Shalmoli Halder ‘15: Calcutta, India
by Aaron Gertler
If residential colleges were nations, I’d nominate Silliman for India status based on water shortages alone. At least the turkey meatloaf is pleasantly moist as I sit down with Shalmoli for the first-ever installment of my new blog, The Vicarious Globetrotter.
And I should expand upon the words “new blog” for a moment. I am from Wilmington, Delaware, and though I wasn’t born there, I remember life in no other city. Wilmington is a bit like New Haven with less Yale and more corporate headquarters; a pleasant, safe, suburban existence (though my house was a few blocks away from some of America’s more dangerous neighborhoods). I didn’t leave the country until 8th grade and I still haven’t set foot on four continents (does Antarctica count? Yes, yes it does). In the interest of expanding my international knowledge beyond the pages of the Atlantic and Foreign Affairs, I’ve decided to tap one of Yale’s least-appreciated resources: international students, who collectively know more about the splendor and shortcomings of the globe at large than just about any group of people anywhere outside the UN.
This, then, is the first interview/two-way conversation/article-plus-live-context. I’ll quote and paraphrase my subjects while offering commentary and research of my own. I’m making this up as a go along, so I’m not sure what you’re about to read, either. But I hope reading it will be a pleasure, since I plan to keep this going for a while.
Shalmoli, in Indian-type clothing that might or might not be a sari, sits down with a plate of vegetables. I inquire as to her state of being: “This has been a very Yale day.” What does she mean? “Some good, some bad, but just a lot of things… also, the weather.”
Calcutta rain is different. There is no drizzle, no New Haven start/stop/start-again. Just dry—and monsoon. “They come at the time you need them most,” Shalmoli explains. “There’s this very expectant, romantic thing attached to rain.” Shalmoli explains the chills you get when your skies begin to burst at the seams, when darkness falls in the middle of the day: “It’s a completely different atmosphere.” Then again, Shalmoli still hasn’t seen a real New Haven winter after last year’s 40-degree January…
But then, New Haven has always been full of surprises for her. One of the few Calcuttans to take a serious shot at American schools, Shalmoli applied on a lark. When did she start thinking about Yale? “Oh, June of my senior year.” Relying on American college forums, she forced her teachers to figure out computers, that they might type recommendations; they told her to stop being silly and study for AISSCE exams (mandatory for all Indian seniors, and the main factor determining one’s Indian college admission). Shalmoli didn’t listen, though—not surprising, given that she was Calcutta’s top scorer (metro population: 4,500,000) on the tenth-grade version of said exams. So you’re a genius? “Oh, no, no, no, other people are a thousand times smarter.”
Shalmoli’s edge, then, seems to be her well-rounded background. Her father is a physicist and her mother a professor of comparative literature; she herself plans to major in physics, but still helps run the literary magazine she founded in high school. The magazine, which focuses on translated and original works in the Bengali language, is emblematic of Calcutta itself. “Growing up in Calcutta, one gets an appreciation for all kinds of knowledge,” she tells me. Especially prominent is the figure of the “Bengali intellectual”—a group of artistes found at any classy party, who discuss classical Indian literature as easy as they do Godard and Fellini. I’m always looking for something to read; I ask Shalmoli what books unified her classmates in appreciation. She pauses.
What? Can’t think of anything?
“Well… Harry Potter. That was all we would talk about in middle school, whenever a book came out—everything else would just stop.” She smiles at the memory, but the fact that a British woman’s global hit made it big in Calcutta hints at a more dangerous fact: Bengali culture, and that of the rest of India, can’t hold out against creeping Westernization. Shalmoli thinks this is largely due to the economic lure of the west. “Most of our students, after school, are simply looking to go away. And unless we can stop that outflux, how can we expect people to go back to their own culture?”
Despite her choice of major, Shalmoli seems a classicist at heart—speaking, perhaps, in the ancient voice of the city she loves. “I feel estranged from people who don’t identify with their heritage, their Indian values,” she tells me. I wonder if Western culture has brought with it other forms of advancement, much as the British invasion gave India railroads and a kind of central government (Shalmoli speaks fondly of the buildings England left behind). But she takes a grim view of the present: “I think [Calcutta] is going down the drain”, as intellectuals leave and the city government flounders.
Not that she hasn’t tried to change things. For 35 years, Calcutta held the world’s longest-running Communist sub-government of a democratic state; when popular unrest finally erupted, Shalmoli joined a silent theater troupe and pantomimed in the streets. Finally, elections toppled the party and brought Mamata Banerjee to power as Chief Minister of West Bengal (the region which holds Calcutta). But Shalmoli isn’t a fan of Mamata, referencing a series of scandals: her claim (proven false) to hold a doctorate from East Georgia University, her arrest of a professor who circulated a cartoon attacking her, her general “craziness” (“she wanted to paint the whole city blue and white, to demonstrate unity”—later research confirmed this to be true).
But in spite of everything—her classmates’ and parents’ disappointment in her choice to leave for America, the government’s chaotic nature, the difficulty of reviving her favorite culture—Shalmoli wants to return after graduation. Her math skills might help her develop the city, and she’ll still have Durga Puja—five days of nonstop celebration to honor the Hindu goddess Durga—to enjoy. One returns home, she says, only to shower or change one’s clothes. What about sleep? “What sleep? You completely forget about sleep!” It’s not like the Yale parties she shies away from; no one drinks and few dance. Instead, it’s five days of public art, incredible food, conversation with friends and strangers alike—the spirit of Old Calcutta alive and well.
Before that return, though, she wants to see more of America—outside of Yale and her summer in Los Angeles, she hasn’t gotten out much. “The Midwest! There’s so much I haven’t seen… and the South, with the culture there that I’ve heard about…” She laughs. And I realize, again, that whatever you’ve seen and done, some part of the world will always be foreign to you, a total shock waiting to happen. As the Vicarious Globetrotter, I will open myself up to these shocks, in hopes of conducting some of this foreign energy in the direction of you, the reader. Whether or not you’re feeling it, do let me know what you think.
What’s the best Indian restaurant in New Haven?
“Thali. Not Thali Too! The original! No one knows about it!”
Aaron Gertler is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at email@example.com.