Bridges across the City of Joy

Devika Nadig

The journey of a thousand miles began with the launch of Shikshangan in 2008 and continued much beyond this distance by covering the length, breadth and depth of our country. In the course of these journeys and the many interactions they brought, Vijay and I learned from individuals, communities and multiple stakeholders in the education landscape. I reckoned it would make sense to share these experiences with a wider audience, with the aim of documentation and a hope that these will both entertain and educate. Each tour was unique and I hope my storytelling skills will amuse and not lose – readers.

Some of our travels took us to ancient temple towns, creating the opportunity for encounters that made me confront my own ambiguous relationship with religion, but in the process, led me to interesting discoveries – about myself and my teaching practice.

Eleventh Stop – Kolkata – Kumar Tuli – Belur Math – Dakshineshwar- 2019
The winds of grace are blowing all the time. You have only to raise your sail.Ramakrishna Paramahamsa

Her towering height catches your attention first before you get bowled over by her flawless grace, her sense of style and her incisive understanding of education. Suvina Shunglu, an elegant presence in any gathering, is the Founder Principal of Sri Sri Academy School, Kolkata. The school’s lobby has a life-sized, elevated portrait of Sri Sri Ravishankar, thus setting the tone of the curriculum in the institution.

Illustrations: DIN TOONS

Kashmir, as her place of origin, has been left far behind and the Bhadralok have embraced the distinguished Tollygunge clubs and Saturday clubs for social company. Explorations in Kolkata would never have been as interesting had Suvina not guided us gently into uncharted paths that the standard traveller avoids. We had become friends beyond the work circle and understood each other’s desires and taste for the superlative in life rather well. Staying close to the school at one of these colonial clubs with their deep verandahs, sloping roofs and mosaic painted semi-circular glass ventilators was a delight and pinnacle of comfort after seven hours of training sessions per day that kept you mostly on your feet.

Sri Sri Academy was catching the tide at its height and had invited Shikshangan to coach the teachers on 21st Century Skills, the buzz around which has not ebbed in the past few years. The four Cs (communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity) as popular pillars of the topic were cast aside as Shikshangan introduced the framework suggested by the World Economic Forum; weaving in foundational literacies, competencies and character building. We had a formidable bunch of senior teachers in the class who had come well prepared with prior reading and therefore the session was highly energized and interactive, with challenges thrown at us as coaches as well. For me personally, there is nothing more intoxicating than having an energized class in front. Online teaching embraced forcibly during the pandemic has sadly stolen that pleasure severely.

Lingering on in the cultural space for days beyond the professional assignment, we wandered over land and water surrounding the city of joy, pausing over and under her famous and omnipresent bridges perpetually marvelling at the engineering beauties while unfailingly giving in to gastronomical temptations of every kind, the ever favoured machcher jhol finding its way into my partner Vijay’s stomach ever so often. Ironically, for all its delights, the city seemed to be devoid of life, dilapidated in many corners and needing a desperate face lift in most places from memorials to museums, from streets to trams to market hubs.

If you wish to relish the aroma of Kolkata, you must abandon the fancy clubs and walk the streets for appetizing and luscious food. Puchkas, kathi roll, luchi-alur dom and the jhalmuri have to be doused with mishti doi, roshogulas and sandesh – not to forget the best yet – abar khabo (meaning eat me again!). Here’s a piece of trivia – The spongy white rasgulla that Bengal is best known for across India, is believed to have been introduced in present-day West Bengal in 1868 by a Kolkata-based confectioner named Nobin Chandra Das. We scoured the streets for his family’s authentic outlet, finding one at the mouth of Kumartuli …a sculptors’ settlement that brings Hindu gods and goddesses to earth, toiling tirelessly to breathe life into these masterpieces in clay … a goddess synonymous with Bengal walked into my heart and glided into my home, now sitting pretty at the entrance as a symbol of stree shakti and her force resides inside too.

Women and saris are hard to separate in India and I had been prepped by well-meaning and well-heeled friends back home to venture into the famous Byloom, a sari boutique with a difference. I floated into it to tick it off my to-do list and was disappointed to find nothing alluring. Some days are like that and you save money! Worthy of mention here is a much more authentic “Bengal and Dhaka weaves” experience in a small place called Mira’s boutique, run by a culturally rooted family. Look it up.

Leaving the din of the city behind and discarding the choice of filling modern life with busyness while possibly hollowing it of gladness – even though we were in the city of joy, we took a boat ferry from the Dakshineshwar Temple jetty to Belur Math. The Nivedita Setu, is a cable-stayed bridge that runs exactly parallel to the original Vivekananda Bridge. If Dakshineshwar Temple and Belur Math are on your Kolkata trip itinerary, you are bound to pass this architectural beauty at least once, best described as a sight where the steel of the bridge merges with the turbid waters of the Hooghly to form a striking visual.

The ferry was fragrant with the flavours of lemboocha (lemon tea) which we could not have enough of and here is a little secret I learnt on the boat – if you want to stir in an unusual flavour to your next cup of lemon tea, add a pinch of hajmola powder! It will leave your guest asking you for more, a guessing game will ensue and you can bask in the known yet non-divulged secret.

Ramakrishna and his main disciple Swami Vivekananda are regarded as two key figures in the Bengal Renaissance of the19th century. Ramakrishna played a leading role in the modern revival of Hinduism through Ramakrishna Mission. He advocated Bhakti and the Bhagavad Gita occupies an important place in his discourses. Belur Math was founded by Vivekananda as the international headquarters for Ramakrishna Mission in 1899. The math that enshrines the relics of his guru is notable for its architecture which fuses Hindu, Islamic, Buddhist and Christian art and motifs as a symbol of the unity of all religions. Swami Vivekananda was also cremated within the precincts of the Belur Math where a Mahasamadhi Mandir stands mute witness.

As you enter the premises of this thoughtful and meditative structure, the atmosphere envelops you with a blanket of serenity and silence that tugs at your sleeve for seeking inner peace. This is a powerful silence because it is rooted in autonomy – it is the silence you choose, quite unlike the powerless silence life might have bestowed on you in difficult times when you lost your voice. The somber lilt of the songs of prayer based on hindustani classical ragas being offered by musicians who play by caressing their classical music instruments is orchestrated to create a profound anchorage in your inner self… this is all pervading, embracing and inviting and so it succeeds in pulling in all visitors to the math inside their own inner selves.

Retreats such as these pin your own cosmic insignificance and teach you not to take yourself and your contribution to this world of productivity too seriously. We are constantly pushed to believe that time is money, therefore seize the moment and stay immersed in work, work, work …for money is essential for all of life’s satisfactions and you are worthy only if you attain this goal. This illusionary race does not allow you to talk to yourself, seek yourself and meet yourself. I often say to my trainee teachers ‘Less is More’, when they complain of having no time to “cover” the syllabus, urging them instead to ensure essential content is well understood by “uncovering the syllabus” and cut the fluff.

Belur and Dakshineshwar, where time feels so unmoored, taught me to do less, to do more.

We beat the retreat regretfully as the gates were closing and came to the Dakshineswar Kali Temple which almost didn’t look real; rather, it seems an illusionary painting! It is the best water colour illusion of a temple you can see, yet this one is tangible in stone and brick, appearing in hallowed limelight as you walk across the bridge. The math had emptied me of my spiritual energy and so here I just stayed with head bowed for lengthy minutes before strolling along the river banks. A common sight across our country is that of temple stalls which sell almost the same merchandise from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. As I write, I notice that I started this edulogue with the lady from the northern state and the monk and philosopher mentioned is immortalized in the rock temple at the southern tip!

Blessed with a keen eye that seeks out the unique, I found a few locals making pretty prayer mats out of bright silk scraps that are perhaps gathered from dress makers in the area. I had not seen asanas like these before, circular in design and attractive in color schemes and like most other services and goods in West Bengal, being sold at a shockingly low price. I gathered up a dozen paying far more than the asking price, with veneration for the painstaking handcraft.

Leaving my heart behind, the two of us dragged our aching feet off the river banks and were relieved to get into the waiting vehicle. Pulling in hours later into the heritage porch at the ultra-comfortable Tollygunge Club, I abruptly felt this is not where I belonged….

We had a late night flight back and with Vijay humming a tune we were happily, unhurriedly, packing for home sweet home – nastily realizing we had miscalculated the drive time to the airport, therefore a crazy speedy drive later, checked in, rushed into the departure lounge yet risked hurriedly grabbing melt-in-the-mouth cakes from the legendary Flury’s counter and tripped over ourselves to board. As the plane soared and the shimmering lights below diminished into darkness, the overwhelming lament was, Oh Calcutta!

The author has been engaged in the domain of school education for the past three decades. She is the co-founder of Shikshangan Education Initiatives, Pune, along with Vijay Gupta. The scope of their work includes teacher development by sharpening pedagogical skills and working with school leaders on their instructional and organizational leadership skills. She can be reached at [email protected].

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