It is difficult to describe my first week and a half here in Kolkata, as it has been nothing that I could ever have expected. My best description of Kolkata is sensory overload—but in a completely exciting way! Of course it is hot and humid here, as everyone told me it would be, but there are also the sounds of the constant bustling traffic, and the smells of countless street food vendors, and the sight of millions of other people navigating their way around Kolkata along with us. While all of my senses have been adjusting, some of the most interesting and enlightening experiences I have had so far are visiting different Anudip and iMerit centers throughout West Bengal.
We first visited Metiabruz last Friday. Metiabruz is a periurban, predominantly Muslim village about an hour and a half away from where we live. The premise of this center is that the Muslim women are restricted from traveling far from their homes, so Anudip and iMerit brought the resources to them to be able to train and work in IT. It took two autorickshaws and a packed, bumpy bus ride to get there—quite a journey! We walked to the building, which contains the Anudip center on the top floor and the iMerit center on the floor below. Walking in, I saw a small room that was completely full of young women hard at work on their computers. It was humbling to see how intensely they worked in such a small and relatively (to US classrooms and workplaces) simple and low-tech environment with few resources. What was even more humbling was talking to these girls, many of whom were the same age as me, and hearing them talk both about their work and their lives outside of work. As different as our homes and backgrounds are to theirs, we have a lot in common—they were very giggly, loved talking to us about Indian clothes and traditions, and were so smart and passionate about their work. In fact, compared to some of the classrooms and workplaces I have experienced in the US, I would say they are even more passionate, which is very telling of the organization.
Upstairs was the Anudip center, where younger girls receive training in English, IT skills, and workplace readiness. That day, they were having an English lesson. While I thought the iMerit office was simple, this room was completely barren, except for a blanket on the floor where the girls sit and a few chairs. They are actually undergoing renovation, so it will be a more formal classroom eventually, but it was still amazing to see them eager to learn without even having a table to sit at. Hallie and Suzie, two fellows from different programs, began conducting mock iMerit interviews to help them practice their English. I sat in on a couple, and then began conducting my own—many of the girls were nervous to speak English with us, but I was also nervous to ask them interview questions! There was quite a range of skill level, as some of them answered questions confidently, while others would smile shyly at me when they didn’t know what I said or how to respond. It was a mutual feeling, as I don’t know their language either, so I would just smile back at them when I couldn’t translate my questions. After the interviews, Phil, Lauren, and I sat down with them and just talked informally, which we were all much more comfortable with. These girls too were happy and full of laughter, and fascinated by our lives in California just as we were by theirs in Metiabruz.
We visited a couple of other Anudip centers earlier this week which were at very early stages of development and also very eye-opening. However, I felt a certain energy and positivity from the Metiabruz women that I have never before experienced. I am so excited to be able to return next week and work there on a regular basis. It is incredibly special for me to work in such an empowering and female-focused place!