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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. 

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