These Two Worlds

these two worlds copyI have never seen the sky before.

The air is crisp and cool and the leaves in the trees above whisper their secrets. The crunch underneath my feet gives me the sensation that I am in Minnesota in the fall.

The bright sun cascades its warmth on the hills coated with forest green and on the yellow and brown grasses of winter and on the pack of lime-green, yellow-bellied birds gliding from bush to tree. Its rays rest on the small homes of concrete with tin-roofs dotting the landscape, the man steaming momo and frying omelets at the end of the dirt road, the dogs lying lazily, only alert at the approaching monkeys, those same monkeys diligently picking nits from their young, and I – all of us – bask in the sun’s contentment. Daily it keeps to its task of rising, setting, rising, setting. But not now. Now it stays still, granting us the peace of a moment’s breath.

It is the sky, though, the deep, bright, powerful, blue sky – the sky I am seeing for the first time – that is enfolding me in its vastness, its cool warmth, its sheer dominance reigning above the earth.

***

We avoided the three men digging a trench in the narrow road with pick axe and shovel.  Stepping over mounds of concrete, dirt and rocks lining the trench, we shuffled past students and businessmen, a man pulling a rickshaw, a white car trying to squeeze between the trench and the open shutters of jewelry shops, and then an impatient motorcyclist incessantly blaring his horn in my ear.

We continued past the old man with a tray of eggs on his lap, his brown winter hat (more like a “head sock” covering his neck, leaving only his face showing) bulged on top in likeness to a Dr. Seuss character. We paused briefly as a man stepped out of his shop to spatter water on the ground in front of us – an attempt to keep the dust out of the air. A glance around made me wonder if it is a futile endeavor. We stepped to the side of the man still sleeping on the sidewalk. Looking above me I spotted seven saris of pink and red and orange and blue hanging over the top of a building, drying in the sun – the sun that can only be seen through the perpetual haze hanging over the city.

“Root yourself,” I breathed deeply, letting the horns, bells, trams, rickshaws, students, chai wallahs and businessmen glide past me. For the first time in two weeks I gazed past the chaos of my surroundings, down the long street we call tram road, and for the first time in two weeks I realized Kolkata actually does have trees.

Trees, in fact, lined tram road as far as I could see, framing the street and the electric cable lines of the tram, but the city dust and exhaust had blanketed them, turning their many shades of green to a monotonous brown.

***

We stand on the second floor platform of a large, white, three-story school, our hands resting on the mostly-silver railing. Chips of black paint remain, telling the story of decades of educated young Tibetans, Nepalis, Garwhalis, Punjabis, Bengalis, Ladakhis, Naga and others who have called the Indian foothills of the himalayas – and this school – their home.

Below us boys and girls snack between classes, chit-chatting idly, clumped on the cement basketball court between between two backboards with faded red rims, nets lost to games past. One girl, about 15 years old, looks up at us. Like all the students around her she is wearing a black sweater. A custard-colored kurta hangs below the sweater to the tops of her knees above light blue salwar pants that slouch down to her black dress shoes. She has done her hair up in pigtails that hang past her shoulders, duly completing her uniform. Her black-framed glasses distinguish her from all the other girls in their light-blue, custard-yellow and black, with brown pigtails.

Becca knows this girl. Two years ago Becca stayed with her family in a remote mountain village where Becca’s picture can still be found among the family’s possessions. It is at least two days drive from where we stand – on the second floor platform holding onto the railing above the basketball courts, when she looks up at us and smiles the smile of a 15 year old girl. It is an innocent smile, behind which her story sits told, untold, yet to be told.

***

Week after week a rainbow of flags fluttered from building to building of the narrow street, giving a perpetually forced feeling of festivity. I braced myself for the moment when we would step onto the lane drawing the eyes of shopkeepers, old women sitting on the stoops and young women standing against walls – waiting for a customer at 10 in the morning.

I tensed as I always did walking through the main lane where the bartering, renting and selling of women’s bodies is done in broad daylight like the goods in the jewelry shops down the street. And like every other time, I was ultra-conscious of my eyes. I was torn between the desire to look women in the eyes, imploring them to know their value: I see you, you are worthy, you are beloved, and the knowledge that too many men’s eyes have been on these women in judgment: you are an object for my desire or you are not worth my time.

We walked past a row of women and girls, and I spotted a familiar face. “That was our friend,” I said to Becca over the din of the lane.

Actually, we had met just a few days before. She had come to the drop-in center for the first time. Becca painted her fingernails light purple with white designs, as weathered Bengali women explained how the drop-in center works and how – if they want to – they can find another job as a seamstress down the road.

Several yards beyond the women, we paused, turned back, and met her eyes still watching us pass. She wore a bright yellow shirt and skinny blue jeans, both tight to accentuate her figure. Cheap flip-flops were under her feet. She watched us turn back to her, meeting our eyes as we smiled – we see you. She smiled back with her bright, 17-year old smile; a smile that holds her own story.

We stepped off the main lane out of the red light area for the last time during our 3 months in Kolkata. I have carried her smile with me to the hills of Northern India where I wonder at the worlds within this world. It is a world where the same sun that sets over peaceful rolling hills gets lost in the haze of the chaotic city streets. It is a world where a girl finds (relative) safety and opportunity at school while another girl’s future is ripped from her and replaced with the worst violence this world offers.

Still I know that within these rolling hills, behind some concrete walls and behind some smiles is a hidden violence. While half a country away, full smiles can fight their way through the ugliest brutality. There are worlds – violent, beautiful, harsh – wrapped up in these smiles.

 

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