By: Frin Masters
What does community mean in Kolkata? What does it mean anywhere?
We frequently speak of its importance, but do we really understand it? I know I don’t. My current questions are predominantly focused on the interplay between family and community. Is family the ultimate community that takes priority? Should the wider community function as family? Can you be part of more than one community or is an exclusive commitment required? I apologize, but this blog is an exploration, the start of a journey toward answers. Assuming of course, that answers are even possible…
Community is often defined as ‘a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common’. The stereotypical family falls neatly within this framework. Parents and children living in the same home, extended family in the nearby vicinity, and all instantly connected through genetics or marriage. The idyllic family community that supersedes all other communities and is intrinsically exclusive. At times the family community may choose to be inclusive and invite outsiders in, but they will never have a permanent home here. As soon as the core family demands attention, the invited outsiders find their invitation revoked. For outsiders who are able to return to their own idyllic family, this works perfectly.
But what about those to whom genetics or circumstance has not been so kind? What about the orphan, the adopted, the abused, the bereaved… Do these people simply have to accept that they will never be permitted to experience the ‘ultimate’ family community? That they will be denied unconditional acceptance and will never be at the top of someone’s ‘most valued and important people list?
For these people, the non-genetic community is the only place of belonging. For them, community is family. The difficulty arises when people who have a strong genetic family community, seek to integrate with the wider community who have formed a non-genetic family. How can these co-exist? Can you fully commit to the wider community when you will abandon them as soon as the ‘real’ family call? The wider community will be damaged because they are hearing the message that your love will always be greater for another, that your tears will fall harder for another. The unintentional communication is that ‘you are second best’.
I return to my earlier question, does the person without genetic family have to resign themselves to a position of less value and accept that rejection is inevitable? It doesn’t seem acceptable to me.
In Kolkata, I find myself amidst a new community. We are not related by blood or marriage and are not linked by characteristics. Culture, religion, language, socioeconomic standing nor age can provide common ground. Can this work? Where is our commonality? I am starting to think that healthy community must be formed on shared values rather than superficial characteristics, and by choice rather than convenience or coincidence.
This week, a woman who was instrumental in forming the community in which I have chosen to exist, died. No-one needed to phone me, for the news spread through the community and I was told by a stranger in the streets of Sonagacchi. I was in the middle of another task, but changed my plans and came to meet with others gathering at the factory building.
I did not know this lady personally, so was not experiencing personal grief. Initially, I considered leaving and taking the opportunity to catch up with the huge workload waiting for me. But then that disruptive little voice piped up, reminding me about all the questions and uncertainty I have concerning community. Challenging me to be willing to give the acceptance and love that I so deeply long to receive. If I am not willing to offer comfort, why should I expect to be comforted? Are my needs greater than the needs of another? What message would I communicate if I left the community to send a few emails? Community is not convenient, it requires sacrifice and commitment.
So I stayed with my community. For 7 hours. Remaining present to honour the last journey of a woman who was so loved. It was not my grief, but my community was grieving. It was our grief – our common ground. I offered comfort and received acceptance and inclusion. The community remained and removed the possibility of someone having to face their pain alone.
So, community in Kolkata… For me, it forces me to challenge preconceptions of family and the practice of separating family from community. I believe that effective community needs to be based on values such as love and acceptance rather than geography, existing relationships or any other simplistic characteristic, for human connection is formed at a far deeper level. Community requires intentional commitment and a willingness to sacrifice ‘self’ to give honour to others. It raises the question to me that perhaps we can only ever experience the fullness of others when we are willing to give the fullness of ourselves?