As we crossed Howrah bridge, I couldn’t tell whether my feeling of vertigo was due to the diarrhoea-induced dehydration, the violation of my eardrums from the incessant beeping car horns or the elderly quadriplegic man burning his gaze through me. We continued over the Hooghly River from the Kolkata side, towards the red-brick architecture of Howrah Station. The British were gone, but the legacy of the East Indian Railway Company remained through the colonial hubris emanating from this imposing structure.
The train brought us southwards, further inland. There was no respite from the dead summer heat. I had never seen people hanging out the sides of a moving train like this before. It looked remarkably dangerous — life over here seemed a lot cheaper — yet exhilarating. I wanted to try it.
Inside the wedged carriage, the pungent smell of body odour was the least of my concerns. Instead, the whiteness of my skin suddenly felt a burden. I became cognisant of the historical baggage it endowed. Being in such a palpable minority induced a self-consciousness I had never been confronted by.
Our Western notions of personal space implies an availability of the commodity. Here, every inch of real estate is fought for. I puffed my chest and widened my shoulders — in the way I imagined a bodybuilder might when posing on stage. It seemed a trivial endeavour.
The train laboured to a screeching halt. We disembarked and reassembled, individually and collectively slightly flustered. After a few minutes’ walk along the train tracks, we reached the outskirts of Kalighat slum. It was a teeming ecology. We were initially led through the slum by a willing cohort of youngsters, each endearingly calling me ‘uncle’. I noticed how much more tactile these people were. Hands were held at a moment’s notice. I struggled to concentrate on the questions they were asking me — not because of their broken English nor my non-existent Bengali — but because my eyes were drawn to the structures that engulfed my surroundings. India’s 1956 Slum Act defines slums as “those areas where buildings are in any respect unfit for human habitation”. It seemed quite a low threshold. I wondered if the legislative architects had accounted for the degrees of ‘slums’ my eyes now bore witness to.
On the horizon I saw what looked like a small mountain. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a sheer mound of rubbish. Children roamed the mass scavenging for plastic bottles and other items, hoping to cash in a day’s work for a mere few rupees.
Everywhere I went, I was met with that distinctive Indian gaze — curious yet nonthreatening. A subtle nod of the head to indicate “you are welcome”. I was glad of the reassurance, for we were deep in the abyss of the unknown. We had outsourced our navigation, and our well-being, to strangers we met just a few minutes ago.
We joined a pickup game of cricket. The children laughed at our innate inability to bowl the ball. My sense of incompetence, exacerbated by the unfamiliar environment, left me feeling unhinged. Unexpectedly, I found myself falling back on the poetic comfort of Samuel Beckett: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better”. I kept trying. The children valiantly persisted in their attempts to teach us how to bowl by mimicking their hero, Harbhajan Singh.
We were invited into a home as we passed. It had a rusting, corrugated slab of iron for a roof, lined with plastic sheeting to protect the enclave during the upcoming monsoon season. I was struck by the hospitality of our hosts. We sat down and ate. The simplicity of the meal — rice, dahl and naan bread — betrayed the richness of its taste and the satiating sense of fulfilment it brought. We managed limited, if not inventive, communication.
As we sat cross-legged on the floor, I was overcome with a wave of gratitude for, and connection with, our hosts. With the goddess Shiva staring down upon us, the situation induced a kind of out-of-body experience. I thought how remarkable it was that inanimate atoms could come to bear human consciousness capable of producing Beethoven’s 5th, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Einstein’s theory of relativity — or this particular moment. Now was not the time for philosophising though. If anything, these people were life’s true philosophers. Their theories borne in the furnace of pragmatism, necessity and the fight for survival. Despite their material circumstances, they retained an uncanny depth of humanity. Their presence radiated a peace with the world that I envied. Given the material riches my Western existence afforded me, why wasn’t my happiness linearly greater than theirs? My inability to fully optimise this privilege bothered me. It still does.
Later we met a Shudra family. The Shudras occupy the bottom rung of the Indian caste system. One of their daughters taught us an inventive and somewhat complicated clapping game with our hands, her crystal blue eyes lighting up the room. There was a devastating dichotomy between the beauty and innocence of this young girl and the future I knew awaited her. The inculcation of the caste system had rendered her fate unassailable, based simply on arbitrary ideas of heredity. The only leverage these caste members had was their physical bodies. If she was ‘lucky’, she may find herself chosen for an arranged marriage. I feared to even consider the possible alternatives.
As we departed Kalighat, I contemplated whether the Sisyphean struggle we were engaged in as volunteers was merely a self-serving exercise to alleviate our collective sense of guilt at the blind good fortune of our privileged existence. The myth of the ‘white saviour’ lifting people out of poverty struck me as futile, even pitiful. In the context of a billion people, it is easy to succumb to such a nihilistic, defeatist attitude. I hoped that the antidote lay in continuing to bear witness to the profound good that alleviating the suffering of just one life might bring.
We set our alarms for the following morning and lay down to rest.