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Kirsty's Travel Blog

Apni kotaY thaken? Ami KolkataY thaki!

INDIA | Friday, 15 March 2013 | Views [1402] | Comments [3]

Where do you stay? I stay in Kolkata!

So I’ve been in Kolkata for a month & a half now – not so much travelling as learning to stay put and live in a totally foreign culture. The good, the bad and the crazy? Well this is India so pretty much everything is crazy, but in the best possible way. The craziest thing is how quickly the madness becomes normal, and things that would startle, horrify or infuriate me at home don’t even get a second glance anymore.

People’s lives are constantly spilling onto the streets and it makes for a dynamic, noisy, colourful, grotesque, wonderful drama every time I step outside the door. There is so much beauty in the humblest of things – in the crumbling plaster of colonial era buildings and the breeze-blown roof top laundry, in the graceful sari-clad women and the friendly haggle of the markets. The chorus of raspy crow cackles, temple bells, gossip, engines and horns. And the humid breath of the city that is everything good & bad all rolled into one undefinable smell.

I don’t even blink now at the sight of people bathing at the street wells or balancing fantastic loads on hand carts or heads. I step around the people taking naps on the pavement beside broods of skinny puppies, and I dodge the green autos, overloaded buses and yellow ambassador taxis as I cross the road with the nonchalance of a local. I buy my milk in plastic bags from the little shop stand on the corner & my tok doi (yoghurt) from the mishti man who thinks I have red hair. Puja bling, flower markets and temple worship, funeral processions to the sacred Ganges. Back-alley cricket games and roadside cha stands. Little hole-in-the-wall shops selling chips packets and soap. All normal. Kids out playing past 11pm, and afternoon nap times that leave the streets looking like a ghost town – normal. Men peeing in the streets – normal. Hoiking and spitting – totally normal!

Of course there are still things that make me say ‘that’s crazy’ on a regular basis, those ‘only in India!’ moments. Most of the time it’s the crazy bureaucracy that makes everything ten times more complicated than it needs to be. Or the blind following of regulations that don’t make sense – like the airport-style security checks at the big western-style malls where you are expected to turn on cameras & laptops to prove that they aren’t bombs. I mean really, if it was a bomb I would have just now blown us all up by turning it on! And the fire safety measures at my local metro station – which basically consist of two buckets of grey water and two buckets of sand hanging at the top of an escalator that only goes up – what happens if the fire is down the bottom, on the platform?

Mad Indian rules, goggle-eyed staring, peeing, hoiking & traffic aside, I love this place. And the longer I stay here the more I get a sense of an underlying calmness in the way that people go about their day – an unrushed, easy-going, relaxed way of life that is very appealing.

I decided to stay here in Kolkata for two months, rather than travel around India, for a couple of reasons. Mostly I wanted to spend some quality time with my friend Pip, to get to know her friends, her work and her community.  It has been so good living with her again, sharing her tiny one room place – appreciating small luxuries while learning to live with a little more simplicity. She is one of the most inspiring, practical, caring and down-to-earth people I know and it is such a privilege to be able to share this time with her. I also really wanted spend time in one place so that I could be part of the community and really get a sense of what makes this place tick. I really didn’t want to play tourist here!

I came with no plans of what I would do, but with the intention of being available to respond to whatever needs I was able to meet. And while I’ve had the opportunity to serve some of the staff at Freeset with English tutorials, and to have been adopted by the Tamar team as a sounding board of sorts, my biggest challenge has been learning how to just BE without being defined by what I DO.

It seems to be a quirk of western culture that we first ask “what do you do?” and then define ourselves by our profession. Here people ask first about your family – who you are is defined by your relationships. Not working, not ‘being a teacher’ - not having a defined role or a to-do-list is a really uncomfortable place for me to be. But it is in that discomfort that I am learning that who I am and how I interact with people is so much more important that what I can do for them. I still find myself in that tension of wanting to be useful (needing to be needed!) and I have to remind myself every day to listen to who God says I am and not try to define myself by my usefulness. Flip this around and it totally challenges the way we see and value others – is a person’s worth or value tied inextricably to the degree of their usefulness?  Absolutely not! I don’t judge the people around me by how useful or interesting they are – I don’t dismiss people because they can’t do anything for me. Everyone – the lady living on the street corner, the kid with the runny nose, the business man on the metro – everyone has value because God made them to be loved.  So perhaps I should accept from others that same grace, that I am valuable not for what I can offer them, but because I am me, a child of God.  

The lessons I’m learning here are not the lessons I expected to learn. I thought I would be more confronted by the poverty, more offended by the thousands of men who come to Sonogacchi each night to use the women on the line. I thought I would be more moved by the stories of the Freeset women – many of whom have endured unimaginable betrayal and abuse in their lives. I haven’t felt guilt about how good my life is compared to those of the people in this community. I watch the visitors that come to Freeset everyday – some are so moved by what they see, as they should be, but I can’t fake an emotional response. I wonder sometimes though if our pity can become a barrier. Instead of seeing the differences in our lives, I’m learning to see our common humanness – our common brokenness, insecurities, joys and humour. I’m learning that the power of love, acceptance and forgiveness is needed in every life regardless of our circumstances. The things we seek freedom from may be different, but we are the same, these women and I. It is such a privilege to sit with them, sing with them & live alongside them under God’s grace.

Tags: calcutta, freeset, india, kolkata, street life



What a wonderful blog, Kirsty. You write so well and I love the way you are learning about yourself as well as discovering India.

Much love to you xx

  Sandra Mar 15, 2013 7:28 PM


Absolutely beautiful reflection Kirsty :) Love the description and honesty :) Love love love it :) So happy that I got to meet and get to know you a bit :) A great blessing :)

  Jodi Mar 28, 2013 1:37 AM


Well done Kirsty....you write well and I like your outlook on life

  fartandbelch Jun 15, 2013 6:11 PM

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