Monday, September 21, 2015

Incredible Kolkata

Either I have absolutely no sense of imagination, or I am completely, unconsciously and utterly an ad-child, loving and re-wording them when possible.  
Hence the super catchy title for this post.
So, from Kathmandu, I was invited to go to Kolkata, to work with our team in India.
It is great to finally meet up with people in reality, since all of our contacts have been over skype or via email: as good as a video can be. In Kathmandu I got some essential clues about some of my colleagues. For example S. forgot her shoes, the size of my daughter's. I then concluded that she had two small feet and have been wearing shoes. I could not say if she was currently wearing shoes, because I did not know if she had another pair. One cannot google that type of thing. 
Anyway, from Kathmandu to Kolkata. Short plane flight then an immersion in a city of 14 million people. That is as much as Belgium and Luxembourg put together. 
I actually think it could be nice to have a TV show called City swap, and have Kolkata populated with Belgians and Luxembourgers. The latter will be in charge of the rickshaws, and the first ones of everything else. We'll leave the policing to the limburgers and religious duties to the carolos. It could be wonderful. There are great palaces to accommodate the Belgian king and no other european will realize that cars coming from Belgium are driven, on the wrong side of the road, by a West-Bengali . They will curse the license place in the same way. 
Even Kolkata police has umbrellas and rain jackets branded KIP. Its a match!

So two weeks in Kolkata, mainly working, and being caught by the monsoon. Not much life sketches done really.

A tea-shot-glass-pottery. Made for people to have a shot of rich creamy and spicy tea then discard the pot. Really amazing. I saw some guys making these, hundreds a day. I also saw many paper shot cups, Nescafe-branded, probably a couple of cents cheaper and more convenient to carry and store. The first one is like drinking a poem, the second,... in a paper cup: convenient, ugly, blunt and lifeless.
Transport in Kolkata is very unusual. Most of the  cars are Indian-brands: Mahindra, Tata, Ambassador, Maruti etc. they just have a different shape. Some look like other brands, but... different. Same same but different. Very odd.
Then are the legions of public transport vehicles: the ambassador taxis, looking retro and important; the bajaj, or three wheeler taxis, dangerous and obnoxious. Same colour than in Mozambique, the yellow and green tchopelas are everywhere (especially in the Complain section of the local press). Then are the man-motored devices, the rickshaws, bicycle or foot.  They make you feel guilty riding in them. Which is odd. One should really feel guilty driving alone a large engine car, no?
Finally there are the odd cows, rooming in the city. I don't know what they eat. They are just there. No one rides a cow. 


On my last day, I went to visit a group in a slum in Howrah, which is the twin city of Kolkata. Between the two is the Gange river. Nothing special.
But it rained the whole night and previous day. The streets were 30 cm under water, and in the slum, a good 40 to 50 cm. Way above my knee. The car could not go through, so we jumped and hired a bicycle rickshaw to do the last 500m of our journey.
I rolled my trousers up, thanked Bata for my Fillies and met the group. We could not do much because of the rain and the fact that everything was underwater, but I would not have liked to have missed our meeting. I came back drenched with a practical understanding of what Monsoon is all about when you live under a plastic sheet in an informal settlement. Not pleasant.
I have been impressed to see the local Councillor coming with huge pots of food around midday, to feed those that could not cook because of the floods. My colleagues were not that impressed, it was a normal service during the rain.  
Raining outside, so I stopped a bit longer at a spice and tea shop.

My family was very concerned about me going to Kolkata. More so than anywhere else I have been to.
They have never been in India. Their image of the city is crafted by books such as Shantaram, La cité de la Joie, or infos coming from the news. So for them Kolkata is Calcutta: a massive chaos with extreme poverty (really extreme), so many people that life does not count: people are dying on the street (if they are not rescued by Mother Theresa's posse) ... I was to go deeper than the heart of darkness, and they were fully getting geared to rescue me before I turned into Kurtz.
I am immensely grateful to know that my family has my back, it is very comforting.
In a certain way, I also kinda had high expectations: years in a catholic school crafted a concept of charity in which mother Theresa is in the top five saint. Which she is. What I mean is that the definition of slums and misery come from what we were reading and watching about Calcutta then. And now, I was going there. 
But they were wrong. It is great to have stereotypes crashing down. Kolkata is a sensational place. A bit crowded (but I've seen more) but so versatile! I was most impressed with what I saw and the people I met. I met people moving from a life on the dump-site to another profession, girls from an informal settlement who are turning into rugby champions, commercial sex workers looking for a better education for their kids, transgender dancers rehearsing, brick kiln workers improving their school,... not the kind of crowd that is invited to Davos, but good people in an unpleasant situation, working their way out.
For sure, poverty is in your face, but you can walk past homeless people in any city without seeing them, or ignore street kids begging. One is not touched the same way by every child, disabled, excluded person. Sometime you see something or someone that will talk straight to your soul, and leave an important impression.
But not always.
If I would always compare what people have, how they live with how I live, I will turn crazy, revolted, uncomfortable. I will only compare, see the differences where there are mostly similarities. It is difficult to really meet someone with a set of standards. In order to share a conversation, one need to start by listening and accepting other realities. Because in the end, we all seek to laugh, learn and feel happy. And that can happen with anybody really.  

Beautiful jewel beetle found crawling out of the mud in a brick kiln. Every year there are millions of people moving to work in that industry. A lot of families with kids. 

Most of these pictures are a bit unclear. My printer/ scanner has difficulties moving to Windows 10, so I phone-pic the whole lot.

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