Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 5, No. 6, 2006
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Robert J. Lewis
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Mark Goldfarb
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Bernard Dubé
Diane Gordon
Robert Rotondo
Dan Stefik
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Emanuel Pordes
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Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
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Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

among the garbage and the flowers



Tuesday, Oct. 10th, 2006: And Another Day

It's hard to feel anything sometimes. Part of me wants to be proud of my father's heritage, of my childhood, and the other part of me wants to take a large heavy duty power washer to the whole city, to buildings, sidewalks, bridges, shops, everything. I love power washers. They use water and electricity to clean, clean and clean. I am no clean freak, but the layers and layers of soot, diesel exhaust, dirt, grime is unbearable at times.

I try to be philosophical, but it's hard. I wouldn't know how to work here and have hope. Not even the little things I do give me hope. They are less than a drop in the bucket. The beggar children may be poor and malnourished, but they aren't stupid. They know how to play the game: beg, pester, badger, delay you, pull on you, do the woe-is-me routine, "food auntie, auntie,” till you are sick of it. My cousin says he doesn't give money, but may buy them some food, such as a wrap (known as a roll here and available everywhere as fast food), but even as I did that, the boy stuck the wrap in his pocket and kept asking for more money. I had seen him frisk a younger boy, perhaps 6-years old, and almost had him strip naked in downtown Kolkata, lest he be hiding and keeping some of his begging earnings. Real operators.

Amidst $6000 surround-sound systems in Bose shops and the Grand Hotel, and $10,000 wedding saris, are limbless beggars, old men lying studiously on the sidewalk, strategically placed between hawkers of cheap shirts and global dollar store junk. It's all too familiar. I feel angry that nothing has changed. I talk to everyone, to the Oxford book shop coffee shop employees (like Starbucks ), to the traffic cops, the chawallahs, our security doormen, the little kids who I teach how to shoot a photograph and to family members. They are all aware of the problems, but I see no one expressing any vision or enthusiasm to change things. I know they are out there, but they must be in the minority. I saw some young Greenpeace volunteers handing out pamphlets once but when I told the optician, who was preparing glasses for my son, about their efforts, he said they were all "garbage." He was a most educated and affable man, and he announced that all the food in the city was "garbage.” When I asked him what he was doing to change things, he changed the subject.

I see people preening themselves to look beautiful as they step out for the evening. Great attention is paid to matching earrings with the clothes, well coiffed hair, surrealistically beautiful clothes, cavalier and dashing looks amongst the men, but then they step out on a sidewalk that is broken and treacherous, with potholes, dog crap, plastic bags, and all manners of fruits and vegetable peels and other assorted debris. They don't notice the absurd dichotomy as they pursue what Romeo and Krishna have pursued for thousands of years: romance, love, glitter, the momentary seduction.

Sunday, Oct. 15th, 2006: Recycling and Freecycling in Calcutta

There won't be any need to freecycle for scores of years in Kolkata, India. You cannot leave anything without it being taken, used, repaired, sold, sold again, taken apart for parts -- you name it.

There are people here who are garbage pickers -- an unsavoury profession, yes, but that is how they make their living for when you are hungry, there really is no choice.

Garbage is collected in two ways seeing that there are far too few garbage cans. People just throw stuff on the street as they walk along. Or they empty their garbage out their house/apartment window into the gutter or into bags which are then put out on the street. Then at night, people come by to sweep it up into larger bags, which then are hauled to various street corners, where they are dumped. Then men, women and children pick their way through mountains of garbage for paper, plastics, useful items, and recycle them in one fashion or the other. They walk barefoot high up amongst a mixture of kitchen compost, junk, paper, plastic, toxic materials, sharp objects, filth and dust. It is shocking. What is left over is picked clean of organic matter by cows, crows, stray dogs and cats. Then what is left over is hauled away and then pigs go through it in a bigger dump.

If you have an appliance that is broken, say a toaster, which can be bought new for $10-$15, then instead of chucking it like we do, it can be repaired for as little as fifty cents or a dollar. So no need to dump stuff. Or if it is not repairable then someone will take it apart for parts and use it for something. When you live on the sidewalk and a tarp is your roof, and your cook stove is a clay pot with coals and sticks in it, then you can use just about anything.

Entire families live a few hundreds feet from our house on the sidewalk. They eat, live, work, play and socialize right there, in a sea of noise, in the midst of diesel-belching auto rickshaws, taxis and rickety old buses. We are incredibly rich as we walk by and I don't know what to do. I can't feel anything sometimes. I don't know what is appropriate. If it is inappropriate for me to have a cup of coffee in a local upscale Starbucks look-alike for forty rupees here (one dollar), knowing that limbless beggars are outside the air conditioned café, waiting, then how is it any more appropriate to have a $2 coffee at Cha Cha Java in Parksville (British Columbia), just because it's far away and they are out of sight? At least this way I am fuelling the local economy. It's difficult. The air is dirty, the place is wholly overpopulated, with a population of more than 15 million people, in a city space that is designed for perhaps one fifth of that. But in some strange way, they are recycling much better than we are. Nothing much is wasted.

There are many forces at work. Poverty has many roots, including pure economics, but there are also so many entrenched belief systems about who is deserving and who is not. In fact this is not much different from Parksville, where we attend workshops to work on our well entrenched lack of self-esteem. We get life coaches and therapy, to reprogram deep-set notions that we are not deserving of love, health and prosperity. We have so much in common, our two communities.

Everyone has a business, or shall I say, scam. We all carry on somehow. Our various burdens are much different, but we have the same drive: to live, prosper and multiply. To have sex. To eat tasty food. To look good. To play.

Monday, Oct. 16th, 2006: To Make or Not to Make Art

A friend of mine in India said: "You have to get in and find the sparks and that takes time. There are places with spirit and hope." He also explained the logistics of refugees streaming into Kolkata over the last fifty years. From the rural underemployed sectors, from droughts, flooding, Bangladesh -- they have all been streaming in competing for what little Kolkata has.

I do know all the reasons, of course, and I also know about economics, demographics, etc. and my need for compassion, personal growth, patience, endurance, and I have even been here before a few times since I moved from here at the age of 7, in 1963. Yet this time, I feel no movement in my head or heart and that itself makes me cry, whereas actual poverty somehow does not make me cry.

Strange, and curious.

I do know there are many sparks. I spend my days being a tourist, when I am not with my loving but dysfunctional family. One of my children, Bashu, likes to give out small change to everyone. He does not do this because he feels guilty, he just thinks it makes sense. The other likes to buy sweets for the children every now and then. I take photos, with permission, and show it to the children, who get a huge blast out of seeing their own picture. I have bought oil pastels and paper tablets, to do art with anyone spontaneously, but I have not had the heart to do so. I spoke to Mehdi in Canada today, and he is brilliant at this sort of thing, drawing out self-esteem and self-worth in children, and he said that these activities should only happen in a safe and well defined relationship. When he did so in Sri Lanka, he did not have any other relationship with the kids, and this kept things clear and un-muddy. Once you give out money or sweets, etc. the relationship is altered in a way that compromises the outcome of self-esteem through art making. So in a sense I was relieved, because I don't wish to wear too many hats, and I do not wish to wear the art therapy hat and do a third rate job.

Leaving Kolkata, I know things will change. Now Diwali or Kalipuja is upon us this weekend, another huge festival of the goddess Ma Kali, and then we will retreat to the cool hills of Darjeeling and perhaps Sikkim. There are of course children everywhere, who want to play and draw and have fun. And of all things, I do like being with children best. I would rather that than see museums and memorials and temples. They are alive. Like Zen koans say, throw away the book of teachings and be. Likewise, disregard dead monuments and see the children, alive and playing.

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