Just when I delude myself into routine (while ignoring the fact that I go home in two and a half weeks - WHAT), India throws me a curveball like today.
I woke up at 8:30, as usual, had my toast and butter and rallied the troops, as usual. The five of us (Brad stayed home with a fever) caught a cab and I tuned out the cacophony outside. It was shaping up to be a very normal day. When I noticed the shouting, it must have been going on for some time, because it pulled me out of the depths of Dominique LaPierre’s The City of Joy - a beautifully written tale of life in a slum in Kolkata. I turned to look at the source of the noise, and saw two Indian men - probably in their mid-20s - yelling at us from inside their shiny gold sedan. The only word I could pick up was “banana,” and Hannah Colton turned to us, saying that she thought they were yelling at her because of a banana peel she had dropped out the window of the cab about 15 minutes earlier.
Now, let me clarify some things. For starters, Hannah Colton (HC) is our resident nature freak. A vegetarian minoring in Environmental Science, this girl has a deep-rooted respect for nature. She owns a shirt that says, “Nature Rocks!” A P-WILD leader, she leads a backpacking trip that emphasizes the Leave No Trace mentality, meaning that anything used that is not natural must be “packed” and carried for the remainder of the trip. HC is about as anti-littering as they come, and secondly, one of the most kind and genuine people I’ve met. She has a kind soul that lends itself to a deep respect for people and the earth. Despite the fact that much of Kolkata is quite literally blanketed in refuse, because of who she is and what she stands for, HC would not dream of throwing trash onto the city streets.
So here we are, getting verbally berated by two clearly affluent men in a brand new car with a GPS. This goes on every time we find ourselves next to them for a few minutes. We stop at what might have been a stop light - also could have been a traffic jam - and lo and behold, the driver GETS OUT OF HIS CAR and walks behind it to our taxi. He first yells at the driver, making a “banana-eating” motion with his hand and then mimicking tossing it out the window. Then he begins to yell at us, emitting a stream of Bengali punctuated by “F***ing American b****es!” We are baffled. How could a banana peel have offended this man so much? We don’t have long to ponder, as the passenger gets out next and approaches our taxi. HC rolls up her window, but he yells through the front window. “From which country!? Huh?? Which country!?” None of us answer. He, too, mimics the eating of the banana and the disposal of its peel. I lean forward, as does Ann, and we emphatically offer our only defense. “It’s biodegradable!” “BIODEGRADABLE!?” he spews, throwing his hands up. “So in your town, you can throw banana?” Ann replies truthfully, if indignantly, “YES!” Wrong answer. More harsh Bengali, gesturing, head shaking. “F***ing American a**holes.” He stalks back to his sparkling vehicle and slams the door.
I am still, at 10 P.M., working this incident over in my head. Yes, littering is wrong. Were we littering? No, banana peels are biodegradable. But methinks that the littering was not the heart of the issue. I understand having hometown pride, I am proud of both Tallahassee and Durham. So these men are obviously very proud and protective of Kolkata. I can understand that. What I can’t understand is their apparent existence in an alternate world. We have found it true time and again that, as Baishakhi said, there exist multiple realities in Kolkata. See, if these men get mad about a banana peel, they must be furious when they see people throwing empty bottles, wrappers, napkins onto the ground. But no, I think it is more likely that they are defensive about the city they love while choosing to accept a reality that doesn’t necessitate them coming face to face with its shortcomings. Here this men are, safe inside their fancy car, seemingly oblivious to the squalor around them. Yet, when they see impostors defacing their beloved home, they become frustrated. Yes, it is a double standard. It is ok for their countrymen to add to the collective clutter that exists, but to see an outsider disrespecting this precarious balance is unacceptable.
And I actually understand. I don’t think the name calling, the scolding, the screaming was warranted. It feel guilty and ashamed, but rightfully so. Despite the fact that we are almost six weeks into our eight week engagement, we are still the outsiders. The city has been so welcoming overall - today was the first time I felt ostracized and criticized. But the issue is so much bigger than the banana peel. It is the impression of Americans, of other white people, coming to India “to save it from itself” as an Indian friend of mine jokingly put it. There is resentment toward people who intrude with the idea that they are going to make the country a “better place.” Because who defines better? At home we do things one way, people here do things another. There is no right and wrong - there is maybe easier and more difficult, but it can go either way. This morning’s incident was a definite and difficult reminder that we are not going to make huge changes in any way in eight weeks. We are transient, we will be forgotten by those we have made good impressions on and those we have made bad impressions on.
To contrast the banana incident, while walking to the famed Indian Coffee House in older, poorer North Calcutta, I was approached by a dark bearded middle-aged man in decorative traditional clothing. “From which country you are?” he asked, to which I replied “U.S.” He beamed, and shook my hand. “Thank you, thank you,” he said earnestly, beaming. I was no less confused than I was by what happened this morning. Neither the men in the nice car nor the kind man on the sidewalk know why I am here, what my goals are for these two months. They don’t know that I am deeply in love with my nine sweet children at Manovikas, that I am in a constant state of awe of the city. That, while I dream of home food more often than not, the thought of leaving here makes me cringe. I did not set out to save the world, I did not come here to act “holier than thou” and preach the ways of America. I do not deserve belittling, but neither do I deserve praise. I am just a 20-year-old trying to do something that will mean something to those I’m doing it for, trying to learn something new, trying to feel something different. And in those respects, I am succeeding.
That is much longer than I intended, but I knew blogging would help me sort all of this out. Believe it or not, the day continues in a strange manner.
Class began as normal, although I was feeling a little shaken by the cab confrontation. About 20 minutes in we went to the large multi-purpose room for physical activity. My kids are running/being carried around and we’re all having great fun, when I see something dart across the room. I turn and look, and a white kitten splotched with brown and gold is running around, being chased toward the door by some of the men who work at Manovikas. The kitten shelters himself under a table, and one of the men swings his leg back as if to kick the cat. I bolt over to stop this, startling the cat out into the hallway. It stops behind a shoe rack, and I sit down, tapping my fingers on the floor. Slowly, it makes its way into my lap. Skin and bones, I can hold it in one hand. I pull it toward myself and bring it into my classroom to see about getting it food and water - Sagarika is a renowned animal lover. She sends me to the back room where I sit with the frantically meowing kitten as Nyan (another volunteer) and I try to figure something out. She calls her mom, who says no Nyan cannot bring this cat home. So she calls her driver and asks him to bring milk. We now have two hours to kill until the driver arrives. I take the cat to Jason’s classroom, where his teacher tries to feed it a biscuit and water. The kitten won’t eat, and will only drink water off of my fingertip. We shut the door and I put it down to let it run around, but it snuggles into my lap. Dawww.
I go back to my classroom and sit with the kitten in my lap until class is over. The moms look on in various states of amusement, adoration, and disapproval. Binayak’s mom is wide-eyed and skeptical. Digonto’s mom brings Digonto over to pet it. Sagarika finds us milk and names the kitten, a girl, Ramisha. After class I take her to Jamie’s classroom, as her teacher’s husband works with animals. We find milk and get Ramisha to drink some, and decide that ultimately the best thing to do is to take her back outside in the hopes that she’ll find her mom. So I take the kitten to the grassy lawn beside Manovikas and watch as all the moms sitting outside laugh and reach to pet the small animal.
The day continues uneventfully, and I am generally useless in the back room as Sagarika has a particularly stubborn one-on-one and my head starts to pound. I make my way into the classroom under the two ceiling fans and sink into the beanbag chair, my head against the wall, willing the headache to pass, when all of a sudden Ramisha darts by my feet. The moms obviously do not want a stray kitten around their children, and I run and pick up the cat. By this time, Nyan’s driver has arrived with the milk, so Jointi and I pour the milk and watch as Ramisha hungrily laps it out of the plastic bowl. Now that classes are ending, all of the teachers come in to see - like the moms, some are amused and some are disgusted, while some, namely Brad’s teacher Joiti, are terrified. Every time I set Ramisha down, she crawls back into my lap. Jointi laughs, and points at me and the cat. “Friend,” she says. Then Dr. Chatterjee, our supervisor, comes in and sees us. A strict and serious woman, she commands the cat out, as expected. So, I sadly take the little kitty out, this time putting her outside the gates of Manovikas.
Today continued to be strange, but not in such an extreme way, as the Future Hope kids - Dom, Julie, Gracie, and Evan - are spending two nights in a village on holiday with Dom’s and Gracie’s boys. Dinner was just the six of us, and it feels strange to have our family split up. It’s an unpleasant taste of what’s to come - we have 17 days left in India.