India Study Tour, 2012: Reflections - Day One


India Study Tour, 2012: Reflections - Day One

Posted on February 12, 2012 by Kathleen Levin

Welcome to India!  

Today was quite an introduction. 

Several of our group found each other at breakfast and, since our official first day was beginning at 1 pm, we decided to take a walk to the street market right outside of The Oberoi, our hotel in Kolkata. To say that there is a world of difference from the opulence of The Oberoi to the streets of Calcutta is an understatement.  The congestion of the streets and sidewalks is staggering. And today, being Sunday, is far less crowded than a weekday. The background noise is one of honking, there is hardly a minute that goes by without hearing another driver honking at a vehicle, bicyclist, pedestrian, animal, bus or simply honking for the pure habit of it. I have a feeling that this will be the soundtrack of my visit here. 

We wandered the streets for an hour or so constantly being jostled while avoiding the broken tiles in the sidewalks. It was a cacophony of bodies, trash, vendors and goods being sold. 

We returned to the hotel in time to meet our guides and set off for a bus tour of Jewish Kolkata. Who knew?  Our guide began our trip by saying "if you want to see India in one hour, spend 15 minutes in Calcutta".   We drove to one of three synagogues in the city, all within blocks of each other. The first Jews came to Calcutta from Syria in 1770. At the height of the community there were 40,000 Jews. There are now 16.  We were met at Magen David synagogue by one of our AJWS Indian colleagues, Jael Silliman, whose descendants founded the community.  The shul, now closed, had its last service 30 years ago. The Torahs are kept in a room behind the bimah and are stored in a tik, an ornately carved metal cylinder lined with wood.  In spite of the small size of the Jewish community, the synagogues are still well maintained and cared for. We walked a short distance to Beth El synagogue and were treated to the sight of the community matzoh oven and the Mikva, both no longer in use.

Next we walked to the Kolkata flower market. This seemed like our first exposure to the crowded conditions I expect to see more of as the trip progresses. People everywhere, children, cats, dogs, carts, flowers, noise, bundles being transported, men getting their ears cleaned on the sidewalks, people washing at the public taps, food vendors, public open air latrines...much more than an average New Yorker sees in a year, we saw in the space of a five minute walk.  

We walked to the edge of the Ganges where we witnessed several people bathing, others washing clothes and still others preparing funeral offerings for a departed family member.  It was a stirring sight to stand at the waters edge of a place I have heard and read so much.  

Not far away was an enormous suspension bridge, the third longest suspension bridge in the world.  Two million people cross this bridge every weekday.  Staggering.  We walked the length of the bridge and back to the bus.

Our guide shared many interesting facts on our drive back, only a few of which I will share here. Fact:  55,000 babies are born every day in India. 22,000 people die everyday for a net gain of 33,000 additional people a day. Fact:  The number of Indians under the age of 15 is equivalent to the population of the United States.  He assessed that the three main issues facing India today are population management, water management and waste management.

The day came to an end when Jael Silliman rejoined us at the hotel as one of our Indian experts to share some of her insights on this incredible country. She concluded her remarks with this statement. "India is a country of contradictions.  Indians can take anything and make it into something else."  I expect to see this borne out by the conclusion of our stay in India.  

For now, good night.  Until tomorrow.