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Another Horizon

On second thought, Kolkata

INDIA | Sunday, 29 September 2013 | Views [556]

To the uninitiated Kolkata seems a city of pure chaos.  At least that was my first impression.  
Every type of transport jockeys for position on narrow streets with little or no pavements.  To get from A to B on foot you experience an incredible amount of tooting and hollering.  Motorbikes come up behind, rickshaw men call out to get by and drivers of larger vehicles produce an almost arrogant blast on the horn, all in the expectation that you move aside.  It seems you need to always keep half an eye on what is coming up behind you lest you are clipped or run over.
If there is pavement it is often broken up, half paved, half dirt.  Like the bricks gradually disappeared and no one bothered to replace them.  People ply their various trades on the footpath and block it, driving pedestrians onto the busy, narrow road, which adds to the chaos.  To travel inside a vehicle is to experience, perhaps for the first time, the sensation of being in a traffic accident - hopefully without it actually occurring.  So chaotic is the situation on the road that there is often a close call or two on each journey.  There is a moment just before the perceived impact where your vehicle is so nearly struck by another that you believe subconsciously it is inevitable and you brace.  It's an odd sensation.  
Then there's the stench and the  reality of lives lived on the street.  Rubbish is heaped on street corners.  Lazy un-neutered dogs wander around; some with nasty cuts and infections.  People live under makeshift shelters, cooking meals and washing by the roadside.  Sections of the poor make a living from begging and every kind of human misery appears to have great need of assistance.  Mothers with babies, the decrepit, and the disabled reach out their hands in desperation.  To pay each is impossible, to ignore them is difficult and it is a constant challenge to your conscience.  
Kolkata is one of the last places in India you can still get a ride from a human powered Rickshaw.  Men work like dogs pulling their chariots in the heat with only the sheer force of their legs through the markets.  These men are born to their trade and have a definite nobility about them despite being from a low caste.  Apparently their life expectancy is significantly reduced by their exhausting work.  Watching them cart huge loads, upper class Indians or tourists rings alarm-bells of injustice in your head.   It can be a shocking place for a first time visitor.  At difficult times a voice in my head told me 'you don't have to be here, there are much nicer places to spend your time'.   Luckily experience has taught me to look beyond my first impression and realise that although city life in Kolkata seemed rough it would only take a few days to become street-wise and feel more comfortable in my new surroundings. 
There are two sides to every story and it seems this city is no exception.   
Although it seemed initially that drivers operate on some kind of sonar: alerting vehicles and pedestrians of their presence with noise alone, you eventually notice that they are working within a system and that the majority are very skilled in negotiating narrow roads in heavy traffic.  After a few days on foot you get used to it and realise no one will actually run you over.  It's certainly just too much hassle for them as much as anything.  The constant beeping is something you become attuned to and a honk or hiss from a Rickshaw Wallah is your signal to step aside and let them by.  No harm, no foul.  Short of outlawing vehicles in the city I can't see a better way to run things here with the condition of the streets and the sheer amount of people.    
Those same small stalls that block the pavement are the city's lifeblood.  Small business is alive -  with markets, food stalls, chai stalls, currency exchange, tour guides, rickshaws and taxis everywhere you turn.   The food is an unadulterated delight with every sort of curry and fried delicacy abounding.  Some of the sounds you smell are so delicious is it unbelievable especially after the other aromas you detect along the way.
Yes, in commercial or tourist areas touts do vie for your attention and it can be annoying.  They tend to come across either as very curious or overly friendly to get you talking before leading you to their shop or a colleagues for commission.  This is mostly harmless and often quite helpful in the marketplace - which can be a maze to the uninitiated.  For the price of a few rupees more in commission you find your product quickly and without much fuss.  However if you decline their offers, once you begin to get followed you realise a calm, polite response may not be sufficient.  This is also something you learn how to deal with.
The kindness and genuine curiousity of everyday people though, outshines the irritation of the touts on the street.   Small children smile and say hello.  Old men sit and have tea with you at chai stalls and everybody is curious about who you are and where you are from.  'You are welcome in Kolkata' was something I heard several times in my first day or two.
Begging is definitely a problem.  According to locals much of this is controlled by organised crime.  Those on the streets are given a retainer and pay the lion's share of any revenue collected to gangs.  This includes babies and children being hired and their families reimbursed for their time.  It is better then to ignore these people and pay a donation to one of the many fine charitable organisations who literally stitch people each day or educate the children of the streets.  That is easier said than done but it will help to prevent perpetuation of this cycle in the long run.  It's also worth mentioning, and remembering, that there seems a strong cultural element to this behaviour.  If you are born into a low caste and your parents begged it is believed to be your fate to beg and others will ensure you have enough to get by.  This benefits the beggar and provides good karma for the donor too.   
Life seems harsh for the Rickshaw men but they provide a great service in the crowded old city where they can negotiate gaps too big for other vehicles.  During the monsoon floods they are especially in demand and besides if you take away their rickshaws (often all they own) how can they earn their living?  Taking a ride on one of them supports their business and helps them live so it is hard to criticize their passengers.  Besides this point is now moot as no new licenses will be granted in Kolkata on ethical grounds.  How the men, let alone the markets will survive in future is unclear to me.  
In short Kolkata, like India, is a conundrum.  Maybe that's why it is so interesting for a curious traveller like myself.  There are two sides to this place and while it seemed clear prior to arrival it was a place that deserved my pity or assistance that is not so clear now.  People get by, people live in harsh conditions but become accustomed to them and still seem to derive enjoyment and fulfillment in their lives.  Things could certainly be better but there is a lot of good in this place and a lot that can be valued besides what you can see on the surface.

Tags: beggars, culture shock, india, kolkata, rickshaw, traffic

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