I can feel the pollution in the back of my throat and lungs when I breathe, stinging in my eyes, blackening my nostrils. The smog settles low and heavy over Kolkata, an ever-present smudge on the City of Joy that matches the rot and blurs the beauty.
I was juggling a soccer ball with her brother when a little Bengali girl in the railroad slum gave me a flower and a smile. I think that’s almost all she had in the world. I have a lot to learn from the generosity of the poor.
It’s those images and memories that stick – floating fog in the Kolkata haze and the blend and blur of sounds and smells and faces.
Back during the time of the British Raj, Kolkata (then called Calcutta) was the capital of India – the City of Joy, the City of Palaces, a major trade center, port, political hub, and artistic mecca for the subcontinent. After Independence in 1947 the capital was moved to New Dehli. Kolkata was forgotten and left to rot. Garish Park, the area of the city nearby Sonagacchi in which justice groups like Freeset and Sari Bari work, looks like it was once a high class neighborhood. The buildings are fading shadows of former glory. Ornate columns and intricately constructed balconies decay, paint peels and facades crumble to reveal the cracking bricks beneath. Peek inside through the gratings and doorways and you’ll see marble floors in some buildings, an ancient piano crumbling in the hall, children playing cricket in the alleys.
Life is happening in the decay, around every corner. People scrub in suds and bathe in the water pipes pouring perpetual water onto the streets. A man with a ferocious beard and a massive blue turban sells cha in tiny ceramic cups the size of an espresso cup for the equivalent of 10 cents. Drink down that hot, sweet, milky glory and smash the cup on the cobblestones.
Down the stone steps at the far end of the bridge, bright orange and yellow flowers are piled high, sold by the bushel or handful or strung together to throw at the feet of the gods. Stalls are packed with baskets full of spices: turmeric and curries and masalas, black pepper and red chilis and ginger. Colors and aromas and sounds all crowd for attention.
The flower market ducks under the bridge. The bright colors gradually fade to dull greys and shadows, familiar piles of trash, decay. Look to the left, two rows, facing each other, of wire cages, raised on blocks. We’re near the railway line. Perhaps these are stock pens, abandoned by the British Raj. Material artifacts testify that people live in the pens – a few clothes, kettles, makeshift shelves and bedding. A family is gathered around a small cooking fire in a corner.
I watch the flames of the dead in the plaza of the riverside crematorium. A group of four men walks by carrying a heavy load between them in a square bit of cloth. Down the steps to the river bank, and they release the ashes into the current.
I stand crammed between walls in the inner section of the Temple of Kali in Kalighat. Mere feet in front of me a mob of Bengalis push and shove and scream and throw chaos and elbows and coins and flowers into the inner sanctum of the temple where Kali, the goddess of death and destruction, the goddess of Kolkata, stands in all her stony terror. In the outer area parents pin their infants to the trunk of gnarled sacred tree and splash red liquid on their foreheads. As recently as 50 or 60 years ago child sacrifices still happened on a daily basis in Kali’s temple. Some say it still happens in secret, dark corners of Kalighat today.
The savagery of man isn’t a relic of the past. It’s here now. I’ve seen it. Women lined up to be sold like cattle, withered men with foam on their lips left to die on the street, the suffering and the sheer unfairness of poverty, caste, injustice.
The City crumbles, decays, breaks hearts and souls. Sonagacchi is a totem declaring man’s indifference to man, an edifice of human suffering built brick by brick with the broken souls of 10,000 women and children. The city is like the buildings of Garish Park. The façade is peeling, and beneath the cracking mask one can see the rot that lies beneath.
The city dazzles, shines, sings, bursts with flavors and smells and laughter. Vines and flowers climb and spring through the cracks in the skeletons of the Raj. Between the cracks the joy and the beauty and courage can’t help but spring up and demand life. Little girls give flowers and smiles and colors burst the barricades of the dark and oppression that looms over the city like a hangman.
Kolkata, that maze of alleyways and chipping paint and Tandori Chicken and muddy rivers and piles of garbage and color and wonder, breaks my heart, and fascinates me, and can’t be erased from my mind or soul or heart.