Bags are all packed. Cabinets empty, drawers empty, closet cleaned out. Fridge cooling nothing. Apartment echoing. This is my last Friday in Kolkata. Tomorrow morning, Jenn, Aarti and I are going on a boat cruise to the largest Mangrove preserve in the world, the Sundarbans (off the Southern coast of Bengal). Radhadi and Dipakda, the founders of Anudip, invited us to join them and their great-nephew who is visiting from the UK for the weekend. We return on Sunday night and leave Kolkata for our flight to Delhi on Monday morning. This last week has zoomed by. What with packing, running last minute errands, saying goodbyes and writing a 25-page case study, I can’t believe this is it. In this blog entry, you’ll find some excerpts from the case study I wrote for the Fellowship program (don’t worry, I haven’t pasted all 25 pages here!).
A New Home in the City of Joy
“I choke, I gasp for breath yet I refuse to give up. I lend a helping hand to all and I get love in return. I am, the City of Joy. I am the one and only Calcutta. Yours forever…”
— On a Bookmark
“The time that my journey takes is long and the way of it long.
I came out on the chariot of the first gleam of light, and pursued my voyage through the wilderness of worlds leaving my track on many a star and planet.
It is the most distant course that comes nearest to thyself, and that training is the most intricate which leads to the utter simplicity of a tune.
The traveller has to knock at every alien door to come to his own, and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end.
My eyes strayed far and wide before I shut them and said, “Here art thou!”
The question and the cry, “Oh, where?” melt into tears of a thousand streams and deluge the world with the flood of the assurances, “I am!””
–Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali
Excerpt from my first AIF blogpost, September 2011:
“Ten months is no short holiday. Sure, I’ve been to India before – for two days, for ten days, for five months. But never for 10 months. In saying goodbyes over the last week, I was repeatedly asked, ‘are you ready? Are you excited’ to which I confidently responded, ‘yea, of course!’ But now that I really come to think about it and reflect on the fact that I’ll be boarding a plane in the next few hours away from the home I’ve known all my life and to a new home I’ll be making myself for the coming year, I’m not sure that I’m completely ready. How can I be? I’ve done all that I can to get myself physically prepared to live in India – updated my vaccinations, ordered a supply of contact lenses, eaten a year’s worth of Mexican food, packed (relatively) lightly, etc. But how about mentally? Sure, I’ve read up on Kolkata, arranged my accommodations, researched the NGO I’ll be working with, etc., but there is so much that I just can’t prepare myself enough for. So I guess to answer the frequently asked question of whether I’m ready, I just have to say that I’m as ready as I can be right now and look forward to running with it when I land in India.
Sure, I will miss home – I will miss my family, friends, the lifestyle, birthdays and other milestones, but for now, I’m encouraging everyone to come out and visit me while I live in India or else we’ll stay in touch through Skype, email, Facebook or other wonderful creations on the internet. I just have to look at it this way – next July, I’ll leave India having gained a whole new family and excited to catch up and share my stories with everyone who I have missed at home. Until then, I’ll take one step at a time and enjoy everyday that I have in India.”
I am amazed at how calm and collected my thoughts were before I embarked on this incredible journey. I remember exactly where I was and what was going on around me as I wrote my first AIF blog entry. Sitting at home on my living room couch the day before my flight, my mother sitting on the opposite couch working on something else, and my dog, Cookie, lying on my feet. I had a sudden stroke of inspiration and genius, quite unlike my frequent writer’s blocks, and words began flowing. Much to my amazement today, I quite accurately prophesied what my experience on this Fellowship would be like. Or perhaps it is the other way around. Perhaps my receptive attitude and mindset on the eve of my departure set the foundation for what I would experience here, or more importantly, how I would allow myself to experience it.
I do not think I quite understood what I was getting myself into with a Fellowship; I do not think I understood what the word Fellowship meant. After these ten months however, I feel my experience here epitomizes what a Fellowship is supposed to be. This case study is not just going be an evaluation of the work I accomplished at my NGO placement. I hope to encapsulate and demonstrate the different aspects of my life in India over the last ten months that have led me to call Kolkata my home and the Fellows my family. This case study is a narrative of the evolution of my experience living and growing in India.
BACKGROUND: STATIC CITY
Excerpt From Blog Post: Peht Puja and Durga Puja, October 12, 2011:
“I’ve been in Kolkata for three weeks and I feel both completely at home and like a visitor in a foreign city. Kolkata has reignited my love-hate relationship with India. It has gently woken me up and reminded of the many things about India that I had blissfully forgotten about or purposely shoved out of my mind – traffic, pollution, bureaucracy, heat, poverty, social stratifications, inefficiencies. It has also evoked in me a sense of belonging and my sense of purpose in being in India. I love India for its rich cultural heritage, for its traditions and rituals and melting pot of religions and languages. Kolkata has stirred up the mix of emotions I feel while in India, and for that, I am thankful.”
Kolkata. Lovingly known as the City of Joy, as the Paris of the East and the cultural and literary capital of India. This city has a charm and draw to it that is worrying. Who knew that my first impressions of this city would be so spot on and so wrong at the same time? Arriving into Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport and stepping out into the (what I thought at that time to be) terrible heat, I immediately second-guessed my placement decision. Why did I not choose the artistic and small town of Bhuj, Gujarat? Instead I found myself in a zoo, surrounded by people speaking (or yelling as is the case with Bengalis) in a foreign tongue, passing by buildings that looked like they were about to crumble with families piled on top of one another on the streets below. I had been forewarned though. Many described Kolkata as filthy and unlivable and hot as Hell with poverty constantly shoved in your face.
“Take your map of India, and find, if you can, a more uninviting spot than Calcutta. Placed in the burning plain of Bengal, on the largest delta of the world, amidst a network of sluggish, muddy streams, in the neighborhood of the jungles and marshes of the Sunderbands, and yet so distant from the open sea as to miss the benefits of the breeze… it unites every condition of a perfectly unhealthy situation. The place is so bad by nature that human efforts could do little to make it worse.”
— Sir George Trevelyan
My first impression of the city was quite in line with those descriptions. Back in September of 2011, I could not yet see what I see today and have grown to love about this city now, nine months later.
Excerpt From Blog Post: First you Make a Square…, December 12, 2011:
“As I sit on a couch at Barista Lavazza typing away, listening to music, staring out at the lazy Sunday Park Street shoppers, I can’t help but feel so at home. I’ve grown comfortable and quite fond of my daily routine in Kolkata: my commute to work; my monotonous but healthy meals consisting of rice, daal and subji; grocery shopping and bargaining at the neighborhood market; and constantly cleaning our apartment of the dust buildup. Time is flying by and while I feel like I haven’t seen enough or done enough around the city, I’m secretly enjoying the pace of life I’ve set for myself here. My parents arrive in India tonight and in two weeks time, my cousin will also be visiting me. It feels a little unreal that by that time, I will already have been in India for almost four months. India has been both persistent and unchanging and full of surprises at the same time.”
The first capital of India under British Raj, Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta) was settled by the English in 1690 with the arrival of the East India Company. An important port city with access to the Far East and the rest of India, Kolkata was an attractive destination for the British to establish their kingdom. Kolkata was originally made up of three local villages – Sutanati, Kalikata and Gobindapore but it was not until 1772, upon acquiring the area known as Fort William, that it became the capital of British India (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2012). Kolkata still maintains the geographical shape that it had under the British rule – clusters of towns making up different quarters of the city like Kumartoli (potters’ colony) that “indicate the various occupational castes of the people who became residents of the growing metropolis” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2012). The 19th century saw growth and development for the city as business brought people from other parts of India and Asia into the city, turning it into the intellectual capital of the country. However, with the turn of the 20th century and the partition of Bengal into West Bengal and Bangladesh, Kolkata soon lost its title as capital under British rule and socio-political problems began to brew (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2012).
BACKGROUND: DYNAMIC NGO
“‘We Indians have this sublime ability to see the pain and misery around us, and yet remain unaffected by it. So, like a proper Mumbaiker, close your eyes, close your ears, close your mouth and you will be happy like me.’”
— Slumdog Millionaire (Swarup, 2005)
The idea of Anudip Foundation came to the two Information Technology (IT) professionals and entrepreneurs in 2005 when Reuters Foundation/Stanford University and Actionaid carried out an ethnographic study in the Ganges Delta region south of Kolkata. The study showed that the local level of education has not transcended the economic gap because of the lack of opportunity caused by economic depression; geographic isolation; governmental negligence; and, most importantly, lack of access to livelihood opportunities other than subsistence work. Subsequently, Radha and Dipak Basu along with their close friend Ganesh Natesan set up Anudip Foundation to address critical livelihood needs to people of rural India through teaching them information technology skills.
The name, Anudip Foundation was decided on the spur of the moment and comes from the names of its two founders, Anuradha (Radha) and Dipak Basu. Luckily the happenstance name also has a meaning. It means micro-light “if translated from the two Bengali words, anu = atom, dip = light. According to Radha Basu, Anudip was born out of a realization that “we could use our skill to train people in the hinterland who often migrate to metros in search of livelihood” (Biswas, 2010). Thus, in May 2007, Anudip registered as an official nonprofit organization in India and began establishing training centers with three locations in the Sundarbans region of eastern India. These first centers were learning prototypes launched in partnership with community NGOs. They allowed the development of local learning techniques, course content, sustainability of operations, and ease of replication (Anudip Foundation, 2012).
PROJECTS: FEELS LIKE 53C
Excerpt From Blog Post: Personalities, November 2011:
“The corner South Indian stall, oh how I love you! One of the boy’s who works there is only 15 years old and has the most precious smile ever. I asked him if he went to school and he said sometimes. He used to go to school in his desh, meaning his hometown, which is in neighboring state, Jharkhand. He and his dad moved to Kolkata for job opportunities and since then he’s been working at this stall for the last year and a half. He’s only 15 years old. The things I did as a 15 year old were on a totally different plane than how this young boy lives. People seem to age faster in this country. You have to if you want to survive. You have to be mature earlier, you have to grow up faster, you have to act older. Even the street children in our neighborhood don’t act as kids. I see little four-year-olds helping their moms to carry water bottles from the pump back to their street ‘home’….it’s a totally different life.”
…..Equally important as talking to our faculty was actually going out into the field to see training happening in action. It is one thing to hear about the successes and challenges of providing skills training in rural West Bengal and a whole another to actually witness and participate in it. In visiting centers, Aarti and I learned tremendously. One of the biggest learning’s or most eye-opening observations I made was that those trainers who commute daily a minimum of two hours and spend more time in the field with other people’s children than they do at home with their own families are truly the driving forces behind this operation. Without their dedication and hard work, Anudip would not be what it is today. They work with Anudip because they actually care about the work they do and are passionate about the results. Their own financial security is secondary to the change they are committed in making. It is this passion that I see in Anudip’s faculty that makes all the difference in international development. Without their passion and energy, “creating sustainable knowledge-economy livelihoods for underserved rural youth and women” remains a mumble-jumble of sophisticated words with no true meaning.
CONCLUSION: KAL BAISAKHI “NOR’WESTERS”
“Stay where you are. Find your own Calcutta. Find the sick, the suffering and the lonely right there where you are — in your own homes and in your own families, in your workplaces and in your schools…You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have the eyes to see. Everywhere, wherever you go, you find people who are unwanted, unloved, uncared for, just rejected by society — completely forgotten, completely left alone.”
-–Blessed Mother Teresa
Fate or faith? Luck or hard work? Coincidence or intent? These questions probe a debate over whether humans have control over their actions or whether (good or bad) things are predetermined. The reason I am getting so philosophical here is partly because the Bengali bug has bit me but mostly because I think these questions are important to ask in reflection. I have reached the end of yet another critical and influencing journey but I feel like this is just the start of another greater one. Surely enough, in two short months I will yet again be packing my bags and moving to a new city for a year – this time for graduate school. As I get myself mentally prepared for my move to London this fall, I have to remind myself of the lesson that I learned from my move to India last year. Your experience is what you make it; you determine how you see and react to the world. To quote my own thoughts about my first AIF blog entry:
“Much to my amazement today, I quite accurately prophesied what my experience on this Fellowship would be like. Or perhaps it is the other way around. Perhaps my receptive attitude and mindset on the eve of my departure set the foundation for what I would experience here, or more importantly, how I would allow myself to experience it.”
My life thus far has been a fine balance between fate and (unwavering) faith, luck and (sustained) hard work, coincidence and (passionate) intent. More than anything else, my experience in India and in this Fellowship has prompted me to be more in-tune with my surroundings and with myself. And to ask the questions that often sit brewing in the back of my mind. This has been a spiritual journey for me and the more I look back on it, and take note of every small learning I have made and every relationship I have built, the more I become conscious of the fact that everything happens for a reason.
I joined this Fellowship to give myself an on-the-ground experience before entering graduate school but I am leaving Kolkata having gained so much more. I am, now, a member of a family made up of talented, inspiring, young professionals; of chai-wallahs, colleagues, Hindi teachers and street dogs. I am leaving India with more confidence in myself and more conviction in what it is that I see myself doing as a member of this world.