Kolkata, Spring 2014
Day 4 in Kolkata
Our main mission this afternoon was to go shopping for, and dress up, the new Learning Tea Center in Kolkata. Our first two scholars are set to arrive there within the month. (Both are graduates of the university in Darjeeling, and are moving south to Kolkata to attend graduate school here. They graduate with honors and want to pursue Masters degrees in Government and History. Amazing that they are so close to their dreams.)
The Center is located in a very nice neighborhood in a safe, enclosed block of flats. The girls will be able to sit in the grassy courtyard to study, and come and go without concern for their safety. The apartment itself consists of three bedrooms, two baths, a sitting room, kitchen and small balcony. It's nice - - but a bit spartan for a group of college-age girls. Our job was, as Katrell told us, to "cute-i-fy" it.
We did our shopping at the wonderful fair trade market in South Kolkata (a collective of tradespeople and crafts from each state in India). Bright pink linens, beautiful wall coverings and curtains, colorful decorations - - it's a cinch to find bright colors in every single product here, from bedding to candy bars. We got a bunch of everything, and began our trip back to the Center, so that we could make the beds, hang the decorations, etc.
Oops. We forgot that we would need a hammer and nails to hang everything. No problem, right? We'll stop off at Lowe's or Home Depot. If we can't find one, surely an Ace Hardware must be open. But this is India. And we knew that this one task - - so easy to accomplish in the U.S. - - would make for another adventure in our travels.
We inform our wonderful and patient driver, Meloz, of our predicament. He sits and thinks. (Though I believe he possesses a much kinder soul, I would not be surprised if that first thought began with "Seriously? You gotta be kidding me, you crazy-ass American.") Zoom. We drive off, each trying to spot a hardware store. No luck. Ten minutes. Nothing. Twenty. Nada. (Did I mention that this is a city of fifteen million?) Finally, we jerk to a stop. He asks me to come with him. We cross both lanes of a crazy crowded Kolkata road at dusk, and alight in front of a tiny storefront, manned by a serious looking dude. (Always a good sign in the hardware biz.) "Do you have a hammer for sale? And nails?" Back comes the same "You gotta be kidding me, you crazy-ass American" look, this time minus the kind soul. No luck. Meloz translates, while I channel my drama school pantomime class in mimicking the act of hammering nails into an invisible board in the air. The answer (and I paraphrase): "Why on earth would you think that I sell hammers or nails. I sell only motorcycle and car parts. You need a gasket or oil filter, maybe?"
We drive on. Twenty more minutes pass. Finally, Meloz pulls over, hops out and motions me to follow him. This time we're crossing four lanes of a doubly-crowded road, dodging buses and tuk-tuks. And it's dark. And few vehicles here have what we in the States would consider working headlights. I move fast... sleek like Bengal Tiger. A fat, fifty-something Bengal Tiger.
This time Meloz does the talking. "Hammers? Of course we have a hammer. Out comes a hammer-shaped object wrapped in Saran Wrap and rubber bands. Someone's great grandfather lost this hammer in 1926, and our intrepid salesman trash-picked it decades later, thinking, "Hey, one day an out-of-breath fool may rush up to my stall performing Marcel Marceau's famous 'hammering nails into the wind' act. I should hang on to this. I could make a couple of hundred rupees." Congratulations, my friend. Today's your lucky day. But, hey, wait - - the head of this hammer is too wobbly to stay mounted on the shaft. It'll fly off and crown us on the first swing. "No worries, Marcel. Whack, whack, whack with larger mallet. Hammer head not wobbly." Yay! Now, my good man, if you'll just sell me about fifty small nails or tacks, we'll leave you in peace.
Huh? What? You only sell hammers? Are you kidding? So, you mean, I have to look for a shop that just sells nails? Or, God forbid, nails AND tacks? (I vaguely recall an old David Letterman routine concerning the "Just Bulbs" and "Just Shades" guys in NYC. No cameras are present here.) Luckily, he knows the best nail shop in Calcutta. A few stalls down, to the left. Tell him I sent you, and if that doesn't work, try the pantomime thing again. That was really funny.
We are quickly at the nail guy's stall. Meloz places our order. Nail Man rolls his eyes. I can't speak Bengali, but I am pretty good at body language. "You want what? Don't you realize it's 8:30 p.m., and it's about 102 in the shade? I'm not going all the way to the back wall of my stall to grab fifty small nails. Come backtomorrow." "But, sir, this American is very insistent; I have seen him run fast like fat tiger. He has forcefully hammered many air nails into the air wall with an air hammer. He will not be denied." One look at my iron American backbone resolves the impasse - - though, unbeknownst to Nail Man, that iron backbone is quickly melting into the same sweaty puddle in which the rest of my backside resides. He brings out a bunch of giant ten penny nails. No, dude. I'm not building a bridge. Just need to hang a few pink frilly decorations. In my man cave, you know. Bingo. Got the nails, got the hammer. Though nearly an hour has passed, it doesn't matter. Meloz and I are exuberant as we return to the car. We just won the World Cup of Air Hammer and Traffic Crossing. We get to the car and wave the hammer and nails to Katrell and the rest of the team, who cheer like crazy. This is GREAT!!!! I Love India!
(Oh yeah, we decorated the Center, and it looks amazing. The girls are gonna love it. Photos below...)
Jay, for The Learning Tea