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India every day

2nd Instalment

Bolpur,Birbhum District -West Bengal
Bolpur,Birbhum District -West Bengal

Buying shoes and team spirit. – Kamal (aged 48) and I went to the shoe shop in the early afternoon, choosing that time quite deliberately because many people are having their lunch and a rest, or at any rate they are not driving on the roads. The main street in the once small town of Bolpur has developed into a permanent state of traffic chaos. When I arrived in 1980, there were only bicycles and buses on the roads, and occasional cars, no motorbikes which were not yet being manufactured in India. I often pedalled to the station, with Kamal or Monotosh or others on my luggage rack. I got the train to Calcutta, Kamal took the bike back to Santiniketan so we could save the 50 cent fare for a rickshaw.

Nowadays, it’s too nerve-racking to ride your bike on the street at peak periods, that is before and after trains arrive. Now, motorcyclists want to dodge between other vehicles with their hair-raising slaloms, just to get there one minute earlier, and the narrow street turns into a battlefield. Even 41-year-old Rajen, the restless one who is always going places, always looking for reasons to be going somewhere to do something useful, throws up his hands in horror if he is asked to go to Bolpur at midday or in the evening.

The problem is that the traffic has increased tenfold, but the driving style has not adapted accordingly. People still think that they can get by with an approach to driving based on the “hey, me first and then the rest” principle. But in a mass, according to swarm theory, you get ahead fastest if you demonstrate a modicum of team spirit. This insight has not yet caught on, and people will only take it seriously once the traffic is at a complete standstill, for hours on end, and then for yet more hours. Any idea about predicting and practising this is not something I detect even in those who are most thoughtful and responsible. However, rapidly increasing overpopulation will force people to start thinking about working as a team. It is only when the pain barrier is close that this will be possible, because the Indian mentality resists the idea of showing team spirit in public. Any readiness to restrain oneself and fit in is restricted family life.

The narrow street turns into a battlefield.
Bolpur,Birbhum District -West Bengal

Buy a book! – Well, that’s easier said than done. Rajen goes to the bookshop to place an order; a book that’s just been published by a well-known Indian publisher. We’ll have to get it from Calcutta, come back in three days, they say. Every bookshop sends someone once a week to the wholesaler in Calcutta. The people who place the orders spend the whole day travelling. There is no centralised sales organisation, the book dealer won’t accept orders by phone, or send the book by courier. Three days later: We’ve had a public holiday, haven’t we? Wait another couple of days, we’ll ring you. When there’s no phone call, Rajen changes bookshop. And so the process begins all over again. In the end, we call a friend in Calcutta who works his way through all the big bookshops, buys the book and gives it to a friend who’s travelling to Santiniketan. Once again, it’s only the “parallel system” with its private contacts that works. It takes two weeks for the book to reach me.

How much energy and time could be saved if people had the will to get organised! That would mean that people would have to give up their cherished spontaneity, would restrain themselves, were willing to think in a structured way and to act so too. But by their very nature people live their lives with an immediacy that is enviable and worth imitating on the one hand, but creates so many problems for them in their day-to-day lives.

However, rapidly increasing overpopulation will force people to start thinking about working as a team.

Kalo’s success story. – I visit Kalo’s family in Bhubandanga, a poor district in Bolpur that was still a village in Tagore’s day. Now it’s half village, half urban slum.

Kalo (aged 50) started as a simple tailor; he only went to school for a few years and then he learnt his craft. Then he set up his own tailoring shop, employed apprentices, recruited seamstresses who decorated his shirts, panjabis (long shirts) and blouses with brightly coloured embroidery. Good handwork, low salaries, the embroiderers live in the villages and earn themselves a tiny bit of extra cash. But the customers are keen; soon Kalo was sending his products to Calcutta, and he who only speaks a couple of words of English went to fairs as far away as Bombay. With the gifts of entrepreneurship and courage, he has built himself a two-storey house in Bhubandanga.

This house is narrow, it has small rooms, more like boxrooms, and is built of simple materials, but it does have two storeys; narrow stairs, every corner put to good use. You can feel how he scraped and saved and calculated, but despite everything wanted to document his status as a new member of the lower middle class. The little rooms are unfurnished: no cupboards, no tables and chairs, no beds, no pictures on the walls and no curtains. Like in a village hut, like in the poor districts, everything happens on mats on the floor: sleeping and eating and sitting.

It’s not that Kalo has run out of money, but rather his sense of interior décor has lagged behind, in other words a certain western orientation that develops with education and greater affluence. He doesn’t notice the conflict in which he lives – on the one hand wanting to document his prosperity, but having neither the upbringing nor education to put this prosperity to use according to the accepted standards of a “higher” class. He is not aware of the status symbols of this class, and anyway he finds it more comfortable to sit on the floor than on a chair.


Six months ago, Kalo had a tragic accident. He suffered a stroke, and his right side has since been paralysed. Countless visitors came in the first weeks. His two sons Somraj and Mongal first took him to hospital in Burdwan, then to Calcutta. When the doctors sent him home again, different therapies began; in particular a physiotherapist came every day to work with him. The family has money, and did everything to get Kalo on his feet again. Both sons were students, 25-year-old Somraj at the Visva Bharati University no less, whose conditions for admissions are relatively strict.

Twenty-three-year-old Mongal gave up his studies, sat at his sewing machine and now goes to Calcutta every week to sell his goods. Kalo’s wife “Somrajer ma” now wears the trousers. When I see her in her shop, I can sense how she organises and ponders and makes decisions. Her judgement is clear and she gets her way. She was probably even wearing the trousers in the family before, when Kalo was still in good health, but behind the scenes. Now she has to step out of the shadows and raise her voice in front of everyone. She manages this brilliantly, while Kalo sits on a chair in the middle of the shop, a smile of self-pity on his twisted mouth, his limp right hand being grasped by his good other one, like a dead fish.


Public holidays. – Puja time* in October is not a good time of the year for me. Everyone in my area concentrates on their families. The people on whom I depend, and there are many of them, apologize, say “later!” and become unreliable. I can neither take part in the festive mood, because I feel excluded as a single person, nor can I work, because the mood all around distracts me and makes me feel melancholy. I feel very alone.

But Hrithik (aged 32), the neighbour’s son, invites me to a  Mahatsab**. This is a festive midday meal, for which the extended family rounds up all relatives, neighbours and friends. Everyone has to be there, no one is allowed to stay away, first of all everyone visits the magnificently decorated statue of a goddess, immersed in loud colours and glittery stuff. There’s plenty going on when Kamal and I arrive on our bikes. And because I’m guest of honour, I am welcomed by 52-year-old Swapan, Hrithik’s father, with effusive deference. We are led into a special room, Hrithik and both his brothers come, all three happily smiling from ear to ear. Even Hrithik, normally moody and brooding, is awake and bright today. Lots of children gang together, playing with gleeful cries, today they get their way in everything. They are strong because they are together. Among the grownups, there are scenes of welcomes full of exuberant warmheartedness. The womenfolk squat together. The young men make a show of running around, full of energy hither and thither, as if marking out their kingdom. These are the kinds of scenes that remind me why I enjoy living in India.


Swapan repeats once again what he always likes to say on these special occasions: how much he regrets that his three sons had “achieved nothing” despite the fact that I the outsider had wanted to show them all a way forward and was ready to support them. No one had accepted my suggestions, the father moaned. They were all too uncomfortable for all the young men. It was going to take too long until there was a wonderful salary in sight. Everything was too dependent on hard work. They trusted in promises from neighbours, from Swapan’s colleagues, from some kind uncle or other, rather than in my suggestions. They all said they would to arrange well paid jobs for the three. Nothing came of it, there had just been excuses! Now the young adults were just doing odd jobs for minimum wages. Hrithik, the oldest of the three, is a gardener in the neighbouring house. Cutting grass, planting vegetables. Oh, it was such hard work, Hrihtik tells me. I had offered him the possibility of training to be a cook, because he’s got a real talent for cooking.

But right from the outset, Hrithik doesn’t want to prove his worth and then be paid accordingly. He wants to “see money” and then do the work, as if he has been a professional for many years. He doesn’t understand that he is just one of an army of many thousands of similarly educated and gifted youngsters. In his family, he has not been brought up to fight, but to be the one to whom everything is granted.

*Puja time is a succession of feast days beginning with Durga Puja (festival in honour of the goddess Durga) and ending with Kali Puja (festival in honour of the goddess Kali).
** Mahatsab (literally Maha-Utsab = great feast) refers to a festive meal, in which a whole group (neighbourhood, village community, work mates etc.) takes part.

About the author

Martin Kämpchen (65) was born at Boppard (Rhine) Germany. He studied at Vienna and Paris. His subjects were German Literature, Dramatic Art, Philosophy and French. He obtained a Ph.D. After completion of his studies Martin Kämpchen left for India in order to teach German in Calcutta. Then he studied Comparative Religion at Madras and Santiniketan (West-Bengal). After his second Ph.D. on a comparison of Ramakrishna and Francis of Assisi he remained in India as a writer, translator and journalist


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