Kolkata, “beautiful but shabby”

"The City That Got Left Behind: Can India’s original economic powerhouse get its act together again?" The Economist

The other day, just as I was getting ready to leave for a bit of urban trekking (I have this book, Ten Walks in Calcutta, that I am eager to put into use now that winter temperatures (70 F) have set in,) I decided to check up on some news and caught this article on The Economist’s website. The article is largely critical of the current state of Kolkata, a city which was once India’s economic center but which has shared little in the progress seen by the country’s other major cities over the past few decades.

I don’t know that I understand enough of economics to comment on the topic. In my limited experience in other large cities here–a few days in Delhi, Ahmedabad, Mumbai–I’ve seen the difference in the infrastructure and in the size and atmosphere of the cities’ commercial centers. And for those who actually live and work here, I’m sure Kolkata’s relative stagnation has real and frustrating consequences. Nevertheless, I still love Kolkata best: for what it’s worth, it has character. At times, it feels a bit like an old carnival ground (I found myself thinking this yesterday, in fact, as I passed an old lot in which an ancient dragon-shaped water slide stood abandoned among rusted bars and piles of trash). Nothing is hidden away, as it is in cities back home: where we build walls hiding poor neighborhoods from cars passing by via interstates, poverty here is visible everywhere. It is literally right under one’s nose–on the sidewalks, where people sleep and bathe and prepare meals and play with their kids–every time one heads out for the day. I don’t know if it serves to remind or to desensitize. It’s all there, all the time, mixed in with vestiges of all sorts of other economic classes: mercedes benzes, constant construction work, crowds hopping onto busses for the morning commute.

Ha, this is what I find myself doing: living in anecdotes and images and idealistic musings without any real understanding of the numbers. Perhaps now would be a good time for me to start looking into the other side of the story–the politics and business of the city I live in–while I’m still here in the middle of it all.

But, for now, I have some images to share. I’ve found myself hesitant to take photos in Kolkata because I want to avoid feeling like such a tourist in the city in which I’ve now spent half a year. This is silly. I was out walking just last Saturday when someone kind-heartedly called out “Welcome to India.” I am still a guest here, with no choice but to embrace it. And the truth is that six months is nothing when you live in a city with so much going on all of the time. These are photos from that walk in and around Dalhousie Square (now Benoy-Badal-Dinesh Bag, or BBD Bag), one of the older and more residually colonial areas of Kolkata.

Ferries on the Hooghly near Howrah Bridge

Lal Dighi ("red pond")

Old Buildings on Clive Row

Millenium Park in the evening

 

 

 

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Even through use of only two senses…

Sri Lanka is proving pretty impressive.

Let me explain.

Yesterday, I flew out early to Colombo with two of my friends and fellow ETAs, Julie and Pamela. (We’re here for seven days for a conference for Fulbright ETAs in South and Central Asia.) For a variety of reasons, I decided to do the classic “why sleep at all?” thing and stay up all night before flying out of Kolkata at 7:30 am (and really, it rarely takes much to convince me to stay up all night when I have friends to spend the time with–I love this kind of thing). After a fun night out–a last night out with two friends, in fact, as one was returning to Nepal and the other moving back to France–I hopped in a friend’s van just as the morning prayer call was sounding from a nearby mosque. At the airport, a huge crowd was gathered outside of the international airport, apparently beginning their Haj pilgrimage from the region; luckily, a three-hour layover in Delhi before Colombo meant that we flew out of the domestic terminal. Much simpler.

But, as always, things are never simple. After parting with out French friend with a quick “See you in Delhi!” we boarded our flight. Before entering the plane, we became aware of how dense the fog had grown. Uh oh. Instead of a three-hour layover in Delhi, during which I had planned to meet up with a friend undergoing Air Hostess training and to see Christophe off to France, we chilled out on the runway for three hours. Fortunately, I had a great book to read (Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal, courtesy of Lindsey!), so I actually enjoyed the unexpected delay. After a crazy couple of weeks, getting stuck with nothing else to do was the perfect reminder for me to slow down and indulge in some uninterrupted reading time.

We de-boarded the plane in Delhi with just 25 minutes to make the connection. This was my first time back to Indira Gandhi Intl. since the night I arrived in India, but there wasn’t much time to reminisce–we hustled down needlessly long corridors, fought past an unnecessary rude customs official, bumbled our way through a security checkpoint, and then jogged past thirteen gates before arriving–just as the boards read “Gate Closed” and all hope seemed lost–to our plane a full fifteen minutes after it was set to lift off. We were not the only ones delayed by previous flights, it turns out, so we had time to spare. We cheered each other on as each boarded the plane, and joked with those other passengers who had been sitting and watching people come huffing and puffing down the aisle.

Anyway, back to this whole loss of senses thing: for some reason, my ears were especially affected by the changes of pressure during these flights. We flew into Colombo last night around 7 pm., about 21 hours ago, and I still cannot hear much out of my left ear. Well, that’s not true–I can hear my own footsteps echoing in my eardrum, as well as any chewing I engage in magnified three-fold. Normal sounds, however, like voices and car horns and music are muffled. This may have something to do with this cold I have, which this morning contributed to further deadening of the senses: I couldn’t smell or taste much of my nice continental breakfast. Luckily, those sense returned in time for a lunch on the beach–prawns and pina coladas, yum!

I have to say, though: even with three of my senses muted and my body in general disarray following the stress of the last fourteen days, it’s hard not to be ecstatic right now. I’m in Sri Lanka with two days to relax with two great friends, and then we’re meeting up with the other ETAs (some of which we haven’t seen since Orientation in D.C., others since us Kolkata ETAs left Delhi in July) for a conference in a fancy hotel. I am especially excited about seeing the presentations put on by ETAs and for giving our own: a presentation on cross-cultural classroom management strategies lovingly entitled “The Dark Place.” It’s going to be hilarious (for us, at least).

After a good (two-night’s worth of) rest on our hotel’s soft beds, a few hours on a gorgeous beach, and a delicious lunch, I’m feeling pretty grateful for the strange opportunities life has been throwing my way lately. But really, it’s the little things that matter these days, and Sri Lanka’s got a lot of them to offer, like:

-Christmas lights: Sri Lanka seems to have a much greater Christian population, because all of the hotels and restaurants and clothing stores are decked out. We even passed some little stands with inflatable Santas hanging from the doorways. It’s beginning to look a lot (more) like Christmas!

-Buddhas: Huge Buddha statues, some complete with flashing mandalas behind the head, popped up along the main roads during our ride from the airport last night. After bumming around the beach for a day or two, I’m hoping to make it back out there to revisit a few and to see some of the temples here in the city.

-The money: Not only is Sri Lanka’s currency easy for us to mentally convert back into U.S. dollars, it’s also beautiful–the bills are bright tropical colors and are embellished with pictures of birds, flowers, musicians, and temples.

-Seafood: Pretty straightforward. I’m determined not to waste time with much else during meals here. West Bengal is big on river fish, but nothing beats real fish and prawn and crab from the sea.

-Casual clothing: At least in Colombo, the dress code here seems to be a bit more liberal than Northern India’s. I am not a big bathing suit person anyway, so I’m not really testing the limits; I did, however, wear a tank top and long shorts on the beach. It was so nice to feel some sun on my shoulders!

-Fewer horns, nicer streets: I have a love-hate relationship with the traffic back in Kolkata. I mean, the city wouldn’t quite have the same character without the constant honking and the real-life frogger that pedestrians have to play every time they cross the street. I have become so used to it that it took a good half hour last night before I turned to Pamela and July in the taxi last night and said, “Wait, why don’t I hear any horns honking right now?”

-Rain: Just now, it started raining hard enough to draw me out of the room towards our little hotel’s courtyard. It hasn’t been so long since monsoon season ended, but still I have been a bit nostalgic for rain. That’s what a lifetime in the Northwest will do for you, I suppose. Last night, we benefited from a little show of lightening flashing in the skyline beyond the coast.

 

All in all, I’d say temporarily loosing my hearing out of one ear is well worth a sponsored trip to Sri Lanka!

 

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“Good morning, I am a tree”

More and more, I am realizing that my life in India is what I make it. The same thought no doubt applies to life in general, but the applicability of this idea to my day to day routine here is more tangible than I have ever before  experienced. India is nothing if not overstimulating. Every venture out the door leads to a bumping-into or a tripping-over of some sort. Ears are assailed by the squawks of birds and car horns at all hours. It’s dizzying. Add to this the cacophony of languages unknown to my foreign ears and the constant, brooding stares I still receive even on my own street after four months of living here, and you may understand why I sometimes think to myself: “India, you’re too much for me today.”

But then again, for all of those moments when Kolkata gets the best of me, there are an equal share of moments when I feel that my life could not be better. These highs come at unexpected times.

This morning, for instance, I found that while my first step out of bed landed on the wrong side, my second quickly corrected the path that my day would take. I woke suddenly this morning from a nightmare to find that I had overslept. I rushed through breakfast and threw together a tiffin to take on the road, and then was snubbed by the first taxi-wallah that I hailed. The man actually shook his head and, laughing, proffered a defiant “no” as he drove straight by. My second attempt landed me in the back of a taxi which weaved quite the scenic route through the Alipore area (a common trick that taxi drivers pull in order to run the meter and raise the fare) before dropping me off just in time for my first class of the day.

Once I reached the school, I discovered that I had had little reason to rush: the entire school was missing their first few periods in order to attend a special program put on by the primary grades in honor of Children’s Day. The holiday observes the birthday of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who was a great lover of children (teacher’s receive similar recognition in September on the birthday of an early President, Dr. Radhakrishnan).

While most of the school sat in the courtyard in rows per their usual assembly formation, a crowd of the little ones dressed in all sorts of costumes surrounded the stage. One by one, princesses and fairies and Salman Khan and Santa Clauses and devotees of various faiths approached the mic to give a little speech or to sing a song. Most of them were actually too shy to say anything, despite the attempts that the attending teachers made to physically place the students’ heads in front of the mic and to set their jaw in motion. Others were eager to perform: the boy from class four who dressed as Salman Khan treated the whole school to “dinka chika” (if you haven’t heard this song, then you’re clearly reading this from outside of India; look it up, it’s huge here). One of my favorites was a girl who, face poking out from the small whole cut into her cardboard costume, began: “Good morning, I am a tree.” Forget nightmares and faulty phone alarms, nothing can go wrong on a day that begins with a phrase like that.

 

Similarly, after a day spent catching up on sleep and generally being a couch-potato around the house yesterday, I went to Lake Market in the evening and got ridiculously turned around on my way back home. I have been living in this neighborhood for over four months, and yet I still take the wrong street from the market almost everytime I go. To convey exactly how lost I get myself, here’s a map:

If Mac had paint, I would have added a big question mark in the middle of this map. God knows what sort of path I took.

On the left is home and the straight path I take north to the market, and on the right is the point at which I realized I had taken one giant U-Turn and somehow made it back the to the major avenue at the top of the map.

Now, I’d like to think that I’ve become more Kolkata-savvy over time. Going anywhere for the first time in this city generally entails a bit of a guessing game, and I make it around on my own pretty well most of the time. Other times, I get ridiculously disoriented and, out of a stubborn need to figure out things for myself, end up a mile off course. Yet, as with last night, I’ve found getting lost in this city is actually the best way to find those places which I didn’t know to search for. Google Maps can only do so much in a city that has endless alleyways and tiny shops which complicate the nice grid pattern pictured above. Along the way on my venture in the absolute wrong direction from the market, I found not only some potentially useful stores, but also some quirky architecture in the old buildings lining these side streets which deserves a return visit.

In addition to those times when I get sincerely and unintentionally lost, there are other afternoons when I purposefully take the metro to stations which I otherwise do not visit and then begin walking in some direction. Without a clear destination in mind, I follow whatever street looks most intriguing. I appreciate that I live in a city safe enough to get lost in. Worst case senario: I find an auto-rickshaw/bus/taxi to take me back to the metro line. On the way, it is not uncommon to stumble upon some delicious street food, or an impromptu musical performance, or a historical building of some sort nestled inconspicuously between crowded shops.

The craziness never subsides during these trips. Nor does it leave me alone even when I’m behind closed doors in my flat. There’s always some sound (actually, a lot of sound) coming in through the windows or some person ringing the doorbell with an agenda that never fails to lead to some awkward clash of cultural assumptions (“You want to enter my flat to do what? …when? …why? Uh, alright…”) Sometimes I admittedly get a little grumpy, but then I remind myself: you’re half-way through a period in your life which you will likely never have the chance to revisit. No moment is worth wasting, especially when them most frustrating of them can be turned around with a laugh and a five-rupee milk tea.

 

 

 

Sidenote: While I have not been blogging lately, I’ve found myself mentally composing some posts while out on these aforementioned strolls. Don’t be surprised if there’s a sudden influx of posts soon on overdue topics like school (my reason for being here), travel, and festivals. Hold me to it! Haha.

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Don’t think so much, just eat.

“Don’t think so much, just eat.” I received this advice from a fellow teacher who noted my shyness about accepting food. All of the teachers like to feed me during the day–not only during tiffin time, but before school and during free periods as well. I should just stop making food to take with me, because theirs is much better; but that would be presumptuous of me. Instead, I just eat my food and sample all of theirs. This adds up to about three meals before 2 pm. I feel full just thinking about it.

Besides eating everything that is put in front of me and then some (including street food, a virtual game of Russian Roulette for the tummy that I have yet to lose!), I have found that this “just do it” mentality has paid off in many ways during my time here in India. It certainly made my time in Puri, our group’s first weekend destination, a little more memorable.

The whole trip Puri, a beach-town in the state of Orissa, was full of mini-adventures, as life in India seems always to be. First, we boarded an overnight train departing Kolkata at 10:30 pm only to find that our tickets were double-booked. Five of us had three smaller-than-twin size beds between us, but by some luck of the draw I ended up with the single one. I still slept very little, but that was my own fault: I couldn’t help but leave the curtain open and wake up in time to catch the sunrise. I awoke to a sweeping seen of Indian countryside drowned in yellow light–definitely worth missing some winks.

Our stay in Puri was spent at the Lonely Planet’s top pick for hostels in the area: Z Hotel, a onetime Maharaja summer home cum hostel on one of the quieter parts of the beach (“Z,” by the way, is pronounced “Zed” in many Indian languages. I had to learn this fact early in order to spell out my name to bewildered Indians. Most forget that “Zed” is a letter anyway and write it with a J. Yup, my Indian name is Joe. It’s confusing). It was fantastic, and super cheap: the whole trip (two nights in a hostel, a roundtrip train ticket, and a hired car for a day of touring) cost only $50 a person.

We spent the whole first day lazing about on the beach. After stopping in at the hotel, we grabbed a few umbrellas (necessary in India for both the rain and the scorching sun) and headed down. We were immediately greeted by men in white cone hats which read “Life Guard,” who kept saying “umbrella?” to us. Thinking they were commenting on the fact that we were carrying our own, we timidly responded “yes?” and continued walking. Later we discovered that they were offering to set up a tarp for us so that we could sit in the shade. We happily accepted their “umbrellas.” We were greeted by other beach-goers as well, and although we were not the only visitors there by far (Puri is a popular spot for Indian tourists from around the country) we were the most foreign looking, so we received all sorts of attention: offers for camel rides, propositions from beachside masseurs, sales pitches for coconuts and conch shells, and finally an invitation into the nearby village extended by two fishermen.

Slightly overwhelmed by all of this, we were a little hesitant in accepting that last offer; but we went and met the older man’s wife and 7 year old son and talked for a while. They invited us back for a fresh seafood dinner that night–a treat that the man had provided for past visitors from Japan, Russia, France, and elsewhere–and we arranged to chat later about whether or not we would accept it. That gave us time to weigh the potential benefits and consequences of walking into the village alone at night to eat at some strange man’s home, and while putting it into words makes it sound like the dumbest idea ever, my friend Sarah and I decided it wasn’t an opportunity that we could pass up (“Don’t think, just eat,” right?).

That evening, after a day on the beach (during which the five of us acquired awkwardly blotchy sunburns, despite our attempts to protect ourselves with SPF 100 and those tents), Sarah and I walked across the beach in the dark. At this point, we started to question our sanity. Then it got even darker. The fishermen’s village, set away from the lights on the beach, was experiencing a temporary power outage. Our seafood dinner quickly turned into a candlelit meal. But all was well. We sat on the floor of the man’s living room with his wife, son, and some of the fishermen and we ate a deliciously simple meal of ribbon fish and rice. We chatted, and after the lights came back on (an event which instantly chased away the last lingering fears I had about the situation) we looked through a stack of the family’s photos. Afterward, we walked back to the beach with two of the younger fishermen and sitting on the beach for a few hours. Again, it was a questionable decision, but one that we gladly made again the next night. We learned a lot from talking with them; they shared a perspective on Indian life that I do not think we would have heard elsewhere.

We spent our second day touring some of the local sites. The main attraction of Puri, besides its beaches, is the Sun Temple in nearby Konark. Built in the 13th century and modeled after a chariot (Hinduism shares with Greek mythology the image of a divine charioteer who pulls the sun across the sky) with 24 wheels (each a sundial with its own theme carved up on its spokes) and thousands of statues. It would be impossible to describe the variety of these statues. The largest are the guards at each entrance: lions and elephants, symbolizing power and wealth, standing upon men as a warning against greed. Along the bases and pillars of the temple run tiny borders with marriage processions and fables carved into the sandstone. Pointed lotus petals are stacked upward at each corner. And the walls feature the most intricate carvings of all: hundreds of human and humanoid forms. Dancers, gods, dragon-people, mermaids, and (most notable of all for Orissa’s tourism industry) kama sutra lovers. As our guide put it, the temple is covered in “ee-row-teek” statues, even “oral action” and “lesbian types.” Speaking no other English than what he had memorized for the purpose of leading his tour, he explained: “They did not have television. They had this temple.” Even as Fulbrighters, we couldn’t help but giggle like middle schoolers at his jokes. In all seriousness, though, from what I’ve learned it seems that Hinduism traditionally held a healthy understanding that there is a time in life for physical intimacy and a time in life for spiritual asceticism. Both are temple-worthy. I like that.

After taking these and a hundred other photos of this awe-inspiring site (not to mention ending up in a few photos ourselves, photos taken by Indian tourists who seemed almost more interested in our foreign appearance than the temple itself), we continued onto Pipili market for some shopping and then to an artists’ row famous for its pattachitra painters. As soon as we pulled up in our hired car and stepped out at the head of this street, we were swarmed by painters each desperately hoping to pull us into his shop first. After visiting one and spending easily 45 minutes viewing these paintings, I had had enough of shopping for the day. I stepped out of the shop, I fought off the crowd of artists (feeling guilty that I couldn’t buy a piece from each of them, but also feeling resentful that I couldn’t find anyone willing to just talk with me) and started down the road past the artists’ shops and into the village. I was immediately calmed. The village was beautiful. Through a serious of events, Sarah and I actually ended up venturing further into the village by riding side-saddle on the back of this village-born, Wisconsin-raised teenager’s motorcycle. He took us to a dance studio where a troupe of Gotipua dancers were preparing to give us a show, but we were forced to make an awkward exit before it began so that everyone could head back to the hostel. We’ve added it to our to-do list for the next trip we make to Puri.

In summary, I had an amazing time on our first trip out of Kolkata. It really inspired me to start pushing myself out of my comfort zone again. Kolkata is becoming pretty comfortable, overall, but I want to make sure that it does not become too comfortable. I have been attempting to explore as much of the city as possible, to accept opportunities for conversation with no more than the minimum level of guardedness requisite for women living alone in foreign countries, and to try things that I could not find at home. Two months have gone by already, and I’m starting to feel that if it weren’t for all of the people I love back home I could spend years in this place.

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Leggings Are Pants, and other oddities of life in India

Leggings are pants, and shirts are like dresses. Dressing in Indian clothing is like a constant guessing game. I barely have a sense for what is appropriate–let alone what is fashionable. I figure if I ever wear something wholly inappropriate to school, someone will let me know (hopefully… they may just be too nice to correct me!). One thing I’ve found myself purposefully testing the limit of is color. There’s nothing like walking across the cement courtyard towards my school building on a rainy day in a bright yellow kurta (a tunic) with toucan colored accents, bright magenta churidars (tight-fitting pants made extra long so that they bunch up around the ankles like bangles (churi)) and a slightly lighter magenta dupatta (a scarf traditionally worn draped across the chest for modesty’s sake). This is what I wore last Friday, and to top it all off, I opened up my new umbrella for the first time and found that it was not light blue like I thought it was, but instead an iridescent blue-green with a lacy floral accent spanning two or three panels. In fewer words, I dress like a clown. The students seem to like it, though, because they always tell me I am looking very beautiful in Indian clothing. Even the teachers compliment me (again, who knows how much of this is just them being polite to their crazy guest!?).

In general, I feel like a clown at least once a day. India often appears unordered, but do not allow yourself to be fooled: there is always a right way to do something, and most often I am not doing it. It is all in good fun though. The people in this city are extremely helpful, and every once in a while they even humor me by laughing with me about my constant confusion and faux pas (this means a lot, seeing as laughing at oneself in public–my general coping mechanism for the awkwardness of it all–is not done a lot here). This whole “never knowing what the hell I should be doing” thing is actually pretty freeing. I assume that I will make mistakes, so I am never caught off guard when I do. I just chalk it up to another learning experience, of which there are about a million a day to be had here. It is these ridiculous moments that make me marvel at how much I love life and this opportunity I have to spend a piece of mine in such a different place.

So, I thought I’d share a few of the things that have been most novel and confusing during my first month-and-a-half here in India (I can’t believe it has already been that long!):

1) Security: Not only do you find security in places like the metro (which is something of a mess, actually), but also at places like Spencer’s, the largest local grocery/department store. Before entering Spencer’s, you check your bag at a counter. Then, a guard armed with a wand (which they don’t usually use on me, presumably out of curtesy extended toward women and/or foreigners) opens the door for you. When you make your purchase, your bags are sealed with pull-ties and their number is noted on your receipt. At the exit (i.e. within sight of the cash register) there stands a guard who uses a hole-puncher to check your ticket and ensure that you have indeed only as many bags as were noted 30 seconds ago on your receipt. Then, you circle back around to the front to reclaim your purse. I consider it a small victory to be able to describe this process, seeing as it took a few tries to actually follow the procedure correctly.

2) The Guest is God: India prides itself on its culture of hospitality, and Kolkata seems to be particularly welcoming. I went to volunteer at a health camp, for example, and although I wasn’t able to do much of merit (I handed out cakes to the children after they were checked, which was admittedly a doubled excitement for them: they received treats and interacted with a foreigner) the real volunteers thanked me with roses, food, and the honor of handing out prizes to the winners of the children’s drawing contest. As undeserving as I felt in this instance, as I do in most of these situations, I have been trying to receive these gifts and the other services offered as graciously as possible. I know that it is a source of pride for Indians, to treat guests well and to give us the best experience possible in their country.

3) Creativity: I am amazed at how artistic my students are. One of my classes held a “tiffin party” (“tiffin” is a word passed down from the British tradition of small lunch-time meals carried in metal containers) for me last week, during which they sang and danced for me. They are constantly trying to get me to do the same with little avail; occasionally I humor them, and they politely applaud my efforts. It’s obvious that I have nothing on these kids. I do not know where they get it. All of Kolkata seems infused with art. Political propaganda here takes the form of flowers painted onto walls (a tri-colored daisy representing the local Trinamool party, a lotus of the BJP). The local hero is a poet-scholar named Rabindranath Tagore, whose songs even the rickshaw-wallas purportedly know.

4) Polite conversation: Small talk is a whole other animal here. Before coming, I had read and received warnings that Indians very casually ask strangers the sort of questions that we would find too forward in the U.S.: “How much do you make?” “Are you married?” “Where do you stay?” “How old are you?” I have received these sorts of queries, but even more surprising is the common: “Have you eaten?” or “What do you eat for (breakfast/lunch/dinner)?” Our Bangla teacher suggested that we great our doorman with the prior question, but so far I’ve stuck to Nomoskar and the like. I cannot get over the impression that if I ask someone if they’re hungry, I should be ready to offer them food!

5) Honking: Everyday. Every hour. Every minute. I think that drivers do it to keep themselves from getting bored, since it’s nearly impossible to go over 20 mph in these crowded streets. When stuck at a red light, they honk. While passing anywhere within a 100 meter radius of a pedestrian and/or another vehicle, they honk. Sometimes they honk to the rhythm of songs. Sometimes they just hold down their horns until traffic moves again. The backs of busses sport the phrase “HORNDO” (Horn do? as in, do honk?). I don’t get it.

Obviously, there are a million things I could add to this list. I will be sure to sprinkle in additions to this list in future posts wherever possible.

For now, I should definitely head to bed. I am excited (perhaps too much so) to get back in the classroom tomorrow after a four-day weekend. I have so many things to look forward to in the coming weeks: upcoming lessons with the kids, a trip to Puri, another to Brishnapur (with our adorable Bangla teacher!), and Durga Puja next month!

Is this real life?

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Monsoons

So, I know that I’m supposed to hate the monsoon season, e borsakal, but it kind of brings me back home to the northwest. Sure, the puddles are bigger here. The one that periodically forms outside the institute where we study Bengali is actually referred to as a lake because it occasionally reaches to levels above the knee. I was told yesterday that there used to be a boat kept outside for such occasions. And I know that their are health issues related to all of this water in the streets and to the season in general, but I love the rain. And it certainly is nice to sit inside this morning and hear it absolutely pour down outside of my kitchen window. And it’s significantly cooler, too. I was even a little cold this morning when I took a shower (I won’t have a hot water “geyser” (pronouced geezer here) installed until winter (shitkal in Bangali–that one gave us a laugh in class)). I appreciate the change in temperature.

This is the second morning in a row that we’ve woken up to find it pouring outside. I survived the trip to Bengali lessons yesterday, so hopefully today will go just as smoothly–even without that boat.

Water-logged street outside the institute

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Building a “bhalo basa”

A linguistic tangent: The word basa (pronounced “basha”) has several meanings in Bengali (to the best of my knowledge, at least, after two weeks of lessons): in West Bengal, it’s generally understood to mean “nest,” like that which a bird builds, but it can also mean a temporary “residence” (like an apartment, in contrast with a home that is owned by a family generation after generation); in Bangladesh, however, it is apparently used to mean “home” in general. I like this word because of this connection between “home” and “nest,” and also because it appears in the verb bhalobasa meaning “to love.” Now, I have a hunch that somewhere in the etymology of bhalobasa, “home” must be involved. After all, if you split the word in half, you get bhalo basa (lit. “good home,” or “good nest,” depending on where you say it). I can’t find anything to support this idea, but I like to imagine that somewhere in Bengali’s linguistic consciousness “home” and “nest” and “love” are all tied together.

Now onto the topic at hand: my basa in Kolkata and the cultivating of my bhalobasa for this crazy city. Today was day nine for Irene and I in our apartment in Kolkata, and the better part of these nine days (aside from Bengali lessons) has been spent setting up our home here. Our first adventure was finding a place where we could buy food without bargaining in the markets (although now I’m itching to try it after a few days going over the necessary phrases during our conversation classes). Another has been getting to know our neighborhood. It’s fun to witness within myself the slow development of a mental map of the area–full of streets with two names, alleys seemingly unnamed, and a numbering system that has thrown us off more than once in our quests to locate particular shops (I’m still not sure I know how it works). I’m still learning, but I am not as completely disoriented as I was when we first moved in.

Almost everyday begins with a walk down our street, Southern Avenue, to the Kalighat Metro Station, where we either head underground or else call out our intended destination to the auto-rickshaw wallahs until they point us to the right one. The auto’s are an experience in themselves: set on fixed routes, these autos (basically three-wheeled steel golfcarts) weave in and out of buses, rushing three to four passengers at a time to their destinations for as little as 5 Rs (about $0.11). On our way to the Kalighat intersection, we walk down sidewalks where small groups have set up their beds and tents. The adults mostly watch us silently as we pass, but the kids are always active. Often they run up to us and smile real big and say “Hi-eeee” or “Heh-low” proudly. It’s an emotional rollercoaster every time we walk past that stretch, and I find myself alternatively shocked, saddened, and smiling.

Riding down Rash Behari in an auto-rickshaw

In the evenings, we return to our apartment–passing the doorman who sits on the ledge outside, a man who we first mistook as simply a Kolkatan “thinking man” who perhaps spends everyday sitting out there with a book as a way to pass his time–and quickly shed our kurtis and sit in undershirts and such under the fans before moving onto any other activities. We often wonder aloud if we’ll ever stop sweating here.

Our apartment is pretty amazing by any standard. We have two bedrooms, bathrooms, three verandahs, a dining area, a living room, and a kitchen. The amenities are taking a little time to get used to. The showers fall directly onto the floor and slowly empty into a drain on the outer wall, a process that I’ve learned takes far less time if you crack the window (though I worry about mosquitos). A stove but no oven. Dust everywhere, part of the nature of the city. But it’s all working out well. I have enjoyed having my own room so far, since that isn’t something I have really ever experienced–I’m sure it’s going to come in handy after particularly long days.

I have been slipping in a few photos here and there (we try to be discreet, seeing as we’re already a spectacle of sorts every time we walk down the streets), but I won’t be able to share them until I get a memory card reader. For now, I did succeed in getting a new computer to see me through these next nine months (still can’t buy fruit from the local vendors 😉 ). I’ve taken a few photos with the webcam just to give a view of the apartment. More photos to come soon!

(From top right clockwise: the livingroom, the dining room, the kitchen, and my bedroom).

One last note: We have one other housemate, a small gecko (known as tiktiki (“teek-teekies”) in Bengali, probably my favorite word next to bhalobasa). I only saw him once the first night as he scurried behind a bookshelf, but Irene has seen him several times in the morning. I hope he sticks around: besides having a cool name, he eats bugs. I’d much rather have a bunch of tiktiki around in place of bugs.

And… one more: I finally pet a cat today. I know we’re not supposed to because of the risk of rabies and fleas and all, but it was a kitten–I couldn’t help myself.

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