Chennai Journal
Sunday, October 07, 2007
Kolkata Part II
While in Kolkata I walked to the "Mother House" where Mother Teresa is buried. On the way there I got lost, which is not difficult in Kolkata because the streets often have different names from those shown on the map. While detouring, I found a park with this sign, which one probably wouldn't find in most parks in the world:
Not surprisingly, an enterprising fellow attached himself to me as a guide, offering to take me to the Mother's House if I would buy him some milk. We took an even longer detour to get to the shop where he traded, but in due course he deposited me at the entrance to the house, shown below.
You are not allowed to take pictures inside, except for her tomb, which I passed on. The tomb is decorated with flowers and sits in a small chapel, where services were being conducted. There are chairs around it and people just come in and sit, reflect and pray, and some genuflect before the tomb. There is also a small museum showing artifacts from her life--the chair she sat in, her dishes and utensils, her clothing, and pictures of her life in India. The house is still used by the sisters, and it is in respect to their privacy that photographs are prohibited.

You do feel a presence in this place. Despite the cacophony outside, it is very quiet in the house, except for the voice of the priest and the occasional murmurs by the small congregation--about 30 people were in the services when I was there. You wonder about the twists of fate and destiny that led this small Albanian woman to not only devote her life to the poor of another country--and eventually many countries-- but at the world acclaim that she attracted, which was largely due to a documentary created in the late 1960s. Her life and works are not without controversy, even in her own city. The poor of Calcutta are little different from the poor of Bombay or Delhi, and arguably in better circumstances than those of some of India's most destitute states such as Bihar--and Calcutta is actually a more liveable city, with fewer infrastructure problems, than Bombay. But ironically, in part due to the work of Mother Teresa, it is Calcutta which bears an image synonymous with teeming multitudes of the destitute.

When I left the house to walk back, I was accosted by beggars who clearly have staked out this spot as a "mother lode" (sorry for the bad pun). This situation, and a subsequent discussion with co-workers in Kolkata have led me to a new paradigm on street beggars, which I'll write about in another post.

October/November is the festive season in India, and in Kolkata the biggest celebration is for Durga Puja, culminating Navarati, or nine nights. Although Durga is a Hindu deity, the Durga Puja in Kolkata is more like a Mardi Gras--everyone celebrates, and the streets have a carnival atmosphere.

In preparation, thousands of Durga idols are produced, most of them on a single small street in Kolkata called Kumartuli, or Potter's Town. (The idols are not only for use in Kolkata, but for export as well to Bengalis celebrating the Durga puja in the Indian diaspora.) The cab driver who took me to the synagogue also took me here, where the day was just getting started.

The whole community ("Kumars") gets involved in making, painting, and transporting these idols, in work that has been going on for four centuries since the Durga pooja was first celebrated during the Mughal era. The idols are made of hay and clay (making them somewhat more environmentally friendly than the plaster of paris Ganesh idols that I showed last week), and the finishing touch--painting the goddess's eye--is reserved for the eldest of the community.

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