February 28-March 1: Caring for Calcutta
We reached Calcutta on the afternoon of Thursday, February 28. Known as India’s intellectual hub, Calcutta is in West Bengal state, near the border of Bangladesh, reigning above the backwaters of the Bay of Bengal. Though the city is built supposedly on solid ground, it spreads south onto a massive delta, one of the largest in the world. And after an orientation at the Believers Church headquarters – the Christian group running the Vitamin Angels program in Calcutta and beyond – and a nighttime distribution near a Calcutta slum, the delta is where the Vitamin Angels team spent the bulk of our time.
On Friday morning, we took a three hour drive to a bustling port town dominated by Muslims, whose presence provides a palpable tension for a Christian outfit doing work there. From there, we boarded a wooden boat, where a small band was playing for us, and took a one hour ride to reach a remote island village straight out of National Geographic: mud-walled, thatch roof huts, with dung drying on their exteriors, sat next to rice paddies as cows and chickens meandered about. (Another six hours down the channel would have been the ocean and Bangladesh.)We were greeted with the blowing of conch shells and wide eyes. And despite the difference in living conditions, the villagers want the same thing as the wealthiest Westerner: healthy children, which is why they showed up en masse to get vitamins and deworming medicine.
Following that village, we had a tasty lunch on the boat and crossed the channel to visit another village. Although that village was slightly larger and had a small brick road being built by people getting paid $1 a day, the experience was much the same, save for meeting a hunched over woman who was reportedly 110 years old. Instead of taking the boat back, we got into a van to head back into Calcutta, stopping momentarily at sunset to watch a barber do his work near a stagnant pond as the sun set and a woman prepare her rickshaw food stand for the evening hordes.
On Saturday, we returned to the Believers Church for another distribution. Although Vitamin Angels is strictly a non-religious organization, it is dedicated to using effective in-country contacts to get the work done. Sometimes – as in the case of Believers, one of the largest NGOs in India – this must be done through religious organizations. And given that Believers reaches almost every corner of India, integrates the traditional ways into its teachings, helps people of all races and creeds, and runs one of the more effective and organized programs that VA founder Howard Schiffer has ever seen, it seems that the partnership is a good one. For us, it just means we had to handle a few more “praise the lords” than we’re used to.
In the afternoon, before our 8 p.m. flight to Chennai in the south, we had some time for fun. That meant a crafts bazaar, where artisans from all over West Bengal came to sell their wares. Pottery, paintings, weaving, saris, and more, it would make anyone consider a career in the import-export industry. Across the street was Science City, a sort of Epcot-imitation, India-style. Most of the rides seemed closed, so we checked out the trippy mirror maze and then went through “Evolution Park,” where dinosaur models creaked to life. I snapped some photos before learning that was not allowed, due to fears that the robots might be replicated. I promise I won’t.
March 2: The Chennai Slums
Like many cities in India, the southeastern city of Chennai – India’s fourth largest, with nearly seven million people – is undergoing a transformation. Technology is coming in, a new airport is promised, and the slow, crumbly creation of a more modern infrastructure is underway. Populated mostly by Tamils – a jolly, darker skinned folk whose males wear their longis (skirts) shorter than other parts of the country – the town formerly known as Madras has prosperity on its mind. But as we saw on Sunday, March 2, there’s still plenty of poverty to go around.
Traveling once again with the Believers Church, we drove into the Chennai slum of Rajaretnam Nagar, in the Kodungyoor neighborhood. The welcome was much like the others: singing, modern and traditional dancing, and some skits by the children. The area, however, was the worst we’d seen since Bombay. The flies were incessant, there was litter on every square inch of ground, and the incense that they were burning did very little to hide the atrocious smell of decay and despair.
During the distribution, I was informed by the filmmaker on our team that a five-story pile of trash was burning a couple hundred yards nearby. “We’re on the fringes of a dump,” he said. As the vitamin and deworming tablet giveaway ensued, I snuck away to get a peek. It was true- less than a half block away was the Chennai dump, stretching endlessly in both directions, and giving off putrid billows of smoke. Dirt-covered dogs could be seen atop the sky-high piles of rubbish, and the adjacent blocks were occupied by various recycling operationsc, from the legitimate newspaper waste building to the individual “ragpickers,” the name used by Indians to denote the lowest of the low on the totem pole. Just a few feet from the tent where slum kids were getting pill-sized shots of Vitamin A, a woman in red was shuffling through the trash, collecting god knows what to be resold.
After everything was finished, Howard wanted to see the slums with his own eyes. It wasn’t part of the itinerary, but he feels that going to the children’s homes is an important part of the process, showing them that we care about their situation and don’t just want to stop in, drop of some drugs, and get out of there. The slums of Chennai are not homemade shanties like Bombay’s. Rather, they’re government-built apartment complexes and single unit cottages, much like what we’d call “the projects” in America. The living conditions were horrible: trash chutes leaked litter of all sorts onto the street, where children played, dogs ate, and women sorted through scrap metal for useable goods. Many of the children were naked or half-dressed. Some of the women had painted their faces yellow, supposedly with turmeric as a beauty enhancement. I was told that many of the women were sex workers at night, and that the men were generally drunk all day.
Behind the four-story complexes were small, half-story cottages. Inside one, a man explained that he made about 150 rupees per day (less than $4), but only was guaranteed work 10 days a month. He shared the small room with his wife and two kids, paying $15 per month in rent to a landlord who was given the property for free. Down the alley was a trio of women, one attending to a bucket of small fish, and taking off their scales as a terrifying amount of black flies swarmed her hands. There were children everywhere.
In the afternoon, we headed out to Paddappai, a rural village in a part of town that’s supposedly slated for massive development by automobile and other industrial companies. These days, it’s still very bucolic, especially for being just a few dozen kilometers outside of a seven million person metropolis. The session was my last distribution, as the team traveled on the next morning to Madurai, and I stayed put in Chennai, to see the beaches and temples and relax before my flight home at 4 a.m. on Wednesday morning.
That evening, we ate dinner with Dr. N Sethuraman, a powerful philanthropist and, among other enterprises, the man who founded what he calls the “McDonald’s of India.” (It even has one golden arch.) Over a rice-based dinner at one of these 32 restaurants (they may soon be coming to the states, he warned), the doctor and Howard discussed the future, how to make the vitamin programs reach younger children, how to integrate the vitamins into an economic model, how to help India and the rest of the world pull themselves out of poverty and malnourishment. It proved a fitting end to my ride on the India Vitamin Express.
Stay tuned for a longer cover story on these adventures in The Independent sometime soon.
Matt Kettmann returns from India on March 5. For more, tune into Independent.com/india.