Of our five senses, touch made the first appearance as I stepped out of Calcutta’s NSC Bose Airport and into the smog-filled road. The smothering heat palpably sank into my skin. The swampy air lingered around my face as sweat beads immediately started to form on my nose and forehead. Time seemed to stagnate as we stood in the heat awaiting the car that would take us home.
My mom and I had journeyed for a total of 30+ hours and were primed to lay down and expand our legs. We had left our Arizona home at 4:00 AM on a quiet and windy Monday and had arrived in India at around 5:00 AM on a noisy and sweaty Wednesday. The two hour drive home from the airport included abrupt stops and bumps as the car hiccuped through the crowded streets of Calcutta. Throngs of people lined the roads, and jaywalking was no stranger to them. I quietly listened to my mom and my uncles enthusiastically quip and banter while my gaze remained outside the car in order to soak up as much of the city as I could. I only had two weeks to chisel my memories to last me the next four years. Not only were these trips to the motherland becoming more and more sporadic, but they would also now be limited to only a few weeks (due to being an adult and having a real job). And although I’ve never considered myself nationalistic in any sense, I did let an ounce of pride seep in during my visit because Calcutta had never been more beautiful.
Calcutta is a collage. In fact, Calcutta is the Indian equivalent (not that it requires a frame of reference to strangers) of New York: a melting pot of culture and language. The streets host a variety of shops and houses for people from all different walks of life. Although social stratification still continues to exist, fluidity within the classes is more prominent. The lower class neighborhoods are filled with tin roofs and low-ceiling shanties while the upper class neighborhoods have endured the bulk of the British influence. As the capital during British rule, Calcutta maintains quite a bit of Western-inspired visual aspects as well as road names (patriotic pride crept in around 2001 and Calcutta’s name was changed to Kolkata to align with its proper pronunciation). Most of the buildings are tinged with Victorian architecture and giant, flaming red Krishnachura trees loom over them. Cobblestoned streets complement the wrought-iron gates that are prevalent throughout the winding alleyways of Kolkata. Juxtaposed among the western-influenced buildings live the more run-down shacks and shops selling mostly the counterfeit, cheap items. Yet, bouquets of beautiful white and pink flowers still bloom next to these conventionally unpleasant establishments. It is easy to derive Kolkata’s aesthetic pleasures solely from the tall modern buildings, but the unrefined, simpler architecture offers a refreshing dose to the visual palette. Unfortunately, Kolkata suffers from pollution, poverty, and overpopulation, which inevitably leads to unattractive traffic congestion and a frustrated public. Nevertheless, I found myself more in love with the city than ever before.
The first few days in Kolkata consisted of tagging along with my mom as she ran her luxurious errands throughout the city. Our first stop was ByLoom, a quaint cove of hand-woven tunics and saris tucked away in one of the many back alleys. The employees of the store surprisingly remembered my mom’s visit from two years ago. Their cozy hospitality led us to buy a Calcutta-print sari with red double decker buses running down the body, a mesh red with black net blouse, a printed blue and red palazzo, and a few more printed wraps. The next stop was Fabindia, the more contemporary counterpart to the snug local ByLoom. Fabindia is a chain store that similarly sells hand-woven textiles and garments, which is probably why the stores are relatively close to each other. The rooms that dwell in Fabindia are expansive and cold, and the employees of the store are ever-changing, lending to their standoffish customer service. Yet, my mom paid no heed to the general apathetic atmosphere. She was on a mission with limited time, and thus, we finished our errands there. Having exhausted our shopping energy, my mom and I intuitively entered a restaurant called Bedouin to recharge and indulge ourselves in one of my favorite foods in India: fried rice and chilli chicken—a seemingly atypical meal for an Indian city, but a taste that I have found nowhere else.During my last week in Kolkata, my bowels decided to rebel without a cause. Illness took over, and I found myself consumed in books. Within the two weeks I had been in India, I finished three books (a record for me). Still ill, I left the house for the first time since my last excursion to walk up to the terrace. From the terrace, numerous buildings could be seen, which were usually covered in a blanket of gray smog. Yet, that day, the buildings were dripping in the hues of the warm orange sunrise, while the sky was lined with aimless wisps of clouds. The taller, more established buildings and flats hung back in the mild blue shadows, reluctant to meet their more colorful rural counterparts. The exteriors of some of the buildings had lost their synthetic pastel and fluorescent colors and instead took on their original earthier tones. But almost each terrace had clusters of green flora littered haphazardly throughout their terrace floors almost to compensate for the otherwise lackluster color. A few of the terraces even fitted a full-blown greenhouse.
The view from the terrace partially satiated my cravings to roam the city. Sadly, my sickness prohibited me from straying any further than 10 feet from the bathroom. Luckily, along with the homeopathic pills, I also received heavy doses of conversations rich in family values. I realized that the aspect of community bled though each and every story exchanged, and I wished it would serve as significantly in my life as well. This particular brand of community takes its form predominantly in “adda”—enriching conversations that take place among geographically, economically, emotionally, and politically close-knit groups. The concept of “adda” goes well beyond its pure definition, however, and that is evident in the fact that it reserves its own wikipedia entry. “Adda” culture provides an environment for intellectual discussion as well as leisure gossip, and most importantly, is notably inclusive. But, ultimately, this Kolkata-exclusive culture ensures a sturdy backbone for the families who are not blood-related and allows one to feel well-connected and safe. Unfortunately, I have been searching for this facet in a place where that is advised against under the guise of “individuality.” What America sees is the sugar-coated concept that is most often accompanied with a repressive, conservative, gossiping community (partly thanks to Bollywood movies and the general media).
Yet, I found Kolkata to be surprisingly more liberal and progressive than the previous time I visited. There are definitely components that feel restrictive, but I have to remind myself that I am comparing it to America. And let’s be honest: Western civilization is not the benchmark for progress (as reiterated by Big B’s character, Bhaskor Banerjee, in Piku). This is something I tend to forget and have noticed that my family in India does as well. It’s easy to consider myself privileged because I have, without a doubt, had access to numerous facilities that have eased and placated my life to a degree that I can no longer fathom. However, it would also be wrong of me to think that my counterparts here in Kolkata are by any measure underprivileged because they did not enjoy the exact aspects of America that I did. Our lives are distinctly different, and I think that’s how it should be seen. Not everything needs to be measured against each other. America is established on the basis of individuality, and thus facilities are organically born to enhance that mechanism. India, on the other hand, is based on community, and likewise, certain structures are in place to aid this inherent value. More importantly, it would be a great disservice to my family to conclude that Kolkata does not believe in autonomy at all. In fact, most of my family members are self-governing agents who also operate in community-like groups. And that balance has been the biggest takeaway from this trip.
Arriving in Arizona to its arid heat could not have been more depressing. Not only was the climate the exact opposite of what I had experienced in Kolkata, but the noise pollution was also nonexistent. Everything was muted (probably also in part because my ears had plugged themselves during the flight’s descent). I enjoyed the general loudness in Kolkata and knowing that it was always alive and full of people. Arizona’s quietness was a stark reminder of how much time I would have to spend alone. I knew it would take just a few weeks to be fully adjusted back into the independent life I enjoy in Phoenix. Yet, I still couldn’t help but feel a strange sense of homesickness upon landing in Arizona.
I have been doused with a refreshingly new set of values during this grounding trip (as dramatic as that may sound). All I can do now is retain that until the next time while reveling in the memories I have created. Although I never was able to eat the coveted phuchkas this time, my trip was still nothing less than wonderful. And, of course, a trip to Kolkata is not complete without multiple mysterious red bumps on your arms and legs, half of which are undoubtedly from mosquitoes. The other half is a parting gift from Kolkata for your pleasant visit.