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.

I recently discovered that my boss is not, in fact, a doctor. He’s a homeopath.

This makes several things that have happened make sense.

In particular, it sheds light on one of the dumbest things I’ve done in India: swimming in one of Kolkata’s numerous retention ponds during my first week here. Whether I did so willingly, however, is a matter of debate.

It was my first week in Kolkata, and my boss had invited me and two of my friends in his Sunday evening ritual, a 5 o’clock swim. We were so excited about the possibility of escaping Kolkata’s heat we didn’t take note of the fact that he described his favorite spot as a “natural pool.” Or perhaps because we thought he was a doctor we trusted him.

Whatever the case, we were all shocked when we showed up at a retention pond surrounded by houses on one side a soccer field on the other. On the edge of the field a troop of cows was muching on the grass. Several people along the edges were doing their laundry.

J said that because she was a girl she couldn’t go in. She’d attract to much attention, which was undoubtedly true. 

As I was about to get in, she advised me not to put my head below the water. She also told me a story about the dangers of elephantitis.

Side note: All readers, regardless of gender, in pressure situations never ever talk about elephantitis. It’s usually not funny. And even when it is, which it probably was in the case, it’s just down right cruel.

So, fearing elephantitis as well as ear infections, I slowly waded into the lukewarm water, taking care to keep my head above water. I mentally ticked off the different parasites and weird skin maladies I could pick up through this tryst with stupidity.

The doctor, who could detect my uneasiness: “You don’t like swimming?”

Me, gritted teeth: “No, I love swimming. Love it.”

To prove my love for swimming I did a couple strokes, hoping to placate him. All it did, however, was attract the attention of a group of preteen boys who quickly challenged me to a race. Jeered on by a veritable crowd of onlookers I had to accept.

So, in what must have been a seriously comedic scence, I attempted to freestyle while keeping my head completely above water.

The ten-year-old smoked me.

After that, I invented some excuse to get out and being furiously scrubbing, which I continued to do until we left even after I was dry.  

Upon getting home my host mother asked where I’d gone swimming. Immediately she stood up and started yelling at me:

“My sons once went swimming there and both got sick. Get in the shower now and don’t come out for half and hour!”

Thankfully, though, I think I dodged the bullet.

Yesterday, the streets were filled with saffron.

My host father told me not to go out yesterday because the traffic from Rath Yatra would make it impossible to get around. I should’ve listened. I didn’t have any trouble going, but I certainly did coming back, though not because of the festival.

Rath Yatra is a major Hindu festival which commemorates Krishna’s visit to his mother-in-law’s house. The festival takes place over two days one week apart, with a day for coming and a day for going. On each day, the streets are filled with long processions of floats. Troops of young men and women sing hare krishna hare krishna as others dance. Behind them, saffron-robed Brahmins sit atop floats drawn manually by hundreds of the faithful. The general mood is upbeat, as the Brahmins toss flowers into the crowd and spray them with rosewater.

Most interestingly, there were a few caucasians in the procession. These middle-aged men and women joined up with the Hare Krishnas in their western heyday in the 70s and stuck with it. Ironically, they were almost as excited to see us as we were to see them.

I stayed in the city for a dinner that lasted until about ten, after which I planned to catch a bus back to Garia.

It turns out that is impossible.

Though Kolkata is a bustling metropolis of 15 million, its public transport doesn’t run round the clock, or as I discovered yesterday, not even past 10. To make matters worse, most cabbies are unwilling to drive to the southern suburbs at night because they know they can’t pick up new passengers for the return trip into the city. I had to improvise.

I decide to take a cab to Gariahat – a transit hub in the south-central portion of the city – and take an autorickshaw home. My cab driver – who most definitely didn’t understand my broken fusion of Bangla and English – dropped me in the northern part of Gariahat nowhere near where I needed to catch an auto south.

No big deal, I think. I know this area fairly well. I’ll just walk south, until I can catch a shared taxi or an auto.

Wrong.

As I continue walking south, I realize that the lights keep getting a little dimmer and that the density of people sleeping on the sidewalk is a little higher than usual. As I cross the railroad tracks under Gariahat’s flyover I realize I am in the middle of one of Kolkata’s largest bustees, or slums.

My normal reaction in pressure situations is to try to power through, so I keep walking hoping to make it to the other side of the slum to the part of Gariahat I know. This was the wrong choice. Before I know it, I’m in a narrow alleyway right next to an improvised temple, sandwiched between huts covered in advertisments and garbage bags. A group of curious onlookers begins to gather. It’s at this point I decide I need to get the hell out and start backtracking.

I walk across the flyover and keep walking, maybe for a mile or mile and half. Near the shared taxi stand, there are dozens of people struggling to get into a couple of cabs. Deciding I’m not up for a scrum I keep walking. I tell myself I know the neighborhood.

I keep going and the streets keep getting darker. All the Golpark-Garia autos, one of which I desperately need to get on, are full. I get to a corner where a group of people are waiting. I see an empty auto approach, but before I can grab a seat if fills up. One of the passengers, realizing that I’m a bewildered In-gree-jee makes room.

From there on out, things went smoothly, and within 20 minutes I was back in my neighborhood. I always know when I’ve reached Garia because it’s where the sidewalks end and stray dogs roam. Last night, I was more than happy to deal with them.

In case of a car accident in India, many of the travel guide books advise you to flee the scene.

In rural areas, it’s possible your car may be burned. While such extreme action is unlikely in cities, car accidents are treated seriously across India.

I learned this lesson as we were riding uptown in a cab on Raja S.C. Mullick Road, Garia’s main thoroughfare and one of the few ways to head north into the city. As we passed through an intersection in Jadavpur, I noticed things were a little crazier than normal. Traffic was standstill but it wasn’t because of gridlock.

In the center of the intersection, a squat middle-aged man was beating the hell out of a still-seated cab driver. The middle-aged man, whose vehicle had been damaged, was throttling the cabbie’s throat with one hand as he systematically beat him with the other. Remarkably, though, the cabbie didn’t fight back. He sat there and took the beating, probably realizing that escalating the situation would only land him in jail. It was an impressive demonstration of restraint.

This was only the second display of public violence I’ve seen in India.  A week before the cab driver incident, we had been visiting Digha, West Bengal’s version of a seaside resort. During the monsoon season, relatively few tourists – Indian or otherwise – visit Digha, so our presence drew the usual amount of attention.

As two of my friends were swimming in the Bay of Bengal, two young men – probably about our age or a little older – continued to walk toward them with arms outstretched. Repeatedly, they told my friends, “Don’t worry, we won’t hurt you. Don’t worry we won’t hurt you.” Of course, greeting someone by telling them you won’t hurt them is a surefire way to freak them out. 

So what ensued was a slow speed, water borne chase where the two guys followed my friends through the water assuring them they wouldn’t hurt them. At this point, my friends headed toward shore. The guys were in hot pursuit until they ran into a group of local fisherman who were bringing in their day’s catch. One of the fisherman – a short, elderly man wearing a purple turban – who had seen the guys following my friends began to yell at them. Then, suddenly, he grabbed the bigger one’s throat, slapped him several times and then yelled at him again. Then, without a second thought, he moved on to discipline his companion in a similar fashion. Neither of the young boys struck their elder, or even really said anything in response; they just tried to walk away.

In my time here, I’ve been amazed by how much restraint people here have in tense situations. While things are often chaotic, I’ve seen very few people lose their cool. And when things have become violent, one party has always backed down.

India rising: A new superpower for a new century – it’s a common theme here.

TV, newspaper and magazine headlines tell the story over and over again. And the words “My India is Great” are tattoed on the backs of the ever-present Tata buses. India may be a pluralistic democracy, but nationalism is the state religion here.

India’s papers, which judging by the ones I’ve read really are free and fair, tend to have a little bit more of a jingoistic ring to them than one would find in the NY Times or the Post. Politicians can be ridiculed and parties denounced, but India’s progress and soon to be preeminent world status is never doubted. People here want India to be respected on the world stage. Badly.

Here’s a quote from an article in the Telegraph, Kolkata’s English language daily. It’s taken from an article about the purchase of Ranbaxy (an Indian pharmaceutical company) by a Japanese company:

“Her reading is that it is the Japanese who will have to learn to adapt and not the other way around. The reasoning has a philosophical basis. The Japanese, she says, are moving to a different plane. Material things and crass corporate commercialisation matter much less than motives such as self-actualisation.

Indians, on the other hand, are descending from that plane. They are becoming more aggressive, more demanding. This is their century and they want to stomp over the rest of the world. In a fight of wills between a young, ambitious and pugnacious nation and a people committing temporal hara-kiri, the new Ugly Indian will prevail.”

Though the opinion discussed isn’t the author’s, it isn’t an uncommon one. People here hunger for national respect and success to an extent I’ve never seen before.

The question of whether India will actually be a superpower in the 21st century is an academic one that’s beyond me. I do know one thing, though: in the minds of many Indians, India already is.  

Our excursion to the Hare Krishna center never materialized. Instead, we spent our weekend making our way around Kolkata.

Getting around the city isn’t easy, though. Most major roads are completely gridlocked, even off peak hours. This – combined with the fact that Indian traffic is much like a game of Frogger mixed with playing chicken with a Tata truck – makes getting around an adventure. Every person forces their way. To pass you go into oncoming traffic and swerve back at the last second. Somehow, though, there aren’t too many accidents.

Here’s a guide to Kolkata traffic. Each conveyance has its own perils:

Private Car: This by far the most expensive and posh way to get around. They’re usually fixed rate so you don’t have to worry about haggling with the driver, and the ride is relatively comfortable. You still have to deal with the gridlock, though, and you still will be a tourist completely insulated from the local culture.

Cab: Expensive but often the best point-to-point transit method. Warning: your cab driver probably has no idea where you’re going either, and will probably pull over to ask for directions several times. You won’t be able to tell if he actually doesn’t know, or if he’s just strategically trying to run up the meter. Also, your cab driver may pull over to pee on the side of the road (see previous entry) or stop to buy chewing tobacco. This is par for the course. Also, don’t be too shocked if you play bumper cars a little bit with other cabs – minor accidents are no biggie. Once, our cab driver actually pulled over to change a tire; we helped much to the amusement of all passers by.

Auto(rickshaw): Autos are cheap, fast and usually run on standard routes. The bad thing is you can’t take them point-to-point, but they can be useful for getting to nearby places. These three-wheel contraptions wouldn’t fit more than a few people in the states, but the standard number seems to be six or seven here.  In the rural areas, that number can be bumped up significantly to accomadate . On a visit to a village last week I was in an auto with 9 other people: five in back, four in front with the driver sitting on the middle two. I had one cheek hanging outside the vehicle and watched as the ever-present Tata trucks passed on the right with less than a foot to spare.

Bus: Buses are cheap and they go everywhere. It might just take you a long time to get there.

Metro: Efficient, cheap and cool. Definitely the best way to get around. It’s too bad there’s only one line.

Bicycle rickshaw: cheap and surprisingly fast, but you are being pulled by another human being.

Everywhere you go, no matter by what method, you will attract attention. Staring isn’t considered impolite here, and people will often turn completely around – no kidding, 360 – to gawk. 

I have a friend who is blonde and has had more than her fill of unwanted male attention. Regularly, guys will stop in their tracks six or seven feet away, stand there and stare away, often while biting their lip. I know that sort of thing isn’t unique to India, but it’s defintiely frustrating for all the girls in our group.  

This is the first time I’ve been able to get internet access since coming to Kolkata. Frankly, I’ve been overwhelmed. I didn’t expect to be. I thought, after visits to other developing countries like Egypt, that I wouldn’t be fazed by Kolkata’s poverty, pollution and crowds.

The day after I arrived in West Bengal, the ruling party – the communist CPM – called a bandh, or general strike. Everything was shut down and the streets were nearly empty. People trying to leave from the airport were assualted by gangs of party enforcers who slashed tires and forced elderly people to walk off with their luggage. Garia, the part of Kolkata where I live and work had no incidents, and I walked the half mile from my guest home to the hospital with no problems.

The next day was also a bandh day, but this time it was called by the opposition party. Everyone except government workers seemed to take the opportunity for another day off from work and stayed at home. Government offices were open but the streets were still empty.

The heat here is oppressive and air conditioning is a rare luxury. The streets, even in the city center, tend to be narrow and chaotic. No one observes lanes, few people signal and people are always running across the street. People-drawn rickshaws share the streets with modern cars.  Many streets are also lined with homeless people who earn their daily rice by selling street food or selling trinkets.

The chaos in the streets and the general disorder (flooding, open sewage, etc.) sharply contrasts with the gilded office parks that house Kolkata’s IT centers. The contrast is unbelievable.

Kolkata as a whole gets very few tourists for its size, and in the district in which I live I have never see another westerner besides the people I’m with. It’s not uncommon for people to gawk, sometimes turning completely around to stare.

The monsoons, which usually come around this time of year, came in full force on my second day here. The relief from the heat was welcome, but the flooding made it difficult to get around. It amazes me how the locals take everything in stride and seem unfazed by the constant struggle to get around and survive in a place that is so crowded but has so little infrastructure or regulation.

There is so much I’d like to say, but I’m not sure I can articulate much at the moment. I’m still taking things in and trying to learn how to be comfortable here, so far from home.