Alan says, “Come to Calcutta. You won’t be disappointed. I’ll hook you up with Smriti.” In America, Calcutta is as famous for Mother Theresa’s work as anything else. Alan’s got his own mini-version of Mother Theresa, Smriti. Her turf is the Red Light district. She trains ex-prostitutes how to sew, offering them marketplace skills and an escape from the sex trade. She also runs a school that teaches their children how to read and write. Tannah’s studying French in school, so we stopped in Paris on the way to India. We admired steel towers and Gothic buildings and dined on crepes for a couple days. Then, 20 hours of airplanes and airports later, we found ourselves in India’s grittiest city. If you enjoy driving on the left side of the street in a 40-year- old yellow taxi where the driver shuts the engine off at every stoplight, horns blare nonstop, where rickety buses crammed with passengers spew soot into your window ... if you enjoy a city where guys urinate on the side of the road and insistent beggars march into the street in gridlocked traffic and split test every passenger and car window ... you’ll love Calcutta. Calcutta does not disappoint. It’s monsoon season. Ninety- five percent humidity, sweltering. My glasses steamed up every time we went outside. My driver picked us up from the airport late in the afternoon. As we dodged bicycles, donkey carts, and rickshaws he explained the trolleys: Regular fare is four rupees (two cents), and the deluxe fare is five rupees (two and a half cents). The difference? The deluxe-fare trolley has a ceiling fan. The first place Smriti took us was to the Kalighat temple, home of Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, who is always depicted with a decapitated head in one hand. Calcutta is named in her honor. We headed up the street into the Red Light district, a bazaar of dingy buildings, pock-marked pavement, milling crowds, and vendor stalls. Smriti took Tannah’s hand, and I walked with Cuyler. Every block or so, Smriti would bump into someone she
knew, usually a prostitute. This being a different culture, it was not immediately obvious to me which women were “on duty.” I knew for safety’s sake that Smriti was sidestepping the seedier boulevards. She vaguely alluded to what we were avoiding by not going there. We met a lovely, slender girl with sharp features. She looked about Cuyler’s age. We greeted her, and she and Smriti spoke for a bit. Smriti said, “She’s recently married.” The girl seemed awfully young for that . As we walked on and later had dinner, she explained to Tannah what that actually meant. “These women come from Bangladesh or West Bengal. They come to here and join the sex trade because of their poverty. While they’re entertaining clients in the night, their kids go out and get food and supply their moms with whatever else they need to support the business.
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- Spring '16
- jane willliam
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