Coming in at night, while the Air India pilot prepared for landing, I looked out the window, looking down on an almost pitch black skyline of one of the most heavily populated cities in the world. More than half of the tiny houses, looking like miniature Monopoly houses, from my point of view, were not lit up and the familiar image of a city with lamps lighting up the skyline, only to be seen flying in at night, were remarkably absent. Walking out of the arrival hall of Kolkata International Airport, images full of impressions overload me. Looking around, searching for the husband of my father’s aunt, faces belonging to hundreds of people hit me and without knowing where to look I managed to differ him from the ocean of people. With an English accent, distinctively absent of the clicking Indian one, he raised above the crowd of people calling for my brother. I pushed my brother, getting his eyes off our luggage for a second, and pointed towards the tall dark man with the round glasses and said: “There he is”.
My brother and I had just hit Bengali soil and got off a plane, which had just taken us from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to visit my father’s aunt and her husband in India. Neither of us had ever been to the beloved country of Rudyard Kipling before, but I, who had my romantic fantasies of an exotic country filled with spices, curry, and chicken tikkamasala scented air and Kama Sutra–reading Indians, had longed for this trip since my father’s wish of us going to India (and my mother’s face, simultaneously frowning) had taken it’s first breath. Already being in South-East Asia, on one of my many “escape-every-day-life-finding-my-self-explore-the-world-trips”, I had taken the opportunity to get to see one of the countries I had always dreamed of visiting. And even if I had a pretty romantic and fantasized picture of India, I still thought I had realised what could be expected of Kolkata and India in general. Before going there I had heard of people visiting thiscountry of 1 billion people, telling me various scenarios including groups of children following you, begging for money, streets used as gentlemen’s urinals and armies of rats running over squares feasting on the leftovers from the food markets. All of them were anecdotes very distant from my colourful exotic painting of India. However, I had listened to the former visitors, visualised the scenes and histories they had told me, analysed them with a naïve cockinessand thought I had prepared myself for the cultural shock everyone was talking about. But little did I know of the dark shadow, which would be casted over my 20-year old Sushi-eating, Americanised, and chai-drinking mind.
My father’s aunt’s husband introduced himself as Riu, hugged me and my brother and welcomed us to India and led by the tall man of whom we had only heard stories from our father, we walked out of the airport, breathing in the hot, intense air of Kolkata. Arriving at the airport, cocky and unaware of coming impressions, I thought of what I’ve heard of India and disregarded it all as untrue. Walking out of the airport, looking out of the windshields of their neighbour’s car I thought: “Is this all?”
After the two weeks we spent in the former colony of Great Britain I gradually understood that there was more to it. There were a bunch of other colours to my painting; tons of shades of grey, making my bright colours abruptly fade away. Living in a suburb called Belur Math in a middle class home without running water or a twenty four-seven supply of electricity my cockiness had gone with the wind after a few days. Sitting on the bus going into town, with the only breeze coming from the empty windows in the vehicle, squeezed in, like Hulk Hogan in a mini skirt, between a bus load of Indians, I stared out at women and children living in shelters, barely deserving the epithet house, boys and girls using the pavement as toilets and dirt roads running through areas, where I would expect asphalt to pass by the tires. Slowly getting closer to the centre of Kolkata, the view from my window did not change as much as I would have hoped. Looking out the window, faces of sari dressed women, men in grey-flared trousers, barefooted children and littered streets continuously hit me, with no traces of westernised modernity, persistently torturing me with non existing 7-elevens, H&Ms or restaurants serving something not based on curry. It was March and Kolkata was 40 degrees warm and I was twenty and still thought the world and urban cities were more or less the same.
Coming back to Belur Math trying to force out all the images and smells; the pictures of the boy without any clothes sitting on the side walk leaving his excrements on the pavement, the children begging for money and the flies surrounding the cow feces on the street, forgetting about the lack of sleep and the persistent heat, I decided to go to a beauty parlour somewhere close to where we stayed. Accompanied by Riu, I walked on the dirt roads of the suburb passing cows feasting on one of the many garbage collections on the streets and with the alarming noise from the constant honking from the cars on the roads, ringing in my ears. We passed through several narrow alleys between the concrete rectangular shaped homes, finally arriving to the well-hidden entrance of the hairdresser. Well familiar with the miss-communication that may appear, I had brought Riu in the task of interpreter. I explained how important it was that they did not cut too much of my hair and after he left the young girl, who was barely my age,started to cut my hair. I focused my eyes on faded blue paint on the walls, letting my hands rest on the stale beauty magazine showing a picture of the Indian actress MallikaSherawat from one of the many luxurious Bollywood premiers, while the girl cut my hair with an orange kitchen scissor. Hearing the squeaking sound of the scissor blades scraping towards one another, every nano second getting closer to my black long hair to finally chop it right off, I by habit looked down on the floor expecting to see short pieces of hair on the unwashed floor. I had told her to just take off a little. But looking down on the concrete I did not see short little strings of hair, instead I saw a rug of decimetre long hair scattered around the well, used chair where I had been placed. With all my blood freezing in my veins and a Niagara Fall of disappointment overwhelming me, huge teardrops started to fall down my cheeks. As I was paralyzed of anger and frustrated to pieces I tried to explain the sudden outburst of tears.
Until this day I still don’t know if they understood my emotional outburst. Sitting there crying I only knew how I heard the loud laughter and saw the huge smiles decorate the dark haired girls with the saris in the simple beauty parlour. My escape from what could be found outside the four walls of the saloon had not succeeded. Being one of the girls in the beauty parlour my reaction most likely would have been different and perhaps my face would have looked like theirs, with no traces of pity for the girl who was crying for her stupid hair and all that could not be ignored. They continued to laugh and I continued to cry until Riu arrived to pick me up and bring me back home. Standing at the door he looked at me and with a devastated look on his face he asked:What on earth has happened?
I paid the hairdresser, left the parlour with Riu and returned to the house. Walking through the door, into their one bedroom/home, saying hello to Gertrude and my brother; I had no success in hiding my emotions. Pulling my hair constantly, with a well familiar unsatisfactory frown on my face, I shared my devastation with everyone. Not being able to make it longer my dissatisfaction became my constant companion the rest of my following days in Kolkata.
The last day in the well-populated city, we spent at home with Gertrude and Riu. My brother and I packed our bags, folded together the mosquito net, and with thousands of mosquito bites, trying hard not to itch them, I folded my items neatly, wearing my locally made cotton dress. The items of which I had carefully picked out and brought had not been of much use. My polyester made skirts and my tight trousers and white tank tops had not been of much help in the persistent and dusty air of Kolkata.
Leaving Kolkata in the early afternoon, sitting in the taxi on our way to the airport I looked out the window and saw it all pass by: the cows in the street, the constantly honking cars and the inferno of children, women and men together sharing the overcrowded sidewalks. It was broad daylight and pulling my short strings of hair I saw the sun shining of every little thing that had re-created my picture of India.