Calcutta is one of the most extraordinary cities I have visited. I love it. Maybe I have such a fondness for it because I’ve had some very special adventures there.
As so often happens when you travel, you tend to gravitate to the same hotel when you return to a place. In my case, in Calcutta, the word ‘hotel’ needs to be used loosely. But that’s what it said on the sign. So that’s what I’ll call it.
A small room. Dingy but cool and ‘cool’ in India soon becomes a mantra. Especially during those sultry days that precede the coming of the monsoon.
And so it was, one late April morning, that I got off a train at Hooghly station. Such a wonderful word – ‘Hooghly’. Sounds like a character from ‘The Jungle Book.’ In reality it’s the name of the river that bisects Calcutta, as well as that of the main railway station and the bridge that spans the river, linking the station to the city centre. How this bridge carries the weight of the traffic upon it only Ganesh, Shiva and Vishnu know. A heaving throng of tongas, rickshaws, bicycles, cars, trucks and buses, honking and hooting incessantly. A multiple pile-up looking for a place to happen. And yet, remarkably, it seldom did.
I had been on the train from Madras for one and half days. I desperately needed to breathe fresh air and stretch my stiffened limbs. The air of Calcutta can hardly be called fresh but compared to the stench on the train it was like being in a freshly-cut meadow.
The manager at the hotel greeted me regally and showed me to my room. As he opened the door an icy blast hit my face. I intensely dislike air conditioning but on this most humid of days I welcomed this fridge with open arms. Another endearing attribute of this hotel was its water. The bathrooms were grotty. The tiles cracked. The grouting filthy. The shower heads half blocked. But none of this mattered. Because the water was hot, very hot and in India this is a pleasure beyond measure. Most especially after so long in a second class carriage of an overcrowded train.
I showered and scrubbed layers of grime from my body and soul. Put on my only other set of clothing, gave the dirty ones to the dhobi wallah and set off to explore. Noon. Sun at its zenith. Mercury off the end of the thermometer.
My footsteps led me to the street that housed the Salvation Army. Every lunchtime they held a soup kitchen out on the pavement. An effort to give the poor of the city a decent meal. I sat across the road, watching the scene unfold. A queue forming. No pushing or shoving. It was if an unseen hand was knowingly guiding each person to their proper place in the line. Men at the front. Young first, then the old. Next the children. But only the boys. Then the women. Again, the youngest to the eldest. And lastly, the girls. The queue reflecting perfectly the importance of sex and age in poor Indian society. The most useful at the front. The least useful at the back. So easy to be judgmental. But in the harsh reality of life on the streets of India, the brutal truth of necessity ruled.
I crossed the road. I really wanted to meet some of these people. Representatives of so much of India’s population. I wanted to hear their stories. To learn their truths.
Each and every one of them carried themselves with such dignity. The men in chequered lunghis, threadbare but spotlessly clean. Big smiles. Teeth stained red from chewing betel. The women like flowers, elegantly draped in their multicolored saris. Worn cotton, not expensive silk but still so very beautiful. Heavy black hair shiny with coconut oil, precious rupees spent on the jasmine garlands braided through their waist-length plaits. Children with innocence alight in their eyes and the spirit of play in their souls. Unconcerned by the hunger in their bellies. Unaware of the life that lay before them. Living and laughing totally in the moment.
As each person gratefully received their food, so they gathered back together in their family groups. Talking and laughing as Indians always do when they eat, no matter their circumstances in life. One family was much smaller than the others. Just a husband, wife and daughter. The gentleman caught my eye and waved. Beckoned me to join them. His name was Gupta. His wife, Sri. Their daughter, Jayoti. Much laughter pealed out into the hot summer air as they attempted to pronounce my name. But, as hard as they tried, Jacqueline just would not roll off their Bengali tongues. In the end we settled instead on my middle name ... Rose.
Gupta had been to school in his village. In the countryside, a hundred or so miles to the north west of Calcutta. He spoke a little broken English. With this, and the universal, three-dimensional language of the heart we four managed to communicate just fine.
They invited me back to their home to drink chai. The wonderful milky, sweet spiced tea found all over the sub-continent. I accepted their invitation with delight. With surprise, also, for an invite to any Asian household is a rare gift. And what a gift this turned out to be.
I followed them as they made their way towards the Maidan, a large grassy area that was the focus of outdoor entertainment in the city. If you wanted to see dancing bears or monkeys performing magic tricks, go on a rickety merry-go-round, or buy candy floss or balloons, the Maidan was the place to go.
They came to a halt on a wide pavement that edged one of the busiest streets in Calcutta. A heaving mass of traffic, cows, people and pollution. There on the pavement, amidst the cow dung and the litter, was their home. A patch of cracked paving stones. Three metres by two. Neatly delineated like those on either side of it. They took off their shoes and crossed the threshold. Following their lead, I did the same.
They showed me their bedroll, tidily placed in the corner where they lay their heads. Next to it a sheet of black plastic that they pulled over themselves when it rained. In another corner, a bucket. The bathroom. In the third, a chola. A small, clay charcoal-burning stove that was their kitchen. In the fourth corner was a small chest. The family’s worldly possessions in a single box.
Gupta and I settled ourselves on the sun-warmed pavement while Sri and Jayoti made chai. A loving ritual. Gupta told me he was happily married. That although theirs had been an arranged marriage, he and Sri had fallen in love with each other when first they met. On the morning of their wedding. His eyes sparkled as he spoke these words. I learnt that he was a potter. The last in a long line of artisans. However, with the advent of cheap plastic there was no longer demand for a potter’s wares. Gupta found he couldn’t make enough money in the village to support his family and his parents. So he and Sri made the big decision to move to Calcutta. Like so many others they believed that the city held the answer to all their prayers. Incredibly, he told me they hadn’t been wrong.
Over Sri’s delicious clove- and cardamom-scented chai Gupta told me, with much pride, that he had a job. As a rickshaw wallah. Only three days a week, but he did earn some money. He waved his right arm around him. At his trusting, smiling wife and his pretty teenaged daughter. At the bare, broken patch of pavement that was their home. Love, peace and happiness radiated out from his being. Bathing us all in his light. I have never been so humbled as I was in that moment. Sitting on the pavement in the heart of Calcutta, surrounded by chaos, drinking tea with these beautiful people.
Never has it been made so clear to me that wealth is not that which lies in a bank. True wealth lies in the heart. In the soul. No matter the circumstances, all the riches we need in this life lie within us. And in the way we choose to perceive our world.
The lessons I learnt that hot, humid day in Calcutta from Gupta and his family are indelibly written on my heart. Lest I ever forget the real definition of wealth.
© Jacqueline Le Sueur 2005