26 Days in Calcutta / Kolkata

The third-oldest daughter in a family of seven children had just finished a 25-minute summary of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” She had done so in her home in the “bustees” — the dense Calcutta slums — while Rosalie Giffoniello and I sat on two plastic chairs, the only chairs in the room. The room was no more than eight feet wide and no more than 13 feet long. It was the entire home of a Muslim family of 10. The family all sleep together on the plywood platform that takes up the far end of the room. But now the children are big, and the platform is no longer big enough, and so the older boys sleep sitting up, with their backs to the wall. When the season changes to summer and real heat comes, the temperature in the house climbs to 120 degrees. Then the boys sleep out on the streets, but the girls stay inside, where they say the nights are terrible. During the day they all care for an eighth child, the 3-month-old son of the married, working, oldest daughter. The baby, Fardeen, cared nothing for Jane Austen as he sat quietly and grasped the neck of a little chicken the family hoped would turn out to be a hen. I asked if he ever tried to strangle the bird. The oldest son, Mehtu, laughed and said it did not happen that often.

Read it here.


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