Saturday, January 12, 2013

Friday in Kolkata

I am afraid I am hitting an overload wall...

After a very social dinner Thursday, I slept until 8:15 Friday morning. It was wonderful. Breakfast was tea and toast because lunch was to be huge. We started the morning by walking right next door (thus the hotel name - Hotel Heaven) to the Mother House where Mother Theresa lived here in Kolkata until her death in 1997. I didn't know much of the details of Mother Theresa's ministry, and was surprised by the emotional impact of visiting this place. Her room has been preserved and can be viewed. The sisters still operate out of this location, and they milled about in their distinctive white saris. A novice did laundry in the courtyard. life hummed along. the poor were received as were the tourists. There is space dedicated to her tomb and a very simple exhibit that tells her life story and describes her ministry to the poor. I definitely want to read more. I spent a few moments in silence at her tomb and left petitions for daily mass. It is amazing to consider the impact of her ministry and the overwhelming simplicity of her own life.

From there we turned again to contrasts and went shopping at a higher end shop that caters to more western tastes. They had beautiful silks and cottons but I managed to walk away. I struggle with what to bring back from this adventure. Here, looking at the beautiful colors and styles, it is easy to get swept up in wanting "that" look. At the same time, I know I probably won't wear these clothes at home. Then there is the matter of being surrounded by poverty. But we headed to a mall next. Like a real mall. With some stores we would see in the states, others that were new to us. At Sathi's recommendation, I did some shopping in a store called Anokhi - I would describe it as Ann Taylor for India minus the high prices - beautiful coordinating collections of cotton, silk and wool with both traditional and westernized styles.

Then came lunch at Kewpie's, a restaurant known for its Bengali cuisine. The owner, a woman, is a well-known food writer in India. She greeted us and told us a bit about our meal. We were then overwhelmed by about 15 different small plates, from vegetarian to fish and prawns, to mutton. It was splendid. Dessert was a yogurt concoction that was wonderful. Everything was served in clay dishes which are disposable...they go in the landfill and decompose. Their production provides work for people, and they have minimal environmental impact - an interesting functional symbiosis that rejects technology and profit margin in favor of a greater good. Small plates were the order...tastes versus mass consumption. Oh...and the meal is designed to enhance digestion in the cultural understanding, so we started with a mango drink which was redolent with cumin or coriander, slightly salty and tangy. Not everyone's taste, but I enjoyed the small serving. It would make a fantastic cocktail. Actually, there are a lot of beverages here that would make great cocktails. Perhaps more about that in a later post.

After lunch we headed to an NGO named Swayam that did advocacy and services around violence against women and girls. The director, a woman named Anu, was charismatic and articulate. We asked about her background and her faith and what sustained her. She doesn't profess to be a believer in any tradition; her sense is strongly rooted in treating people well. She said she was pretty sure that if there is a higher power, whatever it is named, that power will probably be pleased that she served others. I am pondering the energy we put into being Christian versus being Christ-like. Here in India we are meeting people committed to serving the full range if humanity out of a strong sense that the world is a better place when we all serve those in need. I know this, I believe this, and it seems critical to discern the religiosity that sometimes gets in the way.

Next stop was supposed to be the Kali Temple. However January 14 is a big Hindi holiday, and crowds build as the holiday approaches. The place was NUTS. It is the only place that has felt unsafe to this point. They do animal sacrifices in the evenings, and people were queued up outside in mazes of bamboo fencing. There were people offering to assure us safe and quick entry. There were armed guards at the temple grounded entrances. Vendors sold icons, sweets, beads, bangles, various altar pieces. The crowd was loud and pushy. We decided to bypass the line and head to one more spot -New Market, a local bazaar. This was another unique experience - hustlers hustling, spices next to fabric next to housewares next to technology next to cosmetics. Oh...and rats. Are rats also revered? We've seen an amazing number of animals in the streets - cows, goats, dogs, cats, pigs...rats in the market were a first.

It was a full day. We are safe and well.


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