I felt the difference as soon as I landed in Kolkata. Bengal is different, from Kerala certainly, but also from Mumbai.
Kerala is slower, more humid. The people stare with an intensity that is unnerving, a look that feels almost impossible to read unless a smile suddenly appears which, thank goodness, can happen frequently. The Keralan claim that they are the most literate state in India was not empty. I didn’t encounter one person who didn’t know at least some basic English and everyone I met could write or read. They are also a dapper lot. The men keep their hair short and their mustaches clipped. The women are always well dressed, their sari’s wrapped with care.
In both Kerala and Mumbai, and this is something enigmatic that I’m about to explain, so bear with me, the people generally feel as if they are centered toward their heads. Hmmm? Yes, let me try again. If they were trees, they would be thin trees with their branches dancing in the breeze. It is the branches you would notice.
In Bengal, I sense that these “trees” are weighed down by gravity. The people have a more lived in look, rumpled even. Where Keralites are the young, eager students who think they know everything, the Bengalis are the experienced intellectuals and they wear their deep minds with the heavy lidded look of the wise old professor. Sure I still get stares. But the looks have a heavy dose of indifference thrown in. I don’t get the feeling that smiles will be quite so forthcoming in this neck of the woods.
The caste system is more ensconced up here than it is down South, as well. Santiniketan, a small college town filled with artists and thinkers dedicated to making it’s students and inhabitants not only successful in their fields, but better human beings, has actually put a wall up recently to keep the slums and it’s inhabitants clearly on the outside, unless, of course, they are coming to work for those lucky enough to live on the inside of the wall.
The folks who live where I am staying all have lovely art deco cottages and colorful gardens. The folks on the outside have thatch houses, dust and dirt. They don’t speak English, or probably even Hindi, only Bengali.
Unbeknownst to me before I arrived, this is actually the India I had in my imagination. Even the glimpses of Kolkata which, as you know, I had no intention of seeing, thrilled me to the bone in a way I don’t think Mumbai could. It’s something to do with the light and the dust which work together to create the exact patina I thought India would be tinged with. There are very few auto-rickshaws. Most are powered by bicycles; some are even pulled by men. The streets have just the right look of sagging elegance, the winding streets fit all the pictures I’d stored in my memory from movies set in India.
On the train to Santiniketan I started to hear accents that were very clipped, round, proper. It helped that we (Eva, Barbara and I) were in the first-class, air-conditioned car, but absolutely everyone looked like they were off to teach a class in something or other at the university. One older man was wearing a long white Nehru jacket and I half expected Gandhi to come in and sit next to him. Another older professor-looking man was sitting, slouched in his chair, reading Agatha Christie in English, his hair longer and more disheveled than anyone in the South of India would even think of letting their hair get. There was an Indian woman in her late 40s, hair short, make-up done, in a tight t-shirt and jeans, who was very much in charge of her coterie of friends. She had an air of both efficiency and disdain often getting huffy with the children who would come on the car to sweep and beg, as well as, the older folks who would get sentimental and start singing along to the traditional songs played by musicians who earned a rupee or two by playing in the aisles.
When we arrived in Santiniketan, we were greeted by Nandu, the principal of the Antunranga School. A tall, thin man with a wide-open face, he greeted his old friend Eva with joy and love, none of the reserve of the South. He welcomed Barbara and I into the fold, giving Barbra a little more attention, as she is the newly christened volunteer recruiter for the school.
We were shepherded to our cottage, a beautiful 1920’s home we share with a young married couple who are also volunteering with their extended family who is housed on the next block, and our cleaning lady/caretaker, her husband and their 7 year old son who live in a shed out back.
Since Eva and Barbara were kind enough to squeeze me into their quarters, I am on a daybed in the living area but it is my own space at night, cozy and shuttered from the early morning sun.
We spent the afternoon unpacking and hanging mosquito nets and buzzing around each other. Eva and Barbara are somewhat new friends, though they’ve known each other a while. They live in Hamburg and Munich respectively but grew up in the same region of Germany where they spoke a sort of dialect they don’t use all the time in their grown up lives. So there is a lot of chit chatting in German accented by huge guffaws in laughter when they both use some kind of German slang they haven’t’ been able to use in years and years.
They are very gracious and always try and translate, though after two and half days, I’ve assured them that they don’t have to tell me everything because they get very tired having to negotiate with me as an English speaker and our Bengali help. But it makes for an interesting dynamic. I’m temporarily ensconced in their lives, and they in mine, but in order to really be comfortable and to feel at home in our space we have to let language come between us.
Our first night we were all invited to tea at Chandana’s house. Chandana is the volunteer co-coordinator, among other things, for several small schools here in Santiniketan. I would guess she is somewhere in her 50’s. She has lived in England and Switzerland so has both a Western and Eastern hospitality. Her party was like something out of a movie. We sat in the garden outside of her little cottage as the sun set. Smart Indian men and women mingled with a few Americans, Germans, English visitors and volunteers. Tea was served in disposable ceramic cups and food was served on plates made of leaves which would also be discarded at the end of the meal.
I spoke with one man, Satish, who was headed to Kerala. He and his wife are the caretakers of our cottage and also run a shop and café in town. They used to be bankers or something in Mumbai and they have a worldly air. Satish and I discussed the oddity of being in the keralan backwaters. I mentioned that it had reminded me of the aliens watching Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five.
Satish, “Kurt Vonnegut. Yes. It has been a very long time since I have heard anyone discuss Kurt Vonnegut. He was very popular when I was a student. Yes.”
I talked to a very beautiful and well-worn older woman whose name escapes me. She is, I’ve since been told, the heart of Santiniketan. An artist, this woman has lived all over the world, staging protests, and told me she had once been on trial in Seattle in the 1970s for protesting Trident.
Perhaps you are beginning to appreciate a little bit of the shift I’ve experience moving up north, or at least to Santiniketan. The people here are dug in, rooted into using their minds, into shifting the world, shaping the world.
I find this, obviously, a bit difficult to explain. The energy of this place has tilted my axis, my own mode of processing. I feel less in my head and more rooted in my senses. I am in the midst of some kind of energetic expansion of not only my view of India, but also my view of the world.
I start “work” this afternoon and hope to be in more of a schedule where I can carve time to write, fear not. But it might take me a few days to find my footing.