Outside the Walls: Two Views of Kolkata, India

Categorized as: on September 2, 2012.


Editor’s Note: Guest blogger Gerry Levandoski gives a vivid tour of two cities—the sheltered and the street-dwelling—he glimpsed all at once, on our first day together traveling with Freedom from Hunger.


 by Gerry Levandoski

(This is the first in a series from Gerry on the sights, sounds, and smells of India. Part 2 will explore microfinance and how Freedom from Hunger works to end poverty at the systemic level, one family, one village at a time.)

Exiting customs, we smiled gratefully upon seeing our chauffeur holding a placard that read Freedom From Hunger—Levandoski. Outside, raucous birds nesting in a nearby banyan tree gave us a disorderly welcome. Our driver barked at and waved off an insistent young man who had hustled forward to pull our bags across the parking lot in return for baksheesh (1). Even at 2:30 in the morning, a humid, smoky haze hung thickly over the Kolkata airport.

Gerry L/FFH Kolkata Ubiquitous traffic 

Despite the hour, road congestion slowed our progress. We tried to chat up the driver, but he spoke no English. Instead, Esther and I glued our eyes to the side windows, hoping to glimpse the city. Brobdingnagian confetti littered the four-lane highway’s dirt aprons. Half-built or half- demolished high rises stretched above concrete perimeter walls. Outside the walls, tents and shanties, jury-rigged from sheet metal, bamboo, plastic tarps and cardboard, leaned against each other for support. The slums were awake. Male residents socialized around open trash-fueled fires. Adding in the gloom and dark, the scene read like post-apocalypse science fiction. Later we learned that such building site slums house migrant construction worker families. The children work or run the streets because West Bengal public schools bar children from other states or countries.

Passing through residential neighborhoods nearer to the city center, we noticed several narrow side streets trellised with ropes of colored party lights. Through an open gate, we recognized a reception spilling out of its hall and into the parking lot dotted with Mercedes and Lexus sedans.

Arriving at the Kenilworth Hotel, we crossed over the broken sidewalk and through a gate into a manicured courtyard shaded by bougainvillea and other flowering shrubs. Uniformed security checked the car for explosives; then porters opened our doors, bowed and greeted us with “Namaste” (2) and “Welcome.” During our five weeks in India, we would sample life on both sides of India’s walls, but we had come to Kolkata to meet the people living on the outside.

Despite our late arrival, we got down to breakfast around 9:00. Our friend Kim, Freedom from Hunger’s Major Donor Relations Officer, began introducing us to the other party members.

Freedom from Hunger (FFH) is a nonprofit, nongovernmental, nonsectarian international development organization that partners with microfinance agencies to provide their clients with practical education and access to health care. That is a lot to compute.

FFH offered us this opportunity to meet their partners and to visit villages that benefit from the group’s work so we would understand how the definition actually adds up and see how our donations were spent (3).

Sunday was a day for getting acclimated. FFH India Program Manager Dr. Soumitra Dutta made some sightseeing suggestions and those who had visited Kolkata before had some ideas, too. The majority elected to walk to nearby Maidan Park and visit the Victoria Memorial, a tribute to the grandeur that was the British Raj.

Gerry L/FFH Kolkata Victoria Victoria Memorial, Kolkata

The massive white Makrana marble Memorial’s exhibits present a romanticized view of how England entered and eventually possessed India. Calcutta/Kolkata (4) marks its founding from 1690, when the British East India Company gained a foothold here on the Ganges River Delta. Over the next one hundred years, the traders extended their commercial and territorial control over the subcontinent (5) by co-opting local rulers with lucrative, exclusive trading rights deals. Eventually the East India Company induced the Indian princes to let it take over security. At times the company encountered and overcame armed resistance. The British government’s takeover in 1858 was a fait accompli. The oft-repeated image of rifle-toting British hunters standing triumphant over a dead tiger or two is the quintessential Indo-Anglican self-image (6).

We passed through the high wrought iron fence surrounding Maidan Park and reentered the other India. Suzanne Skees, a fellow donor and writer, suggested we visit the Kali temple. We had to decide if we wanted to walk or take taxis. Newly hired FFH President Steve Hollingworth and his wife Ann Griffith lived in both Delhi and Bangladesh when Steve worked for CARE. They both speak some Hindi and Bengali. Steve reveled in chatting with street people and people on the street. He began asking where and how far away the temple was. Several people confirmed the direction we thought we should go and agreed it was a twenty-minute walk.

Esther and I had serious reservations about coming to India. We dreaded the constant attention of aggressive beggars and street vendors viewing us as rich foreigners. We worried about dengue fever, cholera and other tropical diseases. We were anxious about over-crowding and unsanitary food, water and air. We stressed over the emotional strain that witnessing rampant malnutrition causes when neither you nor the starving has the ability to change the system that sustains the problem.

We knew all these experiences from earlier third-world travel. We would face them again in India but to a far lesser degree than we anticipated. The spellbinding hour’s walk to the temple began the process of correcting our India assumptions.

Gerry L/FFH Kolkata Times Good times on the streets of India

The unacquainted in the group tried playing twenty questions, but the city’s sights, sounds, and smells lured our attention away from each other. For starters, we maneuvered in and out of the street because the sidewalks were impassable in stretches where the bricks were pulled up and stacked. At dinner, Soumitra told us that new gas lines were installed and the trenches were filled with sand, but the public works department responsible for maintaining the walkways could not afford to reinstall the pavers. Now, the remaining bricks were too few to fill in the uncovered spaces. Aromatic incense and burning candles drew us to vividly painted courtyard shrines. One held a flower-adorned statue of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of Knowledge. Another honored the fierce dark-skinned Kali wielding her crimsoned scimitar in one hand and a freshly acquired human head in another. The head represents the ego, which must be destroyed to achieve divine knowledge. Sensual and deadly, Kali is the mother goddess who will ruthlessly defend her children.

Gerry L/FFH Kolkata Saraswati Street temple to goddess Saraswati

Kids around the shrines used their English to chat with us. No baksheesh required. Burly, yellow Hindustan Motors Ambassador taxis (Imagine a 1957 Oldsmobile compact.), green and yellow tuk tuks and Japanese motorbikes filled the streets with honks and smoky exhaust. Hero bicycles, pedicabs, rickshaws, animal-drawn carts and pedestrians competed for road space. We passed a roadside blacksmith hammering horseshoes and sniffed past the food cart vendors selling fruit, sweets and prepared foods. Teenaged boys, bathing under public hand pumps outside their apartments, smiled good-naturedly when they saw me taking their photos.

As the British Indian Empire’s capital city and undisputed cultural center, people associated “Calcutta” with commerce, opulence, and with Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1913). Contemporary “Kolkata” derives its repute from dysfunctional government and poverty. Kolkata’s most notable Nobel Prize winner is Mother Teresa (1979), a European. Through crumbling fortifications, the weary, worn-down city revealed its former grandeur in the crumbling façades of once-grand homes. Bedclothes aired on telephone wires outside sooty pastel houses’ second-floor balconies. Armed guards protected the Japanese and German luxury cars parked in some of the yards. We wondered aloud what secrets Kolkata hid behind those faltering fronts.

At last we arrived at a bustling square and the shopping bazaar that has grown up around the two-hundred-year-old Kalighat Kali Temple. Here, we hit Kolkata’s impregnable population wall. Depending upon how you measure the area, Kolkata has between 13 and 15 million residents moshed together at a rate of about 72,000 people per square mile, roughly three times New York City’s density. Merchants in storefronts, under canvas awnings or simply standing by overturned crates, sold snack foods, bottled water, clothing, firecrackers, plush toys, balloons, or religious totems and icons, gardenia and marigold garlands, candles, incense, face-painting powder, and sacrificial livestock.


Self-portrait and bathing women by Rabindranath Tagore 

Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1913). Contemporary “Kolkata” derives its repute from dysfunctional government and poverty. Kolkata’s most notable Nobel Prize winner (1979) is Mother Teresa, a European. Through crumbling fortifications, the weary, worn-down city revealed its former grandeur in the crumbling façades of once-grand homes. Bedclothes aired on telephone wires outside sooty pastel houses’ second-floor balconies. Armed guards protected the Japanese and German luxury sedans parked in some yards. We wondered aloud what secrets Kolkata hid behind those faltering fronts.

Gerry L/FFH Kolkata real estateVintage Kolkata real estate

Depending upon how you measure the area, Kolkata has between thirteen and fifteen million residents moshed together at a rate of about 72,000 people per square mile, roughly three times New York City’s density. Merchants in store fronts, under canvas awnings or simply standing by overturned wooden crates sold snack foods, bottled water, clothing, firecrackers, plush toys, balloons or religious totems and icons, gardenia and marigold garlands, candles, incense, face-painting powder and sacrificial livestock.

The scene’s vitality, the women’s colorful saris, the sadus, half dressed holy men with wild hair and painted faces, the lure of unusual market offerings and the sheer mass of the roiling crowd started to dismember our heretofore tightly grouped party. Thanks, in part, to a seated row of beggars that formed a directional arrow pointing toward the temple, we managed not to lose anyone. Steve found a guide, although I suspect this entrepreneur actually found us.

Gerry L/FFH Kolkata KaliShrine to goddess Kali, destroyer of ego and illusion

Tuesday is the Hindu holy day, but Kalighat Kali was packed. To enter would have taken us at least an hour’s wait in line with the devoted barefooted masses. A look at the slick black concrete beneath their worshipful feet convinced us that a walk around the temple and past the Kundupukur or tank of sacred water would be enough. The temple’s exterior is plated with colorful porcelain tile. At the rear, we smelled then observed two stones with putrid, blood- stained leather covers where sacrificial animals are cut and bled. Our guide assured us that the carcasses are later cooked and fed to the needy, and encouraged us to visit early in the morning to see a water buffalo sacrificed.

Finally, we moved to an adjacent courtyard occupied by the bean green waters of the Kundupukur. Attempts to drain, clean and repair the tank failed because subterranean channels from the sacred Ganges refilled it. Christians might relate to Kundupukur as a baptismal font. Dipping a child in these waters is said to bestow a boon or a blessing. I would call it miraculous when a child doesn’t catch something from being submerged in the tank. Here we encountered the guide’s scam. He encouraged us to sign a ledger that had a place for name, home city and amount of donation. The book was opened to a page showing the handsome donations that Australians from Sydney and Melbourne had supposedly made. Throughout our trip we were mistaken for Aussies because so few Americans come to India, let alone Kolkata. Skepticism about the money’s real destination plus a dearth of rupees, kept me from donating.

Back on the edge of the square, jet lag, fatigue and over-stimulation had taken their toll on us. We opted to hail taxis and ride back to Maidan Park. India is a relentless assault on your senses, and we had not even penetrated the surface.

Gerry L/FFH Kolkata temple lineThe line to temple entrance

1 A handout or a bribe
2 “I bow to you.”
3 To be clear, all but the FFH employees were paying guests.
4 Today many Indian places prefer native names or spellings to their colonial titles. Some places have multiple names because they have linguistically mixed populations. India has twenty-two official languages, but Hindi and English are the languages of national government. Most private schools and now public schools in increasing numbers are using English as the medium of instruction. A Mumbai (formerly Bombay) newspaper ran an article entitled “Does India now dream in English?” relating to the increase in Bollywood’s English language movies and the growing list of English medium Indian authors writing. I will use the places names Indians seemed to prefer.
5 The British Raj included the modern states of Bangladesh, Burma, India, Nepal and Pakistan.
6 In fairness, the Indian princes had similar photos taken of themselves.

7 Many believe Kolkata derives its name from Kalighat. Kali worship is strongest in West Bengal.

About the author: Gerry Levandoski holds a B.A. in literature from Rutgers University and an M.A. in Teaching English as a Second Language from the University of Arizona. He is a former VISTA volunteer and met his wife, Esther Levandoski, when they both served as Peace Corps volunteers in Nicaragua in 1978. Gerry retired from teaching in 2008 after a 30-year career in California public education. Now, he and Esther spend their time and money supporting worthy causes, raising olives, hiking, biking, and traveling. Gerry is an amateur U.S. historian and an avid science fiction reader. He writes stories about his travels for entertainment. He and Esther have two wonderful grown sons who are keeping them grandparents-in-waiting.

Gerry writes: “The donation that elicted our invitation to India actually came from the Monte Toole Family Foundation, directed by my wife Esther, and prompted by our friendship with Kim Andrup. Normally, Esther and I prefer to focus our charitable efforts locally, on social issues facing the United States rather than the rest of the world. That said, Freedom from Hunger’s undeniable quality, accountability, and verifiable results make this a program we will gladly continue to support.”

For more information on the Microfinance and Health Protection program we visited with Freedom from Hunger, click here. If you’d like to support one of Freedom from Hunger’s varied programs in education, healthcare, and financial access, reaching 24 million people in 15 developing countries, click here. 

*all photographs (c) Gerry Levandoski

Gerry holds a B.A. in Literature from Rutgers University and a M.A. in Teaching. Now he and his wife Esther spend their time supporting worthy causes. Esther and Gerry have two wonderful sons who are keeping them waiting.

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