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Crowds, Chaos and a Railway Riot in Calcutta

“It is possible to grow up and mature in a culture with little or no knowledge of the basic laws that make it work and differentiate it from all other cultures.” – Dr. Edward Hall

At a presentation I gave to the International Business Women’s Network, I handed out a series of photos of my travels in Asia and asked the group to consider this question: Did these photos represent “culture?” In the pictures the participants saw exotic clothing, beautiful architecture, strange food, musical instruments and the faces of Thai, Nepali and Indian people. The women in the group agreed that many of the key elements of culture appeared in these glossy photographs. I believed that too – until the day I arrived in Calcutta, India.

On my first day in the world’s largest democracy, a festival had brought all of Calcutta’s ten million into the streets. Lights and fake blood covered the heads of goddesses inside a carnival display hall. A man all in white served me tea. I tried to keep up with my traveling companions, narrowly missing death a thousand times as cars wove in and out of useless traffic lanes. The streets swallowed me whole, and many arms swarmed around my face. I could not tell if they belonged to the gods or the people. Children were begging me for milk and money; I was begging to get out of the city.

Two days later my German friend Anke and I headed toward the Howrah railway station looking for a train to Bodhgaya. When we arrived, I spun around in slow motion. The station consisted of total chaos divided into two floors, one for ticket purchases and one for waiting. People filled them both – sitting, standing, eating, cleaning their ears, nursing children, sweeping, talking and passing the time waiting for the trains. Vendors stood selling nuts, raisins, bananas, dried chickpeas, sweets and sodas. We had six hours to wait.

As night came, we fell into conversation. Time flew by, and we had no notion of the little world around us. All of a sudden, I noticed the women, their bright clothes and dark skin, their half-naked children. Everyone’s eyes bored into us. Being constantly stared at was unnerving, and staring back had always been taken as a cue to pay us more attention. I twisted and turned in discomfort, glad not to be alone.

Leaning on our packs, we had taken to reading when an old man dressed in rags and a turban approached us with an outstretched hand. I wondered if I could keep my resolve not to give money to beggars. I had read the guidebooks and knew of the consequences, but this man looked desperate – dusty, wrinkled and way too thin. A torn and yellow bandage hung around his foot; I could only imagine what festered under it. I looked at the shredded gauze, then at my pack, and an idea crept into my head – I could patch him up.

I busied my hands inside my medical kit, proud to be taking some action. I slipped latex gloves on with care and began to unwrap the bandage. Anke, my friend, nodded her approval and said, “This is good.”

I surveyed the damage: a dried-up, gaping hole in the underside of the heel. Well, I was no doctor, but in order to give the impression that I could help him, I took out the materials to create a patch-up job: alcohol, antibiotic ointment, a fresh wrapping and tape. An Indian man next to me said it looked like leprosy.

I had no choice but to nod my head in empathetic agreement. “We just have to do the best we can,” I told him.

When I finished up, the patient smiled and nodded, his eyes shining. I removed the gloves to begin packing up and at last looked up from my little bubble. My eyes grew wide, and I am sure I turned pale. The entire population of the train station hovered around me, bent over, staring. My friend and I, shocked, shrank on our concrete stage. I joined the crowd in laughing and twittering, my voice shaking with tension. The newly recovering “leper” looked with love at his new wrapping, but this reverie did not last. All of a sudden, a man came up behind him and began shouting in Hindi.

“What’s he saying?” I cried. Another man stepped forward to translate for me.

“He’s saying ‘Why are you begging from these people? You are nothing but a no good beggar! You are worthless!’ He is very angry.” This was not good.

A woman who had been sitting behind us jumped up and without hesitation began punching the shouting man in the chest, screaming Hindi obscenities between beatings. I gathered from this show of loyalty that my patient was her husband. She did not take kindly to him being called “worthless.” Before my eyes a fistfight broke out between the irate man and the tiny woman. My friend and I looked at each other in horror, and then turned back to the next scene in this terrible movie.

A hero then came to the rescue, a tall Indian man. Attempting to stop the angry insulter from hitting the beggar’s wife, he put his arms between them. The woman stepped aside and the two men began fighting! Determined to continue defending her husband, the woman tried to rejoin the debacle. Rousing from my state of shock, I jumped in to try and pacify her.

“It’s all right,” I said. “Sit down.”

A group of bystanders came to haul the fighters outside to continue their brawl. Arms and fists flew everywhere as the crowd shouted and screamed. As Anke and I whispered our distress, a towering, well-dressed man approached us. He spoke fluent English, but we cowered under his voice.

“You should not do these things,” he said in a firm, concerned tone. “If something goes wrong, it will come back to you. Then what will you do? You do not know my people. If this man wanted help, there are free clinics he can go to. You do not know how things work here. Do you understand?”

We looked up at him in humility and nodded vigorously to convey that he had made himself perfectly clear. His voice softened somewhat after he looked down on our pathetic faces. He explained that he wanted nothing from us. We were his sisters and he just wanted to help. We thanked him, and he faded into the crowd.

Trudging like refugees, we searched for a corner where no one knew who we were, where no one could identify us with the idiots who tried to play doctor to the “poor, unfortunate Indian.” Children harassed and picked at us, but we were so relieved to have the incident behind us, we just stared past them into space. Anke and I didn’t say much, but when the train finally came to whisk us away, the land moved underneath the rails and exhaustion set in. I had to smile thinking about what spectacles we had made of ourselves – and I was mainly responsible. The time had come to reflect as the train rolled on into darkness.

I knew without a doubt that I had made a mistake. This riot did not even come close to my original intentions – but I also knew that good intentions do not always have bearing on an encounter between cultures. I had failed to look beyond my own desire to help the needy and into the specifics of cultural context. I had responded to an impulsive feeling when presented with this situation. A man was hurt – I had the tools to help him. In hindsight, I realized the price of action without knowledge. My brief time in India had only allowed me to observe the most overt signals of the society, not knowing that buried underneath were layers upon layers of complexity.

I had presented a terrible picture that day in the Howrah station: the Western hero saving the Indian man who could not care for himself. In front of hundreds of people, I interfered with the Indian system.

Was I being too hard on myself? Not at all – I learned to think before acting and to question my motivations. Do I really have the tools to help someone from a culture with a foundation so different from my own? Am I contributing to the already growing problem of perceived Western superiority? Those kinds of questions were only answered through experience and time, but that day in Calcutta was the day my cross-cultural studies began in earnest.

The train rolled on leaving Calcutta far behind. Having secured the top bunk, I climbed up and lay on my back, nose almost touching the ceiling. I threw my legs over my pack and achieved as fine a level of comfort as anywhere. My eyes closed, and images of witch doctors and trains derailing drifted through my mind. I fell asleep dreaming of the city where I caused a riot and of all the miracles of India.

Vicki Flier

Vicki Flier is the USA-born founder/president of Highroad Presentations. She provides customized, real-world training programs in intercultural communication: