Destination 2: Kolkata, India

Despite being my birthplace, Kolkata (Calcutta) was never really home. I was whisked away from this bustling city when I was a baby, and after that Kolkata simply became that place we went to during summer vacations to visit extended family.

Though I’ve come here several times before, I feel like this is the first time I’m actually experiencing and evaluating the city. On prior visits during my childhood years, I didn’t really have any interest in getting to know Kolkata….I was just there to hang out with family, get my annual medical checkup and buy things I couldn’t get back home in Zambia/Ghana.

This time, I’m finally learning the layout of the city, its neighborhoods and specific road names. I’m browsing the local newspapers, photographing daily life on the streets and attempting to read anything written in Bengali….this time I’m actually trying to take in all the noise and activity and frenzy.

Some observations from my daily life here:

  • Unlike impersonal New York, people in Kolkata have no desire for privacy or personal space. Households here are filled to the brim with relatives and drivers and cooks and nannies. In the western world, having domestic help is considered a privilege – only the very rich of Manhattan’s upper east side can afford it. But in the developing world, house help is common, and unlike in the West, they become a part of the family. They eat with us, sleep with us, watch TV with us, and have access to the same medical help as us. My grandparents’ house is no different. With more than 15 people living under the same roof, the atmosphere is usually chaotic. Everyone’s looking after everyone, praying, yelling, scolding, laughing and fighting like a blissfully dysfunctional family. After the independence and aloofness of New York, it’s amusing to see how involved everyone is in everyone else’s life in Kolkata.
  • From the grand but rundown buildings to the ambassador cars on the streets, this city embraces Indian culture and exudes old-world charm. In my grandparents’ house, things are still done the way they used to be done 20 years ago. We bathe out of buckets, we have tea in the evening with biscuits, and like most other Bengalis, we eat lots of fish and mishti or mittai (Indian desserts). Needless to say, I’m feeling very “desi” here….and though it’s certainly a change, little things such as being able to speak Bengali/Hindi/English on the streets and eating with my hands are making me feel at home.
  • I’ve quickly learned that saying no to food here is sinful, impolite and usually disregarded. In my family, meals at relatives’ houses are usually preceded by exclamations of how thin I look. Subsequently, my plate is filled with enormous amounts of dhaal, vegetables, meat and fish. No means yes and unless I physically hide my plate, more food is inevitably piled on. My meals usually end with exasperated comments on my lack of appetite and the host is only satisfied with those that end with complaints of exploding stomachs and promises of looming indigestion (apparently only this indicates that the guests have eaten well).
  • Indian summers. I’m a tropical weather person. I hate snow, I hate New York winters, I’ll take hot and humid over cold any day. But the heat here is something else. Even with the frequent rainfall (it’s monsoon season right now), daily temperatures go up to the 40s in Celcius (100s in Fahrenheit) and stepping outside feels like walking into an oven. I checked a website once for the weather forecast and it actually said the weather that day was relatively mild…only in the low 100s (!!). Unbelievable.
  • And finally, the poverty. The poverty is heartbreaking. Though conditions may be similar in Accra and Lagos, they are not as apparent in the urban areas and main roads. Here in Kolkata, most streets are lined with slums and beggars fill the congested roads, knocking on car windows and asking for money. It’s common to see naked babies playing in the dirt, flies swarming around food being cooked on the roadside. And the heat, humidity and monsoon rains make everything that much more unbearable. I’m constantly reminded of how severe the conditions are for the poor and homeless, and how lucky I am to have an abundance of food, drinking water and other basic needs that I usually take for granted.

All in all, being in Kolkata is different. Of course there are things that are driving me up the wall (like the slow internet right now), but overall, I’m enjoying learning about my culture and reconnecting with my roots. It’s still too early to say whether I want to live here long-term. But for now, at least it’s giving me the opportunity to spend time with family and take a much-needed break from the busy New York life.

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