Ode to the City of Joy: Getting Comfortable in Kolkata

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Ode to the City of Joy: Getting Comfortable in Kolkata

By: Kali Penney | Health Sciences Co-op student
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In fall 2008, Kali Penney went on a three month journey as a volunteer Co-op student working with Sociol Legal Aid and Research Training Centre (SLARTC) in Kolkata, India. She worked along side SLARTC, and other organizations in their geriatric and adolescent health, human trafficking and rights and HIV/AIDS fields.

After 2 months of living in Kolkata, India I am finally beginning to feel comfortable in this city. Working for SLARTC was great and it was close enough to my house that I walked to work every day. Now, as I move into the final month of my Co-op work term, I am working further away from home and testing my knowledge of the city, and the Bengali language, daily.

Each day in Kolkata involves a certain amount of arguing: yelling at the cab driver to turn right when he tries to take you the long way around (dan dike, dan dike!), indignantly asking the rickshaw driver how it can possibly cost Rs15 when yesterday the same trip was Rs10, elbowing your way onto the bus. These are all just normal interactions for Kolkatans, and while it was overwhelming for this mild-mannered Canadian girl at first, I am now getting the hang of it.

I had finished writing up my study on adolescent health and had presented the final paper to the SLARTC library, but I still wanted to do one more thing for this project. After interviewing 25 adolescent girls on several different areas of health, I had learned that many of them were interested in various health topics but few were being taught about these things. I decided to organize a workshop for the girls focusing on nutrition and exercise. This was a little bit difficult to coordinate, since no one at their centre speaks much English and I am still only a beginner Bengali speaker, but with the help of some of my bilingual friends here I was able to set it up, with great success.

The girls who attended the workshop were excited to be there and were happy to have the chance to talk with me about my life in Canada, why I was in Kolkata, and what I could teach them about nutrition and exercise. We spent 2 hours together and at the end of the session they said that they had learned a lot When I asked them if they wanted to have another session before I left India there was a unanimous “yes!” We decided that for the next meeting we would procure a larger space and actually do some exercise, and I look forward to seeing these girls one last time in December.

During my final month I am working with Destiny Reflection and possibly Women’s Interlink Foundation as well. Working at Destiny Reflection entails helping them organize their business and getting their office in order. Along with Smarita, the director of the company, I am also planning some workshops for the girls who work for Destiny. These girls come from different shelter homes in Kolkata to do stitching work for Destiny. It gives them a steady income and a safe environment and many of them plan to save their earnings in the hopes of one day moving away from the shelter home life and renting a place for themselves.

One of the problems for these girls that Smarita has acknowledged is that they don’t have a lot of life experience. Though they are adults, around twenty years old, many of them have grown up in shelter homes without their families, and have not had many positive role models in their lives.

Now that they are making money and are becoming more independent these girls are at a very vulnerable stage in their lives, and the purpose of the workshops is to discuss with them some of the issues they are dealing with and to teach them some skills they will need in the future. I look forward to doing these workshops as it will give me a chance to get to know the girls at Destiny and learn from them about their experiences and perspectives on life.

Beyond the Article:

Read Kali’s first and second entries in her Ode to the City of Joy series about her Co-op work term in India:
Ode to the City of Joy, Part 1: Arrival in Kolkata, India
Ode to the City of Joy, Part 2: Learning Indian Lessons
Ode to the City of Joy, Part 4, Reflecting on a Life Changing Co-op Term

Posted on February 22, 2011