In fall 2008, Kali Penney went on a three month journey as a volunteer Co-op student working with Sociol Legal Aid and Research Training Centre (SLARTC) in Kolkata, India. She worked along side SLARTC, and other organizations in their geriatric and adolescent health, human trafficking and rights and HIV/AIDS fields.
As soon as the plane broke through the clouds to land in Kolkata I felt the thrill of excitement I had been waiting weeks for. People had been asking me constantly for the last month if I was excited for my trip, and I was in a way, but the real excitement didn’t hit me until I saw my first view ofIndia and I knew I was somewhere truly different.
Getting out of the plane, the heavy air hit me in the chest. The sky was almost black with rain clouds but the temperature was 32 degrees and it was difficult at first to breathe. After retrieving my checked bag I found my ride waiting for me and off we went, speeding down the roads with no seatbelt, honking every 5 seconds for good measure. Driving in India is a crazy experience, one I definitely enjoy from the back seat. We sped past men on bikes, little boys flying kites and women washing babies in the puddles left over from the thunderstorm the night before. I saw a small stream so full of garbage you could barely see the water, and right after that a huge billboard advertising a gym, promising to cut 2 inches off your hips in one month.
There were tiny shacks in the smallest spaces and high-rises that would look at home in Yaletown. I knew it would be very different in India, but I didn’t realize that it would also seem not so different at times. In Vancouver you see many people on the streets, people who can’t afford to eat, begging change from the businesspeople who walk by on their way to work. You walk down a block downtown and all you see are the homeless and the destitute, and then the next block there is a Louis Vuitton store. Kolkata is dealing with a similar issue: people who have nothing live amongst those who have everything, and the contrast is glaringly obvious as you drive through the city.
I arrived at Smarita, my co-op supervisor’s, house at about 7:30am. She told me that there would be no work that day since it was a Puja day (a religious holiday) and that the girls that she works with were doing a Puja. I wasn’t too tired and I was interested in seeing what a Puja entailed, so she leant me a beautiful green and white embroidered Indian sawar kameez and off we went to her office and the workroom.
Smarita works with a non-profit company that helps girls who have been rescued from prostitution. They do crafts, mainly sewing and beadwork, and then their work is sold to stores in the US and they make a good living without having to return to the brothels. When I got there I met a few of the girls, all of whom are extremely excited for the Puja day. They’re beautiful, all in brightly coloured traditional Indian outfits, their dark eyes sparkling with anticipation. They have bought an idol and have it set up in a room upstairs where the Puja will be held. Smarita gives them a few hundred rupees (40Rs equals about 1$) and they go off to buy fruit and sweets to offer the God.
Most of the day is spent cleaning the building, cutting up fruit to offer, inviting people to come for the Puja, and decorating with garlands of flowers. Later in the afternoon a priest comes to perform the blessing. He lights incense and gives flowers to the idol while reciting a constant stream of prayer while all of us sit on the ground and watch. This particular Puja day (there are many) is about blessing and revering the machines we use, and after the priest is done with the idol he goes around the workrooms and office, blessing and sprinkling holy water on all of the sewing machines and computers.
After the ceremony all of the fruit is passed out to everyone on paper plates and more hot food is brought out for a lunch feast. We eat aloo dum, a potato curry, and rajma, red beans. There are no utensils; we use a flat bread called luchi to scoop up the food.
After lunch everyone hangs around for a while, talking and relaxing. Smarita and I head home around 5:00pm, and by this point I am feeling pretty tired. I left Vancouver 2 days ago and the thought of taking a shower and sleeping in a bed tonight is something I’m definitely looking forward to. My first day in India was truly great and I fall asleep happy and anticipating a life changing experience here over the next few months.
Beyond the Blog
- Check out the blog series, SFU Health Sciences Takes India! for more incredible student experiences.