The word rolls around on the tongue like a marble, cool and smooth. I’ve always loved the sound of “monsoon” so am happy to arrive in Kolkata during monsoon season. And the rain has been coming down off and on since the plane landed. While I’m happily soaking in the humidity and dampness, the city isn’t handling the heavy rains as well. Roads are closed due to floods and some areas of the city are inaccessible. As always, it’s the poorest residents who are hit the hardest, the thousands of people living under newspapers and in tin shacks. In the morning I pass entire families sleeping on the seats of rickshaws or the doorways of buildings.
I’m staying at the Ramakrishna Institute of Culture in the Golpark section of Kolkata. It’s a huge place with green, manicured lawns. At first I thought it was a former British embassy of sorts, but the website says it was inaugurated in 1961. According to Swami Vivekananda the philosophy of Ramakrishna Institute is “We reject none, neither theist, nor pantheist, monist, polytheist, agnostic, nor atheist; the only condition of being a disciple is modeling a character at once the broadest and most intense. Nor do we insist upon particular codes of morality as to conduct or character, or eating and drinking, except so far as it injures others. Whatever retards the onward progress or helps the downward fall is vice; whatever helps in coming up and becoming harmonized is virtue.”
I always discover new places by walking and today I put in miles. I woke up this morning to the sound of horns and a quacking duck outside my door. How quickly the place begins to feel familiar and how quickly my Asia survival skills kick in. First rule of traffic–ignore walk signals. Instead find a corner where others are crossing, preferably a whole group, and squeeze in the middle. Step off the curb when they do. Weave in and out of the honking cars. Don’t look up. Ignore shouts. Ignore screeching tires. Trust you’ll reach the curb.
Outside the rains have started up again. The street is a sea of umbrellas and the neighborhood cloaked in gray mist.