Excerpts from a journal entry about people I met while traveling in Calcutta, 2011:
Everyone I meet here seems to be pursuing something, searching for something. Having recently read The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo, the notion of chasing dreams and fulfilling destinies has been heavy on my mind. I did not come here with a destiny to fulfill. My trip was meant to be the antithesis, the sort of present moment wandering that is not restricted by any sort of expectation. But these people make it seem magical. The clarity with which they pursue their passions is so different than what I normally encounter. I truly admire their courage.
There’s Ross, a young Scottish guy–mid-twenties–fresh off two years teaching ESL in Korea. If you come across a Korean speaking English with a Scottish accent, get a hold of your laughter and ask them if they know Ross.
Ross came to Calcutta to pursue his creative dream. Says he wanted to escape and to write. He spends over four hours of each day alone, writing, reading, or thinking about what to read or write. He is working on a series of short pieces in which the stories of two travelers in India meander and weave, destined, at some point, to collide. I’ve read a little of it. The stories follow an American woman running away from a troubled past and a Scotsman seeking adventure but finding mostly folly. I look forward to following his progress.
Ross used to be a stand up comedian, and it shows in his vigorous hand gestures and the speed and rhythm with which he talks. He is a storyteller in the truest sense of the word. With his black hair shaved down to a mohawk and his black Wayfarers covering his eyes, Ross’ white skin gleams bright in the sun. It’s a sight that makes him immediately stands out among the crowds in Calcutta, even among groups of tourists. He doesn’t notice. I do not think I have met someone who seems so comfortable, so at home.
And then there is Jean, the refined older Italian gentleman of our group. He takes tall, long strides more suited for the catwalks of Milan than the crowded alleys and streets of Calcutta. He always wears his red scarf wrapped around his neck, or if the temperatures proves too hot, draped around his shoulders. Fluent in Italian, French, and English, Jean says he is set on mastering his fourth language, Hindi.
I believe that any journey, big or small, changes you in some way. For Jean, his travels have shaped his entire life. After a stint volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity when he was younger, he returned to Italy and studied to become a nurse. He has been coming back to Calcutta every year since to volunteer his time–for over 11 years.
He is the old hand at Nabo Jibon, the home at which I volunteer. He makes his way around the compound with an assuredness that is comforting, a feeling compounded by his tendency to speak in parables and stories.
It isn’t till he told to me his plan to travel to Bodh Gaya and stay at an Ashram that I learned the scarf around his neck isn’t red, but rather Saffron, a tribute to Theravada Buddhism and Hindu Sanyasis, paths he aspires to follow. He smiles big, with bright eyes and wavy locks of brown hair. And yet, despite his outward warmth, you get the sense his journey is a solitary path. He pulls away in conversation, burying his nose in a book of philosophy whenever we ride the bus together.
There is Ram, the Bangladeshi who left his home on a whim. Fed up with his life and the pressures of succeeding his father in the family hardware store business, he fled to Calcutta and spent his first few days on a bender before settling in with a group of American tourists. He has a chubby face that eclipses his equally chubby body. He wears square-rim glasses that from afar make him appear the composed intellectual–completely at odds with the fact that up close he seems perpetually on the verge of laughter. Should you unleash said laughter, be prepared; it is unstoppable. I imagine it pools somewhere deep within his belly, slowly building pressure before it explodes. On the few occasions he has attempted to show restraint, he ends up up snorting, laughter forcing its way out his nose.
I met Peter my first night in Calcutta on the roof of the Hotel Maria, where, it seems, the population of rats far outnumbers the guests). Not that management isn’t attempting to do something about it. Their preferred method of extermination: introducing a pack of cats to the hostel.
It was cats that led to my introduction to Peter. I had followed a orange tabby up to the roof of the hostel, watching as it walked a circuit around the edge of the building, contentedly rubbing its back against the small ledge that ran the length of flat terrace forming the roof. Beyond, all of Calcutta lay sprawling. At least I think it lay sprawling. The third story was not high enough to escape the thick, smoggy haze that stretches over the city. The cityscape barely emerged; Calcutta appeared to hang in the air, a swath of yellow-brown buildings, identifiable only by an open window or door. Against this drab background, lines of bright washing punctuated the skyline with small bursts of color: green, purple, blue, red, all hung out to dry.
I was counting colors when Peter snuck up on me.
“I see you met my friend, Arjuna,” he said. I could tell the voice was older, stretched like one of the fraying shirts hanging out to on the lines. The tabby slunk away, showing nothing but indifference to the call of his name. I turned to look upon what appeared to be a five foot clump of gray hair. “Do you even speak English?” the clump asked.
While most people would describe him on first glance as a dirty hippy, he is actually “just a man trying to find his way in life man, you know man?” (his words, not mine). All I noticed was his hair. Besides the hair on his head, the hair on his face, and the hair on his arms, he was covered in a light gray fuzz on any possible exposed piece of skin. His fuzzy frame sat on a pair of skinny, bandy legs that gave off the impression of a malnourished wild west gunslinger.
The only other distinguishing feature was a small pair of wire rimmed spectacles that perched on his nose, through which he surveyed the “cosmic vibrations” of the world.
I remember Peter, yes because of his hair, but also for what he told me. Originally from Vancouver, B.C. Peter now calls Japan and India his true homes. Between a lot of animated hippy babble, he spoke some of the truest words I have heard since arriving.
He said that India is a mirror that reflects images of yourself back onto you. All those people coming to find spiritual enlightenment? It’s bullshit, he says. You don’t find enlightenment, all you find is yourself in an unvarnished form. You find out who you really are, and some people can’t handle it, can’t stand what they see, choose to ignore it. So he told me, “Don’t ignore who you are.”