The crows wake me again. I am certain now they are trying to warn us all; doom is coming like the great plagues of Egypt. Mornings are the only time quiet enough in the city to hear the birds’ ominous forewarning.
Today is the day I hope to leave and I am excited. Walk to Mother House and feel nostalgic about viewing the morning rituals of Kolkata for the last time. I clear my throat and spit like a native. The butcher is open early today, six thirty, and I see a morbid row of skinned goats heads lying on a makeshift display stand. They all look surprised with no eyelids to cover their bulging eyeballs. I suppose I’d be shocked as well if I were slaughtered at first light. A fly emerges from within one of the nasal cavities like a king out of a brothel. He cleans himself off, takes a few deep breaths, then heads back in for more.
At Mother House I tell Gus of my decision to leave India. She tries to swallow her disappointment well but my keen heart can always pick up on sorrow I’ve caused. I stand in front of the hundred or so volunteers as they sing the farewell song. I smile out of embarrassment. I am certain they all know of my cowardice.
I manage to look Sister Mary Mercy in the eyes when I tell her of my decision. I tried. I gave it an honest effort. In the end I don’t think I have enough emotional stability or spiritual resolve to make it here. Sister asks me to stay back a while and speak to her before I head off for my last day at Nrmal Hriday.
I take a few farewell photos with friends. Hugs and goodbyes. Sister Margaret gives me a going away envelope full of prayer cards, religious pamphlets, and a small necklace made out of thread with a pendant of the Virgin Mary. She asks me if I am a believer and I answer truthfully that I am not. With awkward pity, and a heavy Asian accent, she tells me she will pray for me. I smile and nod.
Sister Mary Mercy and I sit for an hour discussing my feelings of India and general views on religion. I give her a few objections to being devoted to Christ, some from personal experience and some plagiarized from philosophers, but her answers don’t really address my points. She has learned the standard Christian retort well but there is love and compassion in her message so I am grateful for her viewpoint. I listen more than I speak. The best point she makes is on the idea of doing charity without the expectation of reward. It is one of my favorite concepts written in the Bible but Kolkata makes it nearly impossible for me to find any joy in living, never mind giving. Everything seems to be working against me in this place and on top of that I am so far from truly understanding selfless actions that I am left to drift in an ocean of misery. I tell her that I believe all the answers I’m searching for to already be present in nature, and in myself, but that some barrier exists – mainly fear and ego. She tells me all the answers are in Jesus. I see that as a major flaw in her ideology. It takes away a person’s pursuit of self-actualized truth and displaces the burden onto someone else. Realize Jesus loves you she says. I think he certainly does but that just means I need to keep searching. Maybe I’ll come back, or maybe I’ll find answers elsewhere, but I know what I am looking for is not summarized in the words of another man’s account of God. I see myself on a bold voyage across the world searching for The Truth but is my option actually the weaker one? Am I simply stubborn and scared? Scared to surrender and scared to be accountable with the fear of eternal judgment behind it all? Perhaps. But I also see the look of fearful sheep in so many of their eyes that I am left with no choice but continue my quest. The idea of salvation through a messiah seems like a clever bait to lure the masses lost in the struggles of life. Don’t worry about doing the homework for yourself; I will give you the cliff notes.
I ask Sister for a photo together and she asks me to pray for her. I tell her it would be a lie if I agreed and she graciously declines my request for photo. I like her and I will help her charity in the future but I do not see myself subscribing to her ideology.
Off to Khaligat.
On the street before Nrmal Hriday a troubling realization sets in. There is a man who sits on the ground everyday and sells spices. The powders are of the brightest hues I’ve ever seen within arms reach and his clothes are always powdered to match the daily market offering. Behind him is a goat, or some cousin of an Ibex perhaps, which is always kneeling on a stool. I never paid much attention to it because I thought it was merely taking a leisurely rest each time I passed. But I’ve seen it every day and each time it has been kneeling on the same stool. In an almost mystical revelation I am drowned in the truth of who I am. The man has broken the two front legs of the goat in order to prohibit escape. The reason for him keeping the goat is irrelevant. The man is poor and needs a goat. And every day I have passed by ignorant of the fact that this is a standard technique for survival.
I spend time with the group of patients and end with my old friend Richard Martin. I tell him of my departure and he asks me to sit with him for a bit. He produces a small bible and begins reading. I slowly tune out. I’m so sorry Richard.
During break I say goodbye to the festive Canadian and his friend suggests I read “The Case For Christ.” I tell him I already have, which is only half truth, but it affords me the privilege of appearing to be well read. I skimmed through half the book in my early years of college but the words never found an audience with my scattered mind so I left it to sit on a shelf along with dozens of other partially read novels. Perhaps I should go back now and attempt to read all the literature I’ve left behind unfinished? Perhaps that and a dozen more things I should do in life.
For lunch I spoon feed the man with hand-crippling retardation. Louis usually shoulders the duty but kindly obliges my request on this last day of mine. Behind me is a man wrapped in a blanket and wearing a beanie – not common to be cold in these parts. His eyes are morbidly bloodshot and he stares off into the void with an angry scowl. A presence of death is heavy around him. I can only imagine what he is looking at in this very moment; peaking into the next plane as his body extinguishes the last bits of coal still burning on this one. The man whom I feed has a difficult time keeping food in his mouth.
I spend the rest of the day on the balcony, staring down on the streets of Khaligat. A nursing dog hobbles away from her whimpering litter on three legs to scavenge for food. One of her back legs has recently been torn off at the knee joint like a chicken bone. Raw flesh dangles and flaps as she hobbles through the streets. Sinew and rot. She is whipped or kicked every time she ventures too close to a street food vendor.
Teresa and I take the metro back together after work. She tells me she considers me to be a good man and I hold back tears with all my might. I’ve heard this before. Others have told me they consider me a good human being despite all I admit to having done and continue to do. If only I could believe them. If only I could not be so ashamed of who I am.
Teresa, Chris and I have lunch at JoJo’s restaurant and immediately I begin drinking. I secure a plane ticket for a flight out tonight at two in the morning. The mood is cheerful and we all say goodbye. Chris gives me a card where he has hand written all his contact information and I am deeply moved by this gesture.
On the patio of the hotel I sit with young Annie from Virginia as I continue drinking beer. Long flowing conversation eventually leads into theories on stereotypes, political correctness, and the inherent guilt most white Americans carry. Or at least I do and I am first generation American. Stereotypes usually don’t come out of the blue, she tells me, and the truth is there are many ugly parts of this world. I nod in agreement and think about how rotten I really am. There is also tremendous beauty though. Amazing how exponentially my drinking and smoking pace picks up when I am lost in the ease of conversation.
I miss the Mexican girls departure while finalizing my tickets out of India. Probably better that way. I meet a good looking woman from California who is the true spirit of nomad; wandering around the world with no real intent. Simply bored with the predictable existence of life back home. I sit on the patio and admire the scene. The Spanish group, as is apparently customary for them to do, has smuggled in on their flights copious amounts of cheese and prosciutto, and they have a lively celebration. Two French girls engage in conversation and I am reminded just how attracted I am to that exotic language.
I suggest food to the California nomad and she suggests drinks instead. No need to twist my arm. At the bar we venture deep into the philosophies of the traveling community. She is stoic in her speech. I feel wildly over-animated this evening. She asks me what I want to do, what my passion is in life and I take a moment to consider. I’ve never had a heartfelt answer for this question in the past but an answer comes out of me without struggle or rehearsal.
I want to start the revolution, I tell her. I want to help free the people. If the rest of humanity is anything like me then we’ve all been lying to ourselves, and each other, for far too long. I think my revolution starts by telling the truth, by confessing all the secrets I’ve kept hidden for years. So perhaps I’ll write a book where I lay it all out; all the stories I’ve tried to forget. There is so much inside of me that needs to come out. I’m so exhausted from sucking it all in constantly and playing a different role for different audiences. I’m tired of the lies. I’m tired of the self-loathing. I’m going to talk about everything and then, when it’s done, I’ll see how I feel and where I go from there.
For the remainder of the night I hide in my room. At midnight I take a cab to the airport and leave Kolkata.