Let me begin with a clarification to a question I have received a lot lately –Calcutta and Kolkata are the same place. I am not in some remote village with a name that is similar to that of the big city. Since India gained independence from British rule just over 50 years ago, the national people have been deliberate in working towards restoring their heritage. This endeavour has included changing the names, or spellings, of several cities including Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and Chennai (formerly Madras).
Until recently I had not had the opportunity to explore Kolkata. I have obviously become familiar with the area in which I work – which is on Park Street in the very heart of the city. Some locals quip that it is the “Manhattan” of Kolkata. The streets here are always teeming with human traffic and the bustle of a downtown core. Countless shops, restaurants, cafes, chai wallas (tea vendors) and businesses line the street. The contrast between Park Street and Lower Circular Road, where I stayed during my first month, is remarkable. Though only 10 minutes apart when walking, they are worlds apart in regards to the living conditions.
Here on LC Road you will see naked children rummaging through dumpsters collecting scrap metal, people bathing in large puddles that form around pipes which line the road and never stop flowing, and people sleeping in the median in the road using a brick for a pillow. On Park you can buy a new Mercedes. In an alley (which I obliviously used to take as a short-cut) just off of LC Road, you can buy anything from a market known as “Thief’s Bazaar”…where you can purchase items which were obtained with a five-finger discount. Kolkata is full of contrasts.
Contrast is the best word to describe life here. The world media made Kolkata synonymous with poverty by focusing on the work of Mother Teresa. I must say that I have never seen poverty like I have here. I recently had the opportunity to visit an area of the city where “rag pickers” live. For a lack of a better word, it is a sprawling “slum” that stretches along a canal near a city landfill. Here people, both the very young and very old, make their living by collecting plastic grocery bags from the landfill. In turn they sell them to the recycling companies. My friend Prakash, and guide at the time, explained that people will be born and live out their whole life here. Without education they need the money that “rag picking” provides and so they remain trapped in this life. Poverty truly is a self-perpetuating cycle.
That said, it is not fair to portray Kolkata as completely destitute. Kolkata has beautiful old-world architecture reminiscent of the British era. All one has to do is explore the B.B.D. Bagh, College Street, Fort William Military Base or the Maidan (a large city park containing the governor’s mansion) to experience an era gone-by. The horticulture centre and botanical gardens are breath taking. The Victoria Memorial, a massive white-marble palace, stands as a symbol of prosperity and reminds visitors of the politics that once embodied this former British capital. Yes, Kolkata and the surrounding areas are incredibly poor and over-flowing with people who need assistance; however, there is beauty here in both the flash of Park Street and the simplicity of LC Road.
Let me share two connected thoughts that have been rolling around in my head ever since I visited Mother House (the burial site of Mother Teresa). At Mother House there were quotations from Mother Teresa. Two jumped out at me: “If someone see’s God in me, I am happy. I see God in everyone, especially those who suffer…”. Just as Kolkata is filled with contrasts, I do see beauty in both. The man in the business suit is just as precious to God as the day-labourer who is barefoot. Likewise, whatever goodness people observe in me is only God showing through my humanness. There is a simplicity that comes with poverty – a return to the basics of life: food, shelter, companionship. I have never seen community like I have observed amongst the bustees. There is no one more thankful for a loaf of bread than someone who is starved. The beauty of a poor person’s worship to God is in its sincerity. When God is all you have, you are glad to know Him.
The second thought: “I am a little pencil in God’s hand. He does the writing. He does the thinking. He does the movement. I have only to be the pencil”. When confronted with the overwhelming needs in Kolkata it would be easy to become discouraged and conclude that there is just too much to do – it can never be done. BUT, the exciting thing is that you and I do not have to save the world. God already has – He is in process of working it out. He knows each person here in this city. He knows their dreams, their thoughts, their hurts and needs. God has a plan for each person.
I do not have to revolutionize the Gospel, rather, I have to be a willing participant in the working-out of God’s plan. After all, I am a pencil. Trying to be a writer would only complicate matters – so I will be the best pencil I can be, and when the work becomes overwhelming, I can pause and remind myself that I have only to be the pencil. The writer is still in control. In this manner I too see God in everyone I meet. His writing is all over them. In the same way, I hope that His penmanship can be seen in my life.