“Now let us walk,” muttered the lama, and to the click of his rosary they walked in silence mile upon mile. The lama, as usual, was deep in mediation, but Kim’s bright eyes were open wide. This broad, smiling river of life…. There were new people and new sights at every stride—castes he knew and castes that were altogether out of his experience.”
Approaching, the green foliage brushed by a dawn breeze, a timid herald, a faint apprehensive invitation with no sense of intimacy. Down, finally, we land, the heat and noise now in surfeit, the breeze no more than an apparition. Any sense of welcome quickly sates and is withdrawn from India’s countenance.
Like sand are the people, a beautiful shore. Manure everywhere and cows wandering in the parking lot. A clash in thought, the cows, and the pavement. Beyond, Beyond, the undertow, to what is held, now fastened in tow.
I had my instructions: “Go through customs, pick up your bags and go directly to the taxi company window and buy a ticket. Then immediately go to the taxi station outside. Hold on to your bags.” By the outside doors are manned machine guns behind sandbag ramparts. Then someone approaches and grabs a hold of my bags, do not let go of your bags, now two of us in tow. Enticed to a car in a back lot and then, “Stop.” Turning to respond, one grip loosened, and a soldier leads me to the cab station. Now back to the ticket-then-cab sequence, where the cabbie drives the passenger to his destination and returns to the airport to turn in the ticket and get paid.
It is 5:45 a.m. Kolkata time and I am in a cab.Eight hours from London, and six hours further from the American east coast. A fourteen-hour difference, but the feel is like centuries. Of no help are contemporary world devices, all a nuisance, all awkwardly accepted. My only communications depend on finding a place that sells internet time. The heat, India’s arbitrator, already warns me.
The city awakens as the people of the street start to stir. Look at them; in tents fabricated of all materials and design, anything to give even the slightest veil of shelter and security. Many sleep openly on the sidewalks. In no time the traffic seems to exceed the people. India is on the move.
“Poverty is our freedom.”
I’ve got to remember that.
What am I doing here? “Go down that alley and ring the doorbell.” “I’m sorry?” “Go down the alley and ring the doorbell,” the cab driver repeats. Out of the cab and on to the curb, careful not to step on the dead rat, I walk toward the alley. An alley, continents away from home, I get out of a cab to walk down an alley. Invisible, a part of India’s varna, one of its outcasts. Only I know where I am.
“Excuse me,” I step around an open cooking grill and then over a family of begging little hands with their trinkets to sell. That distance, I underestimated the distance. The only constant is the heat. God, dear Father, is it hot. From the street the Mother House is a two-story masonry building, blurred among many. I’m tired, my hope is, it is not a mirage. Timidly I pull the doorbell string and am welcomed to enter by a pleasant young woman dressed in a white-blue trimmed sari, a sister in Mother Theresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity. I am here in her Mother House. Inside, a drastic contrast from the street and alley. The interior of the building is loggia in design with a second-floor balcony overlooking a courtyard. The interior is immaculate. So clean. In a brief tour, we step around sisters on their knees scrubbing the floors, others sweeping with hand fabricated brooms.
In the confines of the grounds and the building is a simplicity of order that enables this place to flourish in its unique way. The understated design has the powerful effect of mirroring the efforts of Mother Teresa that serve as an anchor in the sea of contradictions that is India, always shifting restlessly and grudgingly, always moving. Faintly there is a discernible verse to Indian life. The sisters conform to India’s meter in their unstressed efforts of serving. They thrive on it. They welcome everyone and everything—even the heat—while India accepts them without any acknowledgement and as part of its burden. The Mother House is an amulet to India.
“With a view to poetry, an impossible thing that is believable is preferable to an unbelievable thing that is possible.”
I have got to remember that.
I am welcomed, given tea, and with little delay informed that the day starts with morning prayer at 5:30, followed by Mass at 6. The day ends with evening prayer from 6 to 7. Apostolates begin after Mass and the volunteers’ breakfast of tea, bananas, and small loaves the sisters baked. I check in across the street at a small hotel with five locks on the door and go up to my room. In the hallway, more locks, the open window at the end of hall. Inside, the room has a window overlooking the street, a bed, one chair, and sheet vinyl floor. Off to the side is a bathroom, with a common floor surface for the shower, the commode, and sink.
That evening I go to holy hour at the motherhouse. The chapel is on the second floor off the balcony. On the first floor, off the courtyard, is the refractory and the room containing Mother Teresa’s sarcophagus. It is a plain stone enshrinement. I stop. There. A conversation it seems.
The chapel is a rectangular shaped room, exposed concrete walls and floor. Benches along the back wall to one side. Centered along the long side of the room, on the street side, is an altar. Behind it is a row of unglazed windows with horizontal metal bars mesh. The Sisters kneeling, seiza style, in rows across from the volunteers face the altar. The street noise, the call from the minaret absorbs into the simplicity of the chapel and is not a distraction but part of the focus on worship. No component of the chapel competes with that worship, nor with its contradictions, the living India it accepts and serves.
Going back to my room that evening I cross the busy street, four-lanes throbbing with every form of motorized vehicle. I heed an instinct: at night, do not walk in the dark that embraces the buildings. Everyone walks in the street, no matter how busy the traffic. In the room a question coils me like a viper: “What are you doing here? You don’t belong, and you are too old.” The question is always there, and many times it strikes. Kim, listen to the llama.
“The longest way round is the shortest way home.”
I’ve got to remember that.
I lunch and dine in my room: dry roasted peanuts, granola bars and bottled water, the meal of choice at “Club Kol.” The next day, the last of the five locks opened by the security guard, I am out to meet India, into the streets as Kolkata awakens its many textures of life. The heat exceeds 100 degrees at 5 am; so rude and in no manner properly introduced. The bread carriers on their tricycles, the oracles, the first wave of the new day. On foot is a fleeting moment of advantage. There, as with arms folded, is the muted gray sky of Kolkata, in its own collected brew. The native foliage, patiently, contends with the suffering architecture, heir’s tribute to time.
All traffic is now confined to the street as the sidewalks are there for invisible people. Where do they come from? Where do they go during the day? Most fast asleep in their fettered innocence while a few stir to wash at a corner hand pump. Rape, murder, and theft are often their partners of the night. Set on my mission, I find myself following a man moving brusquely on a rolling platform. He with no legs is every bit as intent to meet the new day as I am, if not more so.
“I have of tomorrow no greater share than you have.”
—Theseus, in Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus
I’ve got to remember that.
Sinking into it the next day, I accept the heat as an ally for the holy hour. As I surrender, it is my companion working to shape a spell. Then the Mass begins, attended by rows of sisters in white saris edged in blue ribbon. The simplicity of concrete walls and floor, again profoundly, if not a tribute in its stark elemental contribution, is a confirmation to a trust. I wish I could imitate the way they sit back on their heels. The service appears functionally nondenominational, so volunteers of all traditions attend. We copy and comply with the sisters by sitting on the floor. The car horns, heat, fumes, again the call from the minaret, and the concrete floor, walls, in part . all shape this Kolkata Liturgy.
After breakfast, the volunteers split up and go to their different apostolates. In pairs, the sisters too go out. All through the day, they rematerialize. I see their backs sitting on a bus, walking, or riding in motorized rickshaws. Their life is relentlessly transitive in service to the poor.
My first day apostolate is to go Kalighat Nirmal-Hriday, “The home of the pure heart.” There to feed, wash, and cloth the dying picked up in the street. Getting off the bus, with the other volunteers, streets are brimming with people and activity. Have to move briskly to keep up, and with agility to side-step and change pace. The side streets are stocked with bazaars, brightened walkways, to the cacophony offered from the horns of the ignored cars and trucks frustrated as they edge through. All this activity in the infant moment of the day.
Every day in India is as Kim described it, so different in all in its own shades of beauty. The colors in the clothing, styles of dress and the variety of people clashing and complementing each other. It doesn’t take much to see and then absorb and be affected by this beauty. A welcomed freedom, gathered now, surprisingly felt, from my seasoned pleached western idle, now stirred settled grip.
“They exist but for a moment, but all the same it was fine! He were ignorant of his art who found a flaw in Thine.”
I’ve got to remember that.
After a moment of prayer, assignments are made, gloves are handed out and we are lifting, feeding, comforting 70-pound people. So many and like fine China, fragile. Their beauty bursts from their eyes, from their silk hair, from their smiles that come quickly into their own horizons. They seem so much heavier than their weight, as if finally, I can see what they have been through and that is the difference.
There is so much more to them now, life’s jetsam, discarded waste that stubbornly breathes. Men volunteers tend to the men and the women volunteers tend to the women. Some wash, some feed, while others scrub and clean. The heat, the press of flesh, the disjointed odors of collective effort, the vacant gazes of the dying transform the faith of the volunteers into a more fervent attention to them.
One predator reigns, scurvy, where the calf muscle of a prey lies split open as if dressed by one of hell’s butchers. Still the beautiful struggling smiles, most without any teeth, and the glazed eyes seeing some indiscernible place, a distant vision for us to only to surmise.
To quickly counter any peace is the puss, vomit, urine. Human waste overwhelming the constant effort to remove it. The dark concrete floor and walls stay wet from being washed as we fight it seems to reclaim them. Are we really doing something, or is it a western folly in an unforgiving India?
We aren’t the first as the heat has already cast its vote, nothing conquers India.
For a break in shifts we climb to the roof top for water, tea, and a view of the cityscape. As in the bazaars, I am drawn to the variety, the number of structures and the way they interact. There are no tall buildings to dominate and obscure my perspective; the interdependence in the city is obvious, One and two-story stucco structures in the thousands cluster close to the ground, as if apologizing for their imposition. Only the taller western buildings, old, grifted gifts contend. Feckless remnants, seeds to an indifferent ground, that effortlessly perspires growth from roots, stems, shoots of endless times.
The roof, a welcomed atoll, a respite to collect. Momentarily India seems continents away. I feel this again later when we take the day’s refuse to an alley for those locked in their jati to shovel into trucks to haul away.
As we finish the showering, and feeding, one reaches from his bed to tug my apron. He is so young, maybe seventeen. I remember I was young once with rich dreams of a life to come and he, weighing seventy pounds if that, with a future of only here. I don’t know what he is looking at or for, and maybe I am in the way. It seems his eyes speak, “That I should be able to count the days of my life on my hand.” Stilled. Then, “Let go,” and a hand removes his hold on me. Though treated as an intruder and neglected, he need not be concerned, for I and everyone, like him, briefly, are only life’s guests too.
Four hours later we finish. Soaked in perspiration, I’m tired. I, like Kim, am in awe of India’s “River of life.” But the day isn’t over; now I have to get back to where I am staying. The other volunteers chose to take more direct rail transit to downtown where they live while I am going back to the Mother House. Armed with a destination and a number for a bus I am to catch, I walk to the bus stop and wait.
Forty-five minutes or so later, the bus arrives, and I get on. The bus starts, and now the question is where to get off. Soon I realize not only do I not know where to get off, but do not know how to ask anyone where to get off. In no time my aloneness swells from being one of four waiting for a bus, to one of fifty on a bus, to one in a city of 12 million, to one in an India of one billion.
Signing of sorts, “Mother Teresa’s house?” No. No. Then a nod and a gesture in return from an amused rider who directs me when to get off and I do.
What took or brought me here, was it path or trail? They are different. Why so many young people from all over are here as volunteers? One sister’s answer was, “They are searching. They come in twos, threes or alone.” Cast in India, searching.
“‘And artists call this composition. Does not then the beauty lie in
the relation between the masses?’
‘It seems it does.’
‘Beauty therefore is a relation, and the apprehension of it a comparison. The sense of beauty in fact is a comparison, is it not ?’
‘So it would appear.'”
—Gerald Manley Hopkins
“…that every work of art must be logical…”
That is mine to find, now back at the room, my cloche.
Tomorrow, left there to be told, brings a train ride to Shanti-Nagar, “The place of peace”, Mother Teresa’s leper colony.
India, to what it sows, its dignity, its secrets, more the hope to unfold.