Kolkata was a crowded and rainy city, but definitely felt like the cultural and literary center of India. The infrastructure was clearly lacking in being able to support the almost 20 million people who live there, but the warmth of the people and their welcoming spirit make the inconveniences seem small in comparison. I found the people providing social services in India were a particularly passionate group who provided services to some of the most challenging areas in India. I met with an organization that provided schooling and shelter to street children many of whom are children of prostitutes or drug addicts and also school programs to children living in the slums. They were attempting to help so many but there always seemed to be so much need and not enough resources but they never gave up.
I met an executive director who wept happy tears telling me about all the children she was able to help and how they were now living happy and productive lives. She described for me the difficulty she had faced from family and friends because she had given up a good government job with good pay, benefits and security because she had felt like she had to help the children. She spoke of the scorn and ridicule she had suffered when some of her neighbors thought she was selling condoms at the railroad station when she was giving out literature and free condoms as part of a HIV/AIDS prevention program. How people didn't understand the work she was doing until they saw her on television rescuing a baby girl from the home of her grandparents who had severely abused and burned her mother and locked the baby in a room for three days without food. This woman is my hero.
To the young teenage girls who showed me their rooms with bunk beds, prayer room, and the living room which we turned into an impromptu dance party. I showed them a line dance called the cupid shuffle and we danced to several songs on the radio. It made me feel 13 again like I was at a sleepover again, the difference being that my new friends parents were deceased or abandoned them. One of the new friends who had lost her mother to TB when she was 4 years-old and her father never visited her, dreamed of being Miss India and an engineer but feared she was too short and not pretty enough. I think all 13 year-old girls fear not being pretty enough. Being part of HOPE allowed her to dream of being an engineer even if she couldn't be Miss India. She is beautiful and smart enough to achieve both of her dreams. Like so many places I've been to in India, there is so much more than meets the eye to the city Kolkata.