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.


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.