Delhi and Kolkata – big city blues

By Emma. Cliquez ici pour l’article de Damien. Click here for photos of there.

Delhi and Kolkata – oh my. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea in the world to string India’s largest cities one after the other onto our itinerary reel. Looking back on the cracks the cities made in my sense of the world, I’d say it definitely wasn’t a good idea.

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I’m not sure what it was. Maybe the scale overwhelmed me. We had already been travelling for two months through India. We’d seen the chinks in the colour. The rubbish and the poverty had become part of how we saw India. By no means had our eyes begun to slide unseeing past the daily miseries but we had our coping system – we would buy a bag of groceries for one homeless family a day and we had picked the charities with the causes we felt most strongly about … small things, tiny things but they managed to create a barrage against a threatening flood of helplessness.

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Delhi began chipping away at me almost as soon as we arrived. A vague sense of unease curled and unfurled in the pit of my tummy as I took in the swathes of green, the palatial embassies, a pristine white shopping inner-circle and a skyline dominated by fortresses, mosques, temples and modern-day castles. Something felt a little off. It was nothing I could put my finger on, nothing I could express, just a feeling.

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This general unease grew as we wandered through the private and luxurious shopping gardens in the airforce base and coiled further around me as my purposely picked baggy trousers and loose long-sleeved top were deemed inappropriate at the largest mosque in the world and I was promptly swathed in a vast tent of what looked and felt like a polyester 1970s hairdresser’s cape. Hilarious if the undercurrent of not-being-right hadn’t been so strong.

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That night we shrugged off the town’s shadow and met up with some friends of Damien’s sister who have been living in Delhi for the last three years.  Claire and Laurent welcomed us into their home – without a doubt the most incredible apartment I have ever seen – and regaled us with stories of an expat life in India. They are the tellers of facinating tales – of the caste systems, maids, moral dilemmas which can crop up while jogging and their own coping mechanisms. To my outsider eye, it looked like they were navigating the obstacles, administrative and emotional, of living in India admirably. They love the city, they love their life there and they seem challenged, happy and fulfilled. Of ideas, perceptions and snap judgments, they definitely gave me pause to reconsider.

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The following evening at sunset, fresh with second chances, we made our way beyond the cloisters of the weathy, the emabassies and the business districts to the shrine of Nizamuddin. Here at sunset, the atmosphere is said to be “spellbinding” as Muslim pilgrims sing and play music. Ho no, spellbinding is not how I’d describe it. It was like a vision from Dante’s hell. Within the swaying mass of piligrims, the twisted, ravaged half-naked bodies of beggars, ravaged by polio, leprosy or horrific accidents hopped, crawled, scooted on low, wheeled platforms or dragged themselves along the ground in the inner courtyard, rattling their begging cans. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and all the air promptly disappeared from that courtyard. Desperate fingers tugged at my trouser cuffs and opportunistic hands grabbed at my body. I wanted to disappear. I wanted to run away. Feeling confused, violated and overwhelmed, I left, Damien pulling me by the hand through the crowd.

With strong feelings and insufficient words, Delhi, an interesting place of skewed constrasts, of comfort, of poverty, of religion, proved not to be for me. Not this time.

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From the striking inequalities of Delhi, we moved on to Kolkata.

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Kolkata, where the sheer magnitude of the social misery overwhelmed me completely. Glimpses of Kolkata saw families living destitute on the city’s pavements. We saw new-born babies swaddled in sodden whisps, their mothers trying to washing themselves in filthy street gutters, ancient men trying to survive by shining shoes or selling a few cobs of charred corn, more crippled beggers urging their wheeled platforms onward. I think it reveals alot in that I broke completely. I felt absolutely helpless, useless. There was so much misery, so many people. It was absolutely overwhelming. I was drowning in it. Damien fell ill with a fever and while I minded him in the ivory tower of our budget hotel room, I sobbed. Uselessly. Angry with myself and the world.

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