Join The Conversation With Mishpacha's Weekly Newsletter

Lights Out in Kolkata

Ari Greenspan and Ari Z. Zivotofsky

At first sight, Kolkata is a throbbing cacophony of throngs of people, peddlers, grime, motorcycles carrying entire families, rumbling buses, and hand-drawn rickshaws all zooming in different directions. But tucked behind the noisy streets is the lonely remnant of another world, where prayers — not horns — would echo through the sanctuary.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

We thought we knew what Kolkata (Calcutta until 2001) would be like — we’d done a fair bit of research and spoken to a Jewish contact before our trip — but nothing can substitute for actually taking in the sights, sounds, and scents of this Indian city. At first, it wasn’t even clear how we’d get to our first contact. The city’s taxi drivers were on strike when we arrived. But two old rickshaws pulled up to solve our dilemma. A rickshaw, remember, is a two-wheeled, human (not animal) powered wagon that somehow distributes the passengers’ weight efficiently enough for the shlepper to race through the congested streets. We climbed on and perched high up on the old leather seats, which afforded us a wide view of our surroundings — noise, dirt, and chaos. Everywhere we looked, there were people: sitting on the stoops of their peeling, dilapidated houses; peddlers hawking products, people in every nook and cranny. And the honking was constant — as if a necessary accompaniment to the traffic. Well, maybe it is, with traffic moving in multidirectional streams trying to avoid the pedestrians, the rickshaws, and the rumbling buses. Many of the city’s residents have no running water at home, and we saw partially clothed men busy soaping up and bathing in the streets, using the free public water pumps. While it’s normally very hot and humid, being there in December gave us the year’s best weather, a delightful 80 degrees with little humidity. And despite the throngs of people, the dirt and smog, we didn’t see much garbage piled up or smell rotten food or sewage. The multitude of food vendors filled the streets with other smells. Most of the people we saw were busy chewing something called betel nut. Like tobacco, it is a mild stimulant that stains teeth and gums a dark brown. It is also carcinogenic, giving India the dubious honor of having the world’s highest rate of oral cancer. It seems like everywhere you turn, small vendors are busy wrapping sugar and spices into bright green betel leaves. Fresh breath must be a big deal, as everyone buys this little packet and chews the mixture. Brave souls that we were, one of us actually tried the betel leaves — a little kick, and not altogether unenjoyable. 

To read the rest of this story, please buy this issue of Mishpacha or sign up for a weekly subscription

Share this page with a friend. Fill in the information below, and we'll email your friend a link to this page on your behalf.

Your name
Your email address
You friend's name
Your friend's email address
Please type the characters you see in the image into the box provided.

The Fortunes of War
Rabbi Moshe Grylak We’re still feeling the fallout of the First World War
Some Lessons, But Few Portents
Yonoson Rosenblum What the midterms tell us about 2020
Vote of Confidence
Eyan Kobre Why I tuned in to the liberal radio station
5 out of 10
Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin Top 5 Moments of the Kinus
Day in the Life
Rachel Bachrach Chaim White of KC Kosher Co-op
When Less is More
Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman How a good edit enhances a manuscript
It’s My Job
Jacob L. Freedman “Will you force me to take meds?”
They’re Still Playing My Song?
Riki Goldstein Yitzy Bald’s Yerav Na
Yisroel Werdyger Can’t Stop Singing
Riki Goldstein Ahrele Samet’s Loi Luni
Double Chords of Hope
Riki Goldstein You never know how far your music can go
Will Dedi Have the Last Laugh?
Dovid N. Golding Dedi and Ding go way back
Battle of the Budge
Faigy Peritzman Using stubbornness to grow in ruchniyus
The Challenging Child
Sarah Chana Radcliffe Strategies for raising the difficult child
Bucking the Trend
Sara Eisemann If I skip sem, will I get a good shidduch?
The Musician: Part 1
D. Himy, M.S. CCC-SLP and Zivia Reischer "If she can't read she'll be handicapped for life!"