Monday, 20 December 2010

Kolkata aka Calcutta aka London on the Hooghly

To be frank we didn’t have high expectations for the “Black Hole” - with Delhi as our only reference as a major Indian city, along with the understanding that poverty is a serious and inescapable problem, we were both pleasantly surprised and ended up spending more than a week in Kolkata. There is of course severe poverty, as we started to realise it seems there isn’t a town or city in northern India that doesn’t suffer from hardship, and Kolkata still has men pulling rickshaws (a common sight was a bare-footed impoverished man running exhausted with two large wealthy women sat in the carriage behind) but compared with Delhi it is a far more orderly city. For a start there is a definite lack of free roaming cows and for a change it is an Asian city that actually has pavements!

Laundry on the banks of the Hooghly

There is of course still a lot of hardship in the city
Our first few days were spent sight-seeing which included a visit to the most bizarre Indian Museum. Never have I seen before a pickled “fully grown abnormal human baby” or a three-headed goat floating in a jar. The Victoria Memorial along with the BBD Bagh area of the city are both clear reminders of the British rule.

The Victoria Memorial

The rather odd Indian Museum
 The second part of our stay in Kolkata was a true highlight and eye-opener. After more than a year of gallivanting we were keen to volunteer and I suppose try to give something back to the world. India had always been the place we envisioned volunteering so when we arrived in Kolkata we contacted a couple of NGOs and were lucky enough to help over a weekend with an Indian-run NGO called CRAWL

As a relatively new organisation it operates on a very local level with just a handful of full-time women dedicating their time to the projects. We joined Bobby and Gita, two extremely accommodating women, who literally held our hands as they involved us in a project they carry out at Sealdah railway station – one of the two busiest stations in Kolkata and home to a large number of destitute families. Arriving at the station shortly after 6am and already in full flow for the day, we sat with a group of homeless children colouring and playing with them for an hour or so. It might not sound overly valuable but as these children have long since lost their childhoods it was clear to see that just by playing and showing them affection they were hugely thrilled. On day two as we approached the meeting point some of the children from the previous morning sprinted through the station towards us and gave us tight bear-hugs. After an hour’s play we helped to give the kids a wash at the station’s drinking taps and handed out toothpaste. Finally we took the children around the side of the station (bureaucracy means very little help can actually be offered on the station’s premises) and handed out breakfast (a banana and a couple of slices of bread along with a cup of milk) to each of them. As this could well be their only proper meal of the day they queued up patiently before waving goodbye to us. Tom and I both fell in love with the children, for all the adversity they are faced with they were such lovely innocent kids who just wanted a bit of love. I’ll never forget the absolute delight on one little boy’s face when I sat next to him and put my hand on his back as I looked at his drawing.

During the afternoon sessions we jumped on the local train to the north of the city to CRAWL’s “informal school” – basically a rented room where they offer a basic education to children from the local slum. We were both apprehensive prior to our Arts and Crafts lesson with the class but once we explained our idea of making collages with pictures of India and England, the children immediately got to work and by the end of the lesson had produced really impressive displays. Again these children were great to teach and really welcomed us by calling us “aunty” and “uncle”. As we were leaving the school, Bobby in true big-hearted Indian style declared “I love you!” and hoped to see us again one day soon.

The children were extremely studious

Before we left Kolkata we had time to visit another NGO’s projects. Hope ( is a well-established Irish charity that has been operating in the city for the last 13 years and provided us with some good ideas for CRAWL to try to replicate. The extent to which Hope is helping turn around former street children’s lives and offer opportunities to the poorest parts of the community is seriously commendable.

The insight we gained from volunteering definitely gave us a better understanding of the overwhelming poverty that India still must tackle as it continues to develop its bourgeoning economy.

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