i’m writing today’s post from bed. my stomach starting cramping and gurgling this morning so i’ve stayed in my room since early this morning.
i want to preface this entry with a few things. the first is that colleen and i are deeply appreciative of comments you have left us. they truly keep us going. in reading the comments we noticed that perhaps we weren’t representing the entirety of our kolkata experience. people were saying that it looked like we were having a great time, which we are, but we also aren’t at times. last night, holding a pillow against my rumbling stomach, i wanted to write about the questions and doubt that can lurk in the shadows for me. i know from following other such projects that this kind of work can appear glamorous, heroic even. i want to dispel that perception more for myself than anyone else. since we intend for this account to accurately describe our experience i’m including it here.
this trip has been hard. home and all the comforts of home are out of reach, hovering thousands of miles away. i miss my husband, our cats, our 2-bedroom apartment on morris avenue. the sense of being at ease here has dramatically shifted. scenes of toddlers squatting on the side of the road eliminating watery diarrhea or men without arms and legs writhing on dirty blankets asking for change erode the magic and myth of kolkata. the stench of trash mingles with thick clouds of incense and the swollen right side of a dog’s face oozes with puss as he navigates a pot-holed street swarming with brightly decorated auto rickshaws (think louder, faster versions of golf carts dripping with religious paraphernalia, possibly with seats shaped like hearts) these sights and smells don’t charm me today.
everyday colleen and i pick our way up to kalighat dodging mounds of debris and shiny puddles. sometimes we respond to the ‘hellos’ and ‘happy new years’ with smiles back, sometimes not. we’ve been waved to, thanked, groped, bitten, hugged, mimicked, told to ‘go home.’ we move through cars and people and finally arrive at the dank corridor through the red light district and ascend the stairs to new light.
often i wonder how i got here, why i’m here. i’m not indian, i don’t speak bengali. i’m not a textiles designer, nor am i a social worker. i can question the role of the outsider in fixing problems outside of one’s culture. at other times the relevance of my identity feels secondary. does it matter that i’m none of those things? does it matter that at times my outsiderness can feel unwanted? in good moments, not one bit. being human is enough. knowing that 15-30 women’s lives could improve with my involvement answers every doubt. but tonight, with aches and chills and thousands of miles separating me from the culture i know best, i wonder.
tomorrow we’ll make the journey through blasting horns, begging children, men with sweater vests and briefcases on their way to work. we’ll pass carefully stacked terracotta tea cups at multiple chai stalls and tree shrines with painted rocks arranged at their roots. we’ll see vendors whipping their merchandise with feather dusters, straightening wayward pant legs or watch bands with the love and attention of a priest at mass. someone along that trajectory – an old man huddled over a newspaper, a young mother living on the street, nisha from new light or laxmi with her smile that makes the world open up – i’ll know in an indescribable way what brings me here. the trash and stares and crippled dogs will fade into the distance and i’ll be reminded of something greater.