Steve’s less ordinary visits to Kolkata and West Bengal
This blog is about some very unremarkable beginnings in London and very remarkable adventures in India.
More years ago than I care to remember I had a small job in a small charity administering modest grants to development projects in Africa and Asia. It was very unremarkable. Except that, as the post eventually arrived (email was limited or non-existent in those days) I came to know about, for example, peri-urban settlements in Zimbabwe, sprawling slums in Kenya and how the installation of low cost pit-latrines transformed lives in India. Eventually I could speak quite convincingly of these even though I never left an upstairs backroom in a non-descript London suburb.
Among the Indian Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) I came to hear of was one with an office in Kolkata and projects in West Bengal. They had installed over 35,000 low cost latrines in rural districts not far from the boarder with Bangladesh. In my suburban solitude I decided that, if possible, I should not go through life without meeting those responsible for transforming so many lives.
My vision of touring rural West Bengal didn’t play out quite as planned. Those responsible for the installation of latrines came to me! I was living in different, but equally non-descript suburb, and, by then, had a house with a spare room. The NGO’s staff had been invited to the United Kingdom to meet their more generous donors and some university researches with an interest in development. So I welcomed three Bengalis I’d come to know only from occasional letters and poorly drafted emails. I don’t recall doing a great deal for my guest but, such was my introduction to Kolkatan hospitality, they insisted I visit and stay with them whenever I wanted.
.It was some years later, and not until I had another unremarkable job, that I got to go to India. It was 2008. I spent some time in Kolkata and Boral, a quasi-village-cum-suburb that’s just to the south of the city. We also went to Thinagar and Majhra in Malda District. Staying in Boral has been a delight as has time in rural West Bengal albeit a touch more down at heel.
Visiting less as a tourist and more as friends of Bengalis, I get to see places few, and more likely no, visitors to India would even consider going to. Let alone return more than once. I feel fortunate and privileged. I go to Malda District by train from Howrah. We arrive at night and still have to travel by road for another hour. It’s not until the morning, when the winter mist has lifted, that I get to see the countryside’s breath-taking beauty.
But the breath-taking beauty does little to mask the prevalence of rural poverty. I’m struck by, for all of India’s progress, how little this has touched the lives of those in the countryside and all its villages, where the majority of Indian’s still live. When I am Thinagar or Majhra and want to go to the nearest town I can either borrow a bike or jump on the back of a van rickshaw. When I go to friends’ homes for tea (served with the ubiquitous biscuits) you first go to the well for water. Someone has to milk the cow too, if you are fortunate to own one. Kitchens can be minimal or less and, despite state pledges, not everyone has a toilet. When a storm struck five blocks of Malda district in March 2017 it was left, at least in part, to a local NGO, using mainly US money, to restore damaged homes and assist the occupants by providing them with cows, goats and pigs.
That said, if the places I visit are poor, as are its people, they are exceptionally generous in their hospitality. I have never not been more than warmly welcomed. When I left village India a couple of years ago it was nice to gift a friend a cow. It’s difficult to express my friend’s happiness. Nor mine!
It’s twenty plus years since my suburban solitude gave way to adventures in Kolkata and West Bengal. I’ve now been to India nine times. Not only have I met those responsible for installing low cost latrines, I have seen and used some!
Steven Derby is Director of Interfaith Matters, a London based consultancy promoting inter-religious knowledge, understanding and respect. Steve’s unremarkable job was Director of Calcutta Hope, a position he hopes to return to later this year.