After quite a whimsical first half of this incredibly interesting journey of discovery in " The City of Joy" things turn a little more serious as Sue takes a look at the Kolkata of today and how the once opulent days of the Raj have left India with a huge wealth imbalance.
The British and the Richest Echelons of Indian Society built impressive houses and Palaces filled with richness, quality and most of all an inflated sense of status, but when the City was divided these "houses on the hill "of wealth began to fall. Although the architecture remains and very impressive it is too, they began to fall into disrepair and whilst before they were symbols of success, they have become lasting monument to the vast difference between what Sue sees as the" Haves and the Have Nots"of City society.
Sue visits The Tagore Palace, once the home of one of the most influential families in India. Saroja Tagore , a dancer and teacher has lived there ever since she was a young girl. Whilst the entry way could do with a bit of a touch up with some plaster, once you get inside it is a wonder to behold of elegance and style and it is easy to see why it was a draw to the great artists and intellectuals of the time and whilst the great works of art have moved out, echoes of the grandeur of the times of the Raj remain.
Saroja's Great uncle was Rabindranath Tagore , winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and a huge figure in Indian History. The house being part of a legacy of Bengali Art and Culture and Saroja is understandably proud of her heritage. It was not to last though.The great dynasties suffered from the Division, losing great swathes of their estates and the genteel avenues began to be encroached upon by the creeping growth of Urbanisation and the masses of Refugees coming to the city.
A narrow tiled balcony serves as a dividing line between what Sue sees as Tranquility of the past and the Chaotic ever changing and busy, bustling modern Kalkota. Sue wants to know how Saroja fits into the modern City. She says she embraces the idea that rich and poor now coexist and that as working woman she cannot sequester herself away like Miss Haversham avoiding the March of time ever onwards,but you get the impression that she does not truly see how such a huge and showy piece of real estate might be pouring salt into the wounds of the poor who live and work metres away down on the street and that " Life is not just about somewhere to live" might not be such a lofty and ideal to the folk who have nowhere to call home. It is not her fault and she seems like a lovely lady and is a very talented dancer as Sue finds out when she is invited to a very exclusive charity event but her detachment from reality is sobering.
The juxtaposition between Saroja's place in the world and those of the poor is never more eloquently demonstrated than by the people Sue visits next with Hope Foundation workers. Generations of people have lived in squalid conditions for so long that this is their way of life now.
Many are Servants, working in other people's houses by day and sleeping in the open streets at night. The Hastings Underpass is a ten kilometre stretch of road and wasteland where 10,000 people will sleep rough every night. Living under an underpass means that they live amongst rubbish and rat infestation. Open sewerage is covered in plastic sheets and families pile rags on top and sleep on those. Children die of malnutrition despite the efforts of these tireless aid workers.
Sue speaks to some young women, they have lived here all their lives, they are sanguine about it, they say there is no point feeling afraid, it is their lives and fear will not change that, they bathe and get dressed down alleys and between concrete slabs and have to endure men urinating near their cooking fires. They tell Sue of a young girl who was kidnapped and murdered in the area. The mothers tie their children together and wake in the early hours to check on their kids, on a constant state of alert. The volunteers act as friends, providing a place to express their concerns and worries and try to get them in touch with services that might aid them.
Sue's time with the street children is heartbreaking, their happy smiling faces at odds with the sad position they find themselves in. Their version of " Twinkle Twinkle.." Seems to be about lost Papas in heaven. It is so touching that they say it is a happy day because Sue has come and one little girl tries to give a Sue her bunny.
The volunteers give them education, love and allow them to dream.They all attend school. Gita , one of the workers is happy to see a young girl she has been worried about. She is worried when she is absent from school and wants to be a doctor. When asked why she is still awake the little girl almost offhandedly says "Mother died" but there is a sadness behind that smile that just shreds one's heart. Her Father sells odds and ends to support them. Sue is equally heartbroken and encouraged by the vitality of the children a tiny star of hope in all the squalor.
Thankfully the city's development is constant. Life expectancy has doubled and literacy rates have quadrupled . Ten million people come from the country trying to find work in the cities, resulting in what will be the largest and youngest workforce in the so India is in the rise. With building happening at a rate that outstrips even London. The developers are massively wealthy and like to gather to demonstrate the wealth busy showing off their high octane cars. Sue takes a ride and the poor man's clutch breaks, he is pretty nonchalant about it , he has another.. In the UK we might think these men are slightly funny in their attachment, but the people seem to really see them as inspirational in Kalkata
Sue meets a man who thinks his car is a symbol to inspire others to work hard, be honest and be successful in life. He has capitalised on the wealth his father amassed and created one of the most successful property companies in the city. He has seventeen developments on the go totalling about One Hundred and Twenty Million pounds in value. The apartments are worth £60,000 each and are being snapped up despite the fact there are no major highways nearby, as Sue says really an indication that India is a place of positivity about the future.
The next stop is to visit a group of lively, laughing Ladies whose Laughing Club has been running for fourteen years and it is at once social, a form of exercise and even to some extent spiritual. The practice of active laughing seems to have done these ladies no harm at all. The all look happy and content.
Sue's last task in India to visit the Shrine of Kali which is like entering bedlam. People mill out trying to get into the inner temple to give their offerings and ask for their boons. She is pushed away from the main chamber by the sheer tide of people, so gives her blessing at the Blessing Tree instead.
Sue struggled with the Poverty and the plight of the young girls and the disparity between the wealthy and the poor, but she saw the inherent goodness, positivity and tenacity of the people of Kalkata . I suspect the visit was enriching and educational for her.
It certainly was for me. Sue began every encounter with a genuine interest, a humble seeking rather than a judgement or preconception and I think that brought forth the very best from her interviewees whether English was their first language or not. She was respectful even when her own belief may not be aligned. Her wry humour and humility made this one of the most enjoyable travel shows I have seen in a very long time!