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One cheaply wise man told me one day that a journey begins the second you clearly make the decision to leave. On the one hand, sure, you must get prepared, inquire about the country, try to picture what it looks like, realize that I leave soon and that I really need a mosquito net. Kind of foreplay with your tourist guide. On the other hand, this theory remains pretty dumb, especially if your project is called India.
Forget about the globe-trotter stories, the neighbors’ pictures or Tintin In Tibet: you should entirely assume your ignorance before landing there your foot. I bought five or six books about India but I only read one because I had to go to the barber. It was about sacred cows and semolina cakes, I decided to check the other books on the plane. I could say I like surprise effects, but the truth is I don’t know where to begin. I’m getting ready to have a six months working experience in Kolkata, so if I may choose, I prefer being emotionally slapped by some seedy slums than a detailed Lonely Planet. Or perhaps this “not-ready” theory is just my peculiar laziness disguised as a two rupees prude opinion. Still, here I am flying from Paris to Kolkata, cultured about India like an Inuit about mangos but my five senses all set to experience.
It’s four o’clock sharp when the plane opens its doors. My rucksack on my back I go out the airport, find my way through the fruit dealers, beggars and cabdrivers, and head for a welcoming palm tree. I stay there for two-cigarettes time because I don’t have a clue where to go yet. Then a very short guy comes to me, he’s a taxi driver and sometimes guide for tourists in a hurry when he’s in the mood (now he shows me a non-laminated card). After chatting about why I am here or the different price of bananas according to Indian towns, I’m surprised at the dozen more people around me. “Give the man a tip, sir”, my original friend says pointing at a sleepy fellow leaning back against a wall behind me.
I look straight at the dude’s eyes, I never saw him before and except sunbathing he doesn’t look so busy. The confusion makes me smile: I am in India, no doubt. “What for?” I ask, so he quietly shrugs his shoulders in answer. Well I can’t blame him, he tried. I tell him “NO” right in his face and get into his yellow cab. After haggling over during two sunsets, I feel comfortable and tell my driver to hit the road downtown. I get ripped off a bit, sure, but not that much. Also I kind of like his circle glasses, so who cares.
Hundreds of tiny shops, some buffalos chewing plastic bags, five girls wearing shiny purses, an old bearded man selling vegetables and car wheels, two kids water-fighting, lots of advertising posters which don’t belong to reality, and in the distance a gigantesque palace building site: this is what I see through the taxi window. I spend time to ask myself questions I can’t respond and even to breathe in gasoline in abundance. I drop my luggage off the cheapest guesthouse in the quarter, I kick the cockroach’s ass under my bed and I go outside, making one’s way towards the sun so I finally find out where it sets.
“Children from Kolkata” is one of the ten thousands nongovernmental organizations of the city. It’s situated in the deep South Pallisree district, where the usual tourist doesn’t go probably because there is nothing to visit.
The single underground line –three other ones would open sooner or later (since 1995)– takes me to one rickshaw which drives me to a spot by the roadside, between a rusty bus and a homemade fountain. The driver shouts at me some inaudible english speech meeting sign language, I tell him back “yes” because that’s my philosophy in case the instructions are unclear. I start walking in a labyrinth of alleyways in order to find the NGO. I get lost four times, turn back twice, ask my way to all living beings I pass and then I stop for a while so I can sweat in silence. At last one student helps me to look for the address and ten minutes later I am standing at the bottom of a five floors building which doesn’t look Alice-wonderful but the door gets cute colors, therefore I come in without ringing (there is no doorbell). “Hello, you must be the french volunteer!”, I hear as my foot is on the last stair.
The voice belongs to Sohail who runs the organization while the Boss is back in France. He shows me the place, introduces me to the children I will teach and offers me a memorable big-time-sugared coffee. My first pupil is a five years old boy who only speaks a few words of english: the numbers until twenty, the word “cat” and all the most sophisticated cricket vocabulary. It sounds like a good start, so I ask him to describe the game rules, and after lots of Hindi sentences and an approximate Pictionary, I still don’t understand. Only dumb people don’t change the subject, so I decide to teach him numbers until fifty. The three next students are teenagers who have good English skills and who study for an exam. We are supposed to revise free-market economy lessons but on the first day we talk about Bollywood actresses and Brazilian football players.
Around four, it’s free time: the children play football and cricket outside, occasionally Russian roulette, but most of the time it means football and I play with them. (At first I was crushing them, but after thirty minutes out of breath, I felt consequences of Parisian nights showing up and the opposing team scored six goals in eleven minutes.) Anyway, after this stinging defeat I study with a group of seven little boys: I help them with their homework and read them tales, they teach me some Hindi phrases and show me magic tricks. Fifty-fifty, you guess. At eight o’clock I leave the NGO my eyes sparkling and I join the main street without getting lost this time. Sleep tight, Kolkata.