Kolkata, Calcutta…

Seems like just about everyone is home, and Ali and I are taking on our last days in India (eight to be exact). As we relax on our day off for Independence Day, I think about how daunting time was here and the fact that it is nearing a close.

Over the weekend, we spent a few days at a hostel in Delhi. We met countless foreigners with tremendous stories of travels and lives all throughout the world. I got the question of ‘oh, what are you doing in Kolkata?’ (Like ‘why the hell would you go there?’). Many Indians stayed at our hostel, so we got the inside scoop, the inside perspective that Kolkata is a rough place. Not a place two white, blonde American girls usually backpack through, but somehow this was our home. In Kolkata, I was always curious why it is socially expectable to burp with a mouth full of food and mid-sentence. One girl I met said, “No, no that’s embarrassing. That isn’t India, that is Kolkata.” For so many weeks, I had the toughest time having a tough time. Ali and I fought the fact that we have this persistent and undeniable love, hate relationship with India. I hate how hard everything is, but I love how ridiculously flawed everything is (if I’m in a good mood). On our flight back from Delhi, we told a woman from Kolkata that we were boarding, helping her not miss her flight. She thanked us, but then as I waited for Ali to get her seat changed, she blew through me, bumping into me, and shoeing me with her hand. We looked at each other and knew; well she’s from Kolkata.

I write this not to say all the frustratingly rude things I have seen in Kolkata, but to write about the fact that I saw a different side of India. Ali and I were on our first adventure in Delhi, when we asked a woman next to us for help on the metro. She looked at us with a warm smile and told us we were on the wrong metro. Soon enough, like any Indian city, there was a crowd of about five people helping each other, and us, and figuring out how we can backtrack and get on our right metro. This pleasant encounter was even a cherry on top of the fact that we walked into the metro that had actual room in the lady’s cart. A few days back in Kolkata, Ali got off the metro and said, “I’ve never been touched like that. There was a time when I was being spooned in the front and the back by people.” There is no choice in Kolkata; things are just crowded, more dirty, and behind times. So when we walked into the metro in Delhi and there was room for me to not just bob my head to my music, but to actually dance, I fell in love with this place. This experience in another big city and many conversations later, gave me permission to admit that I live in a tough city, and it sucked sometimes. To admit all of India isn’t rude, apathetic, and a bit selfish. This “city of joy” is far from a joyful place, but every place I have visited outside of Kolkata has been a breath of fresh air and a true joy.

With my thoughts of Kolkata, I still wanted to feel India in my heart. I wanted to have a reason to be sad for leaving and a reason to come back. While I was frustrated with myself for wanting to stay here for more than six weeks, now I realize these extra few weeks were vital for me. I am thankful; it opened my eyes to the greater culture of India. It helped me count my blessings while I am still here, instead of realizing them in the comfort of my California life back home. It let me fall in love with the quirky, art town of Shantiniketan where you could hop on a Toto (a little golf cart thing) and in just a few miles find a huge handicraft market in the middle of the forest with hundreds of vendors, shoppers, and musicians. I love the hilarious, long drives we have taken either just throughout the city or throughout the country. I can pop my head out and play sweet and sour to the beautiful, old ladies sitting on the street or the joyful, school kids. They are either so surprised to see me or they wave their hand with endless excitement. This time has allowed me to realize the girls at work provide me with endless courage. Their strength to come to work, to get up in the morning, and to raise their kids, after all they have gone through, makes me adore them. Raju da (this is only a slight introduction to my favorite person in India) has been the sunshine to Ali and my experience. He is a man who wears the same shirt each day. We call him Raju da (da means brother in Bengali), and he and the girls call us Ali bon and Meg bon (bon means sister in Bengali). Sometimes we have no idea what any of them are saying, considering they do not speak any English, but somehow they are our best friends at work and who we hang out with all day. Raju da and these girls have a hearts of gold. Raju da got the girls to make and sew Ali a card when she had a bacterial infection that read “we miss very you”. One day, we met him before work to go to mass with him (he told us he was a mixture of Christian and Hindu, but that could have been completely miscommunicated), and finally after waiting twenty minutes and missing mass, his tiny little body hopped off a rickshaw (wearing his favorite shirt) and saying, “Sorry late! Let’s go”. His oblivious, yet sweet manner makes everything he does so hilariously great. We realized quite quickly that he is our city of joy.

While loving my friends and family at work, I am still so curious at other approaches on that companies take on the issue of trafficking. Last week, we visited another ‘freedom NGO’ that does similar work to what Destiny does. This NGO was founded by foreigners who found themselves living in the largest red light district, having about 10,000 women working in the trade. They employ about 230 employees, both men and women, who either were trafficked, worked in the trade, grew up in the red light district, or offer an important skill that needed employment. I gained this insane sense of frustration that I was at a company has no intention of expansion, that I was at a company I am not meant to change. I work at a company that employs just a handful of women, women who make such a small, hopefully livable wage. Being a psychology major, I have been very curious about the amount of counseling and support these girls at both companies get. I know that it is such a small field here, and mental health is a very taboo topic here, but watching the trauma, the emotions, and the life these girls still have to deal with, I was so frustrated at the insufficient counseling they are provided with at work. The other NGO provides their employees with mandatory, group counseling each week and then more if they need or want it. This other company functions as an assembly line with the mindset that you cannot complete something or heal without the help of your neighbor. Learning all about their approach opened up a whole different perspective for me. It gave me permission to be frustrated that work is inefficient. That I/our company could be doing more.

There will always be women working in this trade, but there will always be ways to help them. With the mentality of expansion and rehabilitation, there is a possibility of making a difference. Seeing this company allowed me to admit that I want to work for a western company, a company that is run with the type-a work ethic that I function by. It allowed me to see that it is possible for a foreigner to make a huge dent in such a deep problem. It allowed me to appreciate the women I have met who Destiny has helped, but has made me eager to help more women like them. It gives me guidance in the way I want to start and run an NGO. It gives me hope that days don’t have to been full of frustration. Frustration about the topic of trafficking. Frustration of the slow workdays of a job in a foreign country.

These few days have enlightened me with the idea that there is much more to this country and this job that I can learn and take with me home. There are so many things to fall in love with here; it is just the way I look at them.

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