Pohela Boishakh

Happy Bengali New Year! Pohela Boishakh is the first day of the Bengali calendar and, 593 years behind our traditional calendar, today, on April 14th, we celebrate the beginning of the year 1423. No school today, but I head in anyway for New Year festivities with the Future Hope home children. After a dodgy uber ride, where our driver thought he could, quite literally, “take us for a ride”, I eventually arrive at school half an hour late, but in the elastic time of Kolkata, I am, if anything, early. I immediately join in painting an alpona pattern under the school gates, linking leaf, star and wave shapes together with paint made from clay and water. With the help of six or seven children, I then fill in the pattern with different coloured sand, creating a festive entrance for the school. Anando and Krishna nimbly shoot up the school gates, hanging off the railings like monkeys, and direct operations from above, careers in interior design and party planning calling them. With expert advice, we hoops strings of marigolds between the mango leaves and step back to admire our work. Krishna takes me by the hand and we rush off to apply the same artistic flair to the remaining doorways.

The Ballygunge and Station Road girls arrive – a walking rainbow of pink, blue, orange, green and yellow sarees – the girls look beautiful. Excited for a day of festivities, the girls skip off to help with decorations or to rehearse for their own upcoming performances. Clad either in Kurtas or smart jeans, the Ballygunge and Bompass boys swagger in, spirits high, shaking hands and high-fiving everyone they pass, some of the smaller ones bending down to touch my feet then bringing their hands up by their ears to say, “Shubho Noboborsho” (Happy New Year). Lucy (or Luchi as the children prefer) greets the children as they come in and gets ticked off by Anando and Sonali for saying “Hey Guys”, its Bengali translation being “cow”…

Immy, Lucy, Leanne and I cram ourselves into the small office loo so that Shuchi and Devleena can help us into our sarees. Dressed in an orange petticoat and a elastic choral crop top, the equivalent of “underwear” (hence being crammed into the hot office loo), Shuchi folds, pleats and tucks me into my brand new saree. Feeling like a princess, despite the fact that sarees, with their countless layers, are not as airy as they appear, but thankful that there is a slight breeze on my midriff, I add the finishes touches with fake gold bling from Gariahat market and a bindi. 

In the school hall, I sit on a wooden bench ready for the festivities to begin. The children filter in through the doors and a nervous excitement fills the room. Our two fantastic MCs (Master of Ceremonies), Jhili and Russell, take two microphones, hush the chattering crowd and announce the order of performances. Like so often, I am wowed by the extraordinary talent of the Future Hope children. My photos cannot capture the lilting singing voices of Surojit, Montu or Debnath, or the flowing moves of the wonderful Amina, or the almost in time dance routine by the small girls. To finish? A volunteers’ song; in true Indian contradiction, leaving the worst for last. Avoiding the real microphones and opting rather for Luchi’s blow up ones, we stand in a line, arms crossed and linked together, recalling the Scottish Hogmanay, and sing, rather tentatively at first but gathering momentum, a Bengali translation of Auld Lang Syne; an Indo-Scottish mash-up. Our performance crescendos into all the children holding hands in an excited circle, rushing into the middle and out again to the volunteer rendition of Auld Lang Syne, drowned-out by squeals of laughter. 

After some fantastic Bollywood dancing, our festivities round off with a delicious school lunch. Usually the children eat lunch in two shifts, the Middle and Senior school first, followed by the Junior school. However, today, the benches are carried out of the hall, the floor wiped down and everyone sits together on the floor, a cross-legged snake winding its way around the room, a banana leaf plate full of cumin rice, chicken curry, deep-fried potato chips and salad in front of each person. Two of the older boys heave a huge metal bowl around the room, ladling water into plastic cups, 60% in the cup, the floor receiving the rest. I am stuffed full, but due, of course, to my handy “pudding stomach”, there’s always room for more. A traditional Bengali sweet, swimming in syrup, is plopped onto my plate – a Rasgulla (a ball of cottage cheese soaked in sugar syrup) – so delicious and so sweet and certainly a lot better than it sounds. I am certainly honing my sweet tooth out in Kolkata.

 

 

A Birthday in Kolkata

We awake at 4.30am for a full morning to celebrate Immy’s 23rd birthday and manage, even at this hour, to stir an Uber driver to take us to the Mallick Ghat flower market, situated by Howrah bridge alongside the Hooghly river. At this hour, I have the rare chance to see life before the rest of the world wakes up. On the corner of Palm Avenue, our home street, is a public bathing area, usually awash with activity, but right now, families take advantage of a rare moment of peace and fill up jerry cans, buckets and bottles with water to take back to their homes. 

The air is cool after overnight rainfall and the light a misty blue, casting its dawn-spreading fingers over everything within its grasp. The birds sqwark a chorus in welcome as we step from the taxi and we are hit by an overdose of colour; the streets are alive. People flit from vendor to vendor like honey bees, snakes of orange and yellow marigolds wind themselves around vendors and buyers alike. People, balancing baskets brimming with produce on their heads, forge a path for themselves through the throng. The occasional truck, its horn blaring, barges its way down the street and through the people, scattering sellers to the sides of the street clutching their flowers away from the truck’s chomping wheels. 

We stop for morning chai with our very own “Chai Sir”, who insists that we sit with him and drink our tea. As always we are a sight of great amusement and interest to passers by, many coming up to Chai Sir to congratulate him on the addition of three white girls to his stall. Refuelled by chai, we press on through the rainbow labyrinth. A reflective light draws both our eyes and our legs and we find ourselves walking through a colonial walkway, where dogs and people are still sleeping, under an arch, and stepping out onto the riverbank. Men and women are sifting through heaps of greenery, hacking off rotten strips and casting them away. An ethereal dawn, its “rosy fingers” hidden by Kolkata’s perpetual pollution cloud, casts a glow over my surroundings and I, as so necessary in India, look past the rubbish. My moment of wonder is marred somewhat when a man wades into the Hooghly waters, lifts his longhi, squats down and poos straight into the river, two more following suit. A few paces to the right, another man is washing himself thoroughly in these same waters, a perfect example of India’s extreme contradictions.

Our pause at the riverbank inevitably causes some interest and, as we turn to leave, an audience of 15-20 men have collected behind us. We turn back into the intestines of the market, weighed down by this male following right on our heels. We buy strings of jasmine, its heady smell intoxicating, of marigolds, entwined with yet more jasmine, and a plastic bag crammed with sweet pea petals and head off in search of a small fishing boat on which to ride the river. After several miscommunications and with the help of a policeman, a smartly dressed Kolkatan and of course the group of onlookers who had gathered to watch the spectacle, we proceed to Millennium Park, a fair distance, where we are assured we will find our boat. 

Kolkata is pure India; the good, the bad and the very, very ugly. As with every Kolkatan street, this morning I pass all types of life and people; women melting tarmac and laying it on the roads with their bare hands, men crouching on their haunches and chatting over chai in terracotta cups, a man being shaved and sculpted by expert hands, two children asleep on a strip of cardboard – a brother and sister clinging tightly to each other and to the last moments of sleep which prolongs their daily hunger. We near a sleeping man, a blanket wrapped loosely around his middle, his chest bare. His skeletal frame protrudes upwards, publicly advertising both his poverty and his hunger, flies crawl over his crusty eyes and he isn’t moving. 

I’ve never seen death like this before and I am still attempting to process this sight ever-burnt into my mind. A week ago I was struggling with the image of a dead dog dumped on a rubbish pile. But this…this is a dead human. This is the greatest example of the undignified poverty in India, such poverty that Mother Teresa worked against. Death is so often something you hear about or read about, so often just a number. It acquires an oxymoronic status being both everywhere and nowhere. Everybody dies, yet the ugly truth and reality of death is something we are so sheltered and detached from, particularly in the UK. This, however, is ugly, it’s public and, worst of all, it’s not uncommon in India. This is perhaps the tragic reality that Future Hope has taken away from its children, and the heart-wrenching image of the brother and sister asleep on a cardboard strip flashes back into my mind, along with the Homeric line; “Sleep, the brother of Death”.*

As I move on from this tragic sight in search of our boat, big thoughts and terrible images rush through my head, as they would continue to do thereafter. Walking along the riverside, a pattern starts to emerge. We head down to a ghat (a dock) and ask about renting a boat, and at each ghat we come to, we are pointed towards the next one, a perpetual “1-2 minutes away”, where we will reach our unreachable boat. Unsure whether this is all an extended game of Chinese whispers, we trustingly carry on each time. Our route takes us to a small Hindi shrine decked in loud orange. An old man, dressed as colourfully as his shrine, sits cross-legged behind it, beads strung around his neck, his chin emitting a wispy, smoke-like beard, a mass of dreadlocks flowing from his head. He beckons us over. I bow my head in respect to his god and he leans forward, stretching out a long finger, and drags it down my forehead, leaving a red trail in its wake. A deafening gong sounds in my ear and I look up to see the old man holding a golden bell, a slight smirk forming at the edge of his lips. I smile and he returns my gesture with a peace sign; incompatible with his holy image, but not with his Rastafarian one.

An hour, several strange experiences and 9000 steps later, we reach a ghat where 10-15 small boats are lined up. A large man with a longhi tied around his belly and a bare chest bounds up to us with surprising speed. Feeling like I am bargaining with Charon, the ferryman, we agree a price, veering away from the outrageous towards the more moderate. Satisfied, the man unties his longhi, which drops to the ground to reveal a very tiny and very tight pair of speedos. Bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet, he shakes his belly with both hands and throws himself into the river to haul one of his boats to the bank. At this display of excitement I wonder whether Charon has wangled himself a good deal… With the help of a stool and a hand, I climb into the wobbly boat, avoiding the gaps between the planks, and settle myself on a wooden bench. 

Peace is something hard to come by in Kolkata, but, at this moment, on a small boat drifting out onto the Hooghly river, the sounds and horns of the traffic dying away, a warm wind caressing my face, floating away from the noise and smells, I am left feeling at peace, able to reflect on my thoughts and experiences of a very busy Kolkatan morning. 

 

* Homer, Iliad, XIV. 265 

 

 

 

 

Same Same But Different

I arrive in Kolkata airport sweating profusely, something that I will grow very accustomed to doing here. Immy, my fellow volunteer, and I weave our way between boys fighting to carry our bags and reach Arrivals. A chirpy Irish girl in a “Hope Foundation” t-shirt bounds up to us asking whether we are the two volunteers off the Dubai flight; yes we are, so off we go. We drag our luggage to a dark car park, questionable smells wafting around us, several small children in tow. As of yet I have no Indian rupees on my person and so, wrestling my bags off the children so eager to “help”, I climb into the “Hope Foundation” jeep and Ali, our driver, speeds off into the Kolkata traffic. 

With cars six abreast, I experience the Kolkata auto-madness for the first time. Ali jolts and jerks between momentary green lights, hurling into any available space or forcing his way between bus, tuk-tuk and even cow; an aggressive parting of the traffic seas. This is certainly not English driving; it’s much more fun. Tabby, our Irish volunteer, talks to us about the charity and the current staff, all names we hadn’t heard before. She informs us that we are sharing an apartment with a 40 year old lady, not quite the 18 year old boy we had thought. 

Tabby then receives a phone call. After a short pause, she turns to us and asks which charity we are volunteering with: “Future Hope”, we reply in unison. It turns out there are two “Hope” charities in Kolkata, “Future Hope” and the “Hope Foundation”, both, as it happens, helping street children, and we are in the wrong car, with the wrong charity. Tabby apologises profusely for accidentally kidnapping us and takes us back to the airport, where we swap cars and head off with Ben, the correct volunteer, to the other “Hope”. In true Indian fashion it seems, we start our trip late, disorganised and not according to plan.