God in Kolkata

Akash is a passionate 17-year old with a heart for the poor in his home city of Calcutta. He grew up working in the slums with his family – his sister, mom and dad – a family I have had the pleasure of knowing and working alongside over the years. The following video is an example of the unique way that Akash Daniel Mondal has found of expressing what he sees daily in his Kolkata.

God in Kolkata

Slum school

outside the school room in Calcutta slum

This is an alleyway that leads through the everyday lives of families who call the slums of Calcutta, home. Mothers washing clothes right outside their doors and hanging up their colourful fabrics to flutter at you as you walk past their huts. Girls helping to prepare the ingredients for the next meal – chopping up onions, or sifting through rice to make sure there are no bugs or anything else that shouldn’t be eaten. Children scooting past, drumming on anything worthy of noise-making with the army of sticks that they carry, chasing after flea-bitten animals. Young mothers going about their business, young babies strapped to their backs.

Slum school alley way Slum school washing day

And everywhere the smell that – once experienced – never lets you go. Nothing compares to open sewage, stenching relentlessly in the unbearable heat of the day, in competition with those food-cooking fragrances, laundry-day dampness, bodies and animals vying for space…

It was just another day, heading to school in the slum. Knowing that a dozen or more eager faces awaited us in the little 10’x10’ school room. In this environment it’s hard to imagine smiling faces, but I see them – every time. This is where they live and where they survive, and seeing the smiles in the eyes and across the mouths of those children each time I step into the classroom, that’s they joy of learning for me.

my best times...on the floor.

Puja and the five-star approach

This girl is something else!

Puja and me in the streets of CalcuttaI first met Puja years ago in the market place in Calcutta. From the very first time I saw her, I was taken by her bright personality and how very street smart she was.

Behind a five-star hotel on a “footpath”, together with her sister and mother, was home, the place Puja had lived all her life. Where she lived is also where she was educated – on the streets. She never attended a traditional school. Her mother needed her to provide for their little family, there was no time for school.

Her home on that footpath that led to the expensive hotel was something she turned to her advantage. When I first encountered Puja she was 12 years’ old and already speaking five languages – yes five – it might seem like one for each of the stars of that hotel. One day, at a nearby KFC, she gave me a few lessons – in Italian, Spanish and Bengali! She confided that her tutors were “shopping guests” from the hotel towering over her home. A leader at heart, Puja found that speaking to people in their own language has its benefits. She was determined to learn as many languages as possible and to develop her own business. As a result of her finesse the market owners came to respect her and would listen to her suggestions. She partnered with local market-stall holders to generate a commission of sales from the customers she brought to them.

entrepreneur at 12 - Puja in calcuttaPuja and Brenda in the Calcutta marketPuja stole my heart. Her tenacity and smarts really inspired me to think differently about reaching out and helping others like her trying to survive on the streets. How to help so many children who can’t go to school because they have to take care of their families instead? I knew in my heart that there had to be a solution. The answer was not to pluck them all out of their lives but to provide them with the tools and encouragement to help overcome poverty, to improve their situation.

If we plan it right we can be invited to walk alongside those in need, mentor them, supervise them for safety and provide a semblance of education. Helping them to help themselves. I make a point of visiting with Puja every time I am in Calcutta. Every visit is a sweet reunion.