Miserable. Congested. I wake up with plenty of time to attend morning mass but I don’t pull the trigger. When will I pull the trigger in life? I am 34 years old and I’ve been avoiding, or procrastinating, every major life event for as long as I can remember. What is it that I fear so much? People tell me I have taken a large, brave step by leaving home and traveling. It sounds comforting to hear but doesn’t feel that way on the inside. I am a fraud and a failure.
At Mother House I am alone. No Teresa or Ashley. I pass Maria and she mentions going to Nabu Jibon today to help with the street kids. I quickly sign up. Nobody knows directions so Sister Mary Mercy gives me printed instructions. This will be the first long, unchartered trek I have taken in Kolkata. First bus to Howrah, then another bus to Kamamtala. Buses get extremely crowded as we get closer to our destination. I joke with the short girls as they ride the entire way standing at armpit height.
As we near the building on foot, a child comes up and tugs at my backpack. I wave him off. He then takes hold of my hand with the comfort of a son to a father, and repeats the word “hello” ten times rapidly. I realize he is one of the street children walking toward the shelter. In front of the gate, well over fifty children are gathered in a crowd and they all cheer our arrival. They shout and laugh and come jumping up into our arms with no hesitation. The volunteers enter the compound leaving the tiny mob outside for a few more minutes. After we receive instructions, and settle our belonging, the gates are opened and the troop is let loose.
This place is housing for the sick and the homeless, but once a week they let in the street kids for a few hours and clean them up. Children jump all over me. I quickly have a child in each arm with one climbing on my back. I’m not feeling my best from the cold and congestion, but their energy inoculates me from all previous maladies; both physical and mental. I feel a hand in my pocket as a boy rummages for change and I push him away with my free leg. He laughs, runs away, then comes back a few minutes later and tries it again. In the back of the compound a merry-go-round is slowly being turned by one child, as ten others overcrowd the squeaky spectacle. When they see me approach, they erupt in applause and cheer for the welcomed giant. I spin the merry-go-round with all my strength as two children climb on my back. Everyone screams and laughs with joy.
The kids are slovenly and their clothes heavily soiled, but most of their smiles are wide and bright. A few children stand away from the crowds in isolation. One boy cries silently in a corner as I spin the merry-go-round. I offer to put him on my shoulders but he waves me off. I assume he has seen something that has triggered a terrible memory. Five years old and he already carries the weight of despair in his eyes like an adult.
At bath time we split up genders and try corralling the little rascals as best we can. They make a game of running away from us and giggling when we point them toward the wash area. The cleaning consists of one hose, which is held by an adult, and a few bars of soap to share among the children. We stand in a large concrete basin, which does a poor job of draining the water, and end up with a boisterous water fight on our hands. Thirty naked boys running around is a pretty funny sight. We do our best to get them all washed, then put them back in their mangy clothes afterword. Everyone gets coconut oil for their hair and face and talcum powder for their bodies.
During break I go for a smoke with John and we are joined by Mexican Carolina and Portuguese Estella. They are the two most beautiful women of all the volunteers. Caro quit her job at the Red Cross because of bureaucracy and Estella is traveling a bit before going back to school. Both are in their twenties. I am amazed by their seemingly effortless resolve to volunteer and pursue careers of similar virtue. Why did I never think of this in my 20’s? As we talk about our travels, and views on religion, we broach the topic of gratitude vs entitlement. Estella offers unabashed criticism of Muslims, stemming from her experience as a volunteer in shelters catering to Islam. She is especially disparaging of the men; describing how pompous, vile, and degrading they were while she worked to feed them in soup kitchens. I suggest to her that darkness resides in all of us, and it is not fair to generalize one group. While agreeing to this theorem as a hyperbole, she continues to castigate candidly and it’s clear she finds my philosophy to be glib. I am not used to dealing with such levels of veracity. Estella reminds me of a woman I knew from Israel; sharp features and a shaper tongue. Estella is certainly not concerned with being politically correct. Also, she has a slight squint to her right eye when taking a drag from her cigarette, betraying her baseline level of crazy. Nothing makes me more attracted to a woman than seeing that gleam of neurosis. Carolina, on the other hand, is far more demure but equally as attractive in her own right. I let my mind drift into the possibility of learning Portuguese vs Spanish.
We feed the kids what seems to be the standard for these institutions: rice and vegetarian curry. Like the adults in need, they too eat everything on their plates. No sense of entitlement among the poor of India. Not like the poor of first world countries. The children are a bright contrast to the gloom of Nrmal Hriday. They are full of life and not yet defeated – most of them anyways.
On the bus back to Howrah we are all afforded seats which allows us to scan the scenery out the windows that we missed on the way in. One road we follow runs parallel to railroad tracks which are festooned on either side by miles and miles of slums. The huts typically have a visible wooden skeleton on the inside, pilfered bamboo perhaps, and are covered by impromptu roofing materials: Tarps, cloths, corrugated plastic, cardboard. The open entrances reveal mundane events inside; cooking, sweeping, sleeping. I’m not sure what I expected to see but it certainly wasn’t evidence of our similarity. Everything in the slums is soot black: Clothes, people, homes.
Every so often a pool of viscous, murky liquid, 25 meters in diameter, separates the huts for what would best be described as a clearing. Men stand, and squat, around the swamp; staring into it as if waiting for an entity to emerge and reveal the secrets of the cosmos. Some have long sticks, like the poles used to cross a river on a raft, dipped into the slough and offer a slow stir. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what is happening here.
Bus lets us off 45 minutes away from Mother House. I am already exhausted from the day and not in the mood for a trek. What is a water drainage channel and what is an open sewer? I cannot tell the difference. I eat with the girls at Blue Sky Café. Seems like the happening place to be for tourists and expats. I should have gone straight back to the hotel. Energy fading as I sit. The walk back to my hotel is daunting. I am sick, exhausted, and numb from the sensory overload of India. There is no hope here of ever pulling out of this collective spiral of suffering. The best one can hope for is making the crash a bit softer. Then again, they do not view death like us, as a failure, so perhaps that changes the urgency put on this life. We are busy trying to make this existence as a comfortable as possible and death is to be avoided at all costs. We have merely learned to mask the truth and delay the process a bit. They face the maws of existence with eyes wide open. We trick ourselves into thinking our routines make us important and medicate to fill the gaps.
I ponder about the magnitude of faith that is little Mother Teresa. Un-fucking-believable what that woman did. To come to this land, so barren of hope, and offer compassion to those most in need on the entire planet. Knowing the whole time she would never be able to affect the colossus that is third world poverty, but continuing to do her small part in the face of the coming tide of misery. Giving into the useless for the sake of charity. My ego wont let me come close to that level of surrender. The patience, faith, and piety required for such a life seems as abstract to me as the idea of quantum physics.
I conclude the following division of assets to be appropriate, given my spiritual shortcomings, when I am financially successful:
1/3 goes to pure charity for the destitute, a portion of which goes directly to Sister Mary Mercy and the Missions Of Charity here in Kolkata. What they do here, day in and day out, is on an entirely different plane than what the rest of us can even begin to comprehend.
1/3 goes to small business prospects and those I sense can change the world. Examples include the woman who works 12 hours a day in her laundry mat in Thailand and the Haitian girl who won the science fair but doesn’t have money for books in Florida. If you come hard-wired with a third world, or immigrant work ethic, then I give to you what I know will be put to better use than if I were to keep it for myself.
1/3 I keep for myself.
I didn’t have the courage to eat as gluttonously in front of the girls as I would have otherwise but now that I am close to my hotel, close to being alone, I want vice. I stop to get junk food. I feel more miserable with each bite. Nap. Always nap after a binge. Does my mind think I will forget what I’ve done by dozing off each time? It all gets stored somewhere in the bowels of regret.
Ashley stops by to check on me. I don’t notice the cracker crumbs all over my shirt until well into our conversation. She offers to come back later with dinner. Unsolicited kindness.
I finally finish Herzog’s journal in Conquest Of The Useless. He got the boat over the hill. I need a boat of my own, and a hill, and determination, and a slue of other factors to give me some sense of purpose in this abyss. Wandering. Lost. I wonder if the first civilizations felt as foreign to virtue as I do?
While outside smoking a cigarette I meet Tom from New Zealand; young, entrepreneurial, full of optimism, fit, and charming. Everything I ever wanted to be. My mind is completely of the rails. I crave beer and food constantly. Ashley brings me dinner. We eat and talk. I feel uneasy, sick, lonely, uncomfortable, fat. I tell her about all the ways India is beating me down but don’t include the turmoil of self-shaming.
Ashley reminds me of the wide angle that is needed to absorb an experience like Kolkata. Do not fear, she tells me. You will come to find all was necessary to get to where you are going – even if you don’t understand it now and especially if it feels uncomfortable. Earlier, Tom referred to a speech by Steve Jobs that left him with inspiration. Jobs mentioned taking a calligraphy class to pass the time in college. The core concept taught by that professor was simplicity: Simple is beautiful. Ten years later the idea of simplicity was the core axiom under all that Apple would come to build. Nobody knows what the seeds of yesterday will reap. Ashley and Tom are right. I don’t know what these experiences in India will turn to down the road but I know I need to keep planting seeds.