5:30 rise. No hot water in the shower. The security guard hails me a cab. I am too large for the springy backseat so I sit with my head tilted; hitting the roof as we bounce down side streets festooned with potholes. I witness morning rituals, in full swing, along the sidewalks as we drive. Men wrapped in shawls, from the waist down, bath themselves from questionable water sources. The streets are congested with foot traffic. The driver uses his horn to clear a path through the confusion. A crow picks at the spilled intestines of a dead dog in the middle of the road. An old man pours tea for his five guests, all squatting comfortably in a circle, on his sidewalk real estate.
I get to Mother House just as Mass is letting out. Bananas, tea, and wonder bread for breakfast. Find my group. Chris, with a rather heavy British accent, has become part of our pack. Several pretty girls around the room catch my eye, and they all seem to be of Spanish or Portuguese decent. Group prayer, brief hymn, then farewell “Thank You” song for those who’s last day it is. Mary Mercy gives pep talk and focuses most of it on warning us not to encourage the beggars directly outside of Mother House. The loading-dock style doors open and we hit the busy streets.
My group is led by Louis: Retired, Canadian, Methodist. None of the cute girls who caught my eye are in my group. Walk to the bus stop and we pass the goat again. I thought someone within the purlieu of this indecency would have done something by now. When I lock eyes with the beast, it offers me a sardonic gaze. I wonder how long it has been tied to that railing? I am purposely the last to get on the bus. I want to make sure everyone else is safe. I view myself as some sort of valiant protector of the helpless volunteers; silly ego positioning itself for reward. I want someone to notice me. The bus starts rolling before I board so I catch it with a gentle stride. A child sits on his mother’s lap, staring out the window, with his chin resting on folded arms. He takes in the bustle of morning Kolkata traffic with wide eyes. The mother stares straight ahead, dejected, and seems rarely to blink. In the middle of a major intersection, 10 trucks block traffic. They look like animal control vehicles at first glimpse, but I am surprised when floods of children pour out of the trucks, all dressed in private school uniforms. Why would they block an intersection for this?
With so many distractions engulfing me, I quickly lose my bearings and am filled with a sense of panic. Fifteen minutes later I notice we pass my hotel and regain my compass. The Sisters, who are with our group, in gleaming all white habits, signal us to get off the bus. We mash our way through the crowd of people and squeeze out of the brightly colored tin box. Cross a six-lane busy road, haphazardly through traffic, and try to stay in sight of the white knights glowing amongst an ocean of soot. We walk down a questionable side street, which I would not have the courage to do alone. The Sisters see my fear and giggle.
Nrmal Hriday: Home for the dying and the destitute. The volunteers all begin the day by washing clothes in three large concrete basins; everything is always washed in stages, water always reused. I conclude the washing stations to be congested with volunteers, so I decide to head straight toward the open space community room – full of men in various states of need and sanity. A man stares deep into my eyes, smiles, then puts out his hand. I shake it, then immediately second guess my decision for fear of contracting a disease. Another man motions to me and speaks in Bengali. I sit down on the bench, smack in the middle of this morbid collection of desperate men, close my eyes, and breath in my fear. They all look to be in fairly advanced stages of suffering. They are alone, discarded by society long ago, yet given a sliver of dignity in this home, built by that tiny little Albanian woman. Many men have large bandages on their feet. Toes have obviously been amputated. Upon further inspection, I conclude amputation to be the procedure de jour in this place. One man has only four toes, yet no logical surgery marks. On his big toe is a scar, in the shape of an outie belly button, where his toenail should be.
I walk around to the different sections of the home. In the bathing area, a man cleans urine containers by frugally splashing water in them once, then dumping it out on the tile floor. He wears open toe sandals and his feet are soaked. I see a box of medical gloves and help myself to a pair. Back with the group of men, I am summoned by one of the patients; he sticks out his arm, indicating for me to massage him. A boy in his early twenties, sitting next to him, is in sad shape. A shaved head reveals many small scars, similar to the pockmarks on all the street dogs. He appears to be retarded to some degree and his lower eyelids each hold a heavy layer of mucus or puss.
I am joined by the rest of the guys from the volunteer group after they finish washing clothes. We all spend time massaging the patients and attempting remedial levels of conversation. I promptly take off my rubber medical gloves after I realize how silly I look. I feel a sense of shame for having been so afraid to touch these poor souls. I don’t understand what the men are saying to me in Bengali as I massage them but I adlib and engage as best I can. A man repeatedly gains my attention, points up to a window on the ceiling, and speaks words I cannot understand. I think he is telling me he wants to die so he can go to heaven. I tell him I question his logic, hoping he can’t understand me. Not sure if his level of suffering ends with death. I realize my philosophical bantering doesn’t hold any ground against his pain. Volunteers engage in childlike conversation with the dying and mollify through body language. One patient, Richard Martin, speaks clean English. None of the volunteers have the ability to deliver fabricated conversation authentically. They are all transparently awkward. Am I the only one here who has the ability to look someone dead in the eyes, and lie, without giving my hand away? After a while some of us are on autopilot with the massaging, so we stare off into the voids of our minds. How many life-changing epiphanies are being considered in this room right now?
I see the shy loners curled up into little balls, scattered among the corners, so I approach. Bandages seep spots of blood and puss. The shelter is segregated by sex and so too are the volunteers. From the women’s area, constant moans and waling are heard. The female volunteers must have a more difficult job than ours. A jokester among the patients walks around and grabs noses humorously, with light touch and a wide smile. His levity is welcomed by all, even among the despondent. From the infirmary, a man is rolled out in a wheelchair. He has a massive open sore on the left side of his face, almost appears to be a mutation. It looks as if he has a second set of lips on the sore, jutting out perpendicular to his mouth. He covers his face with a shawl when he notices me staring.
I speak with Louis for a moment. He has a less abrasive theory on religion, and it’s application, especially among the strict devotees that make up the majority of the group. He seems less keen, than other volunteers, on convincing me of the one great truth of Jesus– thank God. He mentions some clashes with the Sisters on his second tour in Kolkata, this being his fourth. Tea break is announced so all the volunteers huddle upstairs in a secluded area. Ashley gives great feedback to my ranting on corporate disgust. She suggests I either use my corporate skills where they can have a more positive impact, like an NGO, or be the ray of light in the dark corporate environment that I’m complaining about. Be the change. My mother has tried to share this theory with me, multiple times, but it isn’t until a complete stranger says it that I actually absorb the message.
Outside the break room, on a second story balcony, I watch the busy streets of Khaligat. On the rooftop of a neighboring building, men wave a small flag fixed to a twenty-foot shoot of bamboo. I stare intently, but can’t build even a beginning theorem to explain this activity. On the middle of the same rooftop, four tall bamboo branches stand erect with some kind of cargo net connected between them. I half expect something to be catapulted over from an adjacent rooftop. Turns out to be pigeon training. When this explanation is offered I feel a deep sense of sadness deflate me.
Lunchtime for the patients. People in Nrmal Hriday are not ungrateful like many in the soup kitchens of previous countries I visited. Here, they eat everything put on their plates, no questions asked. Rice, fish curry, and bananas. Roll the rice into little balls and use it to absorb and scoop the curry. Everyone eats with right hands only. After lunch is finished we collect the metal plates and get to work on washing. An assembly line of workers dunks and swirls dishes in different basins. Everything is washed in stages. During the scramble a sister walks by Louis, stops, and tells him he is doing something wrong. He barks back at her and sends her away. He then turns to me to ask if I had witnessed his bold stand. I nod and smile. Large cauldrons are returned to the kitchen area upstairs. Women stir huge pots and dice vegetables while squatting in a circle, already working on preparing dinner. Large woks full of sauce simmer above portable gas stoves. Why does everyone cook above mini jet engines? After cleanup is completed the volunteers help the patients to their cots for the afternoon nap, then we’re dismissed for the day.
Walking back to the bus stop and I buy a bucket to wash my clothes in. From one hundred and twenty rupees, I negotiate down to fifty. I feel accomplished and witty. Buses don’t come to a full stop unless there is a large group waiting. Otherwise, they only slow down enough for you to jog-step aboard. Yesterday, the men who hang off the edge of buses, gesticulate with intent, and yell at the crowds, puzzled me. Today I have figured it out. They are ticket sellers sharing bus routes, destinations, and other useful particulars. Originally, I wrote them off as India manic – classifying them with the taxonomy of locals who seem to continuously yell at everything and nothing.
Head to a store to buy laundry detergent. First store I try does not carry it but I am pointed to a shop on the adjacent corner. When I enter the next shop I realize there is no back wall, and this is not a customary brick and mortar infrastructure. The back of the store is wide open and leads into a huge maze; a market place bazaar as far as the eye can see. Tarps, pilfered scarps of metal, and plastic act as cover for the labyrinth. Everything I’ve seen being sold on the streets is now concentrated in a highly dense environment. T-shirts hang on a laundry line, displaying American movie catch phrases ten years past their prime. The ground demands constant attention as the concrete is often broken, and the dirt full of potholes or pools of stagnant water. Blood runs from under a stand because a goat has recently been slaughtered. A woman skins the goat with fluid strokes. People shout at me from all directions trying to hawk their goods. Vegetables on display. Cartons of milk formula and diapers everywhere. Engine parts, toiletries, jewelry, slabs of meat, woks frying, hands kneading dough, rotten fruit next to fresh fruit, and flies – swarms of flies. Every stand has an infant or two among the attendants. Women are portly, men usually frail. Multiple times I stop to ask for laundry detergent and each time I am pointed to venture further into the spectacle. When I finally do find what I’m looking for I try to bargain, but receive no flex from the proprietor. I continue to search. At the next kiosk I do not offer any resistance, deeming the soap too valuable to haggle over.
Back at my hotel to wash clothes with the newly acquired bucket and soap. In the shower I kneel down over the bucket; wash, scrub, and rinse. Then I journal for well over an hour but still don’t come close to describing half my experience. I need a therapist. Time to go back to Mother House for the Christmas play meeting. I take the bus this time on my own. Think I am noticing men and women sitting on opposite sides of the bus, with a few outliers, but I struggle to figure out the decorum.
Christmas play meeting is a stark reminder of how little I know about the events and characters associated with the holiday. When the group sings hymns, I lip sync, and mumble my way until we reach a recognizable chorus. Ba rum pa pa, pum. Sister Mary Mercy is delightful, savvy, and humorous. I ask Gus not to overcommit me for speaking roles in the play. Immediately feel like a coward. Find out my alternative to speaking roles is choir participation, so I promptly ask for more roles. A yet unidentified Spanish-speaking girl, rather cute, sits next to me. I make the crowd laugh with witty zingers multiple times. Charming Anto is working hard for attention tonight. I feel terribly lonely in this place, with these people – the kind of loneliness that religion is probably aimed at.
After the meeting I go eat next door to Mother House, and notice a table full of young people I recognize as volunteers. They offer me a seat to join them but I decline. Would rather sit alone and write, plus I know the service will be slower in the large group of ten. Once I begin writing, and hear just how loud and obnoxious they are, I am even more pleased with myself for not being associated with them in public. My ego tells me I am above them. Also, they are rather young for my taste, early twenties at best, so the conversational topics are common denominator kitsch. One girl, one particular banshee, has a shrill voice which reminds me of my first corporate sales manager. I cringe. Her voice shrieks out above the rest and my temper boils. In my mind I let loose a barrage of judgment and reprimand.
“Um like HELLO!? That’s like, Treasure Island Laguna Nigel I’m talking about,” she says in a scolding tone to her neighbor.
She reeks of privilege and her tone is pitched to make it seem as if she only asks questions. Her eyebrows always push away from her eyelids to add sassy emphasis. They used to call this “valley girl” talk, but now it has apparently become baseline for any American girl raised near a TV set. She sounds like all the reality show debutantes I have heard yammering on worthless, self-involved diatribes. When their food arrives the group recites a collective prayer before eating. At the end of the consecration, the Orange County banshee bellows out a fabricated, and overly animated, “Thank You Jesus” – purposely timed to gain her attention. Even though no one can see me, I roll my eyes and sigh.
Walk back to the bus stop and that fucking goat is still there, alone, tied to the railing. He is now chewing on the metal structure that holds his bind to slavery. I don’t blame you my friend; at this point anything is worth a shot. In that moment of communicating with a goat, I decide I need a drink to settle whatever this uneasy feeling is inside me. I am directed to the nearest merchant and it turns out to be a caged, street facing business with a large warehouse behind the protective barrier. The set-up reminds me of a casino chip-cashing window. When I return to the hotel the first floor restaurant is packed, as it has been every night since my arrival, and I realize I am staying in a rather chic establishment. It had not crossed my mind previously that I am seeing a privileged side of Kolkata.
Cigarettes and wine. Not sure why I even smoke with all this latent pollution saturating the air. I think now I am finally becoming accustomed to my surroundings. Turns out the hot water was not out this morning; I simply didn’t know I needed to flip the breaker to turn it on. People conserve energy, my spoiled American boy. I sit in my room, gulp wine, write in my journal, and let my mind freestyle. On the idea of having missed a great time, or special movement in history, I conclude the following: Mother Teresa died years ago, leaving an obvious void in the energy of her charities. But that doesn’t mean the pinnacle of her spirit has passed us. We just need to look with our hearts.