among the garbage
and the flowers
REPORT FROM KOLKATA (CALCUTTA)
Oct. 10th, 2006: And Another Day
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
$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
Oct. 15th, 2006: Recycling and Freecycling in Calcutta
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Oct. 16th, 2006: To Make or Not to Make Art
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
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.
more about India, go to Anita Roy's