Monday, June 7, 2010


So it turns out blogging is a lot harder than I thought. Not the technical part – Blogger makes it easy even for a tech-dummy like myself – but finding the time and space to write and reflect is a challenge, to say the least. Our days are packed full with field work, sight-seeing, and navigating the streets of Kolkata in 100+ degree weather and stifling humidity. Most days, it’s all I can do to take it all in, snap a few pictures, and do a little post-dinner processing with the rest of our team (thank goodness for social workers!) before a much-needed shower and bed.

But enough excuses. I’m way overdue to share a little bit about our work at Durbar. It’s been a wild ride!

Our program merges field research with course work on postcolonial social work and feminist theory. After arriving in Kolkata, we spent a week in orientation with the friendly Durbar staff, who gave us a thorough introduction to Durbar’s many programs in between steaming cups of chai tea. Durbar is a collective organizing of sex workers in West Bengal. Durbar employs a Marxist framework, asserting that sex work is work, and sex workers deserve respect, recognition and freedom from discrimination and stigma.

The highlight of our orientation was meeting dozens of Durbar’s sex workers, a delightful group of women. Their pride in themselves and their work, as well as their passion for justice were powerful and moving. One of Durbar’s many slogans seems to capture the spirit of the organization: “Love’s Labor – Just Labor.” We’ve also enjoyed building relationships with members of Amra Poditik, Durbar’s children of sex workers organization, and Anandum, Durbar’s MSM and transgender sex workers organization.

During our second week, we chose research topics and formed three sub-groups focusing on Amra Poditik, anti-trafficking, and advocacy, respectively. As the advocacy group, Anna L. and I are studying sex workers’ capacity to advocate for themselves in the context of Durbar. Last week we picked our research topics, designed assessments, and ran field tests, before going back to the drawing board. Our work has been full of starts and stops, trial and error. It’s been frustrating at times (especially for me!), but as TJ says, research is not a linear process. We’re all learning to trust that process, and learn from the unexpected.

Today Anna and I ran our first successful batch of interviews, with the help of Santanu, our Bengali translator. The language difference is probably the most challenging aspect of our research so far. Much of our communication is lost or misunderstood, while cultural differences complicate things further. In short, it makes for a lot of awkward and funny moments. At the end of the day, though, we felt good about our questions, the responses they generated, and (especially) the personal connections we made. We have the whole summer to figure out what it all means.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Election Reflections

Today was election day, and Kolkata practically shut down. Partly because it was a Sunday, and partly because Kolkata takes politics VERY seriously. So seriously that we were warned to stay indoors due to threats of election-related violence. But the neighborhood around our apartment was remarkably quiet, and we ventured out to a nearby park. Kids were swimming in the lake and playing cricket, while adults lounged in the shade of tall, old trees. It was hard to believe we were in Calcutta, one of the world’s largest (and most maligned) cities.

Most of us got similar reactions when we told family and friends about our trip: “you’re going WHERE?” We reflected on how the city is misunderstood by the rest of the world, even in India. Kolkata has a long and rich history, being for years both the colonial capital and the cultural capital of India. Home to centuries of artists, poets and revolutionaries, Bengalis are understandably full of pride for Kolkata, which is known as the “City of Joy.” Yet, the rest of India looks down on Kolkata as dirty, backward, and poverty-ridden. I noted that Kolkata was a lot like Philly.

At our first class last week, TJ explained that Kolkata is a highly literate society. People know their history, literature and politics here, even if they can’t read or write very well. TJ described the importance of adda, or “shooting the shit” over cups of tea. I thought of our growing collection of small clay pots back at the apartment, each one a reminder of an encounter, a conversation, a ritual pause in the rhythm of the day.

Kolkata’s streets are filled with signs and flags for a staggering number of political parties. My favorite party flag is green and red, with a picture of a bicycle on it. I don’t know what it stands for, but I liked the design so I swiped one off the street to take home (I got a lot of stares on the Metro that day). During the days leading up to the municipal elections, there were lots of political demonstrations, rallies, and slogans chanted through bullhorns at all hours of the day and night. At today’s elections, the reigning liberal Congress Party faced off with the influential leftist Trinamul Party, while Communist sentiments remained strong, and anarchist Maoist rebels grabbed the media spotlight for allegedly sabotaging a local commuter train. I thought about how much more dynamic the political process is here – for better and for worse – compared to the two-party system in the U.S.

Women are a powerful force in Indian politics, which is surprising given their relative absence from the public sphere of urban life. One of my first impressions of Kolkata was that men seemed to be everywhere – on the streets, on public transportation, in shops, restaurants and markets, even in the kinds of service jobs typically held by women in the United States. TJ explained that women’s work is often “hidden,” particularly as many men migrate to work in the cities, leaving women and children behind. Men are also more likely to have access to higher education, meaning that most of the people we’ve met who speak English happen to be men. This creates an interesting tension for our group as Western, female social workers working with a predominantly women-membership organization (more on that later). On a personal level, it’s been hard to adjust from my community back home, consisting mostly of educated, progressive women, to a very different social and gendered environment in India – all of which is also, of course, loaded with issues of race and class.

Next up: an introduction to our work at Durbar, weather mishaps, and fun times in the city!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Kolkata - Darjeeling - Kolkata

Yes, I’m alive.

I’m in Kolkata, and I’m fine (better than fine, in fact – I’m having a great time). I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write. I hope you all haven’t given up on this blog, because I have tons of stories to share. Power outages, travel snafus, wacky weather, and long days have made blogging tricky…but I finally have access to internet and a free morning to write. Luxuries!

So, let’s rewind. I arrived in Kolkata, India on Friday, May 7 – nearly three weeks ago. My flight on Air India was long and uneventful; I slept through most of it, waking only to eat yummy meals served by flight attendants in black-and-red saris. When I finally arrived in Kolkata a little after 10 pm, the air hit me like a warm, wet blanket. Expecting to travel to the guesthouse where our group would be staying, I grabbed my bags and followed the man holding a sign with my name on it. Instead of going to the guesthouse, though, we arrived at TJ’s parents’ house, located in a somewhat ritzy apartment complex on the outskirts of the city. Squatter settlements lined the road opposite the walled compound. This was my first introduction to Kolkata’s class divide: extreme poverty and prosperity, side by side. (Weeks later, I learned that those settlements are actually subsidized by the people living in the high rises – Kolkata’s Communist politics in action. More on that later…)

TJ’s parents were very gracious, and we spent the next day getting oriented to the guesthouse and surrounding neighborhood. The guesthouse, a bi-level apartment owned by the Ghose family, is located in Deshapriya Park, not far from Kali Temple, one of the region’s most sacred Hindu sites. The area is vibrant and bustling, with lots of tall trees and old buildings with crumbling balconies. The crowded market district is full of vendors selling everything imaginable – things like fried food, umbrellas, and floral wreaths, stenographers typing on ancient typewriters, astrological readings, and haircuts. It’s a cliché, but it’s true that the ancient and the modern coexist here. In the streets, shiny new Japanese cars jostle for room with 1940s-era yellow taxi cabs, bicycles, and hand-pulled wooden rickshaws that must be at least a century old.

The next day I woke up early and took a cab to the train station to travel to Darjeeling, a town located in the West Bengal hills north of Bengal. I stood on the train platform at 5:30 am with sweat running down my body. Children dressed in rags and emaciated old women begged for change. Middle class families bought tea and trinkets. A young woman, traveling alone, with white skin, short hair, and Western clothes, I received strange stares – the first of many.

Finally I was on the train, in an air-conditioned car with upper and lower berths. I ended up sitting across from a prosperous-looking family – a man and his wife and daughter – who were also traveling to Darjeeling. Meeting them was the luckiest thing that happened to me on my trip: not only did we have the same itinerary, but the man, Mr. Sharma, was an MSW social worker who spoke fluent English. He works as program director for the Indian government’s Rural Health Mission for the state of Sikkim, a tiny state north of Darjeeling, next to Nepal. We shared many interesting conversations during our twelve-hour train ride, about social work, public health, economic development, and politics. We ended up continuing our journey together.

Riding the Indian Railways was, as promised, an unforgettable experience. The train hurtled past rice paddies, villages with mud-and-thatch houses, and people toiling under the blazing sun. At each station, a steady stream of vendors and beggars streamed down the aisle of the train, including chai-wallahs peddling delicious hot tea with milk from giant tin kettles. Once a tiny girl, not older than five years old, appeared by my side. She was dressed as the goddess Kali, complete with blue makeup and costume jewelry. Somewhat ambivalently, I handed her a couple of rupees, wondering about her family. Several shy young men came at intervals and sat down across from me, unable to speak more than a few phrases in English. Three teenage girls, sisters, chatted with me about school and pop music, and shared Indian sweets called rasgulla.

When our train arrived at the New Jalpaiguri train station around 6 pm, I had decided to travel with the Sharma family to Darjeeling. After some time, we realized that the jeeps to Darjeeling were no longer running. Mr. Sharma directed our cab driver to a hotel, where we booked rooms for the night. The next morning, we all piled into a jeep which shuttled us away from the city and into the hills of West Bengal. Mr. Sharma told me about the strong influence of neighboring Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan on the history and culture of Darjeeling. I could see it in the faces of the people and in the visible signs of Buddhism as we drove north.

We climbed up and up on a steep, narrow road, veering around impossible hairpin turns, into a thick mist. A steady convoy of jeeps made its way up and down the mountain. May is tourist season in Darjeeling, and many middle-class Indians and Westerners come to the hills to escape the summer heat. The area in and around Darjeeling, with its dramatic green hills dotted with temples and tea plantations, was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. It was hard to observe, and be a part of, the overcrowding and pollution caused by tourism in such a special place. Despite this, I had an incredible time – see my slideshow below.

My vacation was unexpectedly cut short due to a strike by the separatist Gorkhaland movement, a major political influence in Darjeeling. Because of the region’s unique history and culture, the Gorkhaland movement seeks to create a separate state for the hill country between West Bengal and Sikkim. There are frequent transit strikes to draw attention to the issue. After three longs days of travel, I finally arrived back in Kolkata on Sunday, May 16, where I met the rest of our group. This was my first time traveling alone in a foreign country, and I'm so glad I did it. Now, though, I'm glad to be back in community, and mostly settled in one place.

Thanks for reading all the way to the end of this long update. Look for another post soon about our first two weeks in Kolkata. Thinking of you!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Off and Away!

Dear Friends and Family,

I can't believe it, but tomorrow I leave for India where I'll spend the next seven weeks. INDIA! I'm filled with butterflies of excitement.

As many of you know, I'm participating in a study abroad program through the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy and Practice (SP2), where I'm working toward my MSW degree. Seven social work students (six of us pictured at right) will be working with SP2 professor TJ Ghose and the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a collective of sex workers based in Calcutta/Kolkata, India. The name translates to "Committee of Unstoppable Women."

Before the program starts, though, I'll be traveling to Darjeeling in the state of West Bengal. Darjeeling is famous for its tea gardens, temples and gorgeous mountain views. I'm looking forward to trekking, riding the rails, reading, writing, and relaxing away from the summer heat.

On May 17, I'll join the rest of our team in Kolkata. We're staying in a small guesthouse in the center of the city. You can write me at the following address:

5 Bipin Pal Road
Kolkata 700026

While I love to get mail, email is definitely the quickest and surefire-est way to reach me. I'll have internet access at the guesthouse and will check my account regularly:

You can expect updates from me via this blog ( I'm psyched about my first foray into the blogosphere (thank you, Google!) and hope you'll enjoy reading. You can access the blog directly at the above address, or click the "follow" or "subscribe" links on the blog home page to receive automatic updates.

I'll be back in Philly on June 29.

We're in for an adventure. Thank you all for your love and support, and please stay in touch!