I wake up with only a mild panic associated to my choices in life. Streets are unnervingly quiet at 10 past 6 in the morning. Nowhere else have I witnessed a greater juxtaposition of decibels. A couple cars pass lazily down the street. I wait a few minutes then become nervous – what if the buses don’t begin running at 6 like Rozario told me? I build up a frenzy inside me. But the longer I’ve been away from home, and the more times I’ve been lost while traveling, the more easily I remember to surrender. Let it go. If the bus doesn’t come, then the bus doesn’t come. I can solve the problem, should it arise, and the universe will always provide a clue. As soon as I resolve to let go, I see the bus turn the corner. I look to the sky and grin; You silly trickster You. Buses drive slower in the morning and actually come to a full stop to let me onboard.
The same woman gets onboard, with her toddler son, whom I saw yesterday going in the opposite direction. I wonder where they are going? I assume the answer to be grim. Incense burns next to the driver on a small, makeshift, Hindu shrine dedicated to a deity I do not recognize. Many incense sticks have been burned there. Outside, on the streets, the morning process is barely beginning. Rows of cots line the sidewalks where the homeless still sleep; mounds of blankets in the most unlikely places. A new genus of ape settles to the hard concrete. This bus ride takes less than ten minutes to reach Mother House – in traffic it is over thirty and I can walk the distance in forty-five. My bearings now feel solid as I can recognize landmarks and major streets more easily. Off the bus at the right exit this time. I expect to see my old friend, The Goat, but not so. Perhaps he is a bit farther down the block? Or maybe he managed to chew his way through the metal railing? I hope it was a grand escape.
I wait in the courtyard of Mother House for mass to finish in the second floor church. I hear the morbid sound of aggregate Catholic prayer echoing off the walls. I wish I didn’t have such an over-developed gag reflex when it comes to Catholic protocol. Mass lets out and the courtyard fills with energy and smiles. Inside the meeting hall I have breakfast with my crew. Meet Maria from Mexico City and hear another story about an unavoidable feeling that pushed for change in life: A higher calling. This is the thread I am most inspired by, this is what I want to explore. What led them to change? What happened in the darkness? And why did they choose something as banal as religion to fill the void left by the greatest question of our species: What are we doing here? Although I judge their ethos and summarize their lives far too pompously, I cannot help but give them credit for their willingness to try. Maria worked in the marketing department for the parent company of Prozac and left her job. I ask about her views on the drug and she gives a balanced answer. It is apparent however, that she has faith in a different anti-depressant; a man who died two thousand years ago. On an unrelated tangent, I am madly in love with the female Spanish accent.
I realize how special this place is. We are all in the monumental process of humbling and, to varying degrees, we are on the path toward something greater than ourselves. The doors roll up and we see Ashley holding the sign for our group to gather around. Given my obvious height advantage, Ashley gives me the sign and I become the beacon. I hope this to be a metaphor for my life to come. March to the bus stop and who do I see again, but my old friend The Goat. Just when I thought someone in this downtrodden city had actually managed to escape; I am reminded of the leaden malaise of poverty.
On the bus Kyle, from Thousand Oaks, sits next to me and we swap stories. He has the tone and gaze of a Jesus devotee; the kind I don’t like – unnatural and forced, glib and pre-recorded. However, he is kind and I value his friendship. Walking down the alley in Khalighat and somehow I have become the vanguard. Something feels right about that.
Today is all rhythm. After washing clothes I quickly find Richard Martin, massage his recuperating legs, and traverse through a myriad conversational topics. His legs were broken when he slipped off a crowded bus, as he tried to disembark, while the bus was still in motion. He fell and the bus ran over his legs. For most of his answers to my probing questions, Richard regurgitates the Bible as best he can. I try to bait him into deeper analysis. His brother is successful, lives in London, yet leaves him to rot in this place alone. Very common, he says, for families to turn their cheek in such fashion. Not to worry he assures me; Jesus has his place waiting in heaven. I ask Richard if he is in a hurry then; to get to heaven, to end this suffering? He calmly says no because he still has a yet undiscovered purpose in this life, here on earth.
Richard Martin truly believes the stories and I feel ashamed. I envy his inherited ignorance. I am ashamed to admit to him what he says sounds like bedtime stories to tell children who are afraid of the dark. But then again, it may be me who is the fool in this situation. I ask Richard exactly that, if I am a fool for not having his brand of faith, and he responds brilliantly: To Be Determined – A bright smile across his face. Those words bounce in my head for the rest of the day. According to Richard, this home for the destitute is not the death sentence I assumed it to be. People are released to go home all the time. What are you released from if the place where you convalesce is more comforting than where you came from? What if you have no home to go back to? The word “release” does not feel appropriate in this syntax. Richard says he hopes to be home in time for Christmas. So many questions I am ashamed to ask.
Most of the men staying in this home are noticeably ill, and malnourished, but I do notice a few who do not seem to be suffering quite enough to be labeled destitute. Portly fellows who read the newspaper calmly; they appear to be abusing the system some how. Now I am judging acceptable levels of misery; how pathetic. I ask Richard about deaths and he mentions four have perished so far this month. In the front entrance of the hospice hangs a small whiteboard filled in with occupancy rates, incoming, gender, and a noticeably missing tally next to “deaths.”
I find another man to massage and sing to him one of the only songs I have memorized: Under The Bridge. The sky-gazer, whom I massaged yesterday, babbles, drools, and points to the skylight once again. I infer he is asking for mercy from God again. A man slides by on the concrete floor dragging his leg; foot freshly amputated. I am summoned by one of the Sisters and follow her out the front door. Lying in the back seat of a taxi, on a sheet of heavy construction plastic, is a freshly delivered convalescent. His head hangs morbidly limp off the edge of the seat like a wilted flower. He looks like a coal miner from all the filth covering his person. Three of us slide him out of the back seat and carry him into the wash area. He moans in pain. He looks Asian, which surprises me.
During tea break Jelle, from Holland, engages me in conversation. He is part of the same church group as Kyle but has more lucid eyes. He seems more joyful about life, and speaks about Jesus in a less fearful manner than most of the others. Jelle is on a two-year volunteering pilgrimage; currently living in New Zealand and coordinating large church-group missions like the one they are on now. I find myself doing more talking than usual. He pauses well during conversation and draws out my best attempts at philosophy.
As we wash dishes I hear Louis and Joy bark orders liberally. Seems the older volunteers have far less need for tact. I sit with Richard Martin again and confess to him my lack of faith – that I saw my mother use religion as a crutch, or excuse, far too often instead of addressing the dysfunctional home of my youth, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. Richard’s gaze changes. He looks at me with slight pity. Things feel different now, more distant between us, since I have clearly conceded to not believing in Jesus, but I can see he will still be a kind friend.
After we are dismissed, our group forms in the front of the home and discusses lunch options. Since it is some kind of holiday, we decide to venture into the Khaligat temple area and witness the celebration. We enter through a congested gateway, passing walk-through metal detectors that have long since been abandoned. Two police officers stand languidly off to the side and peruse the crowd. We enter into a courtyard full of sound. Drums rattle in the background to a marching beat. In the middle of the space, people are lined up around the main temple, which stands slightly elevated to our position. Vendors of all kinds are scattered about selling bright flowers, sweets, and the usual Indian miscellaneous. The drum in the background gains tempo, rises to crescendo, then a group lets out a collective cheer. Seeing that we are foreigners, a man comes to us and asks if we’d like to go in. I don’t know where he is offering to take us but I see a dark staircase behind him and assume the worst. The Mexican girls discuss for a moment, then agree to the offer. I realize the man has offered to take them into the temple and not the ominous looking staircase. He asks them to remove their shoes, then takes out a heavily reused water bottle full of murky liquid. The water is poured in their hands as a purification process. They walk barefoot up to the line of waiting devotees. Between the suspect water, and the dirty ground, I am certain they have contracted some strain of contagion.
Ashley and I stay outside and notice two men skinning goats behind us. The carcasses hang on hooks and the men yank down the coats aggressively; skin peels from flesh and a tearing sound is heard. Below the carcasses are large plastic bowls full of innards. Flies are everywhere. Blood covers the ground. The men are barefoot. A crowd of about ten has gathered to watch. I try to take a picture but a man wags his finger at me for my rectitude. The rest of our group comes back from the temple and tells us they are killing goats just behind us, in a covered opening next to the temple. Ashley and I quickly push through the crowd to get a peak.
An old wrinkled woman, with salt and pepper hair, sits cross-legged on a high perch and beats a drum to a marching rhythm. Her eyebrows are pressed together in a focused manner and her bottom lip protrudes as she frowns. A group is huddled around to watch something compelling. On the ground, in the middle of the crowd, is a large tree stump covered in blood. A man walks through the crowd, toward the stump, pulling a baby goat by the nape. The goat is frightened and the man is not gentle. He positions the goat to stand over the stump, then pull it’s rear legs out from under it so it falls forward, with neck exposed over the bloody chopping block. The goat bleats out desperately. The old woman on the perch begins to pick up the beat on her drum. A second man raises an oversized machete over his head with two hands. The crowd in front of me is now blocking my view. All I see are the young goat’s back legs shaking violently as the man tries to hold them in place. Drums rise to crescendo. The cleaver comes down full force. The legs of the goat go limp in an instant. The crowd lets out a collective cheer. The man pulls back on the limp, headless, carcass and drags it away. Blood is spewing from the neck. I get nauseous.
We stay to watch two more sacrifices. Goats stand in line with their executioners just out front of the holy enclosure. They watch the action keenly. As we leave I see a man leading a full-grown goat by the mane to the bloody stump. I am surprised to see the goat so docile when it has witnessed it’s young being decapitated.
Back out on the street we all discuss what we just saw. Everyone is viscerally overwhelmed. The girls decide to stop in a sari shop and browse. Lydia has the shop owner wrap her in a beautiful sari of royal blue with gold details. She smiles merrily as she turns for us to see. Her Peruvian friend asks to try on some fabric as well. I gaze out the front door with my mind still thinking about the goats. I hear the words “Don’t Touch Me!” yelled with fervor from within the shop. I ask what happened and the Peruvian indicates the shop owner blatantly groped her breasts. I look at the man and approach, expecting to see fear or shame in his eyes, but he stares at me with such muted expression that I am shocked into indecision. I speak to him sternly and crowd his space, but he gazes through me, expressionless, as if he were left deaf from an immense explosion. Everyone is quiet and motionless. One of the girls tugs my arm. We leave and no one says a word.
Outside I stop and ask the group of women if I should go back and do something. Should I beat the man or get the police? I feel I have let them down and not protected the group. The victim says she’d rather just forget about it and move on. Her eyes fill up with tears. Shame stings my gut. Women burying pain and I stand witness. How long will we continue this loop in our history?
We walk to the underground subway; outdated tunnels and an electrical system that looks ripe for serious catastrophe. Ashley asks me where I learned to be so protective. I answer by saying it’s probably half effort at penance for my own previous transgressions, and half indulgence by my ego to appear important. She thanks me for my efforts regardless of the reason behind. I am a coward and did nothing to stop the assault, yet I’m being thanked merely for acknowledging the injustice –how sad.
Exit Park Street. Walk to Sutter Street. I step into the real Kolkata for the first time. Sutter Street is a road wide enough for two cars to barely squeeze by each other but it doesn’t seem likely that any would come this way. The space is crammed with rickshaws, motorbikes, and foot traffic of all kinds. I realize I have only had the courage to walk on major roads thus far; never ventured into the narrows. Garbage lines the street on either side. Dogs navigate gingerly through the crowd or they simply sleep right in the middle of road. All dogs are heavily scarred here; especially around their face with dozens of pockmarks. I wonder if it’s from scratching fleas, from fighting, or worse?
Against a small curb, behind piles of rubbish, a litter of puppies nurse from a relinquished bitch. Her nipples look tough, well worn. Food simmers in cauldrons. I see narrow channels along the edges of the road with trickling water. I wonder what is flowing down those little streams? Potholes two feet deep. We find a group of volunteers, eating at a food vendor on the side of the road, and join them. I’m hesitant to try street food but they all vouch for its safety. The chicken feels a bit fleshy in my mouth. I shake it off as paranoia. After lunch we shop near bye for some traditional Indian garbs; loose fitting and very light. Go to Hotel Galaxy to scout for sleeping quarters after my current reservation is up. Seems one step above hostel, however, it is teaming with all the cute girls I have seen volunteering at Mother House. I reserve a room for next week.
Walk back to Mother House and now we are on a mid-sized road. This is where all the action is. Cars and pedestrians, at nearly even ratios, clog and choke the streets. Next to a food stand, a cow tied to a tree eats something inauspicious from the ground. A goat stands among a pack of dogs. Six men bath themselves around a water fountain. Lydia pulls me by the arm to prevent a passing bus from hitting me. I look down as much as I do forward; feces is plentiful. Raw meat hangs from hooks, in front of stores, with flies swarming about. Open public outhouses. Three cows tied together to the side of a building. A rooster crosses the street. Groups of men sip tea together out of small clay cups. Tarps, tied to electrical wires and gate spikes, act as awnings above sidewalk kitchen corners. Private property has concrete walls with ingenious safety mechanisms. Mortar is laid as capstone along the wall and mixed in / jutting out of the top are nails and bits of broken glass.
A girl from Russia has joined us to find her way to Mother House for the first time. I walk her there since the rest of the girls take a different route going toward Shishu Bhavan. She is talkative and spacey; not my favorite combination. At Mother House she asks about the Khaligat temple. I tell her it’s far and the directions are complicated, especially for a first-timer. I feel a sense of responsibility growing that I do not want to accept. I can’t leave her to find it alone so we take the bus to Khaligat together. The entire bus ride she is rambling and I become frustrated and impatient. We get off at our stop and I walk her to the beginning of the road that leads to the temple. It is early evening now and the street is billowing with activity. I wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving a girl to walk this alone but she assures me she will be fine. I explain how to return to Mother House, then send her down into what must be one of Dante’s levels of Inferno.
The bus I take back to my hotel ends up taking a different route so I hop off and walk. I have a decent sense of direction by now but still feel like I’m slightly lost most of the time. There seems to be an appropriate metaphor here for my life on a macro. Lost on the streets of Kolkata, and lost in a world where I desperately want to feel accepted. I laugh on the inside a bit. What the hell am I doing here? Ask for directions and it turns out I’m heading the right way. As always, just past the point of self-doubt lies the next step on the path. Buy beer before going back to my hotel. I’m drinking a lot and I know it. When will I face this issue? So many issues. Wash clothes in bucket then journal. To the rooftop for a cigarette. Looking down on the streets full of traffic. Kolkata from this vantage point seems almost peaceful.