The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The friends they made, the food they hated

A glass of milk, ice creams and chocolates everyday, at anytime. Bathing in running water. Eating nutritious, healthy food. Sleeping in a soft, warm bed. These were just some of things that five young girls from various slums of the city were able to enjoy for the first time in their lives, for 40 days, on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Japan. With dazed expressions on their faces, they chorus, “It was like a dream. In fact, it was something we could never even have dreamt of.”

Singing Rabindrasangeet in Japanese, learning origami (“making paper lanterns”), eating Miso soup, cooking okonomiyaki (“it was like vegetable omelette”) and going camping, for the students of dancer Alokananda Roy, was an “unforgettable” experience. The purpose of their visit was to display their Odissi dance skills in schools and temples, from Hiroshima to Kobe. “But it was so much more, for the girls, for those who came in contact with them, and for me,” smiles Roy.

The trip was sponsored by a Japanese gentleman from Yumesaki, a supporter of Calcutta Social Project, since some of Roy’s students are from the NGO. “Our stay in his house was wonderful,” says Roy. “His little son and daughter and my girls got on like a house on fire. We couldn’t keep them apart.”

After their performances in the schools, the five girls would spend the day with the children, cooking for them, eating with them, playing with them and even attending classes with them. “We taught them to dance and they taught us to sing in their language,” says Santoshi Sen, 19. “At first it was a little irritating to hear them talk in their language as if we understood everything. And since we knew that they didn’t understand English, we couldn’t speak to them. But after a while, it just didn’t matter.” The flight to Japan, however, was no fun. She couldn’t go to the toilet, “not knowing where and how”.

For Priyanka Shaw, 20, the high point was the fact that anytime was ice-cream time. “Even at 12.30 at night, if we asked aunty (Roy) for ice cream, she would get it,” she laughs. “I also love the huge shops there that have everything and so many things I have never seen,” she smiles shyly. But her “worst experience” was eating pork and Sushi.

All five admit hating Japanese food “because it had no taste”. Saathi Guha, 15, sums up: “Joto na lok ra bhalo, toto baje khabar (The people were so nice, but the food was horrible).” In fact, the first time they cooked for some Japanese schoolchildren, “we nearly killed them, they found it so spicy”, recounts Santoshi.

Priyanka Chakraborty, 10, is nicknamed pishima, for her maturity, “which she was born with”, says Roy. She behaved “impeccably” just like the others, at all times, despite being the youngest. “The place was beautiful, so nice and clean,” she declares sagely. Bilkish Khatun, 13, however, has been punished at her south Calcutta school for an “attitude change” since her return.

“I was very proud of my girls. They were wonderful, and literally wooed the crowds. I am trying to work out a scholarship for them in schools in Japan for A-levels. Hopefully, this is just the beginning for them,” adds Roy.

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