During our second week in India, we did as foreigners do and booked a Vivada River Cruise on the Hooghly River, which borders the west side of Kolkata. We had planned this ₹1000 expedition as another way to see the sights in an unfamiliar city that we were still vastly unaccustomed to.
The little ferry attempted to live up to the “cruise” experience: smooth jazz music played over the speakers and waiters circled your seat with trays of beverages and piping hot appetizers.
But there was no picturesque setting to accompany the pampering. The Hooghly is an offshoot of the Ganges River, which is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. As a result, murky, sewage-thickened water swirled around the boat. Soggy heaps of trash draped the riverbank in a colorful, gross amalgamate.
We also passed by homes, teetering shacks nestled amidst the trash on the shoreline. People bathed and washed their clothes in the infected water.
The irony of this cruise became more evident to me as we traveled further down the Hooghly. I began to feel odd listening to sophisticated elevator music and sipping sugary tea while watching Kolkata’s poor etch out their survival on the banks of this contaminated river. I did not know exactly how to respond to seeing this poverty, while simultaneously experiencing such comfort. So I stood at the ferry handrail, waved stupidly to the bystanders on the shore, and took photos. It felt awkward and wrong; I was at a loss for how to handle it. Although we were floating a mere 100 feet from the riverbank, how vast was the chasm between my seat on that cruise boat and the people on banks.
This uncomfortable, distant feeling follows me throughout my time in India. There are so many instances when I walk along Kolkata’s streets, see beggars with contorted limbs or naked, parentless toddlers running along the sidewalk and feel utterly helpless. I understand that as a foreigner in a developing country, this culture shock is a natural part of the assimilation process. Yet, I often question what I am even doing here. What is my role? Am I just an aloof observer, an intern, a tourist? Much of this experience has felt like I am either tiptoeing or clumsily stumbling through a city that I desperately want to be a part of, but never am.
There have been a few wonderful instances where this feeling of aloofness has been broken, when the invisible barrier between me and the beautiful, mysterious people around me came down. I finally summoned the courage to approach people on the street, gently gesture to the clunky $400 Canon lens around my neck, and ask “photo?” This question is usually met with a quick, hard flick of the head to the side, indicating the affirmative. Shopkeepers have posed flamboyantly and made me giggle; children have grinned widely for the picture and smiled even wider when I show them the outcome on the camera’s digital screen.
Soon, the roles reverse and passersby stop me and ask me to take photos of them and their children. Crowds gather around the camera screen when I flip it around to reveal the resulting picture. “Khub sundar,” I would often say to them. Very beautiful. And I couldn’t have meant that more. It was during these moments when I was truly able to witness how authentic, how beautiful these people were. The joy on their faces made me realize that I didn’t need to view them as victims of poverty or look at their city with a perspective clouded by the guilt of privilege. Rather, I can just live in the joy of that moment, of that feeling of being connected with fellow humans. This realization filled my heart to the brim and made me think that maybe, just maybe I can be more than a detached foreigner here.