February 15, 2010


My new single word to describe Kolkata is "raw." First are the obvious sensory qualities like the smells seeping uninvited into my nostrils from all directions, those of human urine and shit, food of sweet or spicy deliciousness, sugary milky chai frothing, the stink of vomit on the metro, nauseating fumes of exhaust, pollution, and smoke from charcoal fires and trash burning, and the many unidentifiable odors that are inexplicably stronger here than anywhere I have ever lived. Then there are the sounds; my ears witness babies being spanked, children chasing one another, chickens being murdered, goats being herded, bicycles fighting for space with bells while cars fight back with incessan beeping, meals sizzling, beggars' cups clanking, blind men crying "Allah," the song of the call to prayer, vendors calling "Yes Madam?", "EEEEgggggsss!" or "Pallllaaaaakkk!", and the neighbors' private conversations from the uncomfortably close windows along with the noises of their dishwashing and bathing. The auditory stimuli are overwhelming not only in quantity and intensity, but in their often private and unexpected nature. More obvious is the rawness of the images that confront me daily. Whether it is the open wounds of the beggar on my sidewalk downstairs, the butchers bleeding their livestock on the street corner, a mother oiling her baby, the beauty of the women's saris and pashminas, a child pooping on the sidewalk, the men bathing at the water pump, the shantytowns that cover any available space to create real estate from wasteland, or the folks who resort to sleeping at my doorstep on blankets, every day is a disturbing myriad of visual interest.
Kolkata is raw in the dangerous variety of infectious diseases that rampantly prey upon these victims who cannot afford to treat them, or who seek medical assistance but receive such a poor quality of care, the doctors' competence is so lacking, and their bodies are so weak, that they expire anyway.  It is raw in the visibility of all trades working diligently and desperately on street sides as they creatively make a living by identifying demand and serving the public. It is raw in its waste that results from the millions who take part in this literally open-air market society, a place where refuse is discarded thoughtlessly to accumulate for the street-sweepers whose duty it is to rectify the littering problem singlehandedly and for the ragpickers who recycle every scrap possible not necessarily out of conscience for the environment but rather in an acheing need to survive. It is raw in the terrifying exploitiveness of beggarmasters who create a system of paradoxically dishonest and real need that plagues the peope with a disturbed guilt that borders on insanity from the pure helplessness of resolving the problem with their spare change. It is raw in its abject poverty that threatens to desensitize the soul of all compassion for its debilitatingly urgent and ubiquitous confrontations.
And Kolkata's people are raw. Encapsulating the extremes of human nature, they are unjustly deceitful and crooked, unprecedentedly generous and hospitable, in a passionate fight for social justice, or desperately struggling to escape this place; thus, composing what I see as a more complete expression of humanity. These people are REAL. Whether it is the amused boys who entertainedly run along side me or shamelessly charge me like bulls, the metro-riders who stare at me and take secretive photographs, the shopkeepers who cheat me, the woman who tried to pickpocket me, the businessmen who call out or invite me into their homes to try to get me to pay them for home-cooked meals, the many friends and strangers trying to find a way to come with me to America, the kids who trick foreigners into treating them to cricket bats, amusement parks and zoos, or the milk seller who lies about the price of milk to foreigners and locals alike, they have a sheerly human quality that is unadorned and strikingly naked. The sins of human greed and malice, and the reality of human suffering are so apparent here, the evil as rampant as the consequential pain.
On the opposite extreme is the pure generosity, kindness, and friendship that I experience just as frequently. I can recall the chai stall men who picked me up and washed my wounds after my fall, the stranger who paid for our taxi ride, the shop owners who gave me a free shawl when I said I was cold and insisted I don't pay them for it, the vegetable man who returned my change when I overpaid him accidentally, the art teacher who showed me his studio and work gratuitously and invited me to exhibit with him, and of course my host mom who gives me everything and more. It is these people who teach me what it means to live for one another, and force me to humbly accept my reliance on community and fellowship for my own survival.
There is a transparency, an honesty to this place that reveals the true colors of human sin just as it offers an inexplicably inexhaustible fountain of love. It is this absolute contrast between wealth and poverty, delight and hatred, greed and generosity, frustration and reward, good and evil, that I see even in the stark, moody ink-paintings of Rabindranath Tagore, where the juxtaposition of black paint with the white paper create the exaggerated emotional effect that makes the image great, that makes life real, that makes the rawness of Kolkata both devastating and beautiful.

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