Solo travel in India: A Letter from Calcutta
When I first read it, shivers when up and down my arms and my eyes welled up. It’s a beautiful, emotional post written in the second person. It speaks directly to you, the reader. My thanks to Shelly. Please enjoy. The photos are by Rachael Dobbie.
Calcutta, now Kolkata, is dressed in contrasting architecture with its colonial past still very much obvious today. Unlike many other cities in India, the gardens here are neatly trimmed; the roads have marked lanes; and your foreign presence is less of a novelty.
Right now, you are trapped on Howrah Bridge, amidst the hundreds of thousands of foot traffic that cross the bridge every day. The smell of fumes from the trucks and cars immediately beside you does not register when compared to the feelings of guilt should you slow the momentum of the crowd behind.
Your thoughts drift to the last time you were on a bridge. Yesterday, at Howrah Station, you could not help but stop to admire the beautiful matrix of white prayer hats worn by Muslim men, waiting patiently for a train on the platform below. You watched them until their train arrived and they boarded without pushing and shoving. These men, after all, were men of God – even if it wasn’t your God or my God, and you knew that out of the many scenes in India, this one would stay with you.
You finally step off Howrah Bridge, and cannot help but be amused that you have crossed it faster by walking than many of the stationery vehicles still on the bridge.
As is often the case here in India, your senses are assaulted by the huge array of vibrant colors, and in this instance, it is the spectacular contrast of orange and yellow marigolds at the Mullikghat flower market. You stroll leisurely through the market, and ponder how one could choose one vendor over another? But unlike markets in many Asian cities, you are largely left alone to browse as the vendors here know that their priority are their regular customers.
You exit the market and descend onto the busy streets of Calcutta again.
A local has told you previously that each owner is responsible for their own section of footpath here – you are unsure whether to believe him. All the same, you take care where you step, navigating the uneven and broken sections of gravel and concrete to Kalighat, the Home for the Dying and Destitute.
Upon arriving, there is a black car that pulls up abruptly in front of the historic home. You watch as an old, frail man is swiftly helped up from his lying position, out of the back seat of the car, and carried into the home. You enter through those same doors to the once abandoned temple, and cannot help but wonder what Mother Teresa was thinking.
As you walk into the hall with its rows of neatly laid out mattresses and beds, you realise you could not have prepared yourself for what you are about to witness.
It is quiet, but it is not somber. Your eyes instinctively shift from one volunteer to another. Some are offering water, another is helping someone sit up, and yet another is simply sitting, holding a pair of frail hands – the owner’s eyes distant. Perhaps you are unsure how to feel, or how you should feel.
You make your way up the stairs to a promised chapel, but struck by the noise, you pause just before reaching the top. Here, volunteers are sitting either on a bench or on the floor, while eating plain bread, drinking milk, and sharing conversation. You stand at the doorway and observe quietly the exchange of smiles and laughter. It finally hits you why you find the scene so addictive.
It is undiluted hope and faith, and you get a glimpse of Mother Teresa’s vision.
You manage to pull yourself away into the quiet chapel. There is no one else present and you sit alone for a while, processing what you have just seen.
It this a place of hope or a place of despair?
Of usefulness or uselessness?
That decision will always be yours, and one idea will ultimately prevail over the other. I chose the former, and I hope you do too.
There is much to be done.