‘Grab them!” laughed Uma, holding out a plate of freshly cooked fritters.
“This is India; if you want them you have to fight for them!”
I was in her Kolkata home for lunch, along with six other foreign girls.
Her description of India certainly matched my first impressions.
The city is home to 14 million people.
In the tourist areas, the streets are full of touts and beggars.
Anyone labelled a foreigner will be swarmed by very persistent salesmen, all attempting to bring you to their shop.
Prices are guaranteed to be inflated.
Transportation is always an adventure.
Boarding trains in rush hours means pushing and fighting your way on, or they will simply leave without you. Buses often don’t even come to a full stop when people are getting on and off.
Autorickshaws, tiny three-wheeled vehicles with a roof and no doors, cram in six or seven people.
I find Kolkata both delightful and overwhelming.
My usual shopping place, Sealdah Market, looks like a scene from a movie.
The unpaved market streets are about one lane wide.
Both sides are crowded with shops and stands. People crouch with flats of fruits and vegetables, weighing out quantities on hand-scales.
Stray dogs sleep in the middle of the streets. Miraculously, nobody runs over them.
The sound is overwhelming.
Rickshaws and bicycles ring bells. Men with huge baskets on their heads shout people out of their way. Bollywood soundtracks play through tinny speakers.
But if I had to choose a sound to represent India, it would be a horn.
Buses, auto-rickshaws, taxis and cars blare their horns continuously.
I wander through, dodging annoyed drivers. I stop at a fruit seller to buy guavas and coconuts.
Small shops sell everything from chips and bottled water to sandals and jewelry.
Hawkers have tables covered with their particular item — shoelaces, watches, hair clips, bangles.
I peer down covered alleys leading to clothes stores of all kinds.
But the crowds and bustle are only one side of India. My home is a school called Udayan, well outside central Kolkata.
In comparison with the city, it’s peaceful and calm.
The village roads are narrow and muddy, lined with coconut and mango trees.
Houses on either side range from bamboo huts to beautiful concrete mansions.
As I walk, kids come running after me calling “Hi, hi, hi,” their only English word.
Almost everyone stares, their expressions ranging from friendly to completely expressionless.
When I venture out with my two roommates, Sarah and Anna, who are also white, we are such a rare sight that people often take pictures and bring friends to come see.
As I try to discover India, there is no one image that sums it up for me.
It’s a place of wild contrasts.
The chaotic market.
A peaceful mango grove.
A white cat wandering through the airport.
A loaf of bread proudly proclaiming itself as “factory made.”
A cow in the middle of rush-hour traffic, serenely watching the traffic swerve around it.
People, colours, smells, sounds, sights, beauty, squalor, excitement.
This is India.
First of a series.
Emily Tredger is a Whitehorse writer working in Kolkata.