Expat Voice: Brewing Happiness in City of Joy
I can read and write Bengali, says Grant Walsh while talking about having lived in Kolkata for over five years.
“Bhalo. Tai na (Good. Isn’t it)?,” he asks. “I am not fluent and don’t understand the meaning of complex words. But I can recognize them and read them too,” he adds.
Passionate about coffee and “American cafes”, Grant moved to India from the United States to establish a brand that would be known for the beverage across India.
“I explored Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru but they already had good establishments,” the 39-year-old bodybuilder tells Little India. “Kolkata did not have any, so I chose to build 8th Day Cafe and Bakery here.”
Grant tells us about finding happiness with his wife and two sons in the City of Joy:
Sights and Sounds
One of the first things I noticed about Kolkata were the different sights and sounds, the chaos, the non-stop honking by drivers… American life is very private. But here, all of life happens on the streets in public.
Durga Puja is unique. Ahead of the festival, I suddenly saw temporary structures going up on roads and in parks. Every nook and corner had a pandal. The celebratory nature of the people with all the drumming, singing and the lights was overwhelming.
Taking the Durga or Kali idols for immersion into the Ganga was an amazing experience. My whole life changed during those first few weeks.
During Diwali, I felt like I was in a war-zone. There was non-stop bursting of fire crackers throughout the night. It was insane.
8th Day of the Week
The cafe’s name — 8th Day — is a play on the idea that the 8th day of a week is a separate day meant for how you wish to spend it.
The cafe also gave me the opportunity to meet new people and form some great friendships. We are now friends with the vendors, and also get invited to trade shows and festivals across the city.
We host Arcadia sessions at the cafe every month — usually on the last Friday — when we either bring an Indian artiste to perform, or host an Open Mic Night where people express themselves in whichever way they like. We also display the works of different artists on the walls every six weeks to help them get exposure and a chance to sell their artwork.
Bureaucracy and Paperwork
I started building the cafe in September 2014 without having any idea about the ramifications of the Puja season on labor. Nobody was willing to work because of back-to-back Durga Puja and Diwali festivals.
I come from Arizona where I can set up a company in two days online if I want. When I moved here, I didn’t realize it would be such a hard task.
The level of bureaucracy and paperwork that needs to be done here is long. The lack of transparency and communication irritated me the most.
Whenever I asked the concerned people how long the paperwork would take, they would tell me that it would get done soon. If they had been honest to say that it would take nearly two months, I wouldn’t have gone through so much stress.
Who Eats at 10 pm?
When I go to the homes of my Indian friends, I see them eating at 10-11 pm or maybe later. I’m usually asleep for two hours by then. In the United States, we eat by 6 pm.
Seeing people eat with their hands felt weird. My friends here give us cutlery. But now, I have tried it myself and also learnt to appreciate it.
Bengali food has become one of my favorite foods ever. The Chinese cuisine is interesting. I used to eat a lot of street food -– egg rolls, puchkas and momos — during the first couple of years of my stay. I would choose street food over anything even today. But I had to stop eating it because I couldn’t stay healthy.
People here are a lot more satisfied with their lives unlike the American people, who are more focused on climbing up the corporate ladder. I think people here don’t feel the need to do so because that would mean compromising on the time they spend with family and friends.
It’s been a time of learning for me in this city. When it came to doing business here, I had to be humble and not assume that I know how to do things just because I knew how to do them in the U.S. I allowed the country to have an impact on me and teach me.
My son is culturally more Indian than an American because he has spent his formative years in Kolkata. I myself feel like I am both Indian and American now.
Bonding Among Communities
The most beautiful thing about the people here is that they have a deep understanding of relationships. The genuine care that they have for each other has been my biggest takeaway from India.
When we first moved to Kolkata, we stayed at Salt Lake for a year. My son had parked his bike out on the porch. But it was gone in the morning. We thought maybe someone stole it.
But we found it parked in the afternoon. The child who took it rode it back to the house. “You left it here,” the child said when we asked him. I got confused and asked some Indian friends about it. They said it’s a community and we should share everything among each other. The child just wanted to use the bike for a while so he took it for a ride.
In our neighborhood, when somebody gets sick, everyone rallies around to extend help.
I see three generations living together under one roof.
It is such a beautiful picture of humanity that I hope I will take back with me if I ever move back to the United States.
The interview has been condensed and edited.
Expat Voice is regular column on expats in India. Email us at email@example.com to nominate yourself or another expat for the column.