Off the busy street of taxis and buses is Hati Bagan, one of the ten thousand little boroughs of concrete maze and brick and tin alleyways that piece together in lopsided conjunction to form the Kolkata jigsaw. Roads narrow to alleys narrow to shoulder-width passages punctuated by tiny, cell-like rooms. Families cram side by side and do life in close proximity out in the street: a middle-aged man, wearing only his lungi, is covered in suds and scrubs himself in the constantly running water from the street pipe, and the soapy water trickles down the street and over the stones like a painter’s brush slash of pigment, an ebb and tide flowing past the rubber sandaled feet of the old timer, vacant-eyed on his door stoop, and coming to rest at the feet of the little mocha-skinned girl with big eyes and a muddy dress, and their eyes and the water and the suds bound together those disparate and fragile worlds to each other and to the city and to my world – moments pinned in the passing and embedding themselves in our memories.
These are the experiences that come in between the status updates, the videography, and the freedom bakery marketing plans, between playing with brothel kids in Sonagachi and wrestling with questions of kingdom building against the darkness. Not every moment is taken up with writing about sex trafficking and working to build freedom businesses. In between are relationships with the community, explorations in Kolkata, and moments of discovery. Some of these, like my friendship with Rashe, have little or nothing to do with the work in Sonagachi. But my time with Rashe has provided some of the most helpful insights and inside looks into life in Kolkata which I have had thus far.
Tonight in Hati Bagan I am heading to Rashe’s house… The room is small – jam-packed with all the necessities. A single bed set up for two to sleep on top, two underneath. Clothes hang on a line, plastic plates and a small gas stove, bags of rice and a mound of the day’s vegetables, a tiny TV in the corner. All of life happens between these walls, and there is no embarrassment in the wide smiles and nomoshkars from Rashe’s mother and aunt and grandma. They are proud of their domain. And they love their boy.
Rashe’s smile is nervous tonight, a bit embarrassed perhaps at my seeing his small, one-room home which he shares with his family, and at my offer to pay for his ticket to the movie we plan to see in another part of the city. Once again his paycheck has not come in. He does accounts work and bookkeeping for local businesses, but is underage, has no formal qualifications and is of a low caste. For these reasons he is frequently cheated out of fair earned wages. Luxuries and entertainment necessarily come from the small pleasures that can be snatched out of life – 5 rupee cups of cha, individually bought cigarettes (whole packs are too expensive to buy at once), walks to the river and conversations with friends.
We had planned for weeks to go see the movie, and when Rashe’s paycheck failed to materialize he apologized profusely because he couldn’t afford the ticket. When I offered to pay, he briefly got angry, not at me, but simply at his circumstances. Rashe has pride – the good kind that doesn’t get talked about as much, and made him reluctant to take my gift. His defiance seemed small, but it spoke volumes to me of his character and intentions. Life in our line of work abroad often involves a nagging sense of being taken advantage of, and a host of bad experiences with relationships where your wallet and resources are sought, rather than your friendship. To many, the westerner seems to appear to be a naïve, bumbling ATM. That creates a cynicism that can both create a certain street savvy, and create a destructive distrust.
So when someone like Rashe begs for my time, but not my wallet, when he shares his own resources generously and scoffs at my own offers when they are too large, when he invites me into his home, into his family, and into his stories of life lived on the streets of Hati Bagan and Shovabazar, that is refreshing, because it is real. And in the world of crossing cultures, real relationships can be rare and hard to distinguish.
After the movie is over (a summer flick involving giant robots punching each other through skyscrapers) it is late, and Rashe has no less than 27 missed calls from his mother. We make our way back through a shortcut in the slums, dodging yelling drunks, stopping for the inevitable cha break, and talking about India and America. And these hours, these conversations, these lessons have, on the surface, nothing to do with justice, nothing to do with the Gach or with freedom businesses – but they are still worthwhile, these moments in between – for language, for culture and street smarts, for pouring into the life of a young man who could very well impact his community, and for glimpses into lives and alleys and stories so different from mine or yours.