A man sits on a low stool while another hunkers next to him on the sidewalk, lathering and shaving his face. A shoeshine man is setting out his tins of polish and brushes on a square of cloth next to a building wall and positioning the foot rest for his customers of the morning. A sidewalk barber is giving a squatting customer a haircut, his fingers expertly manipulating the scissors as the hair falls on the pavement. These scenes reappear on nearly every block as I stroll through central Kolkata (Calcutta) at nine in the morning.
On another corner, half a dozen men in loose loincloths meticulously and energetically wash themselves with water gushing from a large pipe, their sudsy brown hands not missing a toe or body part, while behind them several others use water from the same pipe to scrub two cars parked at the curb. Men and women on the way to work and students in uniforms hurry past, not even glancing their direction.
Meanwhile, sidewalk vendors are setting up their tiny businesses, putting out rows of used books, stacks of magazines, newspapers (published in 48 different languages), sheets of lottery tickets, shoes, sandals, tee shirts and cheap jeans and other clothing, sunglasses, hats, and more. At small stands, vendors are selling fresh-squeezed fruit juice, tea, hot and cold food for breakfast. Other stands display piles of fresh fruit and vegetables. Men carrying huge bundles on their heads or backs manoeuvre through the crowds and around the vendors. Shopkeepers sweep with stubby straw brooms the space in front of their little shops, the debris piling up at the curb, where the rag pickers will sift through it.
Random clusters of yellow taxis (40,ooo in the city) push through the traffic, lean barefoot men pull passengers in rickshaws past stinking multihued buses and ancient streetcars covered with ads and rust, as honking horns send urgent messages through smoke and exhaust. Full color posters advertising Bollywood epics fade and peel on walls, most of them flaunting handsome muscular actors and gorgeous redlipped actresses.
This is morning in Kolkata.
Not once during my morning explorations of downtown Kolkata did I see a Western face, either tourist or business person. No one seemed bothered by either the pollution or the noise. No one was shouting or arguing, no one was fighting or acting crazy. Young people were helping their elders navigate the crowds and the street traffic. No beggars were visible here, only masses of individuals trying to survive as well as they could.
Kolkata is the city of the people and is the entire nation in miniature, a new friend we met here told us. In fact, he may be understating the reality. With a population of 15 million -- and another 6 million who work here five days a week -- Kolkata is the largest city in India. It also may have the most diverse population, collected from all parts of India and around the world. To us, it seemed to be the liveliest, most exciting city we'd seen on our three trips to India.
Kolkata was the capital of British India for 138 years, until 1911, when the government moved to New Delhi. As a result of those decades, as well as the later political changes in the country, the city is a rich stew of human beings and architecture. Some of the buildings date from the 18th century and even earlier.
Columned Georgian style churches and official buildings stand among Victorian neo-Romanesque and neo-Gothic structures and huge piles of red brick and plaster, most of them ignoring local traditions, weather, and social environment. Buildings have been added onto and changed so many times that some of them have become like gnarly old crustraceans, with layers of organic growths bulging on them and have been discolored by time and weather until it is almost impossible to date the original structure someplace underneath. The few modern highrise towers have been built away from the central area, but most of them are not aging well, either.
As we explored further, we discovered that, yes, 40,000 people do still sleep on the city streets, and, especially near some of the temples, we did encounter flocks of professional beggars, some toddlers and children. We saw rag pickers pawing through mounds of trash and people collecting plastic that they would sell to be converted into cheap plastic toys. For most of the 15 million people of Kolkata life is not easy, but the overall impression I got was one of determination and energy, not despair.
The literacy rate has increased -- largely because children who attend school now receive a free midday meal -- from 48 percent to 72 percent in nine years. It's a young population, about half of it under 25 years old, and it is hopeful for the future.
It is morning in Kolkata.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press, available from University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the Texas A & M University Press Consortium, as well as your local bookstore, by order.