The air is heavy, the sound of blaring car horns rings endlessly in my ears, an array of smells awaits around every corner and humanity pulses around me in all of its glorious chaos. Yes indeed, there was no doubting that I was back in Kolkata.
I am lucky enough to be brought into constant contact with wonderful and inspiring people in my daily work, and my recent two and a half weeks in Kolkata highlighted that in many ways. The Volunteers, the Coordinators and the staff and founders of our three partner organisations cannot help but strengthen my belief in the inherent goodness of people. The bright and eager children, striving to learn from dedicated teachers in often difficult surroundings, smiling and keen despite whatever heartaches and troubles they carried on their young shoulders. There is nothing quite like a few weeks in Kolkata for a healthy dose of perspective.
I enjoyed being back in Kolkata much more than I was expecting. There is something incredibly comforting in arriving to a place and feeling that familiarity, knowing where things are and how things work. Arriving to a new place is exhilarating and the ultimate thrill of travelling, but the feeling of arriving to a second home is exhiliarating in a different way. Kolkata feels like a city very much in transition; in the blink of an eye, things seem to change. In the 10 months or so since I had been there, new buildings, shops and restaraunts had sprung up in the neighbourhood where I lived. On the outskirts of the city, multicolored high density apartment blocks sprawl out into whole new townships to house the ever growing middle classes. the city feels dynamic, a place on the verge of great achievements. But that is one side of it. On the other side, nothing seems to change at all. The traffic is still impossibly chaotic, with buses belching black smoke and tuk tuks, cycle rickshaws, cars, buses and trucks engaged in a constant battle for space, all to a constant backdrop of beeping. While it may appear chaotic, it still works. Millions of people move around daily, and the city seems to get everyone where they need to be, even if the journey may seem at times to be impossibly precarious. One of the days we were travelling to the schools along the train line, there was a problem on the line and the trains were suspended. But they were functioning again within a few hours; Iarnród Éireann it would seem, has something to learn from Indian Railways. In the midst of all this change, some things stayed comfortably familiar. The same man cheerily brewed chai at my old favourite chai stall, and on the road opposite, the same men fried samosas and bhajis, sweating and spitting in equal amounts.
All life is in Kolkata, every space occupied with people, people engaged with all manner of activities. Life and death are presented in their starkest forms; suffering, degredation and hopelessness are paraded alongside ambition, apathy and affluence. Families still live on the side of the road, eating, sleeping and living on the same few square feet of concrete. I recognised some of the same beggars from last year, the same woman living in a pile of rubbish along the road to Kasba, the same blind man begging around Gariahat. In the past year, my life has changed in many ways, and many doors of opportunities have been opened. But for so many people in Kolkata, and elsewhere, their situation will never change. They will, most likely, still be living the same struggle this time next year,and the year after that. It is crushingly unfair and unjust. That thought makes me believe fervently that change has to be possible, because life should be so much more than a struggle for survival, but in the same moment the scale of it all feels overwhelming.
I had the privilege of spending a few days in the Sundarbans, in the company of many lovely people and lots of colorful insects (most of which bit me). The Sundarbans feels like life stripped right back; take away all of the clutter and distractions of what we call modern living, and you have the Sundarbans. Life in its simplest, purest form. It is hard not to get romantic and verbose about the Sundarbans, but behind the beauty and tranquility, life is hard. The area is totally at the mercy of nature; too much rain, and there will be flooding, not enough rain, and the crops won’t grow and people will go hungry. If the people of the Sundarbans fall, there is no net to catch them. So where would they go? To Kolkata most likely, to try their luck in the city and stake out a piece of concrete for their home, to fret about the safety of their children, and to join the masses determined to survive against what seem like insurmountable odds. Their neighbors might be from Bihar or Orissa, driven to the city by a similar cruel strike from nature. Surrounded by the sounds of nature and the gentle breeze in Nandakumarpur, it is easy to forget that reality and let it slip away with the tides.
Kolkata is a place of contrasts, paradoxes, joys, frustrations, color and constant movement. It is life and humaity in its rawest forms, and it is this rawness that fills the heart and stirs the soul. Nowhwere will ever uproot Africa from the place it has in my heart. But the glare of Kolkata’s colors make a fascinating tapestry against which to consider the world in all of its shades.