In search of the Black Hole of Calcutta

Posted: February 14, 2011 in India
Tags: , , ,

Your money or your life?

Our flight landed 1hr late at 12.30am in Kolkata. Our first experience of West Bengal was frustrating. Having taken the safe option of a pre-paid taxi, our clearly agitated driver started demanding an extra R100 as it was night time. I told him no and Muneeza even explained the situation in Hindi. Still he persisted. I told him to take us to the hotel for the money we paid or i’d get another cab and report him. Still not getting it. He then down-sized to R50 and after a gentle prod from my jani not to provoke, I simply said “teek hai” and let him drive.

Arriving at night is never good. You are tired, wary of the dark and unknown cities have a certain menace. Kolkata also has a strong reputation for poverty and with that comes a potential threat. The drive to the hotel took us through the poorest, most broken parts of town. At times we thought we were being taken to a dodgy street to be lynched and robbed. We were nervous, anxiety driven by our crazy driver who drove like he wanted to die.

He lit up a spliff. I’m not joking. The pungent smell of skunk is unmistakable (Parents – like Clinton, I didn’t inhale!). His eyes narrowed, pupils dilated and his head started nodding. At one point he nearly fell asleep taking a sharp corner at speed. Muneeza’s nails dug into my legs. We were worried that something bad might happen. So when we arrived at our hotel still alive,  his crazed look encouraged me to hand over the extra R50 and get into the hotel before anything happened.

In hindsight, it was probably the night time and tiredness that made us feel threatened but I’ve learned to trust my instincts. It’s better to be ripped off by $1 than to put your fiancee in a dangerous situation.

Kolkata – much better than expected and fantastic to explore by foot

Having felt intimidated by the squalid streets as the taxi dashed to the hotel, we went to bed with the classic late arrivalitis – the impending feeling of doom that you aren’t going to enjoy it. A new day brings a new dawn and, more importantly, a new attitude. We hit the streets. We loved it instantly.

The street markets, especially Hawker’s Bazaar up in BBD Bagh, are an assault on the sense but immensely enjoyable. You can buy anything from anyone and everyone wants your business. Crazy prices are shouted at the tourist and as you walk away smiling, they keep coming down until they reach local price land. The shopkeepers try to make you feel guilty for haggling but that’s the nature of the game here and Muneeza is a consummate pro (not in the sense boys).

As with other big cities, we explored by foot. It’s the only way to get a feel for the city and meet the locals. It is incredibly rewarding and we found Kolkata, once you get past the dirt and bustle, to be an endearing place. We were often stopped by inquisitive locals wanting to know all about us. The people were lovely and went out of their way to help us.

The most disappointing aspect of our stay was the food. We had been told that Kolkata was famous for sweet tasting Bengali cuisine. We tried a recommended local haunt and found it too polished and full of western ex-pats. The food was average but the price steep. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t the place you would love to go back to. The hunt for mouth-watering Bengali cuisine was to continue.

The old glory of Kolkata

Mother Teresa – saint or sinner?

We took a stroll to Mother Teresa’s Mission, hidden down a small alley off the main AJC Bose thoroughfare. The Motherhouse is a humble abode where the famous Nun spent her last days in a typically chaste and barren room adorned with religious symbols; the ubiquitous crucifix, rosary beads and biblical quotes a plenty.

Before we entered the Mission, we didn’t really know much about arguably the 2nd most famous Indian in world history, Gandhi winning the popularity contest for the small matter of being a key driving force behind independence, peaceful protest and national/religious unity. By the time we left and had soaked up the info in the interesting museum, we had a better idea.

There is no denying the woman was a saint, meant in a non-religious context. She championned the causes of the poorest and treated them with such gentleness of spirit that it makes you realise how selfless humanity can be. When I stripped the religious context from her quotes, for my atheism prevents me from believing the role of the almighty,  she made a lot of sense. Much of what she spoke struck a chord with my own outlook and sensitivities. Her words on the need for all religions to come together in peace for the good of the world is a sharp reminder of how far they have to go. There is a clear parallel between her pleas and the spiritual leanings of Mahatma.

However, some of her moral attitudes are incongruous with logical steps for reducing poverty and child starvation. As a staunch Catholic, she was against abortion and actively preached its sin to her Indian public. In a country where so many families can’t support their children and thousands of children are dying of starvation or serious illness every year, it makes no sense to argue that abortion is immoral. Surely bringing another soul to this world that can’t be supported and is condemned from birth to live in abject poverty and suffering, is immoral?

Her Mission over the years has also been criticised for accepting donations from the corrupt and criminal classes. Her justification was that the money does good and it was not her place to judge those who offer. Again, that doesn’t sit well with me. What if the money was gained by exploiting someone else, so that their life was impoverished? Does the good the money then makes justify the means? Does one person’s happiness justify another’s pain? I find the turning a blind eye approach to be common with religious zealots. I’m not saying that is what she was but I’ll be interested to read more from the critics (though I’ll probably ignore Germaine Greer because she usually trots out a tedious line in post-modern feminism).

What irked me the most was reading the pithy soundbites from famous politicians and world leaders who just love to cash in on the people’s love for genuine heros. My favourite was a quote from Jimmy Carter advocating the examples that Mother Teresa set and how others should emulate her actions. Granted he has a strong reputation for philanthropy and has worked hard to contribute to those less fortunate; indeed he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 (far more deserving than a certain Obama). However, this coming from the leader of a country that has done as much as anyone to displace the poor and further enchain them to the walls of  subjugation and misery didn’t sit well with me. Perhaps I’m getting too cynical in my old age…..

Knowing when to lend a helping hand

When we started our travels back in September I had a steadfast rule regarding street beggars; giving them money doesn’t solve the problem, it simply encourages them to continue and not find real solutions. That may sound crass coming from someone who has led a comfortable life but I’ve listened to a lot of leaders from not-for-profit and NGO organisations and they have eloquently explained this viewpoint from years of experience.

However, life on the streets of India will slap in you the face like a salty kipper. In Kolkata we have been confronted by poverty on a different scale to other areas of India. Yes it exits everywhere, especially in the Northern states and particularly in Muslim areas which seem to suffer an unfair poverty burden. But here, on every street, in every park, by every food stall, lie destitute families and tired looking eyes. When a mother asks for food and you are staring into the starving eyes of her malnourished and dirty kids, having just finished your continental breakfast in a clean AC cafe, it makes you feel rather empty of soul to maintain this philosophy.

So in Kolkata, and perhaps swayed slightly by the legacy of Mother Teresa we decided we should be more proactive and not just channel our philanthropic efforts into charity support. We started by treating a few homeless kids to a cold drink from a street vendor as we walked to the Victoria Memorial (a glorious marble edifice built to honour Queen Victoria I on her 1901 diamond jubilee). The kids here are really cute and they went off happy and showed off their treats to their Mum who smiled warmly at us.  We decided that, instead of handing out cash and looking like an arrogant westerner, we would simply offer food and drink to those who needed it. We decided that giving people something healthy to eat, like fresh fruit, was a positive contribution. I hope we were right.

On our first day, Thursday 10th Feb, a kind homeless man escorted me to the Post Office to ensure I got our postcards stamped before putting them in the box. Apparently, unbeknown to us, if you add the postage stamps and put them straight in the box there is a strong chance they’ll be lost. You have to get the official stamp as well, free of charge, from the Post Office clerk. He didn’t ask for money but asked if we could help with some food for his family. We met them but only gave him R10 so he could buy some rice from the street. Later we felt bad that we hadn’t been generous. We resolved to return and buy him and his family a meal later. Alas we couldn’t find him. So we came back the next day. The wife rushed off to find her husband and left us looking after her sleeping child. That’s incredible trust.

Whilst she was away another woman came over with her children who were in a sorry state. We were caught. How can we select one family over another? So we decided to split the money we had earmarked for food between the two families. The wife came back and a row started between the two ladies. She told us not to give anything to her. We tried to placate her but this was clearly a turf war. We worked out that there is an unofficial territory for homeless people when it comes to begging. Understandably they are fiercely protective of their areas. For them it is a daily fight for survival for their kids. And here we started to realise why many charities advise against giving money. It can be divisive. Good intentions can lead to mixed outcomes. Still, we had good intentions and couldn’t walk by and pretend we didn’t care. We returned the man’s kindness by enabling him and his wife to buy food for their kids, enough to last a few days. At the same time we helped another woman but inadvertently created a bit of a confrontation. Luckily they calmed down and the street returned to normal as the passers-by stopped staring and returned to not caring.

Our reason for the change of heart is simple. Charities and NGOs aren’t helping every homeless and poor family. They can’t. There isn’t enough resource to go round. Estimations are that over 50% of India’s 1.2bn population live below the poverty gap. With a seemingly uncaring Government, how can charities cope with 600m people? So if many of these people haven’t got a helping hand, surely stopping to listen and helping them by either buying food or giving the mother enough money to buy food for a few days is better than walking on by like the masses and reassuring yourself that it’s for the best. The problem is that in India there are millions of people like this and when you stop, desperate eyes fixate. It’s impossible to stop for one person without attracting many others. Then the impact of your attempted kindness is muted. In our mind that’s still better than doing nothing. Perhaps we’re wrong but I’m not sure what the alternative is.

I’m not judging anyone who walks on by. You can’t help everyone. You don’t have to help everyone. But India has evoked in us a genuine yearning to make a difference and to offer a little affection and kindness to those most ignored. We don’t think this makes us any better or worse as people, it’s not an ego thing or need for recognition, it is simply a natural reaction to what has tugged at our heart strings for 6 weeks. We want to find a more long term contribution but that needs to be thought through carefully because you can’t mess with people in these situations, you have to be able to commit.

love james & muneeza x

The markets of Kolkata in BBD Bagh

  1. Gavin says:

    very interesting and thought provoking post. well written.

    • jamerguk says:

      Cheers mate, thanks for the comment. Lending a helping hand can sometimes cause problems, it’s an important lesson for us. Hope you are both well and not too sad that the epic adventure will soon return to the shores of blighty. Take care.

  2. Ria Madison says:

    Very interesting in-sight, so worth learning more about – so says a person who has worked with raising funds most of her life. You learn everyday… Love Madison (Botswana) – still reading your posts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s