home again home again

the group

The group minus one: Peter, Anna, Ross, Greta, Me, Mark, Jaye

Put up some photos of the Wagah border at Flickr.

Siliguri, a city cum train station, airport, and bus hub, is an unbelievable dump. At a restaurant that was recommended in the Lonely Planet, we met a guy who went to college in the midwest. He overheard Greta’s midwestern accent from afar and came to chat, brought his copy of Shogun; he was catching a bus to Kolkata then to fly to Mumbai. He wanted to know what I thought of Kolkata. This, like ‘How was India?’ is an impossible question to answer while making small talk and also doing justice to a place and the experience. I said that I enjoyed my time there although there was plenty not to like.

He had come to India because he found himself one day with two bachelor’s degrees–physics and chemistry–and working in construction. He said that he always asks this question and he hates the British tourists whom he always meets who talk about how beautiful cities like Kolkata are. He didn’t think it was beautiful, a city where a hunchback covered in boils and without fingers can be found sitting up against the Writer’s Building begging for small change. A city with so much pollution and noise and traffic congestion. He was also tired of Indians who wanted to touch the tattoos on his arms and who must have been taken aback by his profusion of oral piercings.

Walking down the street in Siliguri I wondered if Kolkata was really less of a dump. Or was it traveling in the mountains that ruined my aesthetic appreciation of busy sweaty Indian cities. Since then I’ve been trying to decide what makes a city beautiful.

Is a city encapsulated by its architecture or reduced in aesthetics proportional to the social welfare of its poorest member? Is the beauty of a city in the layout of its streets, the reach and affordability of its public transportation? Is it in the weather? Is it in the character of the people, that completely unquantifiable concept that is, nevertheless, exactly what we spent four months trying to figure out?

All I know is that nearly every morning I thought about how beautiful the girls at service are, every one of them. Even when they misbehave. It could be sad, this beauty, because of everything that has happened to them, but the fact that you could look at them and see that they are beautiful and not that they are broken, which they are also, is a kind of hope.

India is nothing if not hopeful. (How’s that for unsubstantiable generalizations?) But I think that it’s true and I think that is why Kolkata cannot be reduced to everything about it that is not to like.

When we visited Satya-da’s village, his family made us lunch; Greta and I sat on his bed watching the cooking just outside. He came and stood beside us, having changed out of his city clothes (khaki slacks and an I ❤ NY t-shirt) into a blue plaid lungi, he looked out the window the way we were looking at the cooking pots, past that to the two cows in the lawn, the dirt road, he frowned and said “poor man.” We said “But a rich man!” although we could not make him understand the sentiment. Satya-da works for the professor and sometimes he cries in the dining room because he misses his family and has to live so far away cooking for professors and nannying international students. He is a poor man, but I am richer for having known him.

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