STEEL ka naya funda. Translation: No Glitter Solid Steel.

It was one of the first signs I saw in Kolkata and – undoubtedly – it will be one of the last. The ad, which graces the backs of all of Kolkata’s maroon minibuses features a buff Indian gripping a steel bar with fires ablazing in the background. The bottom says: India’s #1 Thermex TMT bar.

For the longest time, we all thought it was an ad for an energy bar. We couldn’t fathom it being anything else. After a few weeks, though, we realized there was less subtlety to it than we thought. It’s actually an ad for steel bars. Steel.

And it’s everywhere.  After being in this city for two months I know why. Because unlike the US, where most things have been built, where things more or less function as advertised, Kolkata still has a long way to build itself up. There’s work to be done.

But that’s not a negative statement. Everywhere I’ve gone here, I’ve seen a certain tenacity, a certain vibrancy that I’ve never seen before in my life. Not in the US, not in the Middle East, not in Thailand. Kolkata is the most full of life, the most Darwinian environment I’ve ever seen.

The whole city reminds me of Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago,” which thanks to the standardized curriculum of Indiana public schools, I actually read. Kolkata may not be a city of broad shoulders, but it certainly is a place of breaking, building and rebuilding.  Construtction is everywhere, and the whole city has very organic rhythm, from the daily traffic jams to the nightly Tata truck runs that bring in the next day’s food and fuel.

Everywhere there is life and everywhere there is struggle. Everyone is trying to carve out their little niche in the urban jungle.

But slowly slowly slowly things are changing: foundations laid, scaffoldings erected and roads paved. The scaffolding on construction projects in Kolkata may be made of bamboo and the bricks transported by bicycle ricksaws, but make no mistake – the buildings frames are made of solid steel. No glitter added.  

Tomorrow I say goodbye to Kolkata. I’ll probably be able to breathe easier but I won’t have as much of a sense of purpose.