Kshama Dhir, while on her visit to the city of joy, Kolkata, looks beyond its aesthetic and spiritual side. The visit unwraps many new things before her related to the city that gives her immense happiness and joy.
Photographs by Ahana Jain
“Religion is following a messenger while spirituality is following the message.”
This quote stuck to me quite naturally as generally the route to find the message has been through the messenger and it is incumbent upon us to distil between the two to find our way forward in this human life.
A keen area of interest to me is to understand the premise of various beliefs and religions as it is amazing to see how people at large are driven by religious sects or leaders and I was intrigued to find what drives all of them to a common cause and is effectively changing the way we function. Having read the basics of the most prevalent religions, the obvious place to go deeperbeing in India was Hindu scriptures and literature.
I can’t even be called an amateur to understand this huge world of spirituality, but reading these scriptures definitely gave me an innate urge to travel to few places, Kolkata being one of them.
My family has been an ardent follower of Yogoda Satsanga Society founded by Paramahansa Yogananda. This coupled with learnings from Ramakrishna Paramahansa and Swami Vivekananda; I am amazed at how much of a wealth of knowledge and spirituality this eastern city of India has and that made me travel to Kolkata.
I must admit, my travel to Kolkata opened up new ways to look at one of the oldest cities, also beyond its spiritual side.
Two years of pandemic and my life changed from an avid traveller to just shuttling between two ends of the Capital city. With 2022 and the lock down easing out, my wanderings have started quicker than before.
Unlike my usual interest on non-metro and less crowded places, this time it was one of the most crowded cities in India, a city known for its literary depth, its temples, its food and also a city where income disparity is so evident in its everyday life (which big city doesn’t have it anyways!)…. this time it had to be the City of Joy, Kolkata.
I have always loved exploring cities either by walking or cycling rather than in cabs, but considering it was a long weekend and the roads less crowded, walking and exploring the bylanes was fun.
Walking across any city not only gives me a chance to explore, understand the culture but also always helps me to connect the dots through people’s behaviour.
Some common things I have observed in most of the cities are:
A)Food habits give us a sense of belongingness:
Though I am not a foodie, but I had a long list of recommendation of places to eat even before I started planning the trip. A city which is famous for its street food, it was obvious for me to go and try its Puchkas (Kolkata versin of Golgappas) at two different joints on consecutive days. I can write a long tale about their taste but there was a unique thing which struck me this time.
Both the joints were well visited and they had one thing in common, in both the places there were large groups of young college students apparently studying out of India and were visiting the city for first time. Amongst these groups, there would be one city-native person who talks local language Bengali for the shop keeper and English for their friends and was proudly explaining the culture, relating to the street food and telling them how to eat it and enjoy the food. There was a sense of pride for their city in their tones. Despite being away from their native places for long, talking about food of their cities gave them a sense of being connected.
I remembered that’s how I explain Indian food to my friends and colleagues who come from other countries.Food we eat while growing up, being the basic human need, does give us a sense of belongingness and is an inherent part of who we are. This is the sheer reason that despite having the best food available in the most renowned restaurant, one does crave for home-made food after a few days (ghar ka khana!)
B) Passion and excellence drives customer satisfaction:
There is a College Street in Kolkata where you can find millions of books across genres in a sphere of 2 kms, you name it and you can find it, be it history, philosophy, science, religion, fiction, curriculum-based or otherwise.
We went there just for the feel of the place without any particular book in mind but ended up buying multiple books. Now that’s not unique considering the love for books we have, but to my utter surprise I bought the book ‘Physics for non-science people’. I don’t and can’t read science books because of the sheer volume of formulas and complicated jargons those books have, but the reason I bought it was the shopkeeper, Mr. Das. He was so passionate about his books, he asked our interests and kept on showing us books and discussed with us topics at length. His sheer passion and energy on his face was so evident that he cared less even if we don’t buy it, he kept on narrating stories from this book as if it was a film reel and we ended up taking it; his passion was infectious.
Tea vendor: A tea-lover like me needs to find good tea-joints in any city I go. This one was a little one tucked opposite to the stock exchange in a corner shop, selling just a few items; he had a huge clientele who would just drive by his small shop, you would otherwise ignore, but for the long queue of people around the stall. The passion and smile, with which he and his team served the tea and a few snacks item with it, made the shop a case study of management schools in itself. I did notice each and every employee in the shop would engage with customers for a small chit chat, which gave it all a personal touch. Surprisingly, the pricing of a ‘kesar chai’ is almost five times I would pay to a tea vendor in Delhi, but he was able to justify it with all the specialty he puts in the tea.
Both these shops are not big, no branding, no advertisement but if I ever visit the city again, I will first head to them for the sheer customer centricity they have.
C) Human resilience is paramount despite all adversities:
Tourism industry though badly hit by Pandemic, I was amazed to see the optimism of the hotel staff.
Staying in a luxurious 5 star hotel and talking to the hotel manager on the outlook of the business, he said they were giving away many freebies in order to remain in business and sustain livelihood for the employees, though cut down by huge numbers. There was a sense of despair as he shared hotel was on low occupancy but they were trying all they could to keep the ship alive. But there was always a ray of hope of the business picking up again as the pandemic seemed to be wavering off.
Right outside the hotel gate was a very busy flea market. There was a young, may be eight year old girl selling flowers which were almost wilting. I was observing her standing at the hotel gate; she tried to sell her flowers to me, unsuccessfully. With noon sun at its peak, she sat down tiringly at one corner and the moment she saw me looking at her, she again rushed to me, asking if I could buy her some food instead.I asked her, what she wanted to eat and there came a big childish smile and a spark in her eyes, chowmein. Watching her eat chowmein with great satisfaction was a treat for me. The moment she finished her much desired meal, there was optimism in her eyes, of selling her flowers again and she jumped to the crossing again convincing others.
Optimism for future and resilience, irrespective of the rich or the poor is a human trait we are borne with and it comes forth more in adversity.
D) We are all equal in the eyes of God:
As I headed to the most famous temple in the city, Covid and long queues did play in my mind. To my pleasure, it was not crowded and the arrangement was well managed with security guards at the entrance ensuring everyone was wearing a mask and maintaining a distance.
As we stood in the queue, there came an orange robed monk, who was trying to enter the temple without the mask and kept on arguing with the security that it was not needed and that he would cover his face with his neck scarf. This monk seemed to be belonging to a big religious society, whichI could infer based on the number of disciples with him. But neither the monk nor his disciples could convince the security personnel and finally they had to put on masks before entering the temple.
I smiled when the security guard told the monk, Covid does not discriminate betweena monk or a common man and I mentally added neither does God!!
As I headed back from Kolkata, it was good food, good shopping and above all a bagful of joyous learnings from the city… till the next wandering!
Photographer – Ahana Jain
Ahana is an engineering student in her first year who, apart from being a reader and artist at heart, is still trying to figure out how to tally up her backlog while simultaneously clicking pictures of anything and everything she sees.
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Kshama is a chartered accountant by profession but she feels there is more to human life beyond numbers. A wanderer by heart, she likes observing human behaviour and connected the dots. An amateur writer, her writings are mainly based on her personal interactions and experiences. You can also read Kshama's blogs at kshamadhir.blogspot.com