By Lee-Alison Sibley
I arrived in Kolkata for the first time on August 10, 2002, with visions of Rabindranath Tagore and Victorian architecture in my head. As a fan of "Gitanjali", I was thrilled to be in Bengal and besides, it was monsoon season, and the air around me was thick with moisture while the earth was a lush green, just like in a Tagore poem. The heat was a bit overwhelming for my American body, but I was delighted, as an artist, to be in the "Cultural Capital of India" and with my artist's eye, I looked beyond the mold and crumbling facades and saw beautiful buildings everywhere.
My love affair with India actually began when as a child, my mother recounted stories to me about Mahatma Gandhi and his philosophy of peaceful resistance. As someone in her youth who had marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for peace and the rights of all Americans, I was eager to live in the country that produced such men of vision as Gandhi, Vivekananda and Tagore. I even had a pen pal from New Delhi when I was a teenager! While I had visited the capital in the 1970s and Rajasthan in the 1990s, I had never been to eastern India before, and I very much looked forward to absorbing the culture of my new home in Kolkata.
The first place of interest my husband and I explored was Tagore's ancestral home, Jorasanko. We went unannounced and upset the 'powers that be' when they discovered my husband, the U.S. Consul General, George N. Sibley, was there without a special guide. This was quickly corrected, and we were provided an escort, but I would much have preferred to be there alone with George because when I entered the place where Tagore "breathed his last breath," I promptly broke down in tears.
Just a few days later, I met the woman who became my friend, teacher and "sister" - Pramita Mallick. Hearing her sing Rabindrasangeet, I was immediately moved and inspired to learn some of the songs, not knowing then that by learning them, my life in Kolkata would dramatically change. Indeed, once Pramita taught me "Ami chini go chini", "Prancay choku na cay", "Tomar holo shuru" et al, and we performed them at the Raj Bhawan (governor's house) and G.D. Birla Sabhagar, it seemed everyone in the city, at all levels of society, knew me as the "bideshini" from the U.S.A. who sang Tagore songs. We even made a recording, "The Distant Near" which was on the Bengali chart of hits for weeks! My voice gave me entrée to the lives of all the people of this great city. Everywhere I went, I was asked to perform, a capella, a Rabindrasangeet, and I happily complied with all requests.
When I started working with a number of NGOs, my modus operandi for getting the children to feel comfortable with me was to ask them to join me in singing "Phuley, phuley, doley, doley" or "Amra shabai raja". Despite looking very foreign, with my mass of auburn curls, I was able to touch the hearts of the children of The Samaritan Help Mission, the Rehabilitation Centres for Children, The Bengal Service Society, Tiljala SHED, Prem-E-Asha and Sanlaap, among others. And they certainly touched MY heart as well with their smiles and enthusiasm.
The other event the brought me into the hearts of Kolkatans was the Durga Puja in October 2002. I was asked to be a judge by Snowcem Paints and I was thrilled with the challenge of selecting the prize-winning pandals. Enthralled by the creativity evident in every pandal I visited from north to south, the selection of materials, the themes of devotion and brotherhood, I stood open mouthed in admiration. Speaking to artists and sharing the scene with thousands of others, I was all smiles for the press who covered my journey and made my face fairly famous in the city. The press has been good to me, very good - 10 scrapbooks of clippings are the testament to how interested the journalists have been in my love affair with Kolkata.
As a city, however, I know that my beloved Kolkata is not an easy place to live. There is too much traffic, too much pollution, and too much litter on the ground, too many papers glued to the walls. People are seen spitting out their car windows or urinating against the walls. The streets have potholes that would frighten even New Yorkers, and the sidewalks, when they exist, are uneven, making the wearing of high-heeled shoes an invitation to disaster. The public transportation system cannot accommodate the ever-growing population and the buses seem oblivious to all other vehicles on the road. I've seen too many children with polio when, with a few drops of vaccine, they would not have contracted the disease, and I've also seen too many children without a home to shelter them, or enough food to eat, and too many women without hope in their eyes. But the worst are the children who line the streets, begging for a paisa when they should be in schools, learning how to break the chains of poverty.
Thankfully, there are many NGOs in the city with devoted citizens working toward improving the lives of the most unfortunate. I have been blessed to be able to contribute a little towards improving the future of the poorest of the poor and I cherish the time I've spent with women and children in need.
Looking back, I am in awe of the commercial changes I've seen in the two years I've been in Kolkata. Since my arrival, I've witnessed the opening of the Hyatt Regency Kolkata, the ITC Sonar Bangla Sheraton, The Forum Shopping Centre, Harsh Neotia's City Centre, the Eastern Zonal Cultural Center, expansion of commercial enterprise in Salt Lake, and many restaurants and small shops catering to the growing middle class society. I truly believe this city and the State of Bengal are on the way up and the future is hopeful.
There are no people in India warmer or more welcoming than the people of Kolkata and I cannot imagine ever leaving this great city, but of course, one day I must (I left in 2005). What dreams will I have for this place, which has been my home, when I someday return? I hope Kolkata will still be the city where culture reigns, where Durga, Laxmi and Kali inspire the inhabitants to celebrate with abandon. I want to walk along the banks of the Ganga and enjoy a developed riverside, to gaze across the water and feel the history of the ages. I want to come back and see children, not on the streets, but in schools. And trees, lots of them, replanted for the benefit of all. But most of all, I want to come back and sit down with my friends on the moist, green grass during monsoon season, eat misti doi and sing Tagore's songs with them again.