we don’t leave the valves open when the tank is nearly full—she will have no more overflows regardless of the whims, fancies, or inattentions of the water genie on the roof.
Final comparisons—Kolkata, India, and USA in my youth
Throughout this neighborhood community in which I’ve lived for four months, with its microcosm of commerce and conversation, teenage boys play cricket in the streets, younger boys adeptly spin tops, and girls jump as they play hopscotch and giggle amidst games of jacks and tag.
Women wash clothes in pans and hang them to dry on clotheslines. Drainage troughs run with brackish sewage. People throw trash where they walk. Men pee in wall-less public toilets or wherever they can with relative modesty.
All of the schools I’ve visited are single rooms and crowded. When comparing this to modern America, many would find the conditions here deplorable.
Yet, I’m old enough to draw similarities between this neighborhood in Calcutta and the America I knew as a boy.
Then, American city teens played baseball in the streets and country kids, like me, ran bases in rutted farm fields, boys and girls spun tops and enjoyed jacks and tag, and girls played hopscotch.
My grandmother and I washed clothes in a machine but fed them through a wringer and rinsed them in soapstone basins by hand, and we always dried the laundry on a line.
In my home town, the ditches were sewers—a condition not rectified until the 2000s—and my friends and I would have “floating stick races” when the ditches swelled during spring rains. Americans in general threw a lot of trash from their cars on highways, especially before bottle return deposits were legislated.
When I was a boy, businesses were smaller and families usually bought locally. Many people in my community had outhouses, and farmers would stop their trucks or tractors to pee next to a tree. Dad attended a one-room schoolhouse, and my elementary school had four rooms for the education of eight grades.
So maybe the comparisons between India and America aren’t so much about "there and here" as about "then and now."