Up at four in the morning and no going back to sleep. A nightmare woke me and I fear something has been watching me all night. May as well go to mass this morning; I’ve been avoiding it long enough. I try to meditate but my mind is bouncing off the walls and my sinuses are totally congested. Pollution feels extra viscous today.
Downstairs two men sleep on the ground in the foyer behind a large, locked metal gate. Are they guarding the entrance or just sleeping where they can? I nudge one of the blanket mounds and a man grumbles underneath. I nudge again. A man emerges from the heap; coughs, spits, and slowly makes his way to unlock the gate.
Everyone up this early on the streets is hacking up phlegm from deep within their rotting lungs. Muslims pour out of a mosque after morning prayers. I walk to Mother House with a new Spanish woman who is on her fifth trip to Kolkata; takes her vacation time to come volunteer. No husband, no kids and seems relatively content. I like the Spaniards more and more.
Inside the church I sit in the far corner – on one of the few benches that seem to be rather scarce. An altar and pulpit are obvious in the front but the remainder of the area is missing the rows of pews I am accustomed to. When the crowd fills in I see that most sit on the concrete floor. The Sisters all kneel for the entire hour on the hard concrete and they never recline back into a Japanese sitting position. Instead, they remain fully upright on their knees, as if waiting to be crowned or beheaded. I feel reproachful for having sat on the bench but don’t want to sit on the floor now for the sake of acquiescence. Prayers begin well before mass and instantly I have the urge to flee. I’ve already shared my thoughts on the ominous nature of Catholic prayer. The room is filled two-thirds with Sisters. They clutch their crossed fingers to their hearts and pray with deep veneration. The mass is difficult to understand between the street noise and the heavy accent of the priest. Sermon today is about perseverance. Jesus said to his disciples to persevere when they preach the word of the lord and are met with negative response from the non-believers. Seems rather cavalier to tell others to preach of him being the son of God.
As I stare at the large cross behind the altar, and a statue of Mary next to it, I am reminded of Spinoza’s theory on miracles. To have miracles would be to prove God not omniscient. I agree. Spinoza argues that Nature has provided all the tools and encounters within our circle of influence. It is up to us to do with them what we will.
The Immaculate Conception, parting of the Red Sea, curing of lepers; all seem like silly stories to entice people looking for miracles. Am I going to hell for thinking about this in a church? Ironically, I have been waiting for my own special moment; a job, a woman, some form of miracle to motivate me into the life I believe awaits me. I mock their miracles yet I secretly yearn for my own.
I went to mass hoping some sign would present itself but nothing about the service inspires me. Nothing tells me to stay longer in Kolkata and nothing about their religion feels appealing. Most stay after mass to pray. I quickly run out.
My thoughts going into the morning are to tell Gus, who is in charge of the Christmas play, of my probable departure for three weeks to tour India with the Mexican girls. The underlying hope is that she will intuit my aversion to the whole thing and excuse me of my responsibility entirely. No dice. She kindly assures me my absence will not be a problem and hopes I have a good time traveling. Plot foiled and her kindness stings me with guilt.
Perhaps I should simply not return from the sightseeing expedition and fly out of India once I get sick of the twenty-hour train rides and dirty hostels? Easier for me to not say goodbye, just silently disappear. I’ve come to rely on that maneuver in many situations. With friends, coworkers, and lovers; I have the tendency to mysteriously disappear without so much as a warning. Easier in the short term to avoid uncomfortable conversations but adds to the long-term bag of remorse I’ve been carrying for so long.
Carolina bats her beautiful lashes at me and recruits me to join her in telling Sister Mary Mercy of our departure. I try wedging in a poorly delivered joke while we both confess to the Sister that we will not be following through with our commitment as originally planned. Sister Mary Mercy does not hide her disappointment. At least I’ve managed to rip most of the band-aid off and now, with freedom on the horizon, I feel lighter in my step.
Today is the last day for Ashley, John, and Bernard. They stand in the middle of the group of volunteers and we sing the customary farewell song. This song puts a smile on my face, every time, without fail.
At Khaligat I quickly join the painting crew upstairs in a blatant avoidance of the usual mundane tasks. Anything is better than washing and massaging at this point. We paint around the outside ledge of the second story. Below us, littered in front of the main entrance, those in desperate need of medical attention from the streets are scattered on the filthy ground. Open sores the size of avocados are jabbed and stuffed with gauze, not one gentle motion applied, by the native employees of Nrmal Hriday who obviously have no medical training. A group of a dozen, or so, men walk down the street carrying a dead body over their heads on a bamboo framed stretcher. The body is surrounded with a collection of the most vibrant flowers I have ever seen. The colors stand in loud contrast to a city brushed with soot. One man among them carries a speaker that is blaring prayers.
The light-hearted and joking Canadian I work with today tries to engage in uplifting conversation but I offer only glib responses. Never the less he persists and finally manages to lift my spirits a bit. After break we paint a large open courtyard and I finally find a rhythm in this volunteering fiasco by means of manual labor.
I eat lunch with the three Frenchmen and Bruno joins me in drinking beers. He is one of my favorites among the group because he unapologetically speaks only French. He doesn’t bother with attempts at baby talk using the sparse English he may know like most of the other volunteers. With little to no language between us, we manage to understand each other in near seamless communication, and enlist John and Bernard to translate the rest. It has been a long time since I’ve had a secular conversation and I am grateful to discuss archaic topics again such as beer and sex.
Bruno made his living as a career soldier in the French military and recently retired. He is in his mid forties but appears twenty years younger and is as spry as a teenager. Bruno served in places like Rwanda and Afghanistan and speaks openly about his experiences. He tells me he has killed five people, one of whom was a child shooting an AK-47 at him. In Rwanda, France backed the political group that eventually lost so for a period of time, before their departure, the French soldiers were ordered to stand down and not engage with the guerillas even in the face of atrocities. Bruno watched as nursing mothers were separated from their children and their breasts were cut off by rough machete hacks. I have never heard of such vile tactics to discourage resistance. Bruno and I engage in passionate, open conversation and I get lost in the sentimentality of men sharing stories.
Lunch was spirited and full of topics I realize I’ve missed since being surrounded by the gravity of Mother House. After a nap I plan to email, drink beer and research ticket prices out of India. As I leave the hotel an aggressive, white, drunk man berates me on the foyer and I consider punching him. As I look at the rest of the group sitting outside I realize they would find such an act of aggression inappropriate, so I defer out of fear of reprimand and embarrassment. I should probably find a more harmonious method, or an internal tenet, to rely on for controlling my temper other than trepidation of public censure.
When I return to the hotel the drunk man is still loitering and offering vulgar commentary to the group of volunteers sitting on the patio. Apparently he is not a guest of the hotel and was merely passing by when he saw a few good looking girls and began pestering them. I consider punching him again. A newcomer to the group, Estella’s recently arrived boyfriend from Portugal, gently calms the man down and baits him into a brief walk leading away from the hotel. What a wonderful lesson for me to chew on. Temperance.
Another newcomer, A French photographer, is amongst the group and he has a powerful calm about him. He has come to cover a recent coalmine disaster just outside of Kolkata. The mine exploded which then caused fire to seep from the ground for miles around, including the village where the workers and their families lived. I never knew fire could come straight out of the Earth. His photographs are mesmerizing.
A seventeen-year-old Virginia girl and I talk about writing and I am blown away by her maturity and intelligence. There was no television in the house growing up for her and books were emphasized in it’s place. I was practically raised by Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. Twice as old as her and yet I come nowhere close to her equanimity. Wonderful.
Estella’s Portuguese boyfriend returns, having successfully ditched the intoxicated trouble maker, and I offer him compliments for his finesse with the vagrant. He tells me he has come to India for love. Sensing a growing divide between he and his beautiful Estella, he decided to abandon his responsibilities and fly to a foreign land to be with his lover. I commend him again. He asks for travel advice when visiting the US and an older American lady commandeers the conversation and begins a tangential rant about the horrors of car rental in the United States; insurance and seat belt laws being the main culprits. She fumes over this grave injustice and I finish an entire beer while waiting for her to exhaust her anger.
Paula walks by and, in a drunken banter, I commit to the train ticket she has offered to procure for me for the sightseeing journey with the Mexican girls. What have I done?
Dinner with Bernard. While we wait for the street food vendor to fry rice and gizzard in a large black wok, Bernard shares with me his path to faith. We have to listen, he says – God is communicating to us all the time. I couldn’t agree more. He found his way by listening to others who shared their experiences of doubt and now found the word of the lord as their salvation. I couldn’t agree less. I tell him anyone who preaches of the one true way to salvation, or the one true path to God, is automatically not the answer I am looking for. No need for the one true way to tell me it knows the way via proxy. It goes without saying. It radiates. It does not have to convince others. It simply is. A man who spends his time convincing others to follow his path is looking for validation of his fickle beliefs. It is the quiet person whom I seek – they who speak only when asked yet have a presence that draws me to them – them who tell others to find their own path and encourage mistakes as a sign of proper action. Seek an intuitive understanding of God and feel your way to the truth the way we might feel walking through our elementary school as adults and realizing we remember where the special places were, and still are.
Going away party for John and Bernard on the rooftop of Hotel Maria. The owners are upset that we have brought a native Kolkatan with us and repeatedly try to end our festivities. They prefer only tourists in their abode. Amazing that we have to stick up for an Indian against his own people.