Here’s one of my theories about travel: For every major city known around the world (think London, Hong Kong, New York, Cape Town, Kolkata), there is a dream version of the city which lives in our minds–a dream composed of impressions, movie clips, song lyrics, images, fleeting conversations and travel fantasies. Equally, certain (sub)continents are stamped with dreamed exoticism. For example India and the strange assortment of reactions news of my trip engendered in friends and family.
I do not know when I started wanting to visit India, but I remember telling a cab driver in Philadelphia that India would always be there for me–eventually my time would come. (This conversation took place 10 years ago.) But the feeling was stronger than that, I wanted to experience the India in my heart and mind. Was I really having a relationship with a country?
Now that I am here, I feel close to Kolkata. I feel an affinity for the city’s abundant spirit, its in-your-face attitude, its generosity, its speed, it’s intensity. It’s a tropical New York. It is nothing like New York. I worry about my love for India. I wonder how self-serving this love is. Do I adore being “Other”? Being noticed? I think about how tourists use foreign spaces as fun-house mirrors for their egos.
Is going to India a cliche? At least I’m not in an ashram. I am living in Kolkata, walking its sidewalks, taking its metro, eating its food, finding a tailor, navigating commercial interactions and human exchanges of all durations and intensities.
I think about the India stereotypes and how Kolkata does and does not fit my pre-arrival ideas. Yes, it’s abundantly dirty and polluted–water, streets, exhaust, the generic dusty grime that covers everything and gets in my ears. No, I haven’t been confronted by many beggars. Yes, it is an assault on the senses. No, the smells can be quite lovely. No, there are no wild monkeys. Yes, there are dogs everywhere, but mostly they nap. There are also a few cows. Yes, westerners stick out and are stared at. No, the people aren’t always friendly (but then I wouldn’t expect New Yorkers to be constantly friendly.) Is it safe? Yes, I think so. Do I feel comfortable walking alone? Sometimes, by daylight.
Real Kolkata is both more familiar, and less exotic than dream Kolkata, but it is also more mysterious beneath the commonplace surface. I am never sure what really happened, what was understood and what was not, after I have an exchange with a local. We meet on fields of stereotypes, each expecting the other to play a role, and then we try to become human to each other, to surprise, or control the interaction. As a privileged foreigner surrounded by real need, my “purpose” is to be ripped off, but to try to be reasonably ripped off. I don’t know enough yet to be able to bargain wisely, but I trust the knowledge will come in time.
My dream Kolkata has become my real Kolkata. It is more vibrant, more human, more complicated and more charming than I had hoped for.