Most moments in Kolkata are average, insignificant and even occasionally monotonous. Just like home, they consist of work, laundry, cleaning, reading, napping, walking, grocery shopping and cooking. There are other moments, however, that are strange enough to shake me out of my complacency and remind me of where I really am- moments that are odd or profound enough to make you feel like you are living a movie. Or in India.
That was what Zach, Corrie, Tracey, Marissa, Kayla and I felt as we got off the train one Saturday afternoon. Wanting to go North, out of Kolkata, we took the first train available and jumped off two hours later in some rural area that started with an “L”. It was very quiet, almost deserted. Having grown accustomed to trains, car horns and other loud urban noises in Kolkata, it was strange to hear only the occasional bleating of a goat. There were round huts scattered around large fields of jute instead of plywood and tarp shanties built right on the sidewalk. Though, I did not see any sidewalks here either. A few who will remain nameless bravely trudged into the woods upon discovering that there was no bathroom.
We stood idly on the train platform trying to figure out what to do next. Since we were running out of time, we decided to sit and wait for the next train back to our apartment-whenever that was. The few people who did pass us stared even more intensely than normal. Those who live this far out must not see foreigners that often, I reasoned to myself, and paid no more attention to it. After a few minutes of waiting, a man from the other side of the tracks called out to us, asking where we were going. We told him, and he kindly explained that we were on the wrong side of the tracks. Thankful for the help, we moved over and sat down to wait. The crowd began to grow a little as more and more came to wait on the platform. An odd number of people were staring at us-even for India.
The man approached us and asked where we were from. When we answered that we were Americans, he stepped closer and began speaking more quietly. That is good, he said. However, if anyone else was to ask that question we should not answer. This place was very remote, and everyone here is Muslim. They don’t like Americans or Christians very much, he explained, showing a little concern. Oops. We looked at each other awkwardly as the meaning of that sank in. The nice stranger assured us that we would be fine here waiting for the train, and then left us to stand further down the platform. No one bothered us as we waited. I looked around at the small staring crowd once again. Was it my imagination, or did I mistake hostility for intense curiosity earlier? Perhaps it wasn’t that they had never seen foreigners… maybe they just didn’t like them. I noticed the nice stranger check up on us from a distance a few times. None of us felt particularly threatened or in danger. Just unwelcome.
Twenty minutes later the train came. The kind stranger escorted us on, and even rode one stop with us before jumping off and disappearing into the crowd. We made it back to our apartment without so much as a glitch .Our thirty-minute stay in that place offered me a chance to step into a completely new experience. I had never seen hostility openly directed at me because of my race, ethnicity or religion. It was such a shocking thought as I realized how I had seen only the tiniest glimpse of something that thousands of other people must endure-even to a greater degree- on a daily basis. My slight desire to shrink away, to be invisible, to disappear, was a regular occurrence for many. Though India was a completely foreign country to me, I had never until that moment felt like I did not belong. There was no blending in, and I was reminded of that fact with every stare at that station. Being confronted with that reality day after day would make me want to bury my head in the sand. It is a strange and beautiful thing that India has the ability to introduce the deepest and hardest of thoughts from the briefest of encounters. Even the smallest of glimpses, I suppose, can go a long way.