KOLKATA, India — A bustling, urban center of 14 million people, Kolkata holds a place as the cultural and intellectual capital of India, and it’s easy to see why.
From the stately colonial palace that is the Victoria Memorial Hall to the shabby-chic treasure trove of the Marble Palace, from the hammer-and-sickle flags of the city’s Communist Party to the financially faltering Calcutta Film Society, there was a vibrancy that felt familiar to me.
The storefront sweets and the Bengali cuisine dazzled my taste buds and completely obliterated what I had thought of as “Indian food.” (Imagine eating a hot dog and fries and imagining that it was what all Americans ate.)
From Mother Teresa’s missionary headquarters to the crowded intensity of Kalighat Kali Mandir, I witnessed faith in action. Long interested in how deeply held beliefs shape people’s lives, I felt fortunate to have glimpsed the piety and the practice in a land far from all that was familiar.
Yet, I also knew that Kolkata was no more representative of the whole of India any more than New York served as a stand-in for the United States, and I was becoming eager to see more.
What did I hope to experience yet? I couldn’t say exactly, only that I would know when I saw it — or maybe I’d realize much later that I had seen some crucial element of life on the subcontinent.
The ultimate, abstract goal would likely be to peer into the soul of India itself. But I don’t hold my breath for such an experience, hoping only to be open to it if it were to materialize.