Travelogue: Calcutta Stories

Ian Umeda traveled around the world with a group of students called the Nomadic 5. Reply to him or submit your own Travelogue to [email protected]

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I spent this April and May in Calcutta, India working for a newspaper called The Statesman. I traveled with four of my closest friends David, Guy, Teddy and Yes who are UC Berkeley students, too. My days were filled with new experiences as I took it all in, getting to know the city better every day. Here are a few stories of the experiences I had in those two months.

Shooting Sonar Sansar - I went with Sailendra, another photographer at The Statesman, to shoot some photos of a gold jewelry exhibition in Calcutta. "It means 'Family of Gold' in Bengali," Sailendra told me as we stepped into the huge air-conditioned auditorium. The first thing I noticed as I stepped inside was the disparity. The place was filled with booths of exorbitant jewelry. It was also teeming with "high society" Indians perusing the shop, trying out flashy golden necklaces, rings and bracelets.

As I took photos, I watched them as they trifled over whether they should buy this $3,000 necklace or that $4,000 ring. "Will I ever wear this?" "Does this go with my $500 shoes?" Obviously, this scene was not to my liking. Sailendra and I finished our rolls and started toward the exit. Exiting the auditorium, we passed a woman wailing, crying and nearly collapsing. Apparently, she had lost something in the auditorium and she was crying about how hard her life is. We continued outside and passed a few people collapsed on the filthy, diseased sidewalk dying of hunger. I wanted to cry, too.

Street People - There are a whole lot of people living on the streets of Calcutta. In a destitute city with a population of more than 10 million, this isn't too surprising. Some of these people have some of the most severe physical ailments I've ever seen, and others are just people without opportunity, training or education. Around here by Sudder Street, there is a man who lies on the sidewalk with the worst skin condition I've ever seen. Huge boils cover every part of his body, some protruding over an inch. I saw a man with no feet crawling across a busy street. He was nearly mauled by a bus.

There are other street people who are physically able but, by some poor stroke of luck or because of discrimination, they have been forced onto the street. There is a community of woman and their children on Sudder Street. I have heard them called "The Queens of Sudder Street." They make their living from begging - which is supposedly illegal - and by working off of tourists' sympathy. They are con artists. They say they don't want money, that they only need milk for their baby. Of course, tourists will sympathize with an innocent baby, so they go with the mother and buy the milk, rice or dal from a local store. The queens then take what was just bought for them directly back to the store and sell it back for cheaper. They can get milk for less elsewhere, anyhow. These queens are con artists and liars, but they're nice people. So, instead of giving them money or food and perpetuating this begging, I decided to give them photographs of themselves instead. They seemed initially disappointed but eventually seemed to appreciate the gift more than they would with money.

There is a large population of street children, too. We gave a visit to CINI ASHA, a program that helps these children back into society. These kids have no family except each other - they grow up with no structure in their lives. They are often sexually abused and even forced into the sex industry. The AIDS rate among these children is very high, and they generally become very sexually active by age 10. After a short lecture and a visit to the halfway house and sick clinic, we took a taxi to Sealdah train station, where CINI ASHA has a safe house for children. When we arrived and were walking toward the train platform, a bunch of girls began running toward us. We then saw that they were running away from an old man chasing them and waving a severed hand. He stopped, pleased with his little joke, turned back and tossed the hand into a pile of corpses. Sometimes, you don't know how to react.

Road Rage - Traffic in Calcutta and all over India is crazy. Imagine a billion people all trying to get somewhere in old dilapidated and polluting cars, trucks, busses, rickshaws and these frightening three wheeler truck things all at once on horribly maintained roads without any traffic rules or guidelines or sense. This is what it's like to be on the roads in Calcutta.

You hear about accidents and deaths every day because of traffic mishaps. The leading cause of death in India is traffic accidents. The newspapers don't normally focus on any one accident - instead, they bunch them altogether. The articles read something like this - "Thirty-two people were killed and 54 injured in 16 traffic accidents yesterday. It was a good day." On his way to the airport, Yes saw a person killed by a taxi driving next to his without its headlights on.

I was riding in a taxi on my way to Howrah train station to eat lunch with a photographer friend of mine. It had just started raining, but I suppose rain doesn't phase drivers' break-neck driving style. We were speeding along on a busy street when my driver realized he was on the wrong side of the road. He swerved left suddenly, but the car didn't quite respond as planned. The taxi slowly began to slide, turning to the left. Our car began to slide perpendicular to the road. I instinctively braced myself against the back seat, one arm on the front seat and one on the roof of the cab with a "holy shit" look on my face. The taxi came to a halt after about 30 feet, still perpendicular to the road. Luckily, we did not slide into anything or get hit by the traffic behind us. The driver started the stalled taxi, looked back at me, gave a little "Heh heh?" and started off again. I didn't tip on that ride.


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