Why a woman refused to sell me yoghurt

I was out in the field collecting ephemera for my traveling theater project when I dropped into a mom and pop sweet shop for lunch. The sweet yoghurt (Bengali variety) was pretty good, so I asked for a kilo pot (price: US$ 2) to feed guests at home.  The lady asked me how long it would take me to get home. Two to three hours. It’s going to get sour in this warm weather, she said.

It’s nice to find people who care enough about their work to lose a sale for it.

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Car, cover & coconut rope. Calcutta.

Car, cover, & coconut rope. Calcutta.

Car, cover, & coconut rope. Calcutta.

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Hand-rolled Bread

Rupees two each. Calcutta.


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Automated Ticket Machine

I’ve never seen anyone use any of the automated ticket kiosks in the Calcutta suburban railway system. While standing in the line for 15 minutes for a ticket yesterday, I figured I’d take a photo of these machines.

Automated Ticket Kiosk, Garia station, Kolkata

Automated Ticket Kiosk, Garia station, Calcutta

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Arab dollars for Bengali plumbers

As I travel for my documentary, I often see advertisements for jobs in Qatar, where the upcoming World Cup has fueled a construction boom. The other day, while snacking at a sweet shop, I happened to take a closer look at this leaflet.

Qatar Recruitment Poster

The numbers didn’t make any sense – in these parts one can make 300 rupees a day shoveling earth. I accosted a fellow customer, a Muslim gentleman in loose white trousers, long white shirt, white cap, and neatly trimmed beard: “Do you think they’ll find a plumber for 1100 rupees?”

Drawing himself to his 6+ feet height, in a tone of personal umbrage, he replied: “These are Arab dollars! Eighteen rupees to one!”

Well, then, I suppose it makes perfect sense to misspell “urgent” as “argent” (French for money, near-Latin for silver). I’m still looking for an equally erudite explanation for “recruement”.

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First Sale in 3 Years

AerogrammeThe last time I’d seen an aerogramme was over fifteen years ago, when I got one from my parents after I’d just moved to the United States. A single sheet of paper, it was the cheapest form of international communication – you write on the inside, fold it in thirds, and write the address on the outside. No enclosures allowed.

A week ago, I was in a small town on the Ganges delta with half a day to kill. So it was with a mix of nostalgia and affection that I walked into the post-office to buy an aerogramme to write to my American, Skype-spoiled daughter.

“Aerogramme? I think we last sold one 3 years ago.”

The clerk emerged from the back with one with a 6.50 rupee stamp printed on it. That’s about 10 US cents. “I doubt that’s the current rate. Let me check the India Post website.”  I suggested she’d have better luck googling it. That’s how I ended up with nine Gandhis that nearly squeezed out the address.

The paper was so brittle that I was afraid to write much on it. If it makes it to New York, that will be a minor miracle.

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The Cow Economy

Middle Sister-in-Law had been busy all morning carrying loads of hay. She is the wife of the older brother of Gautam, a character in my current film. Her husband is the middle of three children, so she is Gautam’s Middle Sister-in-Law. I’ve never heard her name. She and her husband had done ten trips each bringing about a fifty cubic foot load of hay each time from a mile away. A nearby farmer had finished threshing his harvest of rice and was giving a good deal on the leftover hay. The same could not be said of the operators of tricycle carts, hence the trips on foot. The clay path was too slippery for her flip flops with the heavy load; the paved highway had been hard on her bare feet.

The hay was for their two cows and one calf; maybe that was what made her so voluble on the subject of their cows. I was lying down after lunch on the bed used by her son when he visits home from the nearby boarding school, and she needed little invitation to start talking about the cows. The hay will be good for the coming months, but now with the winter cauliflower crop, the cows can eat the leaves, which have to be boiled, or else the cows get sick. They get a bath every two or three days. Cows get sick like people, you know, she said, like they can have strokes. One of her cows had broken a leg, and the nearby veterinarian had suggested amputating it. They got a doctor from town who charged five hundred rupees to take a look, and had the animal hanging from a sling for months to let the leg heal. It was Middle Sister-in-Law’s job to apply medicine over the raw wound; ever since, she can’t eat meat.

The cows’ stall shares a wall with the house, an electric light burns there all night, so anyone getting up at night can take a quick peek at the animals. Gautam’s mother can check on them through the window without leaving her bed. The light keeps the animals from bumping into each other and getting into fights.

The calf will be sold when it gets a little bigger; the cows give them milk for most of the year. They drink some, sell some. They rarely need to buy fuel; the caked dung is good for cooking. The next calf will likely go out on loan; the borrower has to raise it, and bring it back after its first calf. In return, he gets to keep that calf.

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