As I sit back (head finally rested after one week of miserable jet lag), with familiar faces finally surrounding my workspace, a Mary Oliver poem shouts at me. One line, really. I’ll let you figure out which one, but I can’t bear leave out any stanza from one of my favorite poems, “The Summer Day”.
The summer wind has not quite swept in, but the air is clear here in St. Augustine—much clearer than the haze in Kolkata, the rooftops barely visible, as trash burns on most street corners and thousands of homes are swept at dawn, dust pushed out the door, swirling through the by-lanes, into my lungs.
I finally have a moment to write, to think about everything I have seen and heard while teaching in one of the roughest and culturally exuberant cities on the planet. This is the second year I have “failed” to blog in real time, but I promise, if you ever make it to Kolkata, a place where one day feels like a few hours—especially as you spend several of those precious hours in a taxi to your destination, car horns blaring, as the driver burns incense with the windows down — you’ll see how one can never quite “find the time.“ It keeps on slipping…the rising sun barely visible in the smog, daily prayer on the loud speaker coming from a nearby mosque, and suddenly, it’s a new day.
The Summer Day
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? -Mary Oliver
“What is it about this place? How do you spend 2 months in Kolkata?” I am not surprised by this question and still, I struggle to come up with the answer. “Tell me? What else should I have done?” I understand the grasshopper, and how she flings herself out of the grass, out of what’s familiar, into people’s lives and hearts. In my case, into the lives of twelve women that are now my sisters. Then she floats away…
Journal Entry, January 16, 2017
“Day one of class. It went well.Of course, this is India. There are always hiccups, but I want to start this incredible journal (and year) with positivity. WE SURVIVED. Saba came. I held back tears. She looks wonderful and said, “it’s been too long.”* The workshop is held at a new space this year, Ektara, a beautiful school located in Topsia, a muslim slum area. The Ektara staff is loving and accommodating. My translator Ruby is a trained photographer and very talented. The girls this year seem to hold a bit more sadness, more history. They are from three NGO’s, Ektara, Kolkata Sanved and Divine Script, three NGO’s that provide education, training and empowerment to women and children in at-risk areas. I look forward to learning more about them this year.”
*Saba Parveen took the first VFE workshop in 2015 and returned to help with this year’s class. She wants to be a gynecologist so that Muslim women are more comfortable seeing a doctor.
My amazing class consists of ten students—also, Saba and my translator, Ruby— with extremely different backgrounds, one student completely illiterate and a few others starting college. This mix of educational backgrounds proved to be more of a challenge when teaching, especially in those first few weeks. I had to spend more time with girls who had never touched a computer or a camera. Ruby was a huge help in bridging the gap. Her knowledge in photography was extremely beneficial. The girls were inspired by her 9-month training at another NGO, The Light Space, and she shared her intimate self-portraits with the class. As usual, everyone wanted my undivided attention. A few wanted to practice their English with me, while others were afraid to try. It takes time to figure out how to communicate properly to each of these girls, especially when they’re all yelling in Bengali at once. Ruby’s presence brought a calm to the chaos, and I am forever grateful for her peaceful energy and patience.
As the class went on, I realized what an amazing opportunity the mix of backgrounds provided. Seema, a college educated Hindu took notes for Sakila, a Muslim girl who had never been allowed to go to school. One of my students grew up in the red light district (and now lives in a shelter home), next to Prity, who had been raised in Howrah by her single mother. The sense of comradery among these women was astonishing—something I couldn’t fathom in the States, especially in an educational setting where bullying often sets the tone for students who are underprivileged or minorities.
The four Muslim students grew up in Topsia (where class was held), a neighborhood in central Kolkata where leather tanneries used to flourish, and the putrid smell hasn’t left. The roads are narrow and unpaved. The streets are dustier than in south Kolkata, where I lay my head at night. It’s about an hour taxi to class each day and even the cab drivers often refuse to bring myself and Ruby the full route to Ektara, a location too deep in the slum, with unmarked roads and waste water floating on either sides of the lane.
The girls who traveled to Topsia each day by bus complained of the location of class—having to walk down this dusty road, boys gawking (as they were outsiders) and the smell of sewage overwhelming their senses. It was enough to make Prity vomit on the side of the road. No one but our class seemed to notice, and I put essential oils on her wrists and we went on our way. But the moment I offered a change of location, the girls protested. They loved Ektara and once inside the school, it is whole new world. Our room is equipped with a projector, clean white walls, mats to sit on, tea at 11am, and lunch provided. Also, below us hundreds of adorable Muslim children in uniforms are being educated in English each day and are learning about conservation, avoiding plastics on Fridays and celebrating clean, filtered water that’s accessible in the classrooms.
In Kolkata, you must find the beauty in the rubble. Once you do, you’ll find your place.
Journal Entry, January 20, 2017
Today we are working on our photo journals. Sarah mentioned it is good for the girls to use their hands and MAKE ART. Yesterday was our first excursion, and some of the girls seemed very shy, especially the Muslim girls from Ektara. They won’t leave each other’s sides. Sarah and Sharbani (from Ektara), mentioned that it is a first time for many of them leaving their locality. They aren’t used to walking. They literally do not leave their neighborhoods. We started in Gol Park, near Southern Lakes. We were entertained by street children—they climbed trees, hung from the limbs and posed for the girls. We ate Chinese noodles at a roadside stall, and I am certainly feeling it in my intestines hours later.
We focused on composition this week and they’re printing today. I am feeling a bit worn out but also SO happy to be around these women. It’s beautiful to dance with them, sing (yes, we already have a theme song), and be together.
The goals of Vision for Empowerment have not changed, but with each year, they become more clear. The girls are desperate to learn. Whether it is photography, English, computer literacy, or cooking classes. They yearn for an independent life, even in a familial environment (and a society) that oppresses them from just that. They don’t want to be housewives. They want to work, even though many of them expressed that their future husbands and in-laws will not allow them. After this workshop, I have decided to work annually with the same group of women, to help guide them each year using photography as a platform for sharing their stories, but also begin the next venture: can we create a business in this field? Can we use photography and various training to provide them with a self sufficient life? I am more confident this year, with the continuous collaboration with Her Future Coalition (formerly Made by Survivors), that we can make this happen.
On one of our long cab rides together Ruby told me her biggest fear in life is time. Ruby is a face of beauty and resilience. She has received a great education, speaks excellent English, has done so many workshops and trainings, and was employed as a translator—but still she fears each day passing without securing her own life as an independent woman. “Time is too fast,” she said, “I am getting older and I have not learned enough.” She dreams to be a photographer and storyteller in a city where men dominate the field. She has applied to multiple studios, many asking for a photograph and not taking her seriously.
Every one of my students has dreams, and each of them will be introduced separately (so keep following these posts, in real time). We spent 6 weeks together, barely scratching the surface of each other’s lives but understanding, as women, the fight we are all fighting—to be treated equally, to be able to make decisions on who we want to love, and how we want to live our lives—with time working against us. Our one wild and precious life.
I have joined this fight in Kolkata because I see the lives of these women intertwined with my own. Because my sisters are suffering there and I somehow (Is it fate? Is it luck?) was born here, with less suffering.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed...
I think Kolkata has taught me exactly that.
Stay tuned for their work, their stories and their dreams.
xo, Sarah Annay