“Closer ... closer ... I have secret.”
I shift along the blue bench as the man with no arms in his blue shirt and only one leg in his blue pants motions with a dark, scarred stub from his mouth to my ear.
“Closer,” he says, and I lean in until my chin nearly touches the coarse, stained cloth of his top.
Close enough to feel the acrid vapors of antiseptic filling my nostrils.
Close enough to brush the sharp grey stubble of his cheek against mine.
Close enough for him to make his practical joke possible, as he sticks the point of his right nub into my ear and begins to laugh raucously.
I just received a wet willy from a man with no fingers.
This man can no longer walk. He is reduced to scooting around Kalighat on a piece of plywood with wheels propelled by his remaining leg. He is unable to feed himself or raise a cup of chai to his lips. But he can still use what he has to make a joke.
This is not unusual for Nirmal Hriday’s “Home for the destitute and dying” in Kolkata. In a house where all residents have reached the title of “destitute” or “dying,” there are glimpses of normalcy, undertones to the general atmosphere of men and women seeking a peaceful place to die, or just shelter from the slum necropolis of Kolkata.
How to describe Kolkata, Mother Teresa’s organization, or even India? Travelers know what only other travelers can understand.
Regardless of your prowess as a wordsmith or photographer, the experience, emotions, senses, and feelings from a moment can never fully be conveyed.
How do I describe the simple happiness I gather from my bed — three old couch cushions on a piece of plywood? Or the joy of not having bedbugs to someone who has never woken up covered head to toe with red dots?
How do I describe the absurdity that is India, a place that, as Lonely Planet aptly describes it, “promises to jostle your entire being”?
I spent more than two months traveling in India and Sri Lanka before my arrival in Kolkata, but the poverty here is on a scale that I have yet to experience.
Walking through the slums — built of any available scraps of wood, cloth, or metal, as dirty children run through the smoke-fog of burning trash — blasts the western view of poverty out of the malarial water that often floods these shanty towns.
In India, too, small oddities become the norm. Once, I was walking downstairs in a building after meeting with the supervisors of Calcutta Rescue, an NGO that runs mobile clinics through the slums. I looked through the front doorway of a third floor apartment, and my stare was met through a metal gate by a goat wearing a party hat and horns adorned with bright tinsel.
I wasn’t that surprised.
In the house of the destitute
At 7 a.m., I arrive at Motherhouse to eat breakfast with the other volunteers for Missionaries of Charity. A simple meal of bananas, bread and tea sustains us as we walk to our respective volunteerships.
For me, it is a 30-minute walk through the heart of Kolkata and into the slums until we come to Prem Dan, currently housing the staff and patients from Kalighat while its facilities are renovated.
I help a pleasant Sikh named Binder finish bathing patients: a brisk, cold, exposing process. This is not a slow, warm sponge bath, but a quick, frigid bath on a hard bench. We carry the patients by their armpits and legs, stretchers and wheelchairs are cumbersome in the close quarters, and few are to be found anyway.
This is where the full extent of years of poverty are realized. Malnutrition can be seen in their protruding ribs and wasted muscles. One man’s knee, the joint itself, was twice as wide as the flesh of his thigh — not because his knee was large, but because his thigh was so small. Massaging the non-elastic skin, I felt like I was holding a wrist, not a muscle made to hold a man high and power his body forward.
Have you seen pictures of Auschwitz? Come to a slum, and it will not be just a history lesson. Scars are remnants of abuse and hard work; amputations and infections, the lack of available medical care.
Next, we give the patients tea. As they drink, if they can drink, we begin the massive amount of laundry. Four basins are set up, filled with water, and the volunteers sit and begin to wash.
Gloves are pointless, as they rip while washing, so you dip your bare hands and arms into the basin, which eventually becomes a vat of human waste soup, soaking into your skin with a smell that the cold shower at Hotel Maria is unable to completely expunge.
Donations of washing machines and dryers have been turned down by Missionaries of Charity in the past. They prefer to use volunteers, who don’t need repairs (although they do sometimes break).
We talk and laugh, the volunteers, while doing laundry. I try to keep my mouth closed when people wring, pass or dip the clothes and sheets. Brown droplets splash everywhere.
I tell myself not to think about it, to block out the training I had drilled into my head this past summer about body substance isolation and protocols for a health care setting. I decide whether to breathe through my nose and smell the stench, or breath through my mouth and taste the stench.
I let the diminutive man with the mental handicap and two growths the size of grapefruits hanging from his neck put his hands on my face and smile as he ties a bracelet made from twine around my wrist.
I try to sit with the men and talk to them, though they know little English and I know less Bengali.
Women and men are kept separate, and I rarely have interactions with the women patients. The female volunteers have an easier time bridging the language barrier. The women want you to sit with them, hold their hands, caress their heads and sing them songs.
Most of the men patients want you to go away so they can sleep. In some cases, the patients suffer from a state of delirium.
Roopa, a woman small in stature but big in her smile, is the highlight of my first two days in Kalighat. She is one of the few female patients with whom I have had prolonged contact.
She comes to me, smiling widely, talking in understandable English. She points to the side of her head where her right ear once hung, but is now flat and scarred. “Infection,” she says, and then points to her bandaged foot. “Toes only two ... infection ... better now.”
She takes my hand and the hand of another volunteer as she says, “You will be my son, and you my daughter, and we will live in US. … What is A-U-B-U-R-N?” she asks as she looks at my shirt.
Roopa sings and dances on one foot, smiling and talking, and the Mashis tell me she is crazy, though I don’t believe it until she has a mood swing the next day and begins to hit me in the chest and yell at me in Bengali.
I look at one of the male patients sitting on a bench. He gives me a toothless smile and twirls his finger around his ear in the universal sign for “crazy.” Even smiling Roopa, who made me wonder why she was admitted to Kalighat, is there under the qualifier of “destitute.”
The smiles of volunteers
A French journalist visiting Kolkata to write an article about Missionaries of Charity interviewed me, as well as several other volunteers, about our experiences with the organization.
I told her that you cannot compare Missionaries of Charity and its houses with western hospitals or other programs in “developed” countries. In the past, Mother Teresa has received criticism about its standard of care to those it serves. I do not agree with or condone all of its practices, but the care and quality of life that the sisters, mashis and volunteers provide is better than the care that these patients can get anywhere else — which is none.
Patients have consistent meals, a bed and cleaner clothes than they came in with. They also have the smiles of volunteers who care for, talk to and hope that they have made a difference, even if they do not show it.
Volunteers flock readily to the Motherhouse to eat breakfast and go out into the community. Everyone is here for different reasons, though few for any sort of recognition.
Two of my friends who just left entrusted me with several thousand rupees and directions to donate them to Missionaries of Charity, but not tell the sisters who it was from.
All recognition truly goes to the sisters and mashis, though they don’t want it either.
At the end of the day, I take an auto rickshaw with other volunteers, dancing to the disco lights and singing with the Hindi music in the small cramped cab. We go to dinner or to the bar for a beer to unwind.
If we want to take the day to travel, we get on a bus in the morning and go to one of the attractions around Kolkata.
We are visitors.
The sisters of Missionaries of Charity live this life, day in and day out, and I give them every bit of respect I can, even if they don’t ask for it.