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Halima’s school: a love story from the streets of Calcutta

Updated: Feb 6, 2021

In 2018, I experienced my first time in Asia. As I was slowly acculturating, getting used to the customs, the people, the food, the pollution, and all the teeming environment, I enjoyed walking on my own through the crazy magic streets of the city with nothing more than my camera. Kolkata or Calcutta, city of joy (as called by the Swiss writer Dominique Lapierre) is the capital of West Bengal, the eastern state of India. Bordering Bangladesh, this humid region is an exhibition of life, colors, tastes, culture, and humans, with over 91 million inhabitants. Incredible and rumbling town Making your way through the crowded streets, filled with thousands of shops, people, cars, scooters, motorbikes, cycles, and animals is not always an easy game. Every tiny place of space is used and filled with someone or something. Looking for beauty, how to make your way through this incredibly rumbling town? In complete opposition to our conception of public spaces, here, life is everywhere, all the time. All the space is used for something and the streets are living places, where people wash, make their businesses, go to school, live, laugh, cry and even die. Streets are to this city, like blood veins to the human body. Wondering around, leaving my simple lodge, I think about the millions of stories playing out before my eyes and my camera lens. Children running around, sleepy grandfathers taking a nap on the pavement; thousands of smells are enchanting my nose. At a crossroads, I can hear hundreds of horns honking simultaneously. I remember a German woman volunteering at Mother Theresa's houses going to work every morning wearing earplugs…at 6:30 a.m. In the middle of this organized chaos, there are indeed many strict and clear rules. Rules of life. As time goes by, any curious traveler will understand some of them.

She had soft eyes The more I strolled around and opened myself to Calcutta, the more I started to get involved in my walks around the city. Sometimes helped by friends, sometimes not, I began to see love, silence, and kindness everywhere. One busy afternoon, as I was walking around taking pictures in the Muslim neighborhood of Janbazar, I got a little lost through the dirty streets. I finally found myself in Abdul Halim Lane, a small and tiny road. There, next to the small residential buildings, a large clay park circled with high wire mesh barriers, protecting the houses from wild cricket games. As I approached the entrance of the field, looking at the environment surrounding me, I noticed a small and dirty house on the side of the road. It was closed by a big metallic door but I could see the roof inside the block. A dirty old fan was turning like mad, making all the pollution dust fly inside the room. I got closer and started to hear children's screams and laughs. Suddenly, a voice called to me: "Sir, Sir, come in!". The door opened. Inside, around thirty children were working and doing their homework under the eyes of a tall and kind teacher. She had soft eyes, a clear and soothing voice, and a colored veil covered her long hair. Here, we call these large pieces of fabric Saris. Her name is Halima; she is now a good friend of mine. Halima has a particularly beautiful message of love, education sharing, and woman power, which is rare in the poor areas of India, where patriarchy usually rules everything. In the daytime, from 9.00 am to 3.00 pm, she works in a bank. Every day after work, from Monday to Friday, she comes to this building that she rents and gives free class and tutoring to poor children of her neighborhood for three hours. Outside the class, honks, engine noises, and pollution, spits, barking dogs: Kolkata, living and shouting its life. Inside, a strictly ruled world where children are concentrated and quiet, even if my presence got things a little more complicated as they were curious of this strange white visitor.

A climate of fear This was in February 2020, a long time ago. Since then a lot of things have happened in India and Kolkata. With covid-19, the economic and health environments got bad. As prime minister Narendra Modi decided a strict lockdown, millions of poor workers were abandoned on the streets with no trains to make their way home. Today, the virus recedes and the economy is slowly restarting. However, geopolitical tensions with China and Pakistan are fueling a climate of permanent nationalist tension. In addition to this, divisions between Muslim and Hindu communities are rising as the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party or Hindu Nationalist Party) of Narendra Modi is spreading deliberately a climate of fear between the two communities, encouraging violence between citizens. Moreover, as if it wasn't enough, the rejection of the reform liberalizing the agricultural market is leading to monster blockades and demonstrations organized by tired peasants. Ignoring these claims, the government responds with violent crackdowns against the protesters and the media. Célestin de Séguier To see more of my pictures from India, you can visit my Website or my Instagram page:


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