It always seemed to me that our globe is westernized and popculture symbols as iconic as the Beatles, logo of the Rolling Stones and picture of smiling Marilyn Monroe are known in every corner of our planet. Perhaps not to the same extent, but still! You can imagine then how great my amazement was when walking through the streets of Calcutta I discovered completely different world! Like from another planet! It seemed to me that I’ve got prepared for this culture shock. After all, I read a lot of books with underlying theme of India. I also watched at least a dozen or so Bollywood movies and divers number episodes of travel programs filmed in Asia. However, it seems that the Indian reality cannot compare with any imagination! Probably nothing can prepare for what we will see and what we will experience in India!
Well, I have to admit that my subconscious expectations of India were somewhat distorted. Why so?
First of all, one of my favourites childhood novels was A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett and Around the world in 80 days by Jules Verne. In both of these books, India has been presented as a far away mysterious land, full of heavy scents, bright colors and diamond mines. On the one hand, wild and uncivilized. On the other, as a place where castles and palaces are inhabited by princesses dressed in ethereal silks and maharajas wearing soft shoes set with precious stones.
Secondly, as I mentioned above, I’ve been watching too many of Bollywood movies. Hence, I secretly hoped to be greeted with some sort of spontaneous street flash mob of the multicolored crowd. Well … not on my life!
How does this all have to reality?
Contemporary India has nothing to do with any of these visions. Certainly it is a country of contrasts, where the most dirty and dressed in rags poverty exists next to the greatest splendor. Today India is also known as one of the largest suppliers of high-tech advanced staff. And it’s not just call centers! Currently the largest international corporations have their IT department in India!
What were my first impressions of India?
At the very beginning it is worth noting that India is a huge and very diverse country. Its area is almost 1/3 of the Europe. In addition, India is a union republic, which consists of 29 states and 7 dependent territories, each culturally different, each with a different official language, even with different alphabets!
India is also a place where the three word’s largest religions mix: local Hinduism, Christianity brought from Europe and Islam – the remnant of the Muggle empire. Therefore, depending on where we go, our experiences may be completely different!
Kolkata or Calcutta? My beginning of adventure in the capital of West Bangol
We started our adventure in India from Calcutta, a city with an extremely interesting cultural and historical profile.
Calcutta is a city in eastern India and the capital of West Bengal. East Bengal is a contemporary Bangladesh, which was separated from the territory of India after they regained their independence in 1947. It was then when as a part of a new system also new territories were created. Territories where all Muslim population was supposed to be moved to. This system was arranged and designed, among others, by Mahatma Ghandi and it was supposed to provide India with security and relative peace. This is also how West Pakistan, contemporary Pakistan, was created.
On the other hand, Calcutta was the capital of British India until 1912 and many Europeans lived here back in the day. This is how the Christianity arrived and popularized across the city later on. Its significance was also enhanced by the role of Mother Teresa who led intense charity activity in Calcutta and for which she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. Amongst the inhabitants of Calcutta, Mother Theresa is a highly respected figure.
I will just yet explain that in 2001 the name of Calcutta was changed to Kolkata in order to be more in line with the pronunciation in the locals and Bengali language. However, I will remain ignorant here, because I like the name ‘Calcutta’ much more. So don’t be surprised by my constant use of this old term.
Plenty of people … Dude! They are everywhere!
I remember one episode of The Big Bang Theory when Raj in fear of deportation complains that he doesn’t want to go back to India. There are so many people! Seriously dude, they are everywhere! – he says. These words are in my head every time I think of my time in India. This description is absolutely perfect! However, to understand the meaning of these words, you really need to experience it the hard way! Especially in Calcutta, where people are literally everywhere! Businessmen hurrying down the streets, hawkers praising their products, shopkeepers eating at street stalls during their breaks and the poorest inhabitants of Calcutta sleeping just on the sidewalks or in the street slums. There are also chickens, cows and a lot of stray dogs roaming around this whole mess. Sometimes it is difficult to walk the pavement.
For this picture you can add also rickety buses stuffed with people to the limit. Cars moving without connection to any traffic regulations so you cannot hope anyone will stop to let you cross the street (it’s best to cut and run to the other side as soon as possible!). There are also pulled rickshaws, cycle rickshaws and auto rickshaws so called with this funny name of tuk-tuks.
These are the streets of Calcutta.
For an even greater illustration of the situation in this city I will use the numbers now and knowledge from Wikipedia. The population of Calcutta is well over 5 million people living on 185 km². This means that there are 27 462 per one square kilometer! Can you imagine such a huge number of people gathered at 1 square kilometer?! For comparison, the density of population in London is 5 590 people per square kilometer, and in Warsaw – 3 391. It makes vanilla seem spicy, doesn’t it?
A country of huge differences
For many centuries in India there was a caste system and to this day its traces are present in the culture of India. Although nowadays it has been considerably softened by the principles introduced in the days of the Britishes, it still divides the society into better and worse ones. Sometimes unrelated to the level of education or material situation.
Moreover, the differences in material status are really enormous! In India, there are people who actually live for $1 a day next to the people, who pay more for one meal in the restaurant than the first ones will earn in a month! In India, there is no minimum wage system and ridiculous money is paid for services. Will you believe that I paid only 30 Indian rupees for repairing my travel bag with a broke handle?! That’s about 1.50 of Polish zlotys, and 32 pence!
Shorts to the wardrobe my darling and better throw something on your shoulders!
Are you packing for a trip to India? Girls, what can I advise, it makes no sense to take too many European clothes. Believe me!
I admit that in the first few days I tried to dress just as much as I would dress anywhere else. Of course, I did not wear any short dresses or shorts or even t-shirts with straps. On the one hand, because I could get a serious ‘beak-burn’ in the Indian sunshine, and I do not like that damn! On the other hand, even wearing jeans and long skirts, I was one of the biggest street attractions. First of all, I was a head higher than the average citizen of Calcutta, which with my 1,60 in a hat is quite a feat. Secondly, my red head distinctly distinguished from Hindu hair black as coal. So it was completely unnecessary for me to stand out from the crowd even more. I quickly bought Indian clothes and next time I will think about some reasonable headgear.
Many times in media I met with not very favorable opinion about the necessity of wearing local clothes or the outrage that Indian people stare at a European girl in jeans. Because how women can be treated that way? It is that hot and they cannot wear short dresses or shorts?! Well … of course they can. At least in India, nobody formally prohibits it. However, it is naive to count on the fact that we will be passed up unnoticed. Especially in the less touristic parts of the country, where the Europeans were simply not seen. Hindu just do not wear shorts or dresses, even jeans are not very popular. The only solution here is to accept how things are. The world is different and that is the most beauty of it! Besides, not everyone looks good with a ‘beak-burn’, so seriously, better throw something on your shoulders!
How do Hindu women dress in Calcutta?
I was really surprised by the fact that Western style of clothing is not very popular on the streets of India. At least not in Calcutta. The only thing I could see on the streets is jeans and the most-ordinary t-shirt with short sleeves. And rather on young girls.
Everyday style for women of Bangladesh is a colorful tunics worn to long-legs leggings fancifully fitted at the bottom or sirwal known also as harem-pants and with a matching color light scarf fancifully thrown over the shoulders. Sari is a much more traditional outfit and usually worn on special occasions. On a daily basis, it is worn as a formal outfit.
And me amongst all of it!
How do you like this first meeting with India? More Indian stories soon!
Thanks for reading!