A Butterfly Net with a Hole

Final Reflections, Part Two: On Beauty

To the Creator did beauty one day complain,

‘Why did you make me of that which wanes’

‘the world is like a hall of mirrors’ answered He.

‘A tale told to pass the long night of eternity,

With the clay and hues of change was it made,

‘And it is the essence of beauty that it must fade.’

Iqbal

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Sabi

Better to languish in the dust of Calcutta than the throne of another dominion.

Mirza Ghalib

Calcutta is an old man. New York, Bombay, Berlin, these are forward thinking metropolises, they’re flashy and fashionable, and they’re young and active. Calcutta, though, is an old man, full of stories of past and not present splendor. It’s geriatric, it smells of urine at times, can’t function properly due to its dementia, and stuck in old, seemingly useless traditions.

Still, Calcutta is a gorgeous city. It’s beautiful not despite its scars and blemishes but because of them. There’s a vitality and charm stemming from that beauty, a life-force in Calcutta that doesn’t exist in other places.

Yes, it’s glory days of freshly painted palaces, activists leading social and political revolution, and commercial opium/tea shipping on the Hugli River to supplement the British Crown’s treasury are long gone. But I came to realize that this old man was beautiful nonetheless when I listened to his nostalgic stories and watched him carefully. Looking past his outdated clothes and his clinginess to things most have long-since given up, I came to see the beauty that he had. It was a profound beauty that I had to overcome the superficial senses to see.

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This year in India has given me many things. Among them are tiredness and exhaustion, knee pains, and parasites (ahem, multiple times).[1] I’ve travelled far more itchy and shaky trains, buses, and autos and fought and negotiated with far more shopkeepers, government workers, and taxi vallahs than I ever expected or wanted to.

This year in India has also given me another gift though. Through the discomfort and the heat, the decay and the death, I’ve tried to to shift my perspective to look for Beauty [2]. As I came to deal with the inevitable frustrating forces, the truth was that the impermanence led me to understand that beauty, real beauty, is often subtle, and that it must be observed in a subtle way. All of existence, including Calcutta, carries this seed, and it’s up to us to nourish it with our attention; it is an attention that requires a sense of wonder and a nose for the unpredictable. I came to understand those same things that had caused irritation, and instead see as beautiful. And in all its quirky glory, Calcutta and India showed me the inner harmony and patterns behind the ways things worked, if only I waited and allowed it to appear.

I’ve left Calcutta now, but many of these fleeting moments of beauty stick with me.

Some are food, like freshly cut mangos, or a late-night meal at Sharma Dhaba (as cockroaches escape the salt shaker), or chai in terracotta cups from Maharani as it pours rain at dusk, or diabetes-inducing sugar balls from K.C. Das (“a hygienic confectioner”), or the singing momo man’s Tibetan momos that can cure the common cold, or the blur of the street chaat man’s hands as he cuts fifteen different ingredients simultaneously, or (of course) a delicious Kati Roll. All of these disappeared instantly into my stomach, but their fleeting nature did not stop me from savoring the beauty, the care, the artistry involved in the creation of that experience.

Many more of those memories, those moments, though, are not food related at all:

  • the conversations with shopkeepers from Bihar or Uttar Pradesh (where we traded curse words in our respective languages),
  • a policeman in his all-white uniform struggling to drink chai without spilling it,
  • the peace of the a morning in a water hut in the East Kolkata Wetlands (which recycles all the liquid waste of Calcutta with plankton and fish),
  • the view from the rooftop bar of Blue and Beyond with the Howrah Bridge on the right and the Victoria Memorial to the left
  • the history imbedded in everything, bringing stories out of deception, of politicking, of honor, of commerce from every crack,
  • the orange sky that covers the city in a sepia tone before the terrifying monsoon rains, as people huddle under the safe covers of the metro station entrances,
  • the songs of Rabindranath Tagore blaring from every street corner’s rusty speakers, an ode and immortalization of Bengal’s very own da Vinci,
  • the men bathing, in rivers, on the street, and if you’re a bus conductor, on the bus,
  • the trams and ferries, like so many things in Calcutta useless, but really essential,
  • the quiet solitude of Park Street cemetery as death reverberates off of the epic tombs,
  • the children of women involved in the sex trade within the shadow of the Kalighat red light district, studying hard in the classroom the NGO New Light has set up,
  • the health workers at Calcutta Kids, patiently explaining to mothers for their good, and the mothers patiently listening for the good of their child,
  • and the sense of community that makes Calcutta feel not like a metropolis but the most overflowing, overpopulated village in the world.[3]

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Flying Monkies in Shimla

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The local barbershop in Howrah

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Screen Shot 2012-10-11 at 10.32.26 AMA search for deep, soulful beauty in the everyday and commonplace is not a trivial task. It will have an effect on what we value, what we consider sacred, how we interact with each other with a sense of humaneness, and our sense of ethics. Things considered beautiful are appreciated and protected. Appreciating beauty, especially seeking profound beauty, is how I came to terms with impermanence and finality in a very real way. Beauty is not just something out there, something to be observed in an art museum. Beauty is something that we are a part of everyday[4], even in observation. The subject and object dissolve within the experience of beauty.

If we don’t notice those small and large objects of beauty, experiences that are beautiful, people that are doing beautiful things and instead focus on the either the ugly exteriors or only beauty that’s superficial, we’ll ultimately hurt ourselves. Calcutta taught me to try to live beautifully, to create and leave behind something beautiful (even though it won’t last forever), and to be part of something beautiful that is larger than yourself.

These nine months, this gestation period within the womb of Calcutta and India have been quite an experience. At times, I’ve kicked and screamed, but in the end I’ve emerged, perhaps a little bruised but eyes more open. Living in Calcutta (and India) and working for Calcutta Kids will remain in my genome. I’ve learned acceptance, the first precondition for experiencing beauty. And I’ve felt gratefulness for the overwhelming feeling of community; gratefulness for my coworkers, for my friends, for surrogate families, and to the many nameless but deep relationships with the citizens of Calcutta. These are things I hope to keep with me, even as I return to home to America and drink a cold Great Lakes brew and eat a well-deserved burger.

Let’s see how long it lasts.

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A child looks up at his father in the tree


[1] As my boss and friend Noah said: “Pranav, in the last ten months, you’ve aged more than Obama has in the last four years.”

[2] Living, as you all do, on others and by them, you sneer at self-sacrifice, and if you throw bread to the poor, it is merely to keep them quiet for a season. With all your pomp and wealth and art you don’t know how to live—you don’t even know that. You love the beauty that you can see and touch and handle, the beauty that you can destroy, and do destroy, but of the unseen beauty of life, of the unseen beauty of a higher life, you know nothing. You have lost life’s secret …

Oscar Wilde in A Woman of No Importance

[3]  Community is unparalleled in Calcutta. Every evening, the sidewalks fill up with circles of men every fifteen feet, sipping on chai and arguing about politics, sports, Bollywood and more. These “addas” are essential to civic life.

[4]
Kant argued that four qualities were imbedded in any judgment of beauty: universal, necessary, without any further purpose, and disinterested. Many disagree all four of these in different ways, but the last one seems to me troublesome. We don’t necessarily have to be in a “disinterested” state to judge something beautiful- we can be completely imbedded in it, recognize that immersion, and still judge it beautiful objectively anyway.

The task is to restore confidence between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience

John Dewey

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And Taxes

Final Reflections, Part One: On Death

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The men’s bathroom in New Market

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For sale: baby shoes, never worn

The whole life of a philosopher is nothing but preparation for death

Cicero

How could I have known the day before?

We’d come into office in the morning. The managing trustee of Calcutta Kids came into the office, announcing the successful delivery of a child in our program in a nearby hospital. During her pregnancy, the mother had received access to crucial healthcare and constant counseling from our health workers. The results were clear: a healthy weight at birth, one that boded well for the life of the child in the future.

We jumped at his offer to see the child in the ward. Who would reject the chance to see new life: the squeezed eyes, the tufts of hair, and the first squeals? A baby, a newborn baby, was so close.

Sriya, Danya, Evangeline, and I crossed the gully into the “nursing home” (as many full hospitals are called) in eager anticipation. We came towards the maternity ward, and as we were about to enter, the guard looked me over twice. He brusquely told me I couldn’t enter: the women were feeding. I went back to the office as the other three entered the ward, and lived vicariously through them in the afternoon.

The next day, I came in early to Calcutta Kids. I looked to the corner of the office, something feeling amiss. The managing director, I realized, wasn’t there, ready to talk about the best type of Indian whiskey (“Teachers. Only Teachers. Or Antiquity Blue.”) and philosophize on the meaning of life over coffee (specially ordered instead of the usual chai). Gradually, the morning shuttled to a start and the Calcutta Kids office filled up like any other day, with the exception of the managing trustee. A few hours later, though, he entered, his eyes pointed downward. He announced, quickly and quietly, “The child, the newborn child from yesterday, he has expired.”

Expired. What a strange word. Like a carton of spoiled milk, like meat that had been left in the fridge too long. This word, ringing in my ears, prevented me from hearing the truth of what he had said about the child. Expired I thought. It couldn’t mean dead, could it? It couldn’t mean that that newborn child, so full and fresh of vitality the day before, had passed away, could it? How was it possible?

But it was possible. The child had died of congenital heart complications, ones that were impossible to detect beforehand. That infant, whose healthy birth weight we had celebrated the day before, was no more.

At Calcutta Kids, I’d seen health workers go above and beyond, going with patients and pushing the government system to provide essential care. I’d heard stories of Calcutta Kids staff resuscitating a child’s weak lungs from the brink of death from tuberculosis, and I’d seen children suffering from severe malnutrition become a source of energy and life.

Underlying the four-fold mission statement of Calcutta Kids is the task to ensure no mother or child dies.

Sometimes though, rare as it is, death rears its ugly, uncontrollable head and we fail at this impossible task.

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I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.

Woody Allen

Over the past year, I have dealt with the grim specter of Death more often than any other period of my life. And I’ve been forced to think about it, to come face to face with death. Perhaps this is a natural progression: as I get older: I should expect to become more and more aware of my own expiration date and the rough fact that that everything I know and love has one too. This year, more than other years, I’ve had multiple close friends deal with the unexpected loss of a parent or a family member or a close friend and I’ve known losses and seen losses and the grieving process up close.

But Calcutta accelerated this process. Death, paired with risk, is ever prevalent in a place like Calcutta. A simple perusal at mortality statistics would showcase that fact, and especially among the more vulnerable segments of the population, on the streets or in the slums. But the statistics can’t capture the daily feel of mortality, the nakedness with which it is dealt with. In mid-February, for example, I walked through a market to catch a train from Sealdah station. The next week, a massive fire killed 18 along those very streets, leaving many more severely injured. I heard weekly reports of buses or train deaths (From the Times of India in November: “Bus crushes techie to death near Kolkata Science City”). In the Kalighat Temple, satiating the bloodthirsty goddess Kali requires goat sacrifice; the carcass and the bloodstains, remaining until midday, don’t try to pretend as if they aren’t death incarnate. Even the common sight of a fat, dead rat is a reminder. And perhaps my job at Calcutta Kids, too, had put me in contact with life and death circumstances, which health is always intrinsically tied up with.

As my encounters with the reality of death increased in frequency, I tried to monitor my attitude towards this juggernaut, and its central implication: that all life is impermanent. At once, the finality of death is both a deeply ugly and evil aberration and a constant of life. It provokes sadness, depression, and other emotions that are not joyful or pleasant. I thought of ignoring its fact, but it emerged regardless.

This much is clear: death is unpleasant. It brings about anger, depression, denial, and causes so much suffering. Denial was the first feeling I felt briefly after the newborn’s death, and then quickly transitioned to Kubler-Ross’s second stage of grief:  genus: anger, species: righteous. What right did the universe have to take a life, such a young life, with such promise? A life a mother, a community, health workers, and many more had worked hard to preserve?

It also seems fundamentally unfair and injudicious. There is no rhyme or reason to the havoc of death, and even age doesn’t matter. It takes the beautiful and the ugly, the old and the young, the ready and the unprepared in equal measure. It stops us from achieving everything we want to. We can only seek to prevent the plagues of cancer, car accidents, and cholera, but there are no guarantees.

And part of this unpleasantness is that there is so much uncertainty around what happens after death. India offers many potential messages with such a potpourri of religious beliefs.[1] If one takes the side of the existence of the immortal soul, then one-way passages to the celestial Kingdom of Heaven or eternal life awaiting the Day of Judgment are in order (with the prereq of a proper moral life, of course). For those of a reincarnative bent, there’s the possibility of a purging passage for the soul over the Vaitarna river or a “bundle” that travels through Bardos (“between states”) before karmic rebirth. Or for those less metaphysically inclined, the body simply disintegrates into atomic dust spreading chaotically across the cosmos

Whichever one chooses though, whatever happens after death, one thing is certain: its surely nothing like the life we have here and now.

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At the Park Street Cemetery, the site of the graves of many of the Britishers who came during the early colonial period. The massive tombs and mausoleums have epigrams detailing their lives and deaths (usually under 30 and of malaria or cholera).

At Park Street Cemetery, where all the first colonial British are buried with large mausoleums. Many of the tombs have epigraphs detailing deaths (most under 35) of malaria and typhus.

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How do we define death, excluding matters metaphysical? It wasn’t until the invention of the stethoscope that heartbeat was elevated as the sign of death. Before stethescopes, some French scientists pushed the decomposing body as the only sure sign of death (and this was an innovation after one too many well-publicized cases of kicking in coffins) . But death is a complex anatomical event, with multiple systems failing, the heart, lungs, the brain. Is the brain, then, the be-all, end-all? Instead of respiration or heartbeat, definitions for death in the last fifty years have begun focusing on when the body “stops being whole” and stops functioning together to continue life, the brain being the central director of the body. Brain death, therefore, trumped a heartbeat stopping then, and has pretty much has since then. The loss of thinking, and the loss of consciousness that brings everything else in the body together, is the marker for death today.

The living differ from the dead in many ways. The dead do not think, interact, autoregulate, or maintain organic identity through time, for example. Not all the living can always do all of these activities, however; nor is there one single characteristic (e.g., breathing, yawning, etc.) the loss of which signifies death. Rather, what is missing in the dead is a cluster of attributes, all of which form part of an organism’s responsiveness to its internal and external environment.

Presidential Commission on Bioethics Report, 1981

From a molecular perspective, death is inevitable and obvious. Our DNA can’t last forever; sun, food, the environment disintegrate it brick by brick with oxidants and glycation, until the helix of life in each cell is rendered useless. The telomeres at the end of each strand shorten progressively, like grains of sand in the hourglass, ensuring that if early accident or illness doesn’t get us then age surely will in the end.

Our machines have been running seventy or eighty years and we must expect … here a pivot, there a wheel, now a pinion, next a spring will be giving way.

A letter from Thomas Jefferson (aged 71) to John Adams (aged 78)

Then what to do with these cold facts? When cut apart scientifically, biomechanically, anatomically, death is simply an inevitable mechanical process. The body is no different from a car, something to be tossed to make way for a better functioning machine. Should our response be equally unemotional like the Stoic philosopher who, when told that his son had died, replied “I never thought my son was immortal”?[2]  

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Tagore Castle in Pathuriaghata, by the market. The house was originally constructed by a wealthy family in the late 1800s to mimic Windsor Palace. Today, it is in a dengue endemic zone.

Tagore Castle in Pathuriaghata, by the market. The house was originally constructed by a wealthy family in the late 1800s to mimic Windsor Palace. Today, it is in a dengue endemic zone.

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Wabi[3]

On my second last week at Calcutta Kids, another baby was born at the same nursing home, another child in our program, a girl. She was well above 2.5 kgs, the managing director said, the critical marker for a healthy birth weight.

We were invited to go up again, back to the maternity ward. This time, the mothers weren’t feeding. I walked up the stairs, into the ward, demarcated by the faint smell of urine in the air. “NON-AC MATERNITY WARD” read the sign. We entered the room of the young mother, probably younger than me. Her mother and grandmother were in the room as well.

The health worker, Sima, already in the room, coached the mother. How lucky to have a girl you are, she said, how fortunate. The gender disparity is apparent in Fakir Bagan; there are sad cases of girl children weighing fractions of their boy siblings, and even sadder cases of infanticides. At times, only through encouragement and reinforcement from the health workers, women themselves, do some mothers and families feel as if their girl child is valuable, worth feeding and caring for.

The newborn cried, eyes wide open. The hospital-gowned mother motioned for us to move for a closer vantage point. She smiled exuberantly, but exhaustion from the birthing betrayed her eyes. We moved closer. Sriya extended a hand in front of the child’s eyes, her fingers performing a rapid performance. The child’s eyes followed the horizontal twirl of Sriya’s fingers. The women all cooed at the inquisitive marvel.

How fragile the child seemed. How precious, when facing the enormity of impermanence. How beautiful, even in, perhaps because of, its delicateness.

The finality that the reality of Death carried a gift with its scythe of suffering: appreciation. We cannot, I found in the end, be unemotional and above this fact of life, a fact of life that carries with it so many emotions and intrinsic to life itself. Accepting death was the first step for me to appreciate life, to recognize its impermanence. When each moment had a lifespan, and with death at the forefront of my mind instead of in the background, I had no option but to transform my attention towards another quality of life (and the topic of the second half of these final reflections): Beauty.

With mind distracted, never thinking death is coming, to slave away on the pointless business of a mundane life, and then to come out empty is a tragic error.

Tibetan Book of the Dead


[1]In the Kalighat metro, a public space, the wall next to the token buying stations has a complete setup of a devotional idol of Kali in its most abstract, tantric form: a black figure with no features except red eyes and tongue. Exiting or entering passengers remove their shoes, paying their respects in the middle of the rush of traffic. Next to the Kali figure is a large icon of Mother Theresa, who also receives bowed heads in prayer.

All this occurs when for decades West Bengal was ruled by the Marxist Communist Party. It seems they don’t mind the masses taking the opiates of many different varieties.

[2] As an adult, my first experience of death was when my grandmother passed away. She had been sick for a few months, withering away to a fraction of her already tiny bodyweight. I had been in college. I sat on the couch of the living room in the house I lived with four friends when my sister called me. “Nannamma’s died,” I can remember her saying clearly, emphatically, emotionally. 

I didn’t react. I remember my friend walking in right after the call, asking if I wanted to go to lunch. Of course, I replied, let’s go to lunch. I didn’t give an indication of the gravity of what I’d been told a few moments before. Still, I suddenly felt like I was in the audience of the theater instead of being in the movie itself, watching myself perform routine actions. I didn’t want, or feel the need at the time, to deal with nitty-gritty of dealing with someone loved dying. I maintained complete normalcy.

It was only later, when I’d reach for the phone to make a call to her or imagine afternoons of being overfed that I began to feel the anguish of loss.

[3] Wabi sabi is the name of a Japanese aesthetic, one that is very different from the Greek ideal of beauty. Wabi (simple/humble) and Sabi (weathered) were formed into wabi-sabi: the idea that nothing lasts forever, and that things are impermanent (“mono no aware”: the pathos of things deriving from their transience”). Wabi sabi is Thoreau-like, and the idea of beauty is a sort of rustic minimalism (imagine a cup with a crack in it, beat-up door handles with rust, or the tea ceremony in its simplicity). It finds a “melancholic beauty in the impermanence of all things.”

If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.

Kenko

The Privilege That is Mine

Dear Lord, the Great Healer, I kneel before you,
Since every perfect gift must come from You.
I pray, give skill to my hands, clear vision to my mind,
kindness and meekness to my heart.
Give me singleness of purpose, strength to lift up a part
of the burden of my suffering fellow men,
and a true realization of the privilege that is mine.
Take from my heart all guile and worldliness,
That with the simple faith of a child, I may rely on You.

Mother Teresa, The Physician’s Prayer

“Wherever you find yourself useful, go ahead and do it.” These were the only words of advice from my friend before my first time volunteering. Hunter was a veteran of the Mother Teresa system, and had come nearly daily for months now. From his experience, he divulged little tricks of the trade: where to store belongings, to bring you own blades for shaving the residents, which Mother Theresa home to go to (the less-known “Prem Dan” instead of the famous “Kalighat Home for the Dying”). I followed him through morning mass in the Mother House, where ethereal light and the angelic voices of the blue and white-robed nuns coated the tomb of Mother Teresa herself. In the Mother House, the wall held paintings of the brown, suffering masses of Calcutta encircling a glowing and rosy-cheeked Mother Theresa at different stages of life. Her eyes were placid.

I followed him through the breakfast for volunteers, where we took simple bread, bananas, and chai, and sang a simple song for leaving volunteers (“We love you, We love you…We’ll miss you, We’ll miss you”). I followed him in through the backstreets of Calcutta from the Mother House, the site of mass, to the Prem Dan, the nursing home that took care of the “dying and destitute”. The children, as we crossed the railroad tracks, yelled “Hello, hello! Chocolate!” upon seeing us, preconditioned by the presence of many a white-skinned feringhee traveling along this route.[1]

Prem Dan emerged, a bright blue [2] nodule in the surrounding brown. I followed Hunter through the gates, the guard checking my day pass. We walked to the men’s side of the nursing home, passing the women’s space as Bengali and Hindi Christian devotionals reverberated through the tended gardens. The old, disabled, the sick, they were all there across the ground, some in chairs, some on the ground, all of their eyes listless.

Once I entered, though, there was very little following. There were subtle head nods, and glances, but the process was incredibly simple: work wherever you think you should. “KNOW THAT YOU ARE NEEDED” one sign said, directed at volunteers. Wash dishes if there are dishes to be washed. Talk if it is time to talk. Serve lunch if lunch needs to be served. Shave faces if there are faces to be shaved (and you have razors and shaving cream with you). Massage limbs if there are limbs to be massaged.

I did all of these, but spent the first hour shaving. It was a simple task I’d done thousands of times, but never on another, for another. His skin was hard, his beard hair mangled, directionless. He smiled a lot. He muttered in incomprehensible and nonsensical Bengali. I spoke back in Hindi to the little I understood. I shaved carefully, emphatically. I made it a show, dramatically dipping the razor into the bucket and flicking the water with a flourish. I told him what a handsome face he had, what smooth hair, so easy to shave. As I finished the second coat and toweled him off, he grabbed my face with both hands. And then he smiled, and sang. He didn’t sing well, but he sang. He sang a melodic song, a weepy Bengali tune of the poet Rabindranath Tagore. Hunter, shaving at my right, looked over, eyebrows raised. “He doesn’t sing for everyone.” I looked at his clean-shaven face, and looked back into his eyes.

It felt good. It felt damn good.

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Not a Question of Good or Bad Manners

Calcutta thus far has been an interesting place to be on a “fellowship for service.” The word rings of selflessness, altruism, and noble sacrificial warriors. The truth, though, is that most of my life in Calcutta (and in India generally) has been more of an education in animalistic selfishness.

How could this be true in a country as courteous as India? I have been offered chai in nearly every home I’ve stepped foot into, whether in a talibari, a clay thatched home in the slum, or a mansion in suburban Salt Lake. At times, I have been barricaded into homes against my will and force-fed chai and biscuits to satisfy an overzealous host. Formality around guests requires self-sacrifice, to the point of removing the clothes on one’s back. A country ruled by the British and before that the ceremonial Moghuls, and a city more British than most others in India, has remnants of this pomp and circumstance. At some restaurants, seven waiters attend to your every move, smiling and wobbling their head at each request. They interject like clockwork, asking how the food is, asking if anything else, perhaps dessert sir, would be required. Extravagant politeness and cordiality are the custom, and detection of any hint of self-interest in this world would be strictly off limits. It would be shameful.

This, though, holds true strictly in private spaces and in private relationships. Service comes only in two flavors: the aforementioned, self-sacrificing kind and the kind that doesn’t look you in the eye or give you any value in the universe at all. Naked self-interest is everywhere else once the wrappings of these intimacies are gone. “Guest is god” is an oft-repeated aphorism. What’s left unstated is that anyone not considered a guest is left a devil. The Outside is a Hobbesian state of nature, not just brutish, but lawless, dirty, brimming with raw survival instinct. The proof is everywhere, at the taxi stand, at the roadside stall, in buses, in government offices, even in houses of religion.[3] It’s in the t-shirt seen on one man in New Market, (one of those ubiquitous snarky t-shirts[4]) that displays a gas dial. At full, it reads “PEACE”, at empty, it reads “WAR”. Calcutta, in the open, is an empty tank; survival is the only priority. No room for shame.

It’s there in the booksellers, from Bombay to Calcutta, selling half-xeroxed copies of popular classics (as well as, more disturbingly, Mein Kampf[5]) next to paperbacks with bold, text filled covers, titles blaring to all of New India, “The Science of Getting Rich” or “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” and other get-rich-quick or get-popular-quick or get-power-quick manifestos. It’s also there in the various, rude honks that pervade the common space. Whether it’s a jury-rigged horn made of a plastic bottle on a bike or a bus horn that has a turntable setup with thirty different options (as I saw one young busdriver handling as if he was Avicii), this instrument is used liberally without regard for the fellow citizen. I’m numb to this self-interest now, embedded within it. I too fight for what is mine, because no one else will give it to me.

On the way back from Kumbh Mela, in the train station in Allahabad, I wanted a bottle of water. I walked around, gingerly avoiding areas cordoned off by the Indian Army. The Army prescence was not usual: a week before, in the infinite insanity of Kumbh Mela, dozens had died of a stampede in this very station. I stepped around a few sleeping families, heads rested on suitcases, to get to my final destination: the food stand. Outside of the stand was a scene of chaos, rupee bills held in the air, elbows jockeying for space. It was fifteen customers, yelling their orders repeatedly at the lone server. One pudgy mother protected her box of sweets like a running back, one hand stuck out to stiff-arm a competitor.

As I paused in front of the stand, I ran through a dreamlike scenario in my head: in eloquent and inspirational Hindi, I would persuade them with the Logic of Lines, explaining the “tragedy of the commons”, and the benefits that would be accrued to them if they were organized: faster service, less hoarse voices, less bruised ribcages, peace and calm. Then I snapped out of this pipe dream, realized my actual level of Hindi and more importantly my surrounding circumstances, and elbowed my own way into the abyss for my bottle, rupees in hand.

The two mentalities run side by side: utmost, self-sacrificial civility and dog-eat-dog (mostly of the stray kind).

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But although this is the naked self-interest I’ve been schooled in, it’s not exactly the one that I’m interested in exploring when discussing the notion of service. There’s a different kind of self-interest, a more modest, clothed variety, that is barely discernable but that exists nonetheless. This is the type that I think we need to observe carefully when performing any act termed “service.” This is the question I’ve come to repeatedly, whether it was waking up at 5 A.M. on that Saturday to head to Mother Theresa’s for the first time, or it was contemplating coming to Calcutta period to work for an NGO that seeks to serve a vulnerable population, or even when being a courteous host myself with an offering of chai I cannot make properly.

Is this really altruism? Is this really empathetic? Or, in the end, is this self-serving too?

There are feelings, physical sensations, that I feel while performing an act of service: feelings of belongingness, of being needed, of the satisfaction of fixing something broken, of the growth of self-esteem and a sense of identity. These are not mirages; they are as real as can be. But the honest truth is that these are things that I am feeling in that moment, no one else, and things that make me feel good. And perhaps these emotions, those dastardly emotions, are what really motivate those who serve more than logic or empathy.

In the end, I believe we are limited by our subjective perception, trapped by this limited sensory apparatus of ours. Escaping this perception seems to me to be a prerequisite for the ability to empathize (not just sympathize) with someone else’s experiences, their suffering, their pain, their needs, and their story. Most of us are limited, I believe, by this original sin. I am hopeful but ultimately skeptical of the idea of pure empathy.[6]

We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of.

David Foster Wallace

And, in the end, if all our actions can only be motivated by our own experiences, our own physical sensations, then we are ultimately self-interested. The whole idea of service is blown up into a million pieces.

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The Truth of Giving

Much of our everyday morality is concerned with the question of obligation and spontaneity in the gift.

Marcell Mauss, The Gift

Why even call it service if it is so self-serving? Are there grounds to be so high and mighty? And finally, why pursue service at all? There is a way out, I believe, out of this conundrum. It’s being picky about what your self-interest is and creating a new self-interest: an enlightened self-interest. It’s choosing giving while also observing the positive benefits to yourself in the process.

The sensations above, feeling useful, feeling needed, being part of a team, working on an important problem, gaining respect from someone, all of these only we can experience. They are, in the end, sensations. But that doesn’t mean we can’t say they’re “higher” feelings. Watching TV feels good (especially reality TV), buying a new car feels good, having a secure home feels good, and eating a kati roll feels amazing. But I’d rank of all of these experiences below the ones above.

Eating a delicious kati roll satisfies two needs: immediate pleasure and straight sustenance. The crisp egg and paratha layers, tender chicken, the mixture of spiced sauces and vegetables all sustain the body and the tongue but none of them sustain the human spirit (except maybe on especially desperate occasion). The feelings that we get from service are different though.

What do we ultimately want out of the world? This is the question Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of human needs” seeks to answer. At the bottom are the most basic and fundamental needs that motivate us, like sex and food. As we get closer to the top, we go through friendship, self-esteem, respect from others. Finally creativity and morality are a form of “self-actualization” for Maslow. I’d argue that service, while it satisfies our own needs, satisfies these higher needs rather than ones closer to the base, like eating or entertainment. In giving, in serving, if we’re honest with ourselves provides not only something to someone else but serves ourselves by bolstering a sense of self-esteem, or making us a part of a community, or to be remembered. Making others’ lives more happy or meaningful ultimately makes our lives more happy and meaningful as well. Service is a two-way gift.

Giving, of course, can be done in the wrong way, either to the wrong people[7] or without knowledge of systemic consequences[8]. And survival and self-maintenance and some level of abundance is important in and of itself and as an essential prerequisite for the ability to give. But if we only go by our own limited self-interest, we will in the end be stuck with meaningless victories. The way to fight against this creeping nihilism, whether your profession is a teacher, a doctor, a social worker, a human resources manager, or a “fellow for service” (whatever that means), is to attach yourself to giving in a way that nourishes others as well as yourself. The pleasure extracted from this enlightened self-interest feels better and lasts longer for you.  And, while you’re doing it, the community-at-large is made a better place.

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A Chinese Breakfast by Lal Bazaar:
If you wake up at 5AM, you can grab a meal that’s completely unique globally. Calcutta at one time at a large Chinese population, and still has the only Chinatown in India. Remnants of this population still fry and steam staples: momos, pork pies and buns, and rice dumpling fries.

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[1] Visiting one of the Teresa homes is a must-do tourist experience in Calcutta, something I have very mixed feelings about. Mother Teresa didn’t intend for it to be a one day, or even a one week volunteering stint. This tourist-y aspect is reflected in the availability of Mandarin mass, and during breakfast one can as easily converse in Spanish as English.

There are other issues with the Teresa system: respect for the patients, lack of following proper protocols (basic hygiene, for example), and serving only the extremely debilitated and close to death (rather than preventing people from getting to this stage in the first place).

[2] There are two types of blue in Calcutta that are important to distinguish: Mother Teresa’s Blue and Didi’s Blue. Mother Teresa’s blue is in little bubbles, like at the Park Street Metro station where the walls are painted in the pattern of the headscarf of Teresa nuns.

Didi’s Blue, though, is much different and now much more prevalent. Mamata Banerjee (“Didi” meaning sister) is the Chief Minister of West Bengal, a firebrand populist woman whose has the most visible visage in the state. She lives with her mother, wears her simple slippers (for the people), and is a theatrical and dramatic speaker. She was the first person, basically on her own accord, to topple decades of Communist rule in West Bengal. She also is a slight megalomaniac: all of Calcutta, she decided in a citywide directive, would be painted in the color of her sari, a darker hue of blue (with tax cuts for those who decided to comply). Railings, government buildings, and flyovers are still blue, although fading.

[3] The lines are not drawn where you’d expect. Houses of religion are often not the sites of the most selfless, but most self-interested. I went to visit the famous Jagannath temple in Puri, Orissa considered one of the holiest sites for Hindus. My American friend was barred from entry, having the debilitating affliction of being white while monument hopping. As I entered the gigantic, overwhelming complex, I felt a bamboo stick snap me in the head. The offending priest stuck out his hand almost immediately for baksheesh, a donation, and sneered at the twenty-rupee note I handed him for his gracious blessing.

Later, we were offered various packages for viewing the wooden, abstract idol of Jagannath, “Lord of the Universe”, with lower package prices, on sale I’m assuming, for a blessing from the (lower-ranked) god that is the younger brother of Jagannath, Balarama. Still, our purchase of the lowest priced package bought us a V.I.P. pass past the hordes in front of the gates blocking them fifty feet from the big-eyed idol. It did not, however, buy us the complete way in: I had to bribe and jostle with various holy men and policemen on the way in, leaving me with empty pockets.

Pictures from Puri. Along with being an important temple site (both active and inactive monument temples), it’s a big beach destination:

Jagannath Temple

Jagannath Temple

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[4] The market for t-shirts with slogans is huge in Calcutta. I’m not sure anyone actually gets the messages on the shirts they’re wearing though. A sampling of t-shirts I’ve seen include, “Drink, I’ll look better,” “Punctuality is the virtue of the bored,” “Don’t mess with Texas,” and, my favorite (seen twice, once in the slum and once by my friend Hallie on a chai wallah): “My Daddy is an ATM Machine.”

[6] Mirror Neurons are the newest discovery in neuroscience to provide some mechanism for how empathy could be built into the brain. They were discovered accidentally when a monkey had a set of neurons fire off when they did something and when they saw a human research subject do the same thing.

Pretend somebody pokes my left thumb with a needle. We know that the insular cortex fires cells and we experience a painful sensation. The agony of pain is probably experienced in a region called the anterior cingulate, where there are cells that respond to pain. The next stage in pain processing, we experience the agony, the painfulness, the affective quality of pain.

It turns out these anterior cingulate neurons that respond to my thumb being poked will also fire when I watch you being poked—but only a subset of them. There are non-mirror neuron pain neurons and there are mirror neuron pain neurons.

V.S. Ramachandran, neuroscientist

I’m not sold though. Only a few neurons of the entire set are being activated. How much of this experience can we really share with another person? How is empathy being actually measured? How much of this mechanism is self-serving, and how much of it is just simple recognition rather than the high-flown thought process we call empathy? What’s imitation and what’s the deeper understanding we call empathy? It’s got potential, but mirror neurons haven’t been fully fleshed out yet.

[7] Adam Grant is a professor at Wharton who studies organizational psychology (NYTimes). His research divides up people into three groups: Givers, Matchers, and Takers.

Givers give without expectation of immediate gain; they never seem too busy to help, share credit actively and mentor generously. Matchers go through life with a master chit list in mind, giving when they can see how they will get something of equal value back and to people who they think can help them. And takers seek to come out ahead in every exchange; they manage up and are defensive about their turf.

His research also showed that Givers are either usually highly successful or completely taken advantage of. The difference between successful givers and unsuccessful ones is that successful ones are picky: they only give to other givers and matchers, and avoid soul-sucking takers.

Traditionally, you’d think that serving others and one’s own productivity would be diametrically opposed. Grant’s conclusions are the opposite:

The greatest untapped source of motivation, he argues, is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other peoples’ lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves. 

[8]

The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding

Albert Camus, The Plague

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The Pursuit of Discomfort

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It was at about the time, early on, when I found myself on the metro sweating at NBA-player levels in the October heat, the aroma of coconut oil from the hair of a fellow voyager wafting into my nostrils, while I rested my elbow the only place I could (on a stout Bengali’s bald spot) and a smartly uniformed schoolgirl finished her homework on my back, that I came to a realization of sorts. That realization almost didn’t make it through to conscious thought, since my conscious thought was then consumed with the peppery body odors that engulfed the damp, humid air and simultaneously focusing on my right pocket, where my wallet laid (why was I worried about my wallet? Someone could have stolen my pants and I wouldn’t have noticed.) The realization was this: I was not very comfortable, and furthermore that this period of my life in Calcutta was not about to be very comfortable.

As I pondered this thought, and its ramifications for my quality of life, some anonymous being crushed my toe. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see their hands moving ritually: hand touching eyes, then heart, then eyes again, begging forgiveness of the gods for touching a piece of divinity (me!) with their accidentally disrespectful feet. Across the cabin, I heard various utterances of “Baap re Baap” and “Oh, Baba,” the Bengali ways of expressing a wide gamut of emotions: surprise, excitement, or (in this case) pain. My laptop, held at my side, was being pressure-cooked by the collective strength of hundreds of gluteal muscles. I was afraid it’d break in half. I held my breath, waiting for the next stop, until the open doors spat out me and twenty other sufferers onto the platform.

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Men bathing

Jain temple

Jain temple

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Street cricket match on India's Republic Day

Street cricket match on India’s Republic Day

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Comfort in Calcutta

The metro is not the only source of discomfort in Calcutta.[1],[2],[3] As I write this, we are exiting the month or so of positively Mediterranean weather here: the breeze is gentle off of the Hugli River, the humidity low, the sun shimmers. Walking around in parks during the day becomes a feature of the average Calcutta resident’s life, and even the smog seems to have lessened (or perhaps that’s just an olfactory illusion).

There are, though, hushed whispers of the impending doom from denizens. “The Calcutta heat is coming,” they mutter ominously, “just wait till you experience that.” I wonder how bad it could be, how unbearable it could possibly get. Could it be worse than how it was in October or November? Each day, after the commute to work, I’d spend an hour in front of the office A.C. drying my soaked shirt. How could the deadly vortex of heat and humidity possibly be more uncomfortable than that?

Mark Twain, upon visiting Calcutta, wrote:

I believe that in India ‘cold weather’ is merely a conventional phrase and has come into use through the necessity of having some way to distinguish between weather which will melt a brass door-knob and weather which will only make it mushy– Following the Equator

To be fair to the rest of India, Twain hadn’t visited Darjeeling yet. He’d only seen Calcutta.

Transport, too, is a huge part of the composition of why Calcutta is so uncomfortable. Metal boxes on wheels barely stuck together (the small ones called autos, the large ones buses) rumble through the congested traffic, heaving and huffing while taking me to my destination. In the past few months, I’ve been on buses that have caught on fire (I hacked until the smoked out bus mercifully stopped after ten minutes of driving, and the conductor got out, filled up a bucket of water, and poured it on the source of our problems before getting the bus moving again) and had live chickens on them (according to the strict rules of this bus, they were only allowed to be in the back where I happened to be sitting).

It’s a menagerie of different types of pollution. Regular air pollution not your style? How about the light and sound varieties? Noise is constant, the car horns blare at eardrum rupturing levels on the streets and no place is safe. Thus far, soundproofing has not been developed as a concept in West Bengali home and office construction. Before dawn, the local mosque blares the adhan, the call to prayer[4], on the minaret’s loudspeakers, then at 5:30AM the laundry man bleats, sheep-like, across the neighborhood in a droning, nasal pitch. Even late at night, young Bengalis are usually either protesting for/against the Communist Party or are celebrating a puja for one of many goddesses (either way the M.O. is the same: they load into the back of a large truck and beat drums while driving around residential neighborhoods). Comfort is nary to be found in silence.

Calcutta life ebbs and flows in waves of intense comfort and discomfort. It oscillates between python-level constriction and open-field freedom, with little in between. This dichotomy is there not only in temperatures, but also in the difference between concussive busses and solid ground. It’s there in the difference between government offices, with forced double-speak and gentle massaging of big egos (and smaller anatomies), and anywhere not a government office. It’s there in the congestion of the City and the serenity of the Wetlands. The highs of comfort are assuaging not despite the lows of extreme discomfort but because of them. And those highs of comfort are hard to come by.

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At the Dakshineswar Kali Temple

More at the Kali Temple

More at the Kali Temple

The ghat outside of the temple where the ritual bathing is

The ghat outside of the temple where there’s bathing in the Hugli River

At Byloom's Cafe

At Byloom’s Cafe

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Tell me, have you these in your houses? Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and becomes a host, and then a master? 

Kahlil Gibran, Houses

But is achieving a state of comfort really the end goal? Comfort is a pleasurable state. It’s a state that we can luxuriate in, one that delights the senses. We each have a vision of what makes us comfortable, whether it is a vacation resort or a cozy home. And we often pursue material things to get us to that state of ultimate comfort: the massage chair, the television in even higher pixilation and even more dimensions, clothes and apparel. All these things will give us comfort, we logically assume, and pleasure, which leads to the exalted goal of happiness.

But ultimately, pleasure is a state that is never truly satisfying. Like the Greek myth of Tantalus, thirsty and hungry, stuck in an eternal hell of a fruit tree with low hanging fruit and water in a bowl that will always move away from his grasp, if we pursue comfort and pleasure we will never really achieve that end state of rest we seek. Any state of comfort ultimately lasts for only a short while before discomfort begins to infect that state again. After some time, disgust settles in and we must sprint to another pleasure to be satisfied.

Pleasure is contingent upon time, upon its object, upon the place. It is something that changes of nature.

Matthew Ricard, Biochemist and Buddhist Monk

And I would argue, more radically, that pleasure doesn’t really lead to real happiness. Hedonists would say pleasure is the same thing as happiness, but I disagree; taking pleasure in things and attaining comfort is only but a part of real, lasting and true happiness. And if we don’t reevaluate our definition of happiness, and our pursuit of it, we’ll be doomed to the “hedonic treadmill”[5]forever.

The idea of happiness as pleasure has even been embedded in fundamental economic methodology (until relatively recently): a 1920 text by economist Alfred Marshall states “the utility” that is “taken to be correlative to Desire or Want…the measure is found in the price which a person is willing to pay for the fulfillment or satisfaction of his desire.” According to the theory, “utils” as measured by consumer choices reveal how happy a person is. The truth, though, is what we purchase (especially material goods) give us a temporary boost of happiness that soon fades as we return to our level state of happiness.

If we take the happiness research seriously, most of the standard rationales for economic growth, technological progress, and improved social policy simply evaporate.

Geoffrey Miller, evolutionary psychologist

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A Warm Gun

There is an alternative, though, to this pursuit of happiness as the pursuit of pleasure, as we currently see it. Counterintuitive as it may be to not pursue things that make us feel good for our happiness, we do it all the time. Nobody runs a marathon, has children, or fights for their country out of pursuit of pleasure. These actions are in search of something bigger usually, something the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia, or “flourishing”. This, eudaimonia, is what we should be seeking[6], a more fleshed out notion of happiness than the one we have now. The word itself comes from eu, good, daemon, spirit: the good life.

If true happiness is really tied to the notion of human flourishing, we can look beyond the pursuit of pleasure (which includes seeking comfort and material things for the sake of themselves). The word includes the notions of excellence, virtue, meaning and even citizenry. Sometimes it means sacrificing our own immediate pleasures for a greater good (for our values). And we instinctively understand this. There’s a famous Matrix-style thought experiment the philosopher Robert Nozick thought up:

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes  attached  to  your  brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences?

Anarchy, State, and Utopia

Most of us wouldn’t choose to plug into the machine, despite it providing the maximal quantity of pleasure over a life. We’re not just after pleasure. Somehow, we’d want to actually do the things we do, Nozick argues; this is a key prerequisite for life being meaningful.

I don’t take a completely anti-hedonism stance. I take pleasure where pleasure is due: in a cold mango lassi on a sweltering day, in the many layers of flavor in a kati roll, or in enjoying the luxury of the swanky Oberoi hotel. But attachment to this comfort, and confusion of this comfort as the end goal of our lives, is a grave misjudgment. The truth is that things that aren’t pleasurable are also a part of a flourishing human existence. Living with unpleasantness (like thinking about ideas we disagree with, encountering death, being in a place where you don’t know the language, and, yes, uncomfortable rides on the metro) is one of the most human things we can do. And dealing with discomfort is what often leads to open-mindedness, to artistic creativity, to personal and societal growth (there’s a reason it’s called the comfort zone). And a lot of times, a little discomfort leads to a more meaningful and fascinating time.[7] Comfort and pleasure? Those, for me, are secondary.

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[1] Rabindra Sadan is the station that deposits the most metro riders on the way back. As we approach it, there is usually a gradual rise in murmuring among the populace: it’s time to crush or be crushed.  I imagine that the metro should be studied by Realist scholars of International Relations: like nations in a dog eat dog world, the riders tenuously make alliances not out of love but out of desperation and mutual advantage in the dogged, single-minded pursuit of surviving the ordeal.

[2] While I complain about the metro, I do have to proclaim my love for it. It’s a deeply democratic and populist form of transportation, where you’re as likely to see expensive power suits as dreadlocked Israelis, a rocker with spiked hair as a round-faced, large-eyed older Bengali lady clad in red and white bangles that symbolize marriage.

[3] I’ve taken to writing haikus to keep me sane during the daily commute. A sampling:

Old man, pelvic thrusts

Bump n’ Grind, Grabs my thigh

Life on a Metro

***

Relief: just squeezed in

Oh no! I’m on the wrong side

Life on the Metro

***

Window jammed, monsoons

Guess I’ll just get soaked, thanks

Life on the Cal Bus

***

Bag on his shoulders?

No it’s not, it’s a chicken

Life on the Cal Bus

[4] My first response was being naïvely annoyed, but I’ve become deeply appreciative of the call to prayer. It’s beautiful, complex, and reminds one to tap into their highest selves at regular intervals throughout the day.

[5] We notice differences and become dissatisfied with some items and some classes of goods. This treadmill effect has been investigated by Danny Kahneman and his peers when they studied the psychology of what they call hedonic states. People acquire a new item, feel more satisfied after an initial boost, then rapidly revert to their baseline of well-being. –Nassim Nicholas Taleb in “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder”

[6] Maybe the word happiness itself is tripping us up in the pursuit of it, and perhaps it is better left as a byproduct of searching for something else. It seems happiness is one of those things that the harder we try for it, the more difficult it is to attain.

[7] I visited the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, the largest single gathering of human beings on earth. An estimated 80-100 million Hindus travel to Allahabad to take a dip into the meeting place of the three holiest rivers. The scene overwhelming in every way; an impromptu city of tents is set up for the voyagers along the banks of the Ganga (with 40,000 toilets). Kumbh Mela occurs once every six years, and this Maha Kumbh Mela was the most auspicious in 144 years. The myth of Kumbh Mela is based on an enormous battle between the gods and demons over the heavenly nectar that came from the churning of the earth. It states that four drops fell from the nectar onto earth (the four locations that rotate hosting Kumbh Mela).

Expecting to go just to see the chaos and see a sight I’d never see again, I ended up with a little bit more than I bargained for. Hunter Gros, a friend and travelling companion, tells it better than I ever could (in poem form): “Here Comes The Kumbh”

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60 square kilometers of campsites

60 square kilometers of campsites

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An Affirmation of Dirt

A Quick Stop in Central America

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I went to Nicaragua during my time at OSU, through an organization called Project Nicaragua. We partnered with Noemi, a missionary doing amazing nutrition and agriculture work in a mountainous rural village called Rancho Grande, a welcoming community. It was the first troupe we’d ever sent to Rancho Grande and there were six of us. The three girls stayed at the home of the pastor in the main village. The three guys, on the other hand, stayed in the mud-floored schoolhouse in the mosquito net covered cots, a trek up a sludgy hill.

The trip to Rancho Grande, less significantly, coincided with a purchase I made: new shoes (the pointy Puma ones that only Usain Bolt could actually wear without looking ridiculous; I’m not Usain Bolt). As the honeymoon period of purchasing material things usually goes, these shoes seemed imbued with semi-magical qualities. I walked differently in them, stood differently, felt differently.

The honeymoon carried over into the airport as I flew from Miami to Managua. What the love affair hadn’t planned for, though, was monsoon season.

The first day, a torrential downpour left the floor of the schoolhouse flooded. There, we went into panic mode, desperately shifting our suitcases from the floor to the tables to prevent them from getting any muddier while trying to swat away Jurassic Park-sized insects. My shoes had gotten dirty; I patiently used our hand sanitizer (a precious resource, no less) on paper towels to wipe them clean, feeling at peace with myself. That sense of dirtiness was finally gone, and my hard work had paid off.

The second day, after we had taught English in the class, the kids in Noemi’s program, our students, began spontaneously playing soccer on the field right outside. I joined in, and we sloshed around in the mud, playing a messy style of soccer to equal the messy plain.

By the third day, I looked down at those same shoes, once shiny but now caked in a layer of mud, and stopped caring. This quiet and not insignificant event reflected a broader pattern of my relationship with dirt while I was in Rancho Grande. I got used to it. We all did. And I came to an insight that anyone who’s been on a long hike knows: a sense of cleanliness is relative, and can be transformed in a matter of days.

I didn’t realize how much that sense had been warped until I returned to Cleveland and ,while unpacking, I opened my suitcase in the family room. The rest of the family could smell the offensive odors from the kitchen.

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There are a lot of words to describe Calcutta, but “clean” is almost never one of them. Even relative to other cities in India and the ‘developing world’, Calcutta usually takes the trophy in terms of dirtiness. The city seems to be eternally engulfed by a fog of dust. Every surface is covered in grime, and the buildings are splotched with decay, colored with black muck that leaves a pristine state only to the imagination.

Dirt in Calcutta is not something over there but everywhere. It is weaved into the daily fabric of life. In the morning, I pass by the large fish market in Howrah next to a large dump, the scents burning my nostrils. I’ve seen far too many bright-yellow taxis leaving this market loaded up with bundles of naked fish to ever let a taxi driver put my suitcase in the trunk. As I pass by the dumps, I see men made of pure sinew and fiber shoveling trash into a rusty wheelbarrow. Openness is the presiding rule here: the garbage dumps are open, the sewers open, the nearby restaurant windows open, produce sold in the open, and the windows on the bus open. The result is a mingling without any separation at all. My daily ritual first thing upon returning home from work is to rigorously wash a layer of black soot from the bottom of my feet. The remnants of Calcutta streets are removed, the cost of wearing sandals expunged before I enter the pristine home.[1] The black soot, though, is an indicator of the all-encompassing cloud that lurks here. Another litmus test is wearing a white shirt (after a day of going through the city, white no longer).

Private spaces, in many places though, are spic and span. It provides a strange effect when you leave the sleek steel and glass Bose audio store or the mahogany shelves of Oxford bookstore to the dust swirls of Park Street. The street sweepers are engaged in the Sisyphean task of keeping the sidewalks in Calcutta clean. With their wooden brooms, they push the dirt and trash onto Park Street. The dust then gets reshuffled to the sidewalk after a few buses pass by, and the process is repeated ad infinitum. On Park Street, when I pop around the corner to grab a Kati roll (have I mentioned my love of Kati rolls?), I wonder how much of it is composed of unstated ingredients: dust, grime, and sweat (and also how much of these unstated ingredients add to the taste).

There’s an easy and natural response to such an environment. That response is disgust, enough disgust to drown in. The brown waters of the Hugli, (in which tens of thousands must bathe), the pollution (which delays my recovery from a cough for weeks[2]), the overcrowding and the resulting creation of pure human matter and odors: these are all things to be easily disgusted by. Dirt is ubiquitous, and nothing is pure.[3]

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Beyond Disgust

Dirt is matter out of place

Lord Chesterfield by way of anthropologist Mary Douglas (by way of fellow Calcutta fellow Liz Peyton)

Disgust, though, doesn’t last forever. It was an instinctive, gut-level response, but eventually I got used to it. I returned to that insight in Nicaragua. I began thinking about what this thing we call “dirt” was really anyway and what caused that initial emotional reaction. The more I thought about it, the more I understood that I had systematically divided up the world into arbitrary categories of clean and dirty. These were categories that were products of the environment I was raised in (one with plenty of antibacterial hand sanitizer, Febreze, and Tide-to-go available).

The dust swirls, the black muck, the trash strewn on the side of the road, I began to accept these previously jarring sights. I didn’t gag anymore while the bus passed the toxic dump-fish market duo. I stopped thinking of it as dirty at all, began living within the openness instead of rebuking it. I recognized how subjective the notion cleanliness seemed: what did the daily inhabitant of these streets see as dirty or clean? It definitely didn’t align with what I’d had as sensory expectations.

Dirtiness, historically speaking, has been used as a tool to subjugate and stigmatize. As the philosopher Martha Nussbaum states, “…certain disgust properties- sliminess, bad smell, stickiness, decay, foulness– have repeatedly and monotonously been associated with jews, women, homosexuals, untouchables, lower-class people– all of those are imagined as tainted by the dirt of the body.” It’s been tied to religion, class, and ethnicity. Dirtiness was created and then marketed wholesale for political purposes, to preserve social privilege.

In India, one doesn’t have to look any farther than the caste system, expressed not only in large injustices but the repeated, small offenses (ones that I’ve seen in the last month include separate dishes and divided areas for shoe removal). It reminds me of Rohinton Mistry’s novel A Fine Balance, in which two main characters, Om and Ishvar are members of the chamaar caste, a group that is relegated to the undesired and “dirty” profession of leather tanning (no other caste would touch the carcass). They escape their “birthright” profession for tailoring in the big city of Mumbai, but the wretched legacy of untouchability follows them there too.

Dirtiness has been tied to disease too, a potent way to socially isolate people. Isolation of carriers of infectious disease makes sense now that we know about how pathogens can be transmitted. Historically, though, it was used for nefarious and inhumane purposes without any evidence whatsoever (for example, Nazi separation of Jewish populations in Poland based on the fact that they were “natural carriers” of typhus). Beyond stigmatization, dirtiness was thought to cause disease period. The “miasma” theory held that cholera and other diseases were all caused by vapors in the air from general rottenness (malaria is Medieval Italian for bad air: mal, aria).

“Dirt is matter out of place.” Out of place. It’s something that was borne of a system, and what I expected to see in that system. And my experience hadn’t conditioned me to expect hordes of men lined up in the public park by the Victoria Memorial urinating. And it definitely hadn’t taught me to expect goat feces next to tailoring shops, like in the slum of Fakir Bagan. That’s why this felt dirty- it was out of place, my perspective of cleanliness was based on a systematic bias I had from every experience I’d had before. But that had changed from living in Calcutta; everything now held the potential of beauty, and everything was pure.

So, then, I overcame this initial emotional reaction of disgust said that “dirtiness” was all in my head and called it a day.[4]

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Treating the Loosies

But it wasn’t all in my head. My work at Calcutta Kids kept rudely interrupting me with the truth that some dirt makes us sick. A rude and vulgar fact: diarrhea kills 1.5 million kids under 5 a year, and there are billions of cases across the globe annually, upwards of 80% in South Asia and Africa (WHO Report, Diarrhoea 2009). It’s a devastating disease that stunts physically and mentally, and it’s a terrifying Grim Reaper especially in the developing world. All year, it’s a constant problem for the residents of the Fakir Bagan slum, but one that’s heightened during monsoon season.

So, what causes it? You can easily say E. coli, or Rotavirus, or Shigella, or V. cholerae, and you’d be right by any account (and any microbial plate). But isolating the specific pathogen only gives us a partial account; the real, ultimate cause (the cause that we can most directly take action on at Calcutta Kids) is something messier, something that popped my bubble of romanticism about dirtiness and brought me back to earth. That cause is fecal-oral transmission. The name, dear reader, explains itself.

Which leads me to the first real partial description what I’m doing here with Calcutta Kids. One of my main tasks over the next few months is helping to restart a Diarrhea Treatment Center. In October of last year, Calcutta Kids began transitioning all our activities into a new community center that’s now in the middle of the slum itself.  In the new center, we’re hoping to systematically tackle acute cases of diarrhea so that it not only provides the treatment but also prevents future cases. The treatment side is ridiculously simple and cheap: “oral rehydration therapy,” a fancy name for water with sugar and salt that rehydrates the child (that’s been called the most important advance of the 20th century, saving over 50 million lives) along with zinc tablets (which work, but interestingly nobody really knows how).

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Patients at Calcutta Kids’ diarrhea treatment center

The prevention aspect is harder: having dedicated health workers persuade mothers to use different hygiene and sanitation practices through face to face counseling, and change their behaviors more generally. Germ theory’s taught us a lot[5], but that understanding hasn’t trickled down to everyone. Essentially, we are trying to change the way they see dirtiness around them to align with where the harmful bacteria are, and by doing so help prevent illness and save lives. When you feel like your hands are “dirty,” that’s when you’ll wash your hands (a simple act that reduces diarrhea incidence by 40 percent!). Efforts like these, along with improved sanitation (reducing open sewers that overflow during monsoon, for example) and distribution of vaccines are the way that diarrhea (a killer of more than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined) will be stopped.

So, helping with the diarrhea treatment and hearing about my partner fellow Sriya’s work with behavior change communication modules made me stop my romanticization of all dirt. Not all matter is created equal. After all, some of that matter causes death and suffering if it ends up travelling along that messy highway of the fecal-oral route.

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All of this brought me back to one question that’s been batted around by philosophers and religious figures for a long time now, one that the way we treat dirt can inform: what’s the proper attitude towards the world as a whole, a world that’s full of suffering, pain, dirtiness and squalor, full of imperfection?

One way is to reject it, to be disgusted by it. This is the path that ascetics take, and also one that is expressly pessimistic and sometimes nihilistic (See: Schopenhauer, Arthur). Another is to accept it blindly with open arms, and let nature run its course (See: Toaism). I don’t think either of these is sufficient. The path I think we have to take has to do with affirmation and a trickier word: love.

Love is not idealization. Every true lover knows that…love means that you accept a person with all its failures, stupidities, ugly points, and nonetheless the person is absolute; everything that makes life worth living. This is perfection in imperfection itself. This is how we should love the world.

Slavoj Zizek in Examined Life

That love that Zizek talks about has to be tempered by a desire to change the faults we see around us, to make it better. That is the tough balance of being a good human being for me: to live in a city, a country, a world that is deeply flawed, to love it anyway, and to seek to change it for the better at the same time.

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[1] The slums are more constrained, extreme, and intermingled compared to the rest of the city. Walking there requires a constant dual attention: one upward, seeking to simultaneously avoid oncoming traffic, animals, and take in the colors and life around, and also one downward, to avoid stepping in shit.

[2]  The sinuses are better antennae for smog than the eyes or nose. Nothing shows this effect better than a visit to somewhere with fresh mountain air. We visited two fellow fellows, JC and Arunima, working on a health project in Darjeeling (a hill station a night train and a jeep ride away from Calcutta). I’d been congested going into Darjeeling, but almost miraculously, a cup of famous Darjeeling tea and being in the warmth of our friends’ home cured me. Coming back to Calcutta, though, was painful on the eye to mouth region of my head.

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[3]  An interesting aside on where all this dirt goes anyway: I visited the East Kolkata Wetlands, a beautiful and serene place that is full of rice paddies and fish ponds minutes from the city. It also happens to be known as the “kidneys of Calcutta”; the wetlands serve as the single largest natural sewage system in the world- most of the city’s wastewater is sent out here to irrigate vegetable gardens. Biodiversity is plummeting there, and the city is quickly encroaching onto the wetlands.

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[4]  In one of my favorite books One Hundred Years of Solitude, there’s a passage about an orphan girl named Rebeca who comes to the small Columbian town of Macando, and is overtaken by a visceral need to eat dirt:

‘Rebecca got up in the middle of the night and ate handfuls of earth in the garden with a suicidal drive, weeping with pain and fury, chewing tender earthworms and chipping her teeth on snail shells… The first time she did it almost out of curiosity, sure that the bad taste would be the best cure for the temptation. And, in fact, she could not bear the earth in her mouth. But she persevered, overcome by the growing anxiety, and little by little she was getting back her ancestral appetite, the taste of primary minerals, the unbridled satisfaction of what was the original food. 

Eating dirt isn’t just a literary phenomenon though, it’s been observed in humans (and grizzly bears apparently), and it’s called geophagia. It’s often been diagnosed in medicine as a form of pica, where the patient eats substances that don’t give them nutrition. Interestingly, pregnant women and iron-deficient anemics have been observed with an insatiable appetite for dirt. Hippocrates (460 B.C.) wrote the first recorded account of geophagia (in a pregnant woman), but the exact mechanisms are still unknown. It’s been theorized that it’s an evolutionary mechanism for getting essential minerals when you’re deficient, like Calcium and Sodium, or that maybe it’s a detoxification system.

[5] 

We inherit every one of our genes, but we leave the womb without a single microbe. As we pass through our mother’s birth canal, we begin to attract entire colonies of bacteria. By the time a child can crawl, he has been blanketed by an enormous, unseen cloud of microorganisms—a hundred trillion or more. They are bacteria, mostly, but also viruses and fungi (including a variety of yeasts), and they come at us from all directions: other people, food, furniture, clothing, cars, buildings, trees, pets, even the air we breathe. They congregate in our digestive systems and our mouths, fill the space between our teeth, cover our skin, and line our throats. We are inhabited by as many as ten thousand bacterial species; these cells outnumber those which we consider our own by ten to one, and weigh, all told, about three pounds—the same as our brain.- “Germs Are Us” in The New Yorker

What’s in Front of Your Nose

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You see, but you do not observe

Sherlock Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia

About a month or so into this fellowship, we had a friend, another fellow named Andrew, visit Calcutta from his placement in Ranchi[1], a town of urban sprawl that’s stuck in a sort of identity crisis between rural and urban. Hallie and I wanted to take Andrew around to some of the major sites of the city to give him a feel for Calcutta (being the good Calcuttan hosts we are). Our first stop could be the site for the image that’s plastered on postcards for Calcutta, the Howrah Bridge, then the technicolor flower market underneath it, followed by a ride on a ferry across the Hughli River from any of the docks (or “ghats”).

It played out messier in reality. We walked desperately in the blazing heat along the main road; we couldn’t find a ghat with a ferry, we were disoriented, and I wasn’t sure whether the dainty handkerchief I carried was taking sweat off my skin or depositing more on it. To make matters worse, the map we used, from a book called “10 Walks in Calcutta,” looked like it was made in Microsoft Paint by a six-year-old. “May not be to scale” was an understatement. “May not use the cardinal directions” would have been more accurate.

Our first attempt was into one of the most famous central riverside ghats: Babu Ghat, known for its enormous Roman style pillars. To navigate there, we had to cut through a brickmaking factory ten feet from the entrance, the orange dust coating the air. Once we got past the pillars, though, I realized we wouldn’t find any ferries here, just dozens of men bathing in the murky waters. We’d have to keep walking. It was then that Andrew asked me if I’d seen it: a mother cradled a crying newborn, not more than ten days old, just feet from the cloud of dust that engulfed the entrance to Babu Ghat. There were little moments like these as we walked with Andrew, his perception of Calcutta reminding me what I perceived when I first came here, but no longer did: the poverty, the stench, the overcrowding.

We continued on, my confidence in my ability to provide any cultural experiences for our guest spiraling downward. The next ghat looked promising: a big blue sign and what looked like wooden planks for a dock. We crossed the train tracks onto the riverside. I looked to my left: there were ten to fifteen shacks along littered riverside.

I gradually panned over to look for any incoming ferries we could grab, but something caught my eye on my right-hand side. There was a strange object lying on the beach. I tried to sharpen my focus: I noticed some netting, then a strangely familiar outline underneath it, and then some vaguely reddish areas. We realized it at the same time: it was the remnants of a human body. It lied there, swollen and burned by the sun, appendages missing and disfigured, a stone’s throw from a small neighborhood of poor households. No one cared, and no one was paid enough to clean it up. Andrew broke the stunned silence with a suggestion to get out of there, with which we quickly agreed. We found a ferry, eventually, and crossed across the Hughli, the peace of the river punctuated by a brother-sister pair of toddlers dancing in ridiculous makeup and garb, their mother playing a drum loudly. Most of the passengers on the boat didn’t give them a second look.

On the boat, I reflected what we’d seen that day. Was I scared with the death and decay that sometimes nakedly showed itself here? Was I mentally overwhelmed with some of the sites that I saw on a daily basis? I searched myself for any feelings of fear or shock, and came up empty. That, I realized was what scared me the most, not the decomposing body, or the newborn engulfed in brick smoke, or the near-lethal smells and intense poverty surrounding Howrah station, but the fact that I was desensitized to all of these things.

I think it would be fair to say my mental frame has shifted in the three months I’ve been here now. In Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese describes an Ethiopian immigrant’s experience coming to America in a beautiful passage:

Superorganism. A biologist coined that word for our great African ant colonies, claiming that consciousness and intelligence resided not in the individual ant but in the collective ant mind. The trail of red taillights stretching to the horizon as day broke around us made me think of that term. Order and purpose must reside somewhere other than within each vehicle. That morning I heard the hum, the respiration of the superorganism. It’s a sound the new immigrant hears but not for long. By the time I learned to say “6-inch Number 7 on rye with Swiss hold the lettuce,” the sound, too, was gone. It became part of what the mind would label silence. You were subsumed into the superorganism.

Whatever the equivalent of a “6-inch Number 7 on rye with Swiss hold the lettuce” is in Calcutta, I’ve surely figured it out by now (probably the “doh onda, doh chicken”- double egg, double chicken- to the Kati roll man). I can navigate the city by public transit, I know both the best street-food and fine dining restaurants, and I’ve understood how not only how to prevent cutting in lines but also how to cut myself. Familiarity, though, has rendered certain things background noise.

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Three months in, I’m desensitized to certain scenes that would have once surprised me when I first came here. I’m desensitized to the men like ants, carrying packages full of goods heavier than they are on their heads, filing by the hundreds of thousands across Howrah Bridge. Desensitized to the man who lies outside Howrah railway station as my bus passes daily, his skin indistinguishable from his clothes in shade of brown. Desensitized to the children, their eyes big and their stomachs small, who tug forcefully at my arm pleading for change yelling “Dada! Dada!” at the traffic stops. I’ve become an expert at avoiding eye contact and giving money in such situations, but sometimes I break. Desensitized to riding to work in speeding iron buses that feel like they’re taped together (one a week ago that caused a three-bus collision and nearly flattened an elderly passenger as he tried to grab onto it as it raced past his stop).

I’m desensitized to the sadhu, an ascetic man of orange robe, patientely waiting in line at the Baskin Robbins on Park Street (apparently, not even people who don’t believe in very idea of the material world can resist 31 delectable flavors). Desensitized to the men loudly hawking loogies from the deepest depths of their esophagus early in the morning, sending phlegm bulleting to the roadside. Desensitized to the “crush or be crushed” mentality of the metro. Desensitized to the insane traffic, no longer insane but comprehensible, a mess through which I can weave with little issue if I have my wits about me.

Now I pop in my iPod on my daily commute and just see these things, no longer observing them, no longer surprised or even aware.

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The taxi stand at Howrah station

Boys playing soccer at Rabindra Sarobar park

Boys playing soccer at Rabindra Sarobar park

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One of a series of horns stores near Central Station. Kolkata was once a hotbed of jazz, but no longer: “Searching for Kolkata’s Lost Jazz Scene”

The ear cleansing man under Howrah bridge staring unhappily at me capturing the tricks of his trade.

The ear-cleansing man under Howrah bridge staring unhappily at me capturing the tricks of his trade.

This was, in some sense, an inevitable phenomenon. It’s a universal rule to how we interact with the world: we’re creatures of equilibrium, creatures of adaptability. Given enough time, new information is eventually synthesized and processed unconsciously by the mind, even if its as much information as Calcutta throws at a person on a second to second basis.

There’s a story about the eminent South African psychologist Joseph Wolpe. Faced with a patient, a teenage girl who was deathly afraid of cars, he pondered about what to do for her debilitating condition. Basing his intervention on Pavlov’s famous conditioning experiments on dogs, Wolpe took the girl into a car and drove her around with the doors locked to decondition her. It was extreme and probably unethical by today’s research standards, but her initial panic lessened after a while and (with the aid of Wolpe’s relaxation techniques) her fear of cars went away. Flooding, they called it: when the very object that provokes a negative stimulus is exposed to the patient in an intense way, “at its worst.” The phobia drops away as the person makes new associations, like ease instead of fear.[2],[3]

Living in such an environment, there’s a steady diet of either flooding and systematic desensitization, a city-wide mode of therapy designed to make you numb to certain things: dirt, squalor, and cognitive dissonance among them.

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Shattering a Man’s Sense of Natural Justice

I’m OK, though, with getting used to most of these things. It makes my life easier when, for example, I’m not hunting for half an hour searching for the Esplanade metro station entrance as if it’s on Platform 9¾. What I’m not OK with is degradation of other things along with it: my sense of right and wrong, of justice, of ethics.

It reminded me of an article on the effect of Stalin and Hitler on Eastern Europe, in which the author quoted Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet:

Once, in an attempt to explain the history of his country to outsiders, the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz described the impact of war, occupation, and the Holocaust on ordinary morality. Mass violence, he explained, could shatter a man’s sense of natural justice. In normal times, had he stumbled upon a corpse on the street, he would have called the police. A crowd would have gathered, and much talk and comment would have ensued. Now he knows he must avoid the dark body lying in the gutter, and refrain from asking unnecessary questions….

Murder became ordinary during wartime, wrote Miłosz, and was even regarded as legitimate if it was carried out on behalf of the resistance. In the name of patriotism, young boys from law-abiding, middle-class families became hardened criminals, thugs for whom “the killing of a man presents no great moral problem.” Theft became ordinary too, as did falsehood and fabrication. People learned to sleep through sounds that would once have roused the whole neighborhood: the rattle of machine-gun fire, the cries of men in agony, the cursing of the policeman dragging the neighbors away.

For all of these reasons, Miłosz explained, “the man of the East cannot take Americans [or other Westerners] seriously.” Because they hadn’t undergone such experiences, they couldn’t seem to fathom what they meant, and couldn’t seem to imagine how they had happened either. “Their resultant lack of imagination,” he concluded, “is appalling.”

It’s not a comparable situation at all of course; I’m not really capable of evaluating levels of mass human suffering like that. Still, I was somehow drawn to the idea that in some historical situations, things that would be considered deeply unethical  under normal circumstances become regular, even commonplace. Inequity, disgusting levels of inequity, when there for long enough become part of the background. I’m worried that I, too, am having my sense of justice warped, putting things into the background that shouldn’t be. I’m worried that I’m sleeping through sounds that would have once roused me.

When I was young, we made biannual family trips to Hyderabad where my grandparents lived and my mother grew up. I can viscerally remember the shock at such stark differences to the United States: blue tents pitched next to a Tommy Hilfiger outlet, families (plural) living under them. It wasn’t right, I remember thinking, that kind of disparity. They were as human as I was, but the difference in the opportunities I had and they did was huge (and not unlike some of the inequities I saw when I went back to parts of my hometown of Cleveland). It became a driving force for me, and it was events like that one that have led me to be in Cal today.

There was something else about those trips that I remember though: conversations with people (who were and are empathetic and generous by any measure), my friends and family there, speaking about the situation as if it were set in stone and just a fact of life. They’d lived with these things for their entire life, and I hadn’t, and my naïve and idealistic viewpoint was just an “American” point of view. I’d come around, they seemed to imply with their answers to my pointed questions about such despair and inequity, I’d realize that this was the way the world worked. My moral dilemma was not a dilemma for them at all.

At what point does something intolerable become tolerable? And am I getting to that point with the simple act of living, day in and day out, with some of these circumstances around me?

I’m aware that, like heavy eyelids pushing sleep, desensitization is a seductive and easy prospect. And I’m worried that along with this sense of resignation will come a degradation in my sense of justice, and attached to that my sense of meaning and the things that drive me. The only remedy I’ve found is paying constant attention to my surroundings, not allowing the unconscious mind to swallow the conscious one, and reflection on the disparity between what’s around me and what it could be. Luckily, my work with Calcutta Kids (as thoughtful and meaningful of an organization as they come) helps.[4]

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[1] In the Lonely Planet guide to India, as Andrew describes in his blog post, Ranchi’s description has the following epigram “For travelers there’s not a lot of interest in the city and it’s not really on the way to anywhere.” Ha- ha good one, Lonely Planet, but I have to disagree with you here. I visited Andrew and Ashutosh there, where we frolicked in the “touch-me-not plants” by their NGO’s headquarters, saw a wheezy, old Bengal tiger and went for a Venetian paddle-boat ride in the zoo, and went through some dangerous villages (read: Maoist terrorists) to get to Hundru Falls, a gorgeous waterfall. Here’s photographic evidence:

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Hundru Falls

[2] Interestingly enough, this is exactly what horse trainers do to horses. It’s called “sacking out.” Horses are naturally afraid of unknown stimuli, but the horse trainer has to teach the horse to be unafraid of, say a rope, cloth, or a human leg. Eventually through traumatic ‘flooding’ the horse is taught not to be afraid, and to trust the trainer. I swear to god I don’t spend that much time on “ultimatehorsesite.com”…

[3]  Legend has it that Dean Martin (“That’s Amore” and Rat Packer) did something similar. Dean Martin had a terrible fear of small spaces, which made it difficult to go up by elevator to many of the record company’s headquarters on the top floors of Manhattan buildings. Dino usually had to climb the stairs. Trying to overcome this fear, he decided to put himself into an elevator and ride and up and down in a NYC building until his claustrophobia was gone.

[4]  I promise, more detail on this soon.

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Reign of the Goddess: Durga Puja

Durga slaying Mashishasura

A Story

The Genesis of Durga

In every corner of the heavens and earth, chaos reigned. The evil demon Mahishasura conquered the known world through cruelty and violence. Through magical powers (he was borne of an asura king mating with a buffalo, and could therefore transform into a terrifying buffalo at will) and invincibility he dominated.

Mahishasura had gained immortality through a severe regiment of meditation. After years of this painful process, the god of Creation, Brahma, took pity and gave Mahishasura one wish of his choosing. With his unlimited ambition, he asked for immortality. Brahma replied, “All who born must die. You cannot escape death.”

After contemplation, Mahishasura thought of a clever wording: “Let me die at the hand of no man.” Brahma granted him his wish, and returned to his creative duties.

With his newfound powers, however, Mahisha drove the gods out of their abode and took the throne of heaven. Mahishasura ruled with an iron fist, suppressing devotees of the gods and sending out his fellow demons to wreak havoc. 

In their desperation, the gods went to Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva (the trinity of highest gods of Creation, Maintenance, and Destruction who together formed the one God). They pleaded their woes and humiliations with these greater gods. With their collective energies they created a force of untold power, a force that was at once both inaccessible and invincible. It was not a god that they made, but a goddess, Durga. Durga expressed (and was) the primordial creative female energy of the universe, the source of womanhood and fertility.

Durga went into battle armed with eighteen arms, each carrying one of the gods’ weapon (ranging from Vishnu’s famous spiked discus to the thunderbolt of Indra, the Hindu Zeus counterpart). Mahisha laughed upon seeing the female form of Durga in her bridal dress, but stopped as she made quick work of his thousands of devilish minions and her own laugh caused an earthquake. Mahishasura became worried at the sight of the destruction; he hadn’t specified women in his boon of immortality. Mahisha rushed at her in wild buffalo form, shape-shifting into a lion and elephant as the battle progressed. After ten days of epic combat, Durga noosed the ugly demon king and pierced him with her trident, just as he returned to his normal demon form. Mahishasura’s reign of terror was over, and the world was free once more. 

Over ten days every year in West Bengal and across India, this mythical event of Durga ridding the universe of the demon Mahishasura is commemorated.[1] The city of Calcutta is lit up and reconstructed as everybody stops their normal routine to contribute to the carnival atmosphere. This can include constructing “pandals,” enormous makeshift shrines for Durga (and often, as one finds, not only for Durga, but for everything else in the universe from pop culture (Harry Potter!) to historical figures). Calcutta is transformed as much as a city can be in such a space of time. After the ten days, the enormous Durga idols are submerged into the Hugli River and the city returns to normalcy.

I. Preparation: 

Kumartoli Idol-makers and Wood Skeletons

In one way or another one “lives” the myth, in the sense that one is seized by the sacred, exalting power of the events recollected or re-enacted…What is involved is not a commemoration of mythical events but a reiteration of them.

-Mircea Eliade, Romanian historian of religion and philosopher

A Pandal in construction: members of the community all contribute to its construction, whether financially or through manual labor

Kumartoli Lane: The famous road along which dozens of idol-makers work day and night preceding the days of Puja to create Durga idols[2]

An idolmaker at work

On the Hugli River (a tributary of the sacred Ganga), men perform ritual washing before Puja

II. 10 Days of Utter Madness

Visiting Pandals

My eyes have never been so busy. I mean, there’s always something going, ‘Look at me!’

-Karl Pilkington in An Idiot Abroad on India

During the ten days of puja, the city is transformed. The few inches that you had on the metro become millimeters if anything at all, and the hour-long commute becomes an hour and a half. Pandals spontaneously erupt, and an all-night carnival atmosphere presides, with massive speakers (playing Bollywood and oldies) and food stands lining the streets all night. Over the fortnight, we went from pandal to pandal, each one distinct from the other with its own theme, across the city.

A priest performs rites for the Durga idol, seated on her animal vehicle of the lion

At some pandals, by our conservative count, there were half a million people flowing through in six hours

Durga is married to Shiva, the god of destruction. One of their two sons is Ganesh (the round-tummied elephant-headed god), who is a central feature of most pandals.

The Mullik Ghat flower market under the howrah bridge: one of the most colorful places on earth is full of bundles of flower ropes for miles

Depictions of Durga can get pretty abstract and psychadelic

The kitchen-sink approach to pandals

A pandal in the mall amidst Nike and Levi’s

North Cal’s winding backstreets [3]

Overpopulated metro stations are the norm

Gettin street ‘paan’: flavorful and supposedly psychoactive street tobacco and spices rolled in betel leaves left in the cheek

Bengali potbellies get only rounder during Puja (as if seeking to imitate the sweet circular rasagulas desserts). The general tradition is buffet at a restaurant for lunch.

III. What goes up…

Bijoya Dashami, Immersion, and the Aftermath

India is not, as people keep calling it, an underdeveloped country, but rather, in the context of its history and cultural heritage, a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay.
― Shashi Tharoor, author and Member of the Parliament of India

On the tenth day of Durga Puja, Bijoya Dashami, these grand forms of Durga are submerged into the Hugli river.

As the idol’s put into the water, people exclaim, “Jai Ma Durga!”

Pollution of the Hugli River is a huge environmental issue. In decades past, with a smaller population, immersion was feasible. Today, many idols leech inks into the already-polluted Hugli.

A special cordoned-off path to the Hugli river for pandals that are too big to be taken out without a crane.
The only people allowed in here are people carrying pandals, so I jumped on one with a friend visiting from Ranchi, Ashutosh. While carrying the huge wooden idol, I scratched myself with one of the rusty nails that was poking out. Luckily Calcutta Kids has a great weekly immunization program weekly (which included tetanus shots) so I slipped between two babies in line and got a health worker to inject me.

The Crane

The process of immersion, of “visarjun” reflects a cyclical worldview- what has come goes away, and then is built up once more next year. The mythological significance can be read on a couple different levels. First (symbolically speaking), Durga, garbed in the traditional red sari, is a married woman. Most of her time, she spends up in the home of her husband Shiva (the destroyer god) up on Mount Kailash in the Himalayas. Like a bride visiting the home of her parents, Durga spends ten days here on earth and then must return to the heavenly home she’s created with her husband. On a more abstract level, the immersion of the idol can signify the dissolution of mind/body duality into a ‘universal oneness’- a viewpoint that all things are the same in their essence.

You see, the Indians also had a river that separates the land of the living from the land of the dead. But you don’t cross it once. You go to and fro endlessly. It was called the Vaitarani. You go again and again and again. Because, you see, nothing lasts forever in India, not even death. And so, you have these grand rituals where great images of mother goddesses are built and worshiped for 10 days … And what do you do at the end of 10 days? You dunk it in the river. Because it has to end. And next year, she will come back.What goes around always comes around, and this rule applies not just to man, but also the gods. You see, the gods have to come back again and again and again as Ram, as Krishna. Not only do they live infinite lives, but the same life is lived infinite times till you get to the point of it all.

“Groundhog Day.”

-Devdutt Pattanaik, mythologist and author

Unless otherwise stated, I took all the pictures on this blog post. 


[1] In full disclosure, I don’t take this story literally, and I don’t think that’s the way to understand myths. On its face, An eighteen-armed red-dress wearing goddess fighting a shape-shifting demon in an inter-dimensional battle royale seems a little unrealistic to me. However, while they may not seem “true” in a literal, fact-based sense, these mythic stories hold metaphorical and symbolic truths in another sense altogether: the kind that affects the way we see each other and the world and what we consider sacred. Like Picasso said about art, myth can be viewed as the lie that reveals the truth.

[2] Idol-making is both a competition and a long-time religious tradition. Like hand-woven Italian suits, hand-shaped clay idols are being rendered obsolete by newer technologies. Today, idols that are hand-made (instead of by fiberglass) are not pragmatic but an ode to artistry. An NYTimes article written about it: As Kolkata Gears Up for Durga Puja, a Rift between Idol-Makers

[3] We trekked through North Calcutta’s winding roads to search for a giant pandal (which, of course, was not even close to where the city-sponsored maps indicated). To add to the confusion, the police blocked off the main roads. Down one lane, deep in conversation with a friend, I paid no attention to my surroundings. It was only halfway through this dark, dimly lit street that I realized there was something strange about this street: there weren’t many men. I looked at the women, dressed in the customary saris, sitting on their stoops; instead of looking away as is normal in most of India, they pierced me with intense stares. The friend I was talking to came to the realization at the same time as me: we were in the red light district of Calcutta. It’s one of the largest in Asia, and a hub of sex trafficking and high in STI rates. The film Born into Brothels about the red light district of Kolkata won the Academy Award for best documentary in 2005.

Like the Sharp Edge of a Razor

Scenes of the Howrah slums (Top: shacks by the railroad. Bottom right: a bangle factory)

To Undo Your Belt and Look for Trouble

Ms. Emelda Allen eyed me judgmentally from head to toe. “The rains have come late this year, but they have come strongly, no?” She stated this nonchalantly, in a strain of English that one only heard from those Indians who had decades of interactions with British nuns. Then, flipping her sari over her shoulder, she waded in. “Walk in the middle. It’s shallower.”

I hesitated and at the same time tried not to show my hesitation. Ms Allen and Seema-di, one of the community health workers essential to Calcutta Kids’ mission, were leading me through Fakir Bagan, one of many illegal settlements that have sprouted up along the railroad tracks running toward the main train station of Howrah, Calcutta’s sister city across the Hooghly river. These slums are full of migrants from other parts of the country, mostly from neighboring states like Jharkhand or Uttar Pradesh but some as far as Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, who come looking for jobs and economic prosperity.

We were walking door-to-door visiting the homes of pregnant women where the health workers, including Seema, explained to the expecting mothers what they should be doing to ensure their health, and their child’s health.  She cajoled the mothers on a variety of essential topics: what they should eat, how they should rest, where to register for the delivery, and what medications they could take. Here, poverty was as much expressed in the form of lacking knowledge as money.

Ms Emelda Allen, part of the support staff at Calcutta Kids

Leaning down, I rolled up my already-drenched pant legs up to my knees. I wasn’t sure it’d be enough. Should’ve brought an umbrella, I thought, but then again the blazing heat just a half-hour ago had given no indication of the ferocious monsoon storms that were in store for us[1]. They never did. I looked ahead: a gray pool was gradually rising and overflowing from the sewers. This pool had some kind of nebulous black clouds floating in it, along with the occasional empty bottle or stray dog.[2] I would later be informed that this was normal for a hard rain in Fakir Bagan; the feeble infrastructure was simply not capable of handling it, and the massive flooding was a regular feature of life there. I looked to where Ms. Allen was, and followed her down the middle to the next home, the sullied water rising up my legs. It was my first day working with Calcutta Kids.

A man unplugs the sewers after the flooding

Risky Business: Welcome to Calcutta

“Life is best organized as a series of daring ventures from a secure base.”

John Bowlby, British psychoanalyst

Over the last month or so in Calcutta, I’ve been thinking consistently about the idea of risk. Whether it was stepping into murky water in a flooding slum or jumping to catch the (most likely) last bus back to South Calcutta while it’s still moving [3], or even just taking a walk back from the office to the clinic[4], I’ve come to a general conclusion about this:

I take on more risk here in an hour than I would in a month at home in Cleveland. More risk in a month here than a lifetime in the States.  

Not his finest moment on the silver screen…
(Bubble Boy. Dir by Blair Hayes. Touchstone Pictures. 2001).

Most of our lives we rightly attempt to mitigate risk, especially the risk of our eventual death. Insurance, seat belts, occupational work standards are all protocols that have made our environment safer, lengthened lifespans, allowed our bodies to be more secure from physical harm. But the truth is, we human beings are horrible at understanding and perceiving real risks for what kills us. We have, as TIME magazine noted, an “old brain in a new world”:

These two impulses–to engage danger or run from it–are constantly at war and have left us with a well-tuned ability to evaluate the costs and payoffs of short-term risk, say Slovic and others. That, however, is not the kind we tend to face in contemporary society.”[5]

We’re biased in our fears of potential threats, with flair for the dramatic[6] and a focus on the emotional emotional[7], but a tendency to undercount the abstract and long-term (global warming comes to mind). But even with our deeply embedded irrationality, the U.S. and most nations included in the category of the developed world have done an overall decent job of mitigating and spreading risk.

Here in Calcutta though, it’s more of a mixed bag. I think of every passing man-drawn rickshaw[8] as I walk in the city, with their spikes poking out menacingly, inches from my calves. First, selfishly, I think of the terrible plight that would befall me if a spike were to scratch my leg. I briefly imagine the rust breaking off into my bloodstream, the terrible tetanus affliction, and a dingy hospital room where I’d wait for hours for treatment. Then, less selfishly, I remember that people live their entire lives with this risk or even greater risk.
We can look at life expectancy, an admittedly crude indicator of how well a society’s doing in terms of avoiding mortality and morbidity. Over 100 years ago, in the United States, the life expectancy for a baby at birth that was male was 47.9, and female was 50.7 (CRS Report for Congress, 2006). That means I’d be expected to be six feet under in a little under three decades from today, and in two years I’d have my mid-life crisis. Today, of course, those numbers are at 74.8 and 80.1 respectively. In India, the life expectancy ranges from 58.0 to 74.0, averaging out to 65.1.

But that’s an average. In the slums, the life expectancy is closer to some familiar numbers: 47 for men and 51 for women. It’s almost exactly what America had a hundred years ago (pre- water filtration, when people still died in the U.S. of dysentery Oregon Trail-style from heading west). Worldwide, one-seventh of us (meaning the global population) will soon be in slums with conditions not unlike the kind I encounter daily in Fakir Bagan (UN Habitat Report: State of the World’s Cities 2008). Risks abound here, and it plays a clear and central role in the lives people are able to live.

That, in the end, is essentially what Calcutta Kids is doing as well. They enter this game of risk in the middle of a mother’s life and the beginning of a child’s, through nutrition, immunization, check-ups with an on-staff physician, and regular meetings with our health workers to make sure that all the necessary health behaviors are being followed. Indeed, any healthcare in its essence is trying to reduce the risk of death or illness.[9]

Life of course is fraught with risks everywhere. What I’m coming to realize is that we have to take the decision as to which risks are acceptable and which are not. Any industry or organization without any risk of failure, like some bureaucracies I’ve encountered here, enters a sort of living death, a zombie mode of complacency and slow-moving fans. This happens equally in individuals as well. I think it boils down to not accepting risks that cripple our ability to live freely and with capability, while also understanding and even embracing the risks that enable life and living itself.


Sanity Check

On the Howrah Bridge

“The attitude is not to withdraw from the world when you realize how horrible it is, but to realize that this horror is simply the foreground of a wonder and to come back and participate in it.”

Joseph Campbell, mythologist

The sensory overload, though wasn’t limited to just my first day. Assault has come from every angle over the last month. Along with physical risks to bodily health, there’s a not insignificant risk of going mad from two main culprits: overstimulation and bureaucracy.

We tend to compartmentalize things pretty clearly in America and the developed world. Factories are in this district, restaurants are over there. Cute, suburban McMansioned neighborhoods are cordoned off from nefarious elements like waste dumps. Here, on the other hand, the smell of feces and body odor, human sweat and exhaust fumes, freely mixes with the sweet aroma of freshly boiled chai or the delicate fragrance of tamarind and mint water for delicious street-side pani-puri. In the slums, within an even more compressed space, bangle factories are adjacent to homes and restaurants, pseudometallic toxins leeching into the air, the workers’ faces maskless and their hands gloveless. The pink clothing dyes run into the streetside sewers, out of which a goat sips.

Terracotta cups with chai during a downpour

Ragda Patties (Photo courtesy of Sriya Sriyakrishnan)

Despite the horror in such a scene, there is a beauty to life in Calcutta, in the slums and the city. It’s absolutely the most photographable city I’ve ever been to, the people are friendly and prone to debate (Addas, in which men sit for hours and discuss politics late into the night on the curb smoking beedis and drinking, are common. If nothing else, I’m going to weasel my way into an adda before I leave, whether I know Bengali or not.), Some of the street food I’ve had, when measured in pure, unadulterated pleasure, is better than five-star fine-dining.

On the other hand, a mental health risk of Calcutta that has no beauty is the extensive red-tape. It’s there for every task from getting internet to getting registered to get into the country. In my frustration, I jotted down a haiku:

Beady eyes, head bald

Need Form B, does not exist

Brown bureaucracy…

An example of the phenomenon: I forgot my phone at a shop, where it was miraculously deposited to the local police station. After a long and convoluted conversation on a friend’s phone, finally figuring out that it was at the police station, I made a trip there (where it was, of course, not at the address the officer gave me on the phone). In the office, there were seven officers “assigned” to my case of the lost phone. For six of them, this work involved staring at me, not believing that I didn’t know Bengali despite my brown skin, and for the other, gradually sipping on chai waiting for another officer who knew what to do. When the officer finally came, he unloaded on me with everything he knew about America (“my brother is in California!”) and insisted at the same time I wouldn’t have to do any of the usual paperwork since I was a countryman (I wasn’t about to speak up then about my U.S. passport sitting on his desk). Then he proceeded to dictate to me a letter for official purposes, that I began scribing word for word. Here it is, reproduced below, in his words and in my handwriting:

To the Officer-in Charge

Hare Street Police Station

Kolkata, West Bengal

Sir,

I, S. Pranav M.A. Reddy, son of Satti Sethu Reddy of Tadepalligudem, Andhra Pradesh inform you that this day (October 5, 2012) I came to K.C. Das shop to have a dessert with friends and carelessly forgot my mobile phone (it was an iPhone Apple edition) to take with me when I left the place. Later, I come to know through a friend and colleague, Mr. Hunter Gros, that the phone has been deposited to this police station as informed by the on duty officer Sub Inspector Sohail. I came to this place and after verifying me through proper procedures conducted by aforementioned sub inspector, the phone was handed over to me for which I am really very much grateful[10].

Yours faithfully,

Pranav Reddy

Needless to say, I made sure I snapped a picture of the letter when 6 of the 7 officers weren’t looking (you can’t win em all). The experience is surreal in a Kafkaesque way, and can even be fun if undertaken with a sense of irony. Survival here requires being both detached and deeply attached, being both a spectator and having skin in the game.

Check out my blog and others on the AIF blog website, where you can catch the experiences of AIF Clinton Fellows.  One of my favorites this month: Brian Tronic working for People’s Watch, a human rights org in Madurai: What good are human rights?

Unless otherwise stated, I took all the pictures on this blog post. ___________________________________________________________________________

[1] By ‘us’, I am including my friend Sriya. Sriya is my partner AIF Clinton Fellow placed at Calcutta Kids, a graduate of Brandeis originally from Bombay, and working on a project related to behavioral change communication. She also has near infinite patience, judging by her sympathetic efforts to translate Hindi for me.

[2]At this moment, I had fairly vivid flashbacks to studying for Parasitology at OSU. I thought about what a petri dish would look like from a single droplet from the gray pool, and then about what kind of strains could potentially be growing. Wasn’t it Giardia? I vaguely remembered it being water-borne and causing some nasty stomach issues (but don’t they all?).

I should also add, when I told him about this, my dad sent me this note: “Living without knowing the risks is one thing (as most of the people in the slums) living carelessly when one knows the risks is another. A deadly infection is a good antidote for all the romanticism.” Ahem, point noted.

[3]Buses, for either getting on or off, only stop for women, not for men (as a rule of thumb). I’ve thought about buying a wig and a sari for my daily commute.

[4]On any given walk, it’s possible that a brick might fall from the sky at any moment, as it already has once a few feet from me, or that a bus (not meant for these narrow and impromptu streets) might run me over flat, as it almost has more than once.

[5]“How Americans are Living Dangerously” TIME Magazine. Nov 26, 2006. (http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1562978,00.html)

[6]Imagine the fear against car accidents if it happened in one fell swoop like planes crashes: each year there’s 40,000 fatalities from cars and 200 from planes. Yet fear of flying afflicts more of us than fear of driving ever does.

[7]In Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, he quotes researcher Paul Slovic:
“’Risk’ does not exist ‘out there,’ independent of our minds and culture, waiting to be measured. Human beings have invented the concept of ‘risk’ to help them understand and cope with the dangers and uncertainties of life. Although these dangers are real, there is no such thing as ‘real risk’ or objective risk.’
In his book, he details how research Slovic did showed that research subjects thought that tornadoes caused more deaths than asthma, even though asthma kills 20 times as many people.
[8]Calcutta is the only city in the world that still has the archaic man-drawn rickshaw (that’s not just for tourists like Hong Kong). There’ve been numerous attempts within the city by human rights groups to ban them, to no success. Despite their callous nature, I saw their usefulness when the main roads flooded, and the only traffic movement was from the carts that weren’t electrical. I still refuse to use them, and to quote Simon Winchester’s Calcutta: “The city is deeply embarrassed by their very existence. How can it project itself to the world as a successful and cosmopolitan city when it still exploits people quite so blatantly and inhumanely as to use them as human mules?”

[9]This is, admittedly, a negative view of healthcare, focused on the disease and pathogen prevention(“pathogenesis”) part of the equation. The sociologist Aaron Antonovsky came up with a profound insight into health from his studies on resilient Holocaust survivors: a new focus on what made healthy groups healthy and how they managed ever-present stress, instead of the traditional focus on disease. He called it “salutogenesis.”

[10]Yes, he actually made me write that at the end.

Tagged ,

By Way of Introduction

We have left India behind us at Howrah Station, and now we enter foreign parts. No, not wholly foreign. Say rather too familiar.

Rudyard Kipling, English author and poet

The Setting: Kolkata, West Bengal, India

India is a country of many paradoxes, goes the honest cliché. For anyone who’s ever visited, it’s a little bit disorienting. Viewing it from my American eyes, and my limited experience in India, it’s insane that anything works at all. The flow of traffic, for example, is spontaneous and yet seemingly calculated[1]; like blood flow in capillaries, the pressure gradually builds until one side of the intersection bursts forward in a gush. I’m usually in a state of constant amazement. The senses are overwhelmed with smells (delicious and disgusting) and sights (colorful and mundane), and somehow it all becomes coherent. The line between ugliness and beauty, chaos and order, symphony and cacophony are blurred, and all the while life progresses. Tagore, seeking to explain this phenomenon, stated, “To a western observer our civilization appears as all metaphysics as to a deaf man piano playing appears to be mere movements of fingers and no music.”[2]

The Festival of Colors, Holi, at Howrah Bridge, the Golden Gate of Calcutta
(Creative Commons)

Calcutta, within this landscape of extremes, is one of the most extreme cities. I’ve never been, but these are the most common reactions, in order of frequency, I’ve gotten from family and friends who have been to Bengal:

  1. Eye-widening and a general sense of disbelief that I was voluntarily going to Calcutta
  2. Descriptions of the crowdedness (the greater urban area has 14.1 million people without, obviously, great urban planning- and that’s what’s on the books. That’s more than the state of Ohio in one small, cramped area) or intense heat/humidity.
  3. Opinions of the food as either delicious or horrible, depending mostly on a person’s opinion of seafood. (“Rice and fish make a Bengali” the saying goes. The other phrase I’ve heard is “Give a Bengali a fish, and he’ll feed his family. Teach a Bengali to fish, and there won’t be any fish left.”)
  4. Waxing poetic: Calcutta was (and is?) the cultural capital of India, and produced the greatest artists (the director Satyajit Ray, for example, who influenced Martin Scorcese, Wes Anderson, and George Lucas)[3], authors, musicians (George Harrison’s bud sitar great Ravi Shankar), and poets (along with revolutionaries, when those were actually needed). There’s a kind of artistic and intellectual gene that runs through the populace of Calcutta.

As for me, I had little expectations of Calcutta (or Kolkata speaking bureaucratically)[4] other than that it was the home of the Hulk in his off-season.

According to The Avengers at least…
(The Avengers. Dir. Joss Whedon. Marvel Studios, 2012.)

What I did know of Calcutta, though, was what most people know about it: a site of enormous and unparalleled poverty and deprivation, and a place of similarly huge service and compassion from visiting missionaries (but one that would never be sufficient to ease the massive suffering). Mother Teresa is the dominant figure of course, with her slogan of “Calcutta is my workshop.” The Albanian-origin, Roman-Catholic nun won the Nobel Peace Prize, and served as an inspiring example of dedicating one’s life to helping the less fortunate. In my home as a child, as in many homes across the globe, Mother Teresa was put up as an icon and someone to imitate for dedicating her life to bettering the lives of others.[5] Despite complication around her legacy in Calcutta and on so-called development work in general, the purity of her motivations cannot be denied (and have been sanctified, it should be noted, by the Catholic Church through her beatification).[6]

(Creative Commons)

What I’m Doing in Kolkata   Why I’m Doing What I’m Doing in Kolkata

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” 

Kurt Vonnegut

Why exactly am I going halfway across the world? I definitely won’t be vacationing (which is the first thing the undiplomatic stewardess apparently thought as she saw my final destination of Calcutta: “Enjoy your vacation!”). And I’m definitely not voyaging into heavily unknown territory to play pick-up street soccer for a year (although that’s an added benefit, since West Bengal is the only state in India to sometimes privilege football over cricket).

Looks like this guy doesn’t believe in slacking post-presidency
(Creative Commons)

Officially speaking, I’m an America India Foundation (AIF) William J. Clinton Fellow for Service. AIF places fellows with organizations (mostly non-profit and businesses with a social bent) working in India in a broad subset of fields, including human rights, education, alternative energy, and public health. I’m working with Calcutta Kids, a group that works with the health of mothers and children in the Fakir Bagan slum across the bridge in Howrah. Reading the story of their creation from Calcutta Kids’ founder Noah Levinson is worthwhile, and it gives keen perspective into the driving force of Calcutta Kids. It’s riveting, and thoughtful, and part of the reason why I put down Calcutta Kids as my top choice in the matching process.[7]

But the “what” interests me less in this post (since I’m sure will be covered in future posts in excruciating detail), than the “why,” and especially concerning that last tricky word in the too-long job title : Service.

It gives me pause whenever I undertake something someone classifies as “service.”[8].It troubles me for two reasons, both having to do with the ugly reality of the existence of my Ego:

  • How much of this is just to create an image of myself for others?
  • Am I doing this to make myself feel better about myself? And create my own sense of self-worth? (The old White Man’s Burden problem, but I guess in this case it would be the Brown Man’s Burden.)

These two questions bother me, and itch at me slightly, and of course there’s a certain irony to exploring these questions through the blogosphere. A third motivation, a non-egotistical one, is doing service compassionately, by which I mean for its own sake without expectation of any reward. I try to navigate myself on this third drive everyday, but I fail constantly. Self-interest exists, and individuals and organizations are driven by it, and I don’t deny it or think it’s ugly. But I do believe there is a way of living that all enlightened individuals, from Christ to King Jr., have hinted at that goes beyond self-interest. Figuring out when my motivations fall into this third category isn’t easy, and neither is discerning whether I’m doing something for the right reason. Part of my own reasoning goes back to a familial history, one that begins in an agricultural landscape.

This was my grandfather. A Cliffnotes version of his life: He grew up in rural Andhra Pradesh. His father worked on a farm, and his father’s father worked on a farm. My grandfather, however, had different plans, and different ambitions for the future. He studied hard, traveled to the New World with his family and few connections, and became a university physics professor.

We all have this story at some point in our familial history; a story of sacrifice and risk in order to ensure the next generation lives better lives. It’s a universal desire: people want to better their circumstances, both for themselves and for their families. My deepest motivator is to help people do that for themselves, and the way I’m doing it is by being involved with improving health, a key prerequisite for accomplishing any of those things.

In the end, I feel fortunate. Forget the “1%”; anyone reading this with a computer, including me, is in the top 0.00001% of human lives that have ever graced the face of the earth. But on the other side of feeling fortunate as the recipient of the benefits of someone else’s struggle, I also feel a sense of deep obligation and responsibility stemming from living a life that was gifted, a life of relative abundance.

“There’s always delays.” That’s what everyone complains about. “Air travel’s too slow.” New York to LA in six hours. They used to take thirty years to do that! And a bunch of you would die on the way there…
-Louis CK

What to Expect

From the get-go, I’ll try to promise two ideals that I’ll try to reach for, but probably won’t reach fully in every post: Authenticity and Interestingness.

I place a premium on honesty, and I hope that this blog, as a reflection of my experience, will ring true. The name: “City of Dreadful Joy” is an amalgamation of “City of Joy” (the official governmental nickname of Calcutta) and “City of Dreadful Night” (the considerably less flattering nickname given by The Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling when he visited Calcutta). I want to present reality as it is, not as I want or hope it to be. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The glass here isn’t half-full, or half-empty. It’s just a half glass of water.

The second, interestingness, is also dependent on you and your attention span (which, if you’re this far, you’re doing pretty good). But I refuse to blog everyday (“Here’s my breakfast today, again!” or “Here’s the crazy traffic, again!”), and will probably be posting once a month, with longer posts like this one.

To sum up, when I spoke to people, what I heard was that the whole enterprise sounded painful. Why suffer through unbearable heat and overpopulated buses? Why attempt to engage in the “development” process, and join Calcutta Kids to ensure access to health for mothers and children? Why go through all of this trouble?  To respond to them I can only quote a wiser man than I:

Trouble?! Life is trouble. Only death is not trouble. To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble.

Zorba the Greek

Please also check out my blog on the official AIF website, where you can catch the experiences of AIF Clinton Fellows placed all over India doing fascinating work: http://www.aifclintonfellowship.org/blog/?p=4550


[2] Quoted from a great primer on India by Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India. Rabindranath Tagore was a brilliant author, painter, and musician from Calcutta who won the Nobel Prize for Literature and wrote the national anthems of not one, but two countries: India and Bangladesh. He’s also considered India’s first modernist.

[3] Martin Scorcese on Satyajit Ray’s influence: “I was in high school and I happened to see ‘Pather Panchali’ on television. Dubbed in English. With commercials. “It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter. The image of the Indian culture we had had before, and I’m talking I was 14 years old or 15 years old, were usually through colonialist eyes. And when Satyajit Ray did his films you suddenly understood not the culture, because the culture was so complex, but you became attached to the culture through the people, and it didn’t matter what they were speaking, what they were wearing, what their customs were. Their customs were very, very interesting and surprising, and you suddenly began to realize there are other cultures in the world.” -Washington Post, February 28, 2002

[4] Indian cities switch their name to more “authentic” spellings and pronunciations depending on how they feel about the whole “British colonization and domination” period of their history. See also: Bombay/Mumbai, Madras/Chennai, Bangalore/Bengaluru. There’s about thirty more where those came from. Indians (very generally speaking) have mixed feelings about the abuses of colonialism, but are usually positive about the benefits of trains, tea time, and the language of English.

[5] An interesting anecdote from Calcutta: A Cultural History: “At a rudimentary rehabilitation center for refugees from Bangladesh, Senator Edward Kennedy spotted one of Mother Teresa’s nuns, Sister Agnes, washing the clothes of a cholera patient and wanted to shake her hand. When she said her hands were dirty, he replied: ‘The dirtier they are the more honored I am.’”

[6]The recently passed-away writer/public intellectual/New Athiest Christopher Hitchens (who I almost never agree with but always enjoy reading) wrote a full book of condemnation entitled, ahem, “The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.” People native to Calcutta have mixed opinions: “The main reason for discomfort is that Mother Teresa made Calcutta synonymous with poverty and slums in the mind of non-Indians.” (Calcutta: A Cultural History, Krishna Dutta)

[7]  http://calcuttakids.org/about-us/calcutta-kids-timeline/genesis/

Quote: “Sudip was one of the kids still in line when the medicine and bandages ran out. I remember watching him and feeling particularly bad about his unattended injury. He had bumped his forehead against the head of a rusty nail just days before and urgently needed treatment. Now, a year later, here was Sudip, dying of that head injury and lying on a cot at the Home for Dying Destitutes. I was with Sudip constantly until the following day when he died in my arms.”

[8] For the record, I am being paid a salary through the American India Foundation, enabled by the generous donors to the trust. I am indebted and grateful. It’s an important fact when we’re talking about the notion of selflessness in service.