January 7, 2010

Reckless Raga

After 12 hours and 1 attempt at running in Kolkata, the best descriptive word I can find for the city is "reckless." Uncomfortable amounts of body-pushing due to massive foot-traffic (though never malicious), getting in a car with no seatbelts and weaving through the streets that are far too narrow and brimming with vehicles, bicycles, stray dogs, foodstands, people walking carelessly in the center of them, not to mention those sleeping in them, the absolute disrepair of sidewalks, roads, buildings, and human beings themselves, have created in me the shock that I think only this place could possibly achieve. I came for the chaos and excitement that I did indeed expect, but until it appeared so vividly before me, I could not believe it would be true. The smells of burning trash, oil, incense, fresh flowers, hot spiced food, not to mention urine and feces, are only a handful of the flavors bombarding my olfactory senses within one block of city sidewalks. Babies being bathed by their mothers, beggars shining shoes, people pushing wheelbarrows of trash down the street, four people urinating on the road, chilidren drawing with stone chalk on the sidewalk as they dance, dogs scrounging for scraps of food, fresh vegetbles and fruits for sale, and men giving shaves to bearded men were only a few of the spectacles I had the entertainment of witnessing on my run this morning, which, though only aout 4.5 miles long, felt like 2 hours worth of experience due to the intensity of sensory overload. I felt fantastic, which was annoying considering I simply could not psychologiclly get through any longer of a run. I was unable to locate the so-called "park" that waas nearby somewhere, and a little glad, even proud that I didn't resort to it just this time. I am happy that I dared to venture out into the streets today, but I now retreat thankfully into my bedroom, in the top floor of a friend's apartment building, since the hostel was overbooked despite me having a reservation a month ago. I do not think I can handle another run leaping over people going to the bathroom and dodging the millions that populate this place. But even in the privacy (if only somewhat private--I came back to find the maid cleaning up all my stuff and I panicked), of my bedroom, I cannot escape the sounds. It is the noise of this place that strikes me most, more than the smells, climate, or people as I had expected. Sounds literally fill all remaining space, not that there is any. The jackhammers work endlessly on the temple being constructed next door, a hammer steadily pounds downstairs creating an almost comforting rhythm in the room below. Better to see it that way at least, since I won't find a silent place for a good while. Shouts from women and men on the streets echo up to the top floor of the building and in through the windows. Just this morning I lay in bed sleeplessly as the call to worship lulled me into a spiritual contemplation at an early dawn. Later, a musical ensemble played at the still unfinished temple, praising and worshipping in it despite the building's incompleteness. Sheep and birds add their own voices to the harmonies. Car horns beep constantly, but the frequent warnings are necessary and appreciated to prevent accidents and injuries on these over-populated streets. I am thankful for their kind reminders since it has already saved my life numerous times.

I am struck by the Hindi word, "raga," from the Sanskrit word for colors. It is a classical Indian musical term equivalent to a key or scale used in a piece, where only certain notes are appropriate, and the melody is built entirely upon these 5 or more notes. The raga of a song stimulates a particular emotion and provokes a certain mood, and each pattern befits certain times of day, seasons, and weather. Classical Indian music utilizes the many known ragas to create effects, while it also promotes improvisaton and creatvity as long as the identity of the raga is preserved. Like colors in a painting, the notes work in relation to one another to create the identity and beauty of the piece. The noises that dominate Kolkata constitute its ragas, combining and creating the complex melodies that one hears, the cacophonies weaving threads of sound into music.


  1. Elo,

    Your writing is such a delight as always,sophisticated, insightful, and moving, and your self-awareness is profound. I'm looking forward to reading about your adventures in a crazy new land. So proud to call you my friend.

    Be well, be strong.


  2. Dearest love,

    It is simply wonderful to hear from you and to experience only a fraction of what you are hearing, smelling, tasting, seeing, feeling and thinking. I think your thoughts are the most beautiful! Keep up the great work.


  3. Dear Emma,
    This is by far my most favorite of your posts thus far. I love all of them but the title you chose for this First Impressions post makes it very special to me. Keep safe!!