Silence, Stars and the Saunderbans

My phone glowed in the darkness, a fuzzy orb until my eyes focussed. 5am.  A hot shower reinforced reality. The day was beginning.

I shoved my jacket in to my pack – Harry had said it would be cold – and zipped it shut.  My phone rang – the taxi was here.  I slung my pack on my back and hurried out the door.  The lift creaked in the earliness of the cool morning, and I felt understood.  I reached the gate and shoved against it.  It rattled but didn’t swing.  Of course, it was too early for the gate-keeper to have unlocked it.  I looked back, down the darkened driveway to Choki-da’s place.  Even if he heard me calling, it would take him five minutes to get here and I didn’t have that sort of time, nor the patience for his grumbles.  The driver had pulled over outside the gate, and with my limited Bangla I didn’t like my chances of convincing him to wait for me.  I looked up – the only option. A couple of metres above me, the barred gate threatened to poke holes in to the flat charcoal sky, which might have brought the arrival of dawn more quickly.  I spied a couple of breaks in the wire I could put my feet, and once I got over the second bar I reasoned I would be able to wriggle between the gaps and over the top.  Already this weekend was shaping up to be more of an adventure than I had anticipated!  I stopped at the top, remembering I hadn’t tried jumping since surgery, but it was too late now.  I would just have to be careful.  My legs felt out in the darkness for one last foothold, and I used it to push away from the gate as I let go.  WHACK. My feet slammed in to the pavement, and I felt the shock roll up my legs. I’d forgotten I was wearing a pack and it almost tipped me backwards, but I righted myself and hurried over to the taxi.

The city is different this time of morning.  Bundles of blankets interspersed along the pavements were the same – each layered cocoon housing some unlucky soul who hadn’t been afforded a roof for the night, and keeping me sharply aware of the acerbic realities of this place…But this morning there was a peace I hadn’t experienced here before now.  As cicadas are to summer, tooting is to Kolkata, and the place felt eerily empty without the background dissonance.  I got out of the taxi outside the Esplanade Metro, and for a time it was just me.  And then just me and the street-sweeper.  He scratched against the pavement with his stick-broom and for a blessed three minutes that was the only sound I heard. I marvelled at the simple beauty of hearing only one sound.  While I waited for my watch to wind around to 6 o-clock, subtle hues warmed the face of the streets, and I enjoyed the click of my camera shutter as I stole still pictures of unusually empty streets.  Scratch-scratch. Click-click. The only sounds in the city that had until now suffocated me with its noise.


Andrew was the first to arrive, and I was pleased to see he had brought with him a guitar.  All the best adventures have guitars in them.  Harry, Mandy and David were next – and not long afterwards Joe & Sarah and the kids rolled up in a yellow taxi.   Vishal and his friend found us, and after brief discussion on who would sit where, and a shuffle of bags we were off.  As the city buildings thinned out, the population density increased, and we fought through crowds and herds for a while before we broke free of the urban grip and in to tree-laced roads that spilled over green plains.  I felt my soul expanding inside of myself as I drew in the scene.  It had been almost three months since the horizon had reached to as far as I could see, and it stretched its cramped limbs magnificently and birds danced in the glory of it.

We bumbled over a bridge and pulled over outside a humble brick building.  A smiling bengali boy welcomed us and held out to me a cup of cha.  The warmth of it bled in to my fingers and I sipped it gratefully.  The air was thick and rich and clean. It took up more room in my lungs than the air back in Kolkata, and I had to be careful I didn’t suck too much in with each breath.  I wandered back to the bridge.  A small fishing boat paddled in an emerald river beneath, stirring up a trail of silt that left braids of green and beige in it’s wake.  The beauty of it all was visceral, and something tightened in the back of my throat.  I balanced the cha cup on the bridge railing and snapped a few more pictures.  My nose felt cold as it squashed against the back of the camera, and I relished the feeling.


We continued on to the inlet – about another hour’s drive – and watched our boat become loaded with supplies for the weekend.  It looked as though it had been stolen from the crayoned imagination of a child.  It’s belly was generously curved, and striped with black, orange, blue and white.  It sat low in the water, with black tyres pinned to its side, between half-sized windows, and above a blue and white fence criss-crossed around the top deck.  Overtop, an orange canvas was stretched out as shade from the sun, and stringy curtains dangled at it’s edges, like a brimmed hat.  We scrambled aboard and waited for Harry and Vishal to return with the last of the supplies.

The engine coughed in to life and though I’m not sure if it was the compression of the engine or simply it’s vibration that propelled us, we inched up the inlet and out to the mangroved Saunderbans.  By lunchtime we had made it far enough, and the engine subsided.  An anchor rattled down, and then I drank in silence for the second time that day.  All nine of us did. We sat there – exalting in its full nothingness.  On the banks, fisherman threw nets out in to the water, then waded in to the muddied channel to collect them in again.  If I stopped breathing and listened very carefully, I could hear the gentle thwack as they hit the water and the happy chatter of the fisherman as they went about their business. But when I breathed again, their sound disappeared and they continued about their work in mute repetition.  Lunch arrived; fresh vegetables and fish, barbecued to perfection. If I closed my eyes I could almost believe I was at home, and my tastebuds gambolled with the textures and flavours of each bite.   Saunderbans-1463

 Today, back in the rolling Hinuera hills my family was gathering for a Christmas lunch.  This would typically be one of my favourite days of the year.  I was glad to be distracted.  I laid back in the weak warmth of the winter sun and peeled open the cover of a book.  The engine started again and somewhere between the pages, and the sun, and the strum of a guitar over the engine’s throb, I slipped in to that thick-walled world of sleep.  I woke – I don’t know how much later – and mustered energy enough to follow the group onshore to wander around an alligator park. The great beasts sat beneath the waterline, their light golden eyes like forgotten marbles sitting on the surface of a green linoleum.  Mandy and I chatted as we walked, and the sun faded to almost nothing as we returned to the boat.  The water mimicked the sky and the boat cut a noisy, rippled fissure between the two.  Saunderbans-1538

After another barbecued dinner – I presumed at the expense of our two ‘pet’ chickens – who I noted were no longer huddled at the boat’s stern – the group crowded in a circle.  We all donned Santa hats.   The boys puffed on a pipe, and bottles clicked.  I couldn’t remember laughing as much in a good long time.  We all needed it, too.  The months of work, and noise, and constancy of Kolkata had us all worn thin.  I peeled away from the group for an early night.  There was a lot on my mind.  I woke again at two.  My shy friend, Silence, had joined me again.  I slipped out from under the thick covers, and climbed over Sarah, hoping I wouldn’t wake her.  There was dew on the deck, and its coldness bit at my feet.  I didn’t mind though.  I looked up.  This is what I had waited for.  An expanse of darkness spread out above me. Proper black darkness too – not the cities’ grey-purple kind that hangs behind a tungsten curtain.  And dotted in the blackness were hundreds and hundreds of pin-sized stars.

 I hadn’t seen them in months. The last time I did, I was in New Zealand, contemplating what it would be to say goodbye to the people and places I loved most and carve out a life on the other side of the world.     I couldn’t make shapes out of the unfamiliar constellations, but I kept watching them until my eyes blurred with the strain of it.  There is something about silence and stars that is incredibly orienting, though I’m not sure why.  But in the glinting blackness and the solitude and the cold, without any distraction, I felt the deep knowing that unwittingly the compass of my life had – for a season at least – settled on true north, and that I was home. And far from alone.

Christmas in The City Of Joy

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My house isn’t far from a renowned red light area, and lately more and more women have been moving out of the area and standing beside the entrance to our place. I know there are lot of things I am naive about here, but there are some realities that are so obvious you don’t need to have a major in anthropology to ‘get’. These women are here a lot – mostly at night but sometimes in the afternoons, and on the odd occasion the mornings too. They stand there, loitering, unless the police happen to come and chase them away. Join the dots.

I talk to several women on the street most days. I don’t know if they know that I know what ‘work’ means for them, but it doesn’t really matter to me or to them.  We are friends. To everyone else though, there seems to be a big problem that myself (and whatever social ramifications that being white and foreign, wealthy and educated has over here) and these women would have anything to do with each other. Many other people on the street are forever eyeing our conversations with suspicion and brood over our engagements waiting to swoop in and rescue me from these “bad women.”  Sometimes they interrupt the conversation just to ensure everybody is aware of that fact, and to make certain I’m not associating with anyone I ought not to be…

This morning when I was walking home from language school I passed by a woman leaning against a wall just outside my gate. I don’t remember having seen her before, but I presumed she was probably ‘working’ too. I smiled and waved and kept walking. Her gaze followed me and a few metres after passing her I turned back. She smiled broader still. I walked closer and she reached out and touched my hair. She made some comment about it being long and beautiful – I had just washed it this morning, thankfully – and gestured that it should be up. Or maybe she was asking if she could do it up for me. I wasn’t totally sure what she was saying but I made out that I did and nodded. We walked down my driveway together, slowly. We shared names and then sat on the steps outside my apartment. And she leaned over me and braided my hair. Beautifully.

As I sat on that step in full honesty I felt the self-loathing of knowing I was nervous about this. Nervous about what the neighbours might think, and nervous that security or landlord might see or hear about this, and treat us like everyone else does. I can’t help but think she would have expected the same…But the more beautiful thought crept in to my mind – along with that strange heart-quivering warmth that I think happens when you come to realise new truth – as I remembered that sacred story of the woman who once broke open and lavished on the feet of Jesus an expensive oil (that story is in Luke if you want to read more about it). It wasn’t any seeming ‘parallel’ that moved me – I am certainly not Jesus, woman I met this morning is not the “sinful woman” (although, aren’t we all?) and the smell of the streets of Kolkata aren’t the precious kind you bottle away.  It was a new perspective on that story that captured me. For the first time I imagined that story not through the eyes of the onlookers, as I normally do…

This morning that woman who sat on the steps with me and braided my hair was the brave one. She was the humble, courageous, beautiful and vulnerable one who stood against what society would say or believe each of us are, and what each of our places should be. Instead, she generously understood me  – though many others I’ve met here haven’t – as someone who wanted to know her, to engage with her, to share time and space and experience with her. She grasped that.  She allowed me to come closer and be with her as I’ve wanted to be, to hell with the barriers.

The story of Christmas, our great hope, is that Jesus Christ the Son of God – who being in his very nature God – stepped in to our world out of his severe longing to be with us. To share with us. To re-establish the unity between God and Man that there was when it all began.

For the very first time in my life, this morning I felt a whisper of the intoxicating joy that perhaps Jesus knew as his own longings were fulfilled; the joy he felt when the humble, courageous, beautiful, vulnerable and perceiving woman in that wonderful serving act embraced him as the very God he had moved from heaven to earth to express himself as. The God with us. Emmanuel.

Joy to the world.

The Perfect Day

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It started with coffee. The foamy kind, where the tiny milk bubbles butt against your top lip like a dam and your tongue becomes a rush of smooth espresso warmth. The taste is charged with the memories of unhurried conversations shared over cups like this back home, in the clatter of cafés and company of old friends. And for a moment I am there…The sun streams in and warms the tiles, and fat Freddy’s Drop breathes kiwiana and coolness in to the room.

I take time to turn over the fresh memories from this morning, when wedged in the back of a tuk-tuk I whirred through colourful lanes to parts of the city undiscovered to me.   The rainbow had been spliced and laid out in neat piles by men selling vegetables. Each one busily loaded handfuls of bright pigment in to a swinging basket, and balanced these with weights in another while they shouted and pointed to distracted patrons.  Goats bounced and were hurried away to the edges of the lane – the less lucky among them stripped of their hides and hung by their feet in the open windows, next to shirtless butchers with knives that must have been sharper than they looked.  Proud white-robed men with beards and matching caps strode alongside women swathed in black, the sunlight dancing from their jewelled noses.  Taxi horns blared, bus engines growled and bells climbed over the cacophony.

“Whenever you’re ready, man.” Harry’s voice was a moon that pulled at the tide of my consciousness and dragged me back to the present – not unhappily.

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We set out on bikes and and I followed behind Harry, winding through the old cities dirt alleyways, past men pulling carts, and others with precariously balanced loads atop turbaned heads. The sun – by now approaching the height of its arc over the city – beat down heated gravity,  pressing the water out of our bodies and on to our skin where it sat; until the beads became trickles that meandered down our necks and our backs and sank in to our already damp clothes. From shop to shop we flitted examining the wares of poker-faced paper merchants for hours it felt like. While Harry had the shop keepers busy mining dusty stacks of card in the recesses of their stores, an old gentleman with delicate, wrinkled fingers poured me hot chai from the blackened spout of an old kettle. His yellowed eyes almost smiled, and he tipped his head to the side in the same way that every body around here seems to. I’m not yet sure what it means, but it’s nice.  Not knowing what to do with perfect terracotta thimble he’d given to me to drink out of,  I offered it back. He took it brusquely and dropped it where fractured in to pieces in the gutter. My astonished gaze caught his. He shook his head with mild – almost friendly -disdain, then shuffled off the to the next shop, wordlessly.  I stared back in to the gutter and saw the broken remains of more than a dozen other cups.  I would learn by joining the dots here, even if it made no sense to me.

From the paper market we retreated back to the relative cool of the Croucher’s apartment.  Mandy had prepared bread and home-made feta for lunch.  My teeth sank in to the familiar soft resistance – how long had it been since I’d eaten bread?  I savoured the salty crumbs of feta that clung at the corners of my mouth.    A fan whirred overhead, whipping warm creamy air down in an ever-losing battle.  We tilled over the events of the morning together – Mandy was bemused by our enthusiasm, but clearly pleased for us as we proudly displayed the card we had gathered from the morning.  This week we would begin to design the packaging for the new bags, and it had to be just right.

Outside, on the edges of the built-city, I could hear thin threads of bird-song, and the low-lying shacks and homes rambled on in to the distance until they disappeared in to the haze entirely.  It was that sleepy kind of peaceful that belongs to the thickness of the heat, and I could certainly have stayed and enjoyed it longer were it not for the interminable enthusiasm of my colleague.  “Ready for round two?” Harry is lean with wide, bright eyes, and an eager posture that almost is always leaning in to the next moment.    He has those arty kind of hands too – with nimble fingers, and nails that almost always have a little bit left of what ever he was last working on under them.  Mandy laughs, and tells me Harry can never sleep in on Saturdays, because he’s too excited about the things he could make. I smiled at the familiarity of it. It had been many years since I’d known the same feeling, but already in this day I had sensed the beginnings of an uncrumpling of something that belonged to my childhood self – the simple but exultant joy of creating.

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Mandy collected what was left of lunch and Harry and I set off on the second act of the day.   “Welcome to the densest place on earth!” Harry yelled back to me, over his shoulder. I had to ask him to repeat what he’d said over the hubbub.  Above, strings of flags were slung between sooty buildings that almost leaned in to the alleyway – perhaps hoping to relax their hundred-year old muscles from the effort of propping themselves up.  We waded slowly, using our front wheels to cut our way through the crowd.  There were those who smiled at me from their perches on the backs of carts or truck, and others who scowled. I couldn’t help feeling a little out of place in this Man’s World.  When a bus would lurch through beside us, we would fall in to it’s stream, like those little fish who whistle along under the belly of a great whale cruising the oceans.  At last we reached the lane where Harry was pretty sure we would find canvas. He’d seen tarpaulins here before, he thought.   The morning’s routine repeated itself – Harry floating requests with shop keepers who would then eagerly dive out back to bring forward samples of this and that, while we supped Cha.  And I threw my cup away like a local.  All together, we found a blanket, a kind of cheese cloth, and a couple of canvasses we were pretty sure had potential.

“Wanna go to the furniture market on the way home?” Harry was optimistic there was more we could squeeze into this day yet! It was an easier ride back, and there was a point where I had a whole road to myself.  It was roofed with a canopy of trees and seemed an enchanted tunnel of sorts.  I wanted to try taking my hands off the bars as I rode, but my eyes suddenly stung and squinted in the pollution of the air, and I didn’t relish the thought of finishing the day with skinned knees as penance for cycling with no hands and no-looking either.   Graciously, the market wasn’t far, and I marvelled at the dressers and shutters and doors that had been painted and repainted as the decades had ticked by. It was all impossibly gorgeous, with rich timbers and delicate inlays that wore their years with the same aged grace as those lines around the eyes of an old woman when she smiles.  Roaming through the darkened corridors of forgotten furniture,  I was stopped suddenly in my tracks by a white wire of incense suspended across blackness in front of me.  It was so beautiful I didn’t want to break it – like the dewed threads of a spiders web in the morning. I didn’t need to go any further anyway – just to the left was a pale blue board, leaning against the wall.   Perhaps it was part of an old door, or a window shutter. I tried to feign disinterest in it, but  somehow imagination’s glow in my eyes must have betrayed me to the owner, and he knew I saw more potential in it than it had to him.  I made out to haggle a fair price for it, lamely,  but in the end settled on paying at least twice what it was worth.  Nevermind.  It would make a perfect desk – it could be next weekend’s project, perhaps.

After dropping the bikes back at the Crouchers, I decided I would walk home, rather than take a bus.  Was it just my mood, or had today actually made me younger?  I skipped over unlevel cobbles, and enjoyed the light yet unfamiliar feeling that there was nowhere in particular I had to be in that moment.  Dusk was settling, and there were a few orange smudges peeking through the thinnest parts of the now grey sky.   It was apparent – from the garish and disorienting blend of sounds, sights and smells that I had found myself a very, very long way from home indeed;  something that only grown-ups can do.  And yet at the same time, Kolkata made me feel more like a child than I could remember feeling in a very long time.  It was perfect paradox, and I smiled at the thought of it.   I wasn’t too sure what I would do tomorrow, but I was almost certain it would be an adventure.

Wet Colours

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A woman knelt in front of a sole candle, in silence, head bowed, praying to a God that only months ago she had considered the stuff of people’s imaginings. She wrapped dark fingers around sunset marigolds, placed them next to a brass cross, and then returned to sit beside me.   This woman,  I have for weeks now watched and wondered about.  She’s the one I can’t peg…Her shoulders broad and strong, her voice loud, her gait nonchalant.  She seems thoroughly her own woman. Remarkable, given the little I know of her story.  Something about her seems unbreakable…Or untouchable, perhaps.

She stood again, this time to collect a certificate. One with her name on it – in all likelihood the first document that has ever identified her, and commended her.   It just says one simple thing – that she has completed a course in basic literacy. That is all. It doesn’t say of this woman that six months ago a couple of foreigners came to her and said that they would stand with her if she was courageous enough to fight for her freedom; but she was.  It doesn’t say that these last months she has endured hungry days and anguished nights torn between a world of liberty and captivity, and with the former in mind has stayed her course; but she has. It doesn’t say that she has broadened her shoulders, looked a black-hearted fate in the eye, and grappled against it  to secure a future for her children that was different to the one she had stolen from her; but she did.  It’s paper and ink.  A simple token that says only one thing, but means so much more.  Perhaps this is why, when she sits beside me again I look across and I see a silvered glistening threading down her cheek.

Today is graduation day.  The past six months of five women’s lives are celebrated. It has been a season of incredible challenge and change – one I was not here to witness – but the yield of which I cannot deny. I look around the room.  Shy Roma, with her soft eyes and gold-gilded sari.  When she laughs I can believe her. Jona – you can hear the drumming of a generous dream within her for many others to share days like this.  Mithu – beautiful in crimson – a beacon in her community. Others will be ‘reckless’ enough to dream of a future with possibilities because of her encouragement…

This is not a day that has been born of blind optimism. It has been wrought in struggle, doubt, tears, fights, hurts, and uncertainty. Reality is an imperturbable canvas.  But community, hope, love, and truth are an unassailable palette, and against the odds in this little district I see the wet colours a loving creator intended at last smeared.

Not A Tourist This Time

A queue bumped up behind me with a gentle shove. I looked up at the overhead lockers and back at my boarding pass. Six B. This was definitely it. My seat was between two Indian women. One – the older of the two – sat on the far side, leaning heavily against the window. A silk sari was pulled across her shoulder and did little to cloak ripples of her generous girth which spilled out and pressed against the confines of her seat. A small bundle of thinning white hair was pulled back tight against her scalp and she chewed on her jaw with a kind of disinterested indolence. The other woman, the one closest to me, sat rigidly; a purse clutched on her lap and her eyes boring in to the seat ahead. She seemed unaware that I lingered, hoping to wedge myself between the two of them. There was another gentle shove behind me – stronger this time and accompanied by the swell of an impatient murmur. I blinked several times at the woman, who still hadn’t moved. As I reached out to touch her, my jaw fell slack. My clammy hand hovered over her shoulder for a moment, and I pulled it back. I curled my bottom lip over my teeth and bit down.   It dawned on me that I had no idea what to say.

 I looked further down the aisle and saw worn mothers and fathers bundling young children in to seats and barking instructions I couldn’t understand. Businessmen heaved their laptops into overhead compartments and prattled away on their phones. A peppering of tourists with bronze tans laughed with each other about something, but I couldn’t make out what.  My pulse rose and my tongue became heavy and sticky.  Men with long beards, white tunics and knotted turbans sat as reticent witnesses to my panic, gazing silently forward over their spectacles at me, awash in the wave of noise I couldn’t make sense of.

Sometime in the last two hours, between gliding in on a flight originating in Auckland, and boarding another bound for Kolkata, I had been consigned to the minority.  Illiterate. Foreign. Other.  ‘This is how they must feel,’ I thought, turning over faces in my mind of wide-eyes immigrants and exchange students I had met over the years back home.  Unable to speak, unsure of what is appropriate. Completely at the mercy of the crowd.

I turned back over my shoulder, air trapped in the back of my throat, and young, kind eyes met mine. I couldn’t remember her name, but it was the english-speaking woman and I had made acquaintance with over quick-fire conversation just minutes before on the air-bridge … “You are to stay in Kolkata?” she had asked – her voice rising in surprise at the word ‘stay.’

“Yes” I had responded – and if I had been wholly honest I would have admitted a degree of surprise myself. Her face and tone had betrayed her thoughts when I’d told her where I would be living. “You have a project there?” she’d asked, assumingly.

“You have heard about Sonnagacchi then, I suppose?” I’d sighed in response. “I hear it is famous in Kolkata.”

“Sonnagacchi is famous in all of Asia” she’d said, and shook her head in a sort of sorry nod. Her words hung in the humid air and I hadn’t known what to say back.

The Air-bridge woman looked back at me now from under raised brows. Taking my silence as permission, she pressed her lips together in a subtle smile and tipped her head to the woman in the seat. She uttered a few phrases to the Bag-lady, who hurriedly and inelegantly clambered out of her seat. I squeezed past and sank down in to vinyl and tired foam. A hinge squeaked in protest as I adjusted myself in my seat and jammed my bag under the seat in front of me. We each sat in our places – the Bag-lady and I – and remained wordless for a few moments. Meanwhile, my mind raced as the reality of my place in a new world sank in.

 The old Sari-woman still hadn’t looked at me when the Bag-lady punctuated the silence with a clatter of words that fell between us and then rolled away under the seats as marbles. I shook my head and shrugged back at her silently with a tired half-smile. Generously, and humbly, she shaped her mouth around the few English words she knew. We bumbled our way through the basics as the planes engine roared through the darkness. I think she has a son living in Australia. Though I had been trying to tell her I was full with my rounded belly gestures, I think she she thinks I’m pregnant and I can’t convince her otherwise. As our plane shudders and bounces in to Kolkata, she grabs my passport and thumbs opens it to the photo page. A stained finger jabs at my picture. “Friend,” she says, and then points back to herself. “You, me, friend.”  She smiles. I smile back, and wonder if I will ever see her again after this moment. Nevertheless, her warmth matches the amber glow of lights which had been gliding past my window, and have now stopped, our journey complete. I gather my things and unfold my limbs as I prepare to disembark.

I got on this plane in a world I understood, a world I could be confident in, a world where I knew my place. A world that worships the scientific method, where all happenings can be seemingly rationalised by cause and effect. I walk out now, in to a world of uncertainty, unfamiliarity, unpredictability – at least from my vantage point. A wide-eyed novice, a student, an apprentice.

This is the beginning.