Getting to know the neighborhood

“Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.” 
― Franz Kafka

As Promit led us around the corner to the stretch of tents along the sidewalk, a wave of anxiety washed over me and settled as a pit in the bottom of my stomach. My mouth went dry, hands unsteady as I began to turn the video camera on, slowly raising the lens up to begin recording. As I attempted to calm myself, a fleet of thoughts raced through my head.


“Will they let me videotape?”

“What if they get angry?”

“What if the police make us stop?”

And, worst of all, “What if they think I’m making a spectacle of them?”


This was the second day of work for Claire and I as interns for the Association for Social and Environmental Development. ASED, as we describe here, is a non-profit organization that promotes biodiversity and nature conservation through youth empowerment and education. The first day on the job we met with Diti, who spoke with us for over an hour about her goals and objectives for our time here, trying our best to get as accurate an idea as possible of her and ASED’s mission. We came away from that meeting with a hefty assignment list for these next five weeks. At the end of our stay, we plan to have filmed, edited, and finalized three short videos promoting ASED programs. One video would be for the Solar Lamps program, one for Green Rhinos, and a third, at our urging, of the general environmental concerns occurring in Kolkata and what is being done to combat them. Individually, Claire is also looking to research the Kolkata government and how sustainable development is being implemented into city planning. I will be looking further into the solar technology being used in the solar lights program, with the intent to contact the solar department back at school about possible recommendations about improving or changing the technology currently being used.

Diti also let us know that we would be traveling to the Sundarbans next week for four days to begin gathering footage to be used in all three of those videos. That gave us merely one week to learn the complete ins and outs (as best we could) of being a documentarian. From timelapse shots to lighting to interviewing to editing to not making my footage a shaky mess (God help me), Claire and I have been nonstop researching and seeking advice on all fronts to prepare ourselves as best we can for the Sundarbans adventure. For those of you who don’t know, since I didn’t until a couple weeks ago, the Sundarbans National Park is a UNESCO world heritage site on the bordering lands of India and Bangladesh. It is both a tiger preserve and biosphere preserve, home to the endangered Bengal tiger and “the largest single block of tidal halophytic mangrove forest in the world” per it’s UNESCO page. Since the park also happens to be a meeting site for salt and freshwater, beasts of both realms exist throughout, as in sharks and crocodiles and sea snakes Oh my!  Needless to say, we’re more than a little nervous about making the journey. 

The reason for our travel to the Sundarbans is that on the outskirts of the park are villages of people that make their living from the surrounding wildlife. The children in these villages attend school, but have difficulty studying at night because of the lack of electricity in that area. Their only choice is to use expensive kerosene lamps that give off poor light and cut into their family’s already minimal income, or to not study at all. Thankfully, ASED is working to solve this issue through the solar lights distribution program. This program has distributed over 700 lamps to families in need throughout the Sundarban villages, as well as outfitted a girl’s school with solar light technology. Our job as ASED interns will be to travel to the Sundarbans to take footage of the area, as well as undergo a series of interviews of children affected by the solar lamps distribution.

So here we were, on our second day of work, being led out to the sidewalk by Diti’s son, Promit, to test out the video and camera equipment in preparation for our trip to the Sundarbans. To practice shooting, and to get footage for our video about life and the environment in Kolkata, we decided to visit the line of tents covering the sidewalk around the corner from the office. These sidewalks are home to Kolkata’s poor, where they have set up tarps and blankets which we walked past our very first day, unaware that people were living and sleeping on the concrete next to us. Claire and I were hesitant, not wanting to violate the privacy of the people inhabiting the space. For these people the sidewalk was everything, from earning a living to preparing meals to giving birth and everything in between. As we began to film, the people whose lives we were attempting to capture looked up, making eye contact through the lens. I held my breath as one of the men walked over to me. While his English was poor, I got the jist of his concerns, wanting to know what we were doing. My words were awkward and jumbled, with small snippets like university students and making video and wanting to help coming through to try and convey my message. Eventually, he smiled, and pulled his son over, then pointed at the camera. It took me a second, but then I realized he wanted me to film him. I began to record him, as children and parents all down the road started flooding out into the street, coming over to Claire and I with brimming curiosity painted on their faces. The small children began leaping to the front of Claire’s camera, posing and giggling with delight as she began to take pictures, then bringing the camera down to show them their images.

Claire india pic

claire still

As I tried my best to get it all on film, an elderly woman approached me with a baby in arms, starting to speak about their life and how they came to live on the sidewalk. Promit assisted by translating her story, talking of how their family used to live in the slums behind the wall of this sidewalk before getting evicted last year. To make money for her family, the woman sorts through trash on the daily separating out paper to sell back. One of the men next to her is a rickshaw driver, and together they provide most of the earnings for the dozen or so people living in these tents. When asked about life during the summer months when the monsoon rains occur, she said that whenever the rains come and flood the sidewalk, they have no place to sleep as well as no means of bringing in income, since the paper they sort and turn in for recycling gets soggy, leaving no choice but to go hungry for days until the roads dry up again.

Amidst the heartbreak of their situation, one would think that it would be impossible to still experience the positive aspects of life, such as hope and joy and love. But looking out at the children, playfully pulling Claire and me by the hand to show us their home, their pets (one boy pulled me over to film him riding his goat!), and their overall livelihood, the happiness that emanated from their play was infectious, causing us to laugh and smile right along with them. Through them we were able to seek out the beauty present within their lives, the hope and potential for a better life that always stems from the boundless possibilities of youth. We learned that there was a program in Kolkata that sends teachers to these regions, educating the children in everything from English to Bengali to sums in an effort to empower them through knowledge. Even as we were filming a teacher stepped off a bus and walked over to the sidewalk, gathering all of the children for their daily lesson. While there’s still a long way to go in improving the lives of these sidewalk citizens, it’s comforting to know that there are people out there attempting to reach out and assist in bettering their situation.

The teacher gathering her students for class that day

In one day, from talking to Promit and speaking to these people, I learned more about Indian culture than I ever thought I would through this entire summer. While still moderately nervous about staying in the Sundarbans, I relish the opportunity to interview these students impacted by the solar light distribution and the Green Rhinos program, as well as explore one of the most beautiful and well-preserved biospheres in the world.

Thanks for reading! Happy Friday!


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6 Responses to Getting to know the neighborhood

  1. Maddy Renalds says:

    Jess this is so exciting! I loved reading about what you’re doing. If you need any help with the video editing process, hit your girl up.) XO

  2. Noreen Golden says:

    Hi Claire & Jess!
    Michelle has added your blog to our ESS website. (

    Keep up the fabulous work…we are so proud of you!


    • Thank you Noreen!
      We really appreciate it, and we’re happy to see people are curious to about what we’re up to in Incredible India. Thanks for helping us spread the news of ASED’s work!

  3. Rukmini says:

    What an inspiring read! (Slightly ashamed to say)despite growing up in Calcutta , I learnt more about the Sundarbans from your travels. Keep up the good work.

  4. Jaime King says:

    You guys rock! This is an amazing account of your work. Impressive! Thanks for sharing.

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