The Taj Mahal Quest

I have spent six weeks in India over two visits. I have never seen the Taj Mahal. In November 2011, I came to New Delhi and spent a week. The only day I had off from the conference I was running was a Friday. The only day of the week the Taj Mahal is closed is Friday. I spent my last day in India touring Delhi and saw many marvels.

No Taj Mahal, however. I came all the way to India and I did not see its most famous site (which was only a few hours away). Many of the attendees who came to my conference did see the Taj. I tried not to be bitter. I tried to tell myself this was fine. This was okay. I didn’t have to see the Taj Mahal just because I was in India. I’m sure lots of tourists who have been to Delhi haven’t seen the Taj Mahal. Right?

In the last two years, I have not met a single person who has seen the Taj Mahal who thinks it was anything less than amazing.  (I keep asking because I’m still trying to rationalize my prior failure.) I’m happy to say that my time has come.

I’m in India. In terms of Taj touring, I’m somewhat inconveniently situated in Kolkata. The monsoon is getting underway.  This weekend I will take a taxi to the airport at the pre-dawn crack, then take a plane, then a taxi to a train, then a taxi to the Taj or my hotel, depending. I will see the Taj Mahal. I hope to see it at sunset and again at sunrise.

When I went to buy my New Delhi to Agra train ticket at the Kokata Foreign Tourist Counter, I waited 1.5 hours on a sofa chair. I made friends with an Iranian scientist and has a speed round geopolitics chat. When number 43 was called out and I finally got to speak with the train booking gentlemen, they spent 20 minutes trying to convince me that I really wanted to take a bus (they did not sell bus tickets) instead of the train. I held firm. I wanted a ticket that said Agra. I wanted a ticket that guaranteed I would get to my target town on Saturday afternoon. I had to argue and plead. They disagreed with me repeatedly. I held firm. They finally gave in. I have a one way second-class train ticket! They would not sell me a ticket back to Delhi. They insisted I should take a bus–that buses were common and easy to find; that a bus would be more convenient. This remains to be sorted out. I don’t know if I can get back to Delhi and then Kolkata on Sunday (despite my plane ticket). But I do know I will see the Taj Mahal. Or at least I’m as moderately confident about it as I am about any other aspect of my life in India. Further updates to come. Wish me luck.

Acts of Communication

Ever since I got to Kolkata, I have been trying desperately to communicate with my fellow humans. It’s an attempt because it’s very hard to ascertain how much is truly understood in this environment–there’s a lot of nodding, engine starting, plunging forward, with uncertain results on the line. It’s also desperate, because I dearly wish to share information, or a common purpose, or an agreed upon destination. There is often the appearance of agreement, or a measure of understanding, but results will vary. And when results vary, there is the kindness of strangers, or at least my persistence in seeking out information in the dark, in the rain, in New Alipore, engaging one auto rickshaw driver and his clients in conversation at a time, trying to ascertain my distance from my destination.

In the last four weeks in my search for mutual comprehension, I have employed miming skills, the handing over of currency, body posture, hand gestures, eye movements, lots of wide smiles or concerned looks. I will show written text. I say the words haltingly. I repeat the words, hoping for a different answer or a different head nod. I pray. Once I’ve raised my voice to respond to volume with volume when I was being spoken to stridently in Bengali (and couldn’t understand) knowing that my English would also not be understood. I’ve ascertained that occasional volume is an acceptable form of communication. Conversations here are quite animated, with multiple people expressing their views simultaneously. I am in admiration of the translator who facilitates our research for her vocabulary, quickness of mind, and prodigious memory for long streaks of expression.

I know maybe five Bengali phrases. And most people here know a few English phrases, but it’s exceedingly subtle work trying to assess overall language comprehension on either side in any conversation. The most enthusiastic are the young children and teenagers in the street who will call out a phrase after my passing. Today it was “Nice umbrella!” which I gratefully registered.  Many are shy to reveal their English skills. Some will only start speaking English when I am befuddled by a situation and they are embarrassed on my behalf with my uselessness and general ignorance. Many understand more than they can speak. Some can read better than they can process spoken words (with my American accent), and others make a show of nodding, but it is eventually revealed that we have each failed to make the other understand. In turn I stumble over the rhythms, intonations and the phrasings, there are quite a few British-isms, and many other interesting uses of language: a man mentioned molestation last night, and I think he meant masturbation. I could be wrong. Many people speak to me in Bengali when they get frustrated with the situation, and I too find myself using more English to explain what I would so dearly like. Amidst the surprises, the challenges, there are many triumphs, big and small, all day long. I am getting where I want. I am traveling, purchasing, bartering, speaking, hugging, smiling back, all the time. It’s a miracle. Should I thank the British or curse them for the spread of English? Of course I feel guilty being the benefactor of imperialism, but post-colonialism bites back, humorously again and again.Sylviepond It is a great lesson in the many ways I can communicate, and the many ways I will fail to do so.

Details and Weaknesses

My written french is abysmal, so when I wrote to my french grandma that Kolkata was pretty interesting, she chided me that I needed to try harder to convey the experience. The fact is that it’s very hard to explain what makes the city so captivating, so exhausting, so worthwhile, so magical, so frustrating, and so bittersweet. My time in India is complicated, layered meanings for each banal, charming and/or brutal experience. The details of the every day are impossible to recount, there’s just too much happening, too much observed, too much forgotten: There’s the way the taxi swerves to evade the brightly colored trucks, the nonchalant dogs in the middle of the road, the irrational confidence of the pedestrians putting their palms out to stop cars, the god statues and pictures and flowers in the altars found on the dashboards of the taxis and auto rickshaws, the altars on the side of the street, the small dishes made of leaves used to eat chickpea curries at roadside stalls.

Everyday I experience how internally inconsistent I am, all the tensions between wanting to be open to others and wanting to preserve myself. This is in parallel to the multiple contradictions of my external environments–are strangers being kind, are they in need, are they ignoring me or swindling me, or reaching out in friendship? Will my toes hit another brick in the uneven sidewalk in that tiny moment I am distracted? I navigate small pleasures and small displeasures through always changing, chaotic, stop and start, tempos. The pace is a rush, the pace is a crawl: the moment will stretch and I will feel old, but then soon it will be evening and I will be young again. Time cannot be tracked. Was it morning yesterday? I’m a bit dizzy with the array of surging and ebbing flows: the lifeforms, signs of their passing, signs of their decay (my own).

I’ve had frequent bouts of feeling suddenly overwhelmed by smells. The smells aren’t offensive, just strong: today it was the smell of baking cookies. Previous days, it’s been the smell of curries, beauty products, garbage, or flowers. Any of these might suddenly make me feel out of control, and just as quickly, if I remove myself, five minutes later I’m utterly fine. It’s the unpredictability that frightens me.

Equally mysterious are my range of reactions to the heat. Yesterday, I was immobile. I was wedded to my air conditioning. The thought of full sun made me fearful.  Today, in the sun, I was almost fine. I didn’t become drenched in sweat until evening came and I had been sitting still for hours. Sometimes there is nothing left of me. I am a shell crawling to the comforts of a cold shower.  Sometimes I am abundant, and resilient. It’s my repertory of weaknesses, blooming in Kolkata. The city abounds. I cannot keep up. I can only be, a little bit at a time, and then a lot, quickly. And then I sleep. Blessed sleep before the web of life absorbs me again in its colors.

Faces of Eve

The experience of conducting collaborative community-based research in the red light Sonagachi district in Kolkata India is transforming me. It’s hard to say exactly what is happening to my mental and emotional frameworks (I think that insight will emerge over time), but I can maybe report on what I hope is happening.

DurbarOne of the great gifts of being in India is the freedom it gives me to be patient, and to be accepting, and to let conversations, halting moments, and imperfections occur without becoming frustrated. For example, today we conducted two of our interviews in a narrow alley, in the rain, with onlookers, dogs, and passers by. I was amazed at the interviewees’ generosity with their time and stories. (Sometimes, when I do get frustrated, I remind myself, I am in India, and this is not my terrain, and I need to let it all unfold as it chooses to. My will is not important: Holding this internal dialogue has been freeing in the utmost). I dearly hope that, when I return to the U.S., I can maintain this same dispassionate curiosity as to the unfolding of my practice, my agency’s work, and my client’s lives. I’m not meaning I will be un-invested, I’m meaning that I want to be clear about my objectives and my responsibilities, and to honor those without forcing a particular agenda. I want to retain my current spirit of exploration, generosity towards others and naivete.

What I really hope is happening is that any temptation to stereotype any population is totally dead within me.

I am meeting the women of Sonagachi in their homes, at their collective Durbar, and in the streets. I am meeting their children, their loves, their madams, and their elders. I am drinking their tea. I am sitting with them and listening for glimpses of their stories and choices. The experience is both profoundly moving and totally mundane. Their stories are my stories too (maybe not in every particular, but the threads of our concerns comes from the same cloth).  More than anything, my experience working with the women of Sonagachi highlights how interwoven our lives are with our families, how we all seek to make the most of our careers, and how we try to be good partners and nourish relationships around us. If I tell you about my life, I will tell you how it has been filled with the joys of love and relationships; the pride of doing my work well; and how maybe one day I will speak of my children and look forward to my offspring’s marriages and educational accomplishments. My setbacks have had to do with health concerns, financial worries, and family responsibilities. I’ve dreamt of owning a bit of land and building a home, or starting a new business. All this and more is echoed by the women of Sonagachi. They are my family. We share Eve’s face(s).




Bhaads, the local tiny earthen tea cups for the strong Bengali tea.

I’ve been in Kolkata for two weeks. The amazement and excitement of first arrival has faded and I’m now faced with the day-to-day business of living in a crowded, busy city where I have some bearings, but am equally easily lost. The relentless scrutiny and the language barriers are no longer new, they are just two forms of ongoing pressure. We’re slowly learning a few Bengali phrases for greetings, trying to make halting connections with those around us. One thing I know is that I love the little red earthen cups, or bhaads, in which tea is served in Kolkata. I have never had such small cups of strong tea served so hot.

I am both homesick and totally committed to this trip/experience, which creates its own tensions. I miss my daily comforts; I miss my partner and friends; I miss salad, but I also love being opened up to new possibilities, watching a powerful collective women’s movement unfold (and the privilege of meeting its members), and trying to partner with the organization to assist it as best I can through research. So many different pressures, so many different wishes and desires–for example I’m balancing my research obligations, my homework obligations, my household and social obligations, my tourist inclinations, and my bodily and psychic requirements. It’s kind of unusual to be so torn and so engaged all the time. Maybe that’s what is so addictive about being abroad.

Nobody Knows (Decision making as crap shoot)

A recurring theme this weekend, as I struggle with minor health issues and a general feeling of being run down from the humid heat, is that no one knows what to do. We have a set of external guidelines, suggestions, common wisdom and personal opinions, but there’s no definitive knowing against which I can make decisions. Outcomes will vary: Is that just life, or is it India? Maybe I should start praying to the local gods for better health?

kaliTo illustrate my point: Everyone has mixed feelings about the anti-malaria pills we’re supposed to take (I’m having odd dreams). Some in my group are taking them, some have stopped, some may start after stopping. Despite medical advice, and after some googling, we’ve each formed our own  opinions on how to handle the need for this medication. I suppose all human decisions are equally personal — with some information seeking married to gut feeling, but I also note that without the comforts of my typical (home) compasses, I have become more random in my decision making. I remember what the nurse at the travel clinic said about stomach issues, but then I wonder when I consult with my peers about what’s truly appropriate. What level of discomfort should trigger prescription use?

Similarly, the U.S. state department has guidelines about avoiding crowds for safe travel, but crowds are where the action is. What do I consider each risk level to be, and what levels of risk do I choose to tolerate and why? (And can I avoid crowds in India?) These are big questions and they come up again and again. No answers here. I’m just amused by the range of adaptations to these common quandaries in myself.

We went to a street festival last night. Here’s a picture of two in our group making friends there.boys

India: Dream Continent. Kolkata: Dream City

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.

parkI 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?

cowsNow 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.

greenburbsIs 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.

trashReal 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.

busMy dream Kolkata has become my real Kolkata. It is more vibrant, more human, more complicated and more charming than I had hoped for.

Tropical, Political Clothing

For the next six weeks, I live in Kolkata. Not even in Junior High did I think so hard about what clothes I wear, how they fit my body, and what my appearance conveys about my identity, my values, and what interactions I am seeking out and hoping for.

The wearing of clothes in Kolkata is complicated territory for me. Indian women typically wear longer sleeves, longer shirts, longer pants and skirts, and scarves. Women cover up here, even in the heat. Occasionally I spy a woman who might have short sleeves on, but she will then cover up her shoulders with a scarf.

As a western woman, I am closely observed by men, women and children, and I might even say continuously judged (or so I suspect). I am conscious of the brands I wear, the electronic toys I possess (iPhones are rare), and how my shoes are different–and how each of these things implies lifelong privilege which I had never scrutinized. This week, I am newly aware of my shirt’s neckline, the degree to which my shoulders and my prominent bosom are covered. I am aware of the stares and how I represent a brand, the western woman.

For my internship, yesterday as we toured the Sonagachi red light district, I was wearing new pants, purchased in India, hoping they would be more heat adapted. Sitting in the sex worker’s health clinic talking with peer educators, the pants stuck to my thighs in the heat, and when I went to cross my legs as I sat on the floor, the pants ripped at the top of my thigh. My classmates swore that my long top covered the wardrobe malfunction, but I still felt quite self conscious and vulnerable as we walked through streets saturated with brothels, a curiosity for the population. It makes for a good cocktail story, and for layers of feeling in the moment.

I understand that there are two markers of sex workers in Kolkata–you can identify them at night because they wear western clothes and a lot of makeup. You might call it a theatrical performance, an impersonation.

The multiple ironies, including me trying to fit into Indian clothes so I send a message of modesty, are not lost upon me.

I ponder the challenges of functioning in a society where women’s modesty is always monitored–how that pressure must shapes lives. I look forward to returning to tank tops without worry back in Philadelphia. I also have new sympathy for those who will never blend into their environment, be it due to race or culture. Finally, I am grateful for the heat and these insights.

Time, Space, Heat, Color

My roommates and I decided (I think on our first day) that the space-time continuum needed to be altered to the space-time-heat continuum–a few hours in Kolkata bring home that point abundantly.  Heat changes the way your body experiences both space and time–they both lengthen. For example, what I’m convinced is a five minute walk in 40F weather is a 20 minute walk in 99F, and my experience of time in the sun feels much longer because it weighs on my body so much more. So while things are taking longer, and feeling hotter and more weighty, there are all the other assaults on the senses afforded by life in the city.

First and foremost: The Color. There is vibrant color everywhere. The paint merchants must be rich. The flowers are bright white jasmine or golden marigold, the saris come in every hue, the taxis are flashy yellow, the ad signs are of every color, and emerald greenery abounds. There are of course many smells, most both familiar and unrecognizable. There must be hundreds of different kinds of street food available, each with its own distinct odor.

P1060089As I walk, I go from smelling limes to smelling curries, to smelling jasmine, to smelling urine, to smelling human sweat, to smelling garbage to smelling car exhaust, to smelling jasmine or incense.  I smell the air expectantly, a little nervous about the next strong odor to come wafting by, but many more are pleasant than I expected.


There are the sounds of Kolkata, mostly honking, but also banging and knocking from construction, the patter of feet on the streets, human conversation, not so finely tuned motors of all sizes and power. There is the whistle of the policeman occasionally guiding traffic. There is the constant beep of the ceremonial security screenings in the subway.

It’s like every major metropolitan conglomeration I’ve visited except it’s India. It flows and shifts, behaves and then swells into chaos and recedes into order very quickly. It’s this fluidity–saris, traffic, sudden shoves forward in the metro and prayers to many faced gods–that I will remember.

Portrait Small

Bouquets of Saris

In each train car in the Kolkata Metro, there is a section for Ladies where the women huddle together. On Saturday night, the train was too crowded and I could only really see faces and I marveled that even in this heat and humidity, the ladies wore their makeup and weren’t streaky blurs. I’m not wearing any makeup and my sweaty pink face is definitely a blurry damp blotch in every photo.

Today, we took the train around 7 on a Sunday night, which I assume is a semi-indecent time to be cavorting about the streets and trains in this society. The train cars were much emptier and thus I was able to enjoy the Ladies’ section and leisurely gaze at the marvelous details on the saris and jewelry of my fellow metro ladies. Sari next to sari, the women did not crush their dresses or sit hip to hip, they took the space their garb required. Such lovely colors and patterns and contrasts: a sky blue sari over a wine red top caught my eye.

Our modest evening plans were totally thwarted by an unexpected rain. At first it looked like a quick rain, but it turned out to be a 40 minute downpour, with thunder and lightning, the streets quickly flooding. We walked through ankle-deep water home. I’m glad I brought some plastic shoes, unfortunately these were not on my feet during the rain.

I’m getting accustomed to the different flavors of inquiring stares I meet whenever I am out and about: curious glances, mild distaste, intense probing… It’s all part of the Kolkata experience.

Kindness of Strangers Mode

It took me 36 hours, three planes, a train ride, and a taxi cab to get from Philadelphia to my apartment for the next six weeks in Kolkata, India. My checked suitcase and I made it together despite a tense 40 minute transfer window in Zurich where I was told United had pulled me off my corresponding Swiss Air flight. Thanks to the Swiss Air agent who put me back on my second plane. On a trip across three countries and four languages, surprises lurk at every turn.

The other thing that became apparent, as I dealt with authority figures in three airports, is that as a traveler I am irrevocably at the mercy of strangers all the time. This is particularly true in India where I have no local language skills.  English knowledge is unpredictable, and I often need second and third parties (strangers and kind bystanders) to step in and facilitate transactions/exchanges with officials at various security points, gates and payment centers.

Mumbai airport.

Mumbai airport.

I realize the human condition is inherently one of being at the mercy of strangers, I just wasn’t feeling it so acutely, so personally every minute. In India, I have few communication skills and therefore no recourse — if I annoy or frustrate people and they choose not to deal with me, I could be in trouble. Of course, everyone is a professional, and they do their job (kindly), and we are in public, so there’s a measure of expected outcomes, but I’m feeling quite vulnerable. One of the reasons I feel vulnerable is that I am a tall, broad American woman. I am big by U.S. standards and I am really big and visible in India–in some ways representing all the economic advantages of my society. I’m not only visible, I am economically desirable to vendors of services.  So far it seems most of public life in India– shops, street stalls, various services– is conducted by men, so I am also extra aware of my femaleness and its relative standing in the power hierarchy. I’m used to being an assertive female in the U.S.–I’m already moderating those impulses even in my severely sleep deprived haze. I’m too busy being grateful for people working with me across all my differences. On the whole, everyone is being extraordinarily kind and gentle and patient.

And then there’s the gripping experience of going through Kolkata traffic in a taxi, which even at 6am had me in deep prayer mode. The acceptable margin of space between vehicles, and between vehicles and pedestrians, is another form of unexpected, excruciating intimacy.


Today I nap, and listen to the crow outside my window knocking on the glass. He and I understand each other. (More pics to come.)

In Motion

I couldn’t write for  a while because everything I was concocting had to remain quiet until I informed my employers. Also, I’m not very good at being indirect or coy, so I felt a bit muffled. Then, once I was free to write, I felt like a giant container of mixed and turbulent feelings. The bosses have been informed. Two weeks before leaving my job, I’ve turned a corner. The feelings are starting to stack instead of rumbling. Hello blog. How I have missed thee. So here’s the plan, which is no longer a plan, but the shape of my new life for the next 12 months. I have set my future in motion.

In about two weeks, I leave for a Kolkata, India, where I will take a six-week class followed by one week of touring (will I finally get to see the Taj Mahal? Stay posted.). Expect lots of ruminations on life as a foreigner.

Once I come home, there will be a mad scramble for summer employment, and another summer class, and some internship projects.

Sometime in August, my three-day-a-week new internship starts, with all the corresponding excitement. (I’m really happy to be taking some time to focus on my development as a clinician, to finally be able to fully embrace my learning without juggling the demands of a full-time office job. There is the corresponding anxiety about whether or not I will find ways to make money while meeting these new obligations.)

I’ve decided I’m only allowed to fret over one thing at a time. So I’m now fretting over my seven-week trip to India. I have never been on a seven-week trip (besides my childhood summer commuting between France and the U.S. for family visits.) Now that my spring classes are finished, I can spend my leisure time trying to read up and prepare myself for this adventure. Here’s my conclusion: I cannot prepare myself. There’s no way.


I can do some online research. I can look at pictures. I can open up the encyclopedic brick that is my guidebook. I can read other student blogs. I can pile up the supplies and necessities for my trip around the apartment. But I cannot prepare in the sense that I cannot become ready. I can only go.

And that’s my feeling about this entire coming year. I will do my due diligence, but I will not be ready. I can only move forward: Go with my full heart and mind, and hope for the best.