Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Amazing City

When I handed two cones of ice-cream to the two Bengali girls who were squatting in front of the hotel entrance, you should have seen their eyes sparkle and glitter, their mud-stained faces beam with smiles. The shopkeeper probably overcharged me. RM 10 does not mean much for most Malaysians. But one can get a lunch for RM 2 in Kolkata. The older sister gingerly tore open the ice-cream cover for her sister. They both licked the ice-cream slowly very much like the way I lap Haagen Daz. They know how to savor every moment of it. The children in Kolkota seem happy even though they live in abject poverty. On several occasions, some of them pulled my hand and asked me to take photos of them. They would pose for me and after that want to see the photos. But they never once want me to give them some money. They were just satisfied to look at their faces in the photos.
When the taxi sped past the street teeming with people, I saw a woman washing her hair by scooping the running water from the drain. She was happy to wash away the dirt from her hair with the not so clean water. It’s all she could afford. Every now and then we see men bathing in the public from the tap and some women washing their clothes downstream with the bathed water. No one seems to complain. The Bengali in Kolkata are able to take whatever life throws at them.
There is something about this city that had produced 5 Nobel Prize Laureates. Mother Teresa who won the Nobel Peace Prize (1979) came to Calcutta in 1948 and worked among the poor. She started the Missionaries of Charities, a small Order of 13 people which now consists of 4000 nuns. The Missionaries of Charities believe in caring for the unwanted, the uncared and the unloved in society. Kolkata streets are full of people making the five-foot ways their homes. I saw a family of 3 generations living under one roof that has no protection from strong wind or torrential downpour of rains. I visited the home which housed many unwanted children and infants. I was talking to a nun who has been working there for 15 years and all I could see is a woman of faith, of love and of hope. Many of them go about their work, doing mundane things without drawing attention to self because they have seen Mother Teresa living her faith, loving Christ and serving the least unassumingly for 49 years. When Mother Teresa said that she is just like a pencil in the hand of a mighty God, she meant it with all her heart and lived it out beautifully. When she said that “we must do small things with great love”, we see her feeding the poor and caring for the dying day in and day out for nearly 5 decades. Her words take on new meaning.
Being a tourist in Kolkata for 4 days and living here for 5 decades is a world of difference. One can stomach the filth, the stench, the noise, the pollution and the crazy traffic in Kolkata for a few days but to work here for a few years is a different story. I began to understand why hardly any Malaysian Christians ever felt called to migrate here. We neither have strong stomachs nor great hearts.
Stepping into the home turned museum of Rabindranath Tagore immediately made me feel that I am in a totally different environment from the world outside. Within the enclave and inside the many rooms hang Tagore’s personal paintings, manuscripts of his poems, prose and the music he composed. The first question that came into my mind was how a place like Kolkata could produce and nurture a polymath who had profoundly impacted not only Bengali literature and music but also its region. Tagore was the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize of Literature (1913). When I saw the oil painting portrait of Tagore in Victoria Memorial Hall, I had goose pimples all over me. He looks like Jesus of the Western paintings.
Sarah, my daughter, laid her hands on whatever Tagore books she could find in the second hand book stores or the first class book room in the streets of Kolkata; in the process she helped me to empty my wallet! When Sarah was born, I gave her the name in Chinese meaning poem/literature and melody/music, hoping that one day she would use literature and music to serve God. It has become a reality. When she said yes to Rema to bring 75kg of English Literature books (mostly Shakespeare) to be given to Jadavpur University where her late husband Professor Lim Chee Seng once taught as adjunct professor, little did I know that it turned out to be an adventure of a significant kind. We were impacted by this great city Kolkata which has produced 5 Nobel Prize Laureates.