It has been more than four years since I was last in Kolkata, a city I recall with extreme fondness from my first visit. There are, indeed, many good reason to love Kolkata. The name of one of them is Rosalie Giffoniello, and in 2002 we had come to Kolkata specifically to meet her.
Rosalie runs an NGO called Empower the Children, which addresses developmental, educational, nutritional, and shelter needs for some of Kolkata’s most vulnerable children – the physically and mentally disabled and the economically disadvantaged. For two weeks in the fall of 2002, we worked with her in orphanages and non-formal schools during the days, and helped her with capacity-building late into the nights. For five blessed days, the West Indies came to Kolkata’s fabled Eden Gardens Cricket Grounds for a test against India, and each of those afternoons, our butts were in the stands for the two afternoon sessions – a brief respite from our work, which also taught us a fair amount about Indian popular culture.
So for the past four years I have been telling people, “Kolkata has a reputation as a shit-hole, but really, it is a wonderful city.”
How disappointing, then, to turn up here and discover that, indeed, Kolkata is a shit-hole after all.
Don’t get me wrong: it is also a place of magic, full of vitality, good-hearted people tilting against the windmills of endemic poverty, excellent cuisine, and robust women. Just as I enjoyed every minute of Kolkata on my last visit, I am thoroughly engaged this time, and will be sorry to leave in two-day’s time – assuming waitlisted reservations on the Howrah – Ahmedabad Express come through.
But there is no getting around it: Kolkata is a disaster.
Following India’s violent partition, Kolkata (Calcutta in those days) absorbed more than 9 million refugees. Not even Bombay had to take in so many, so rapidly. The city’s infrastructure was pushed well beyond its breaking point; and in truth, in more than a half century, it has never come close to recovering. The faster the world – and India itself – advances, the farther behind Kolkata seems to fall.
Kolkata’s problems are hardly unique. The drifting dunes of trash in the streets, the snarled traffic, the decaying buildings, the every-dog-for-themselves selfishness of the population, and, of course, the desperate poverty are issues troubling every metro in India. Yet Kolkata somehow manages to put an even bleaker face on human misery that already seemed as bleak-as-bleak-can-be.
A few days before coming to Kolkata, I pulled up the weather forecast on the net: “Smoke.” “Smoke?” I thought, “Are you fucking kidding me! That’s not weather!” Sure enough, as dawn rose over the Bay of Bengal, we arrived to a sky that could only be described as, well, “smoke.” As our train rolled slowly toward Howrah Terminus, we watched women stoke their cooking fires in the slums that lined our route, and saw the chimney stacks of light industrial buildings belch to life. It looked as though the smoky weather front would be settling in for a while.
The poor who inhabit India’s metros have it hard, and not simply in economic terms. They are treated like garbage by the wealthy, and indeed by anyone who conceives of themselves as not poor. But the urban poor have an even more insidious enemy: themselves. The mundane violence meted out regularly within the families of the urban poor is always shocking. Men beat, maim, and kill their wives. Fathers and mothers alike beat their children senseless over minor infractions, real or imagined. Whether I am seeing clearly or am completely mistaken, my distinct impression is that scenes and stories of domestic violence in Kolkata are more visible, closer to the surface, than in other large cities in which I have spent substantial time.
As I said at the outset, I could have easily written an essay in this very space, detailing the wonderful people and inspiring things at work here. But so much of the merit one finds here exists purely in response to the prevalent desperation and want, it is probably dishonest to put a happy face on it. The excellent film, “Born into Brothels,” which told the story of a photojournalist working with the children of Kolkata’s sex workers, has the mix just about right. The social project is inspiring, and the children – like children everywhere – are funny, compassionate, perceptive, and lovable; but the hopeful narrative eventually crashes under the weight of Kolkata’s harsh realities. To my eye, there is simply far too little joy-for-joy’s-sake in Kolkata.
I apologize for such a disheartening post. It is especially hurtful to write in this way about a city for which I have genuine affection. For four years, however, I have been recalling Kolkata through a prism of distortion; and I need to set the record straight, if only in my own mind.