An Ordinary Day in Kolkata

In April 2013 we had the privilege of going to Kolkata, India. Here is my description of walking down the street….

An Ordinary Day in Kolkata

By: Lisa Johnson

Today we walked to the Mother House to visit Mother Teresa’s grave. It was the most eventful 10 blocks I have walked in my entire life. Really an experience one cannot simply describe to a person that has never walked a road like this one, but I’ll try. I’ll post pictures to my blog posts when I get home so you have visuals to my writing. For now a word picture will have to do.
This street is filed with a cacophony of sounds, smells, and sights that seem chaotic to the casual observer, however, the longer we walk the rhythm of the street emerges. It’s like listening to a song for the first time. You know you like it, however your not sure how it goes. The more you listen the more words are learned, then the chorus, then eventually you know it and can sing from memory. This particular song will take quite a while to learn.
The cars are fast. The street cars don’t stop for people to get on or off, the people run next to it, grab a bar and jump into an already packed car grinding along the rails at an alarming speed. There are no lanes to guide the mass of motorcycles, buses, rickshaws, 3 wheel golf carts & cars all honking and vying for right of way. They zoom in and out willy nilly never quite hitting each other, but each vehicle bears the scars of side swipes and minor collisions. It’s terrifying to walk along this road because the cars are inches from us in some places. We are able to use the sidewalk intermittently. The pedestrian areas are just as congested as the streets, the only difference is the people don’t honk.
Have you ever watched ants walk? You know how they kind of climb over each other as they go all directions all at once? Now put that energy to the Kolkata street.
The sidewalks were nice at one time. Cobblestone walkways of eras passed, now broken by unceasing wear and tree roots. The sidewalk competition consists of hawkers selling everything you could need. Baskets full of plantains, citrus fruits, magazines, shoe shines, fried treats, a burrito looking wrap filled with spicy food cooked over open coals, car parts, tires, clothing, incense, rosaries…they literally sell it all out here. The streets are loud with the constant honking of all the vehicles fighting for right of way, a myriad of languages, laughter, and hawkers crying their wares. We walked by women in beautiful saris with enough colors to fill a painters pallet cooking over little campstoves full of coal, women covered with berkas with only their beautiful dark eyes showing, Hindus with colors in their hair readying themselves for the upcoming festival of colors, little babies 2 years old with no pants on holding their hands out to us. We walked around people sleeping on dirty pallets at the edges of the sidewalk. One section has a full 2 blocks of car parts. People pull over, buy what is needed and fix the car right on the street. The energy is fast and slow people move and people sit quietly and observe. We walk in amazement by people bathing at a hand pump style water spicket.
The smells alone are their own display of the activity of in the city. If I could walk along using only my nose I would have an experience that could only compare with the sights of this place. All of it is so new. The smells melt together and separate to create the distinct smell of Kolkata. I would now recognize it if I ever smelled it again. There is nothing I could compare it to. Wood smoke, body odor, soft spicy herbal incense and burning trash, Jasmine, vehicle exhaust, food cooking mixed with curry, perfume, sewage, smells I cannot identify, sweet, pungent, damp, earthy, rotten, good, bad, smells that make your eyes burn, smells that you want to take home with you because they are good and different. All mixed together like a symphony with the sound and the sights to create the rhythm of Kolkata.
Layer upon layer. This goes on street by street. This is an ordinary street on an ordinary day. What looks like chaos has an order like a melody. People give respect and deference to the elderly, children laugh and play in the water. Dogs wander and eat garbage, they don’t seem to be owned but are more than tolerated. No grocery stores, just street vendors, no Starbucks or corporate owned stores, but all seem to find all they want or need.
Layer upon layer. This is just one street, on one walk to the Mother House in a city of 20 million people with 10,000 different languages. So here is my observation of an ordinary day in Kolkata.

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