Kolkata: A Perfect Introduction to India

October 14, 2015
Currently: Cozying up in bed with a gorgeous view of the Himalayans and a cup of Darjeeling tea

Kolkata is indescribable, yet I’ll try my best to capture a few special moments. I came in with so many expectations from my friends’ and family’s varied experiences in the city. And if I’m being honest, I was downright terrified to be there alone! I knew it would be an overwhelming introduction into the country as the second largest city in India. My drive in reminded me first of the chaos and livelihood of Nairobi mixed with the tropics of Antigua and the smog of Beijing. My first night, I ventured out only within a block of my hotel. I was wary of everyone I passed on the street and felt entirely uncomfortable walking alone. Needless to say, I wasn’t able to truly enjoy the city.

My first day full day was spent with a friend, Madhu, who I was connected with through a friend in the States who had lived in Kolkata a few years back. She was my unofficial tour guide for the day and showed me the sites of the BBD Bagh, Victoria Memorial, St. Paul’s Cathedral, street markets, local Bengali food, an Indian supermarket and mall, and the Mother Teresa Motherhouse. Cue a few pictures to break up the monotony of words.

 Victoria Memorial
 St. John’s Cathedral
 Fun tradition of drinking a cup of chai on the street with a local and smashing your tiny clay cup once you’ve finished
The vibe outside of Kalighat Temple – a special time as Durga Puja approaches the city

For me, the best part of the day was getting to know Madhu through meaningful conversations on her experiences in anti-trafficking work, transitioning to Kolkata as a Chennaite, and the realities of historical and modern Kolkatan politics. Sitting in St. John’s and hearing of Madhu’s experiences reminded me of why I travel – to encounter people with different stories and perspectives I would never ordinarily meet. I am so grateful to have been lucky enough to spend even a single day with someone like Madhu, and I will take our conversations and experiences with me. Thank you to Sarah for introducing us, and thank you to Madhu for her kindness and honesty!

I saw so many different things, but the most impactful was visiting the Kalighat Home of the Pure Heart (formerly Mother Theresa’s Home for the Dying Destitutes).

I went to this wonderful home, because someone on the Dragoman trip had spent four months living in Kolkata to volunteer at this very building just twenty years ago. It was surreal to watch his reactions as he walked around and spoke to people about the changes since he’d last been there. I can only describe the physical aspects of this home, but I hope to capture the most significant part of this place: the love ingrained in its walls, practices, and people. As you step inside, you see rows of beds with men sitting and laying in various states of health. Scattered around were volunteers helping feed those to weak to lift a spoon to their mouths and nurses attending to various wounds. The nun in charge of the men’s wing answered our questions and gave us some history on her life and the home. A tiny woman, a smile never strayed from her face as she told us of the daily work to be done and her previous time working at Missionaries of Charity in Ethiopia. She spoke of the changes to the organization and how these patients were the poorest of the poor. Warmth exuded with every movement and every story. As patients interacted with her, you could see how much they revered and respected her. The missionary takes in those who cannot fend for themselves. The majority of those that come in have been wounded by muggers on the street. It was an enchanting visit and I’m grateful for the work being done.

I could go on about the various experiences I had in Kolkata, but I really just want to recognize the change from my initial impression of the city. Both days I spent in Kolkata inspired a shift from apprehension to wonderment and enthrallment in the city’s heart. I am sad to have just missed the Durga Puja but I am happy to have witnessed the flurry of activity beforehand. I am excited to move onward and thank Kolkata for being my wonderful introduction into India.

One final note – if I had to pinpoint exactly when I became obsessed with visiting India, it would have to be when I heard my mom’s stories of her time in Kolkata. By coincidence, we both had our very first green coconuts in this city, so I wanted to commemorate that today by sharing these photos taken 35 years apart. Thank you for your inspiration, mom! I love you!

Lots of love,

Lena

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