Hey friends & family,
It is November now, and time is whizzing by. I was in Kolkata for about 5 days, so I have a lot to share about my experience there.
A little bit on Kolkata:
Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, is the capital of West Bengal. Kolkata was a village before the British chose this place to rule in 1668. It also used to be the capital of India under the British in 1772, before it shifted to New Delhi in 1911. It is the only metropolis in Eastern India, and also the main business, commercial, and financial hub. It is widely known to be the birthplace of modern Indian literary and artistic thought. After Independence in 1942, Kolkata faced some challenging times. During WWII, millions starved to death during the Bengal famine of 1943. During the period of 1960s and 70s, there were strikes, severe power outages, and a violent Marxist-Maoist movement – the Naxalites, which hurt the city’s infrastructure leading to financial stagnation. In 1971, when the war between India and Pakistan was happening, it led to mass numbers of refugees in Kolkata, which further hurt infrastructure. However, since 2000, information technology helped recover the economy and the city experienced growth in manufacturing. Many believe it is no longer associated with slums, destitution, and Mother Teresa, but has grown into the cultural capital of India. The climate is tropical with hot, wet, humid summers, and cool and dry winters. Bengali cuisine is delicious and the people are warm and friendly. Poverty still largely remains and Kolkata is said to house some of the largest slums with 1/3 of the population living in a slum.
I arrived in Kolkata in the morning and went straight to Mother Teresa’s House, where her Missionaries of Charity is located on 54a AJC Bose Road. I have always held high esteem for Mother Teresa and her charitable work, so one of my goals before leaving India was to see her house and volunteer at one of her homes. Mother Teresa lived in Mother House with the sisters and it is also where her tomb is. When I first stepped in, I met a few sisters, walked around in the mini museum dedicated to her, and chatted with some of the volunteers. The volunteer orientation was at 3pm so I had lunch and attended the meeting at Shishu Bhavan (the home for children) down the street. There were many volunteers of all ages and from far off destinations. I met volunteers from England, Switzerland, France, United States, Japan, and Ireland. Some have left their families on a volunteer mission, while others were there for a short time to give a helping hand.
We were given some background information on the homes that we could volunteer at, some of which are: Kalighat – The home for the dying, Prem Dan – A home for women who were abandoned by their husbands, beaten, or suffered from various mental and physical illnesses and Daya Dan – A home for disabled children. Before our placement meeting, we had to read a paper written by a previous long-term volunteer. The paper demanded that volunteers not engage in any relationships or friendships with families and children in the neighboring streets (where most volunteers live). It emphasized the grave reality of sexual abuse which happens with these friendly gestures to help a child, and by giving money to these beggars, it is in a sense advertising and feeding into the cycle of an unlawful business. Most of the children who beg are hired or bought into this trade to make money for their owners. What looks like a mother and her children, are all just actors who are forced into this trade. There are reports of children on the streets being drugged; by giving them money, we are supporting the culture and abuse.
After the preliminary reading and logistical explanations, I met with the sisters in charge of placement. They asked me which house I would like to volunteer at and I told them to place me where they need me, since I was only there for a few days. The sister placed me in Prem Dan, where I was actually hoping to be placed.
And so the experience unveils itself:
I woke up for morning mass at 6am and prayed with the sisters. After mass, we went downstairs to the volunteer area where we had a breakfast which consisted of toast, chai, and bananas. As a group we engaged in some morning prayers and sang a cute farewell song to the volunteers whose last day it was, and off we went to our homes. As a group we hopped on a bus, paid about 5 cents and reached our destination.
Once we arrived, we went straight into our volunteer day. No instructions were given, I just followed the volunteers who had the routine down. First, we hand washed loads of clothing, bedding, and linen. Two volunteers were situated at a sink, all lined up like an assembly line: pre-wash, wash, rinse, and finally wring. Then we took turns taking full buckets upstairs on the rooftop to dry. After laundry, some of the volunteers and I went up into the home where we met the women and began to put ourselves to use. I cannot tell you some of the conditions these women were in (more on that later). I saw lotion being passed around, so I put my gloves on and began to lotion the bodies of the women (mostly ones who could not do it themselves, do to physical impairments). More so than lotion, I saw it as an opportunity for touch, which is so important to receive from other humans. Many of them were stiff, frozen and internally cold, with no sense of life. One young girl in particular who was mentally not all there kept coming back to me over and over to give her more lotion, I tried to tell her that was enough, but ended up giving her more to use because she could not understand. Once we were all through with the lotion and our time with them, we had a volunteer break, where we again ate bananas and had some chai. My first day was hard, I was angry and upset to see the living conditions and the lack of warmth and care in the home, more like “ward.” Once break was over, we helped get their lunch ready and I fed a handicapped women who I had met before. She was an absolute delight. I am not sure what her physical condition was, but she could not use her right hand, and was not able to speak (her mouth was just stuck open). She could not speak, but she sketched her name on the bed, and spelled out
P-A-D-M-A. Her spirit was so lovely though, and she was so bright.
The next day looked very similar to the first, but I felt more comfortable being around the women and actually started to form a bond with some of them. Before I left, I made sure to tell one of the volunteers I was with to put music on in the afternoon, and to try to get them to dance, as well as settled the anger of a woman who was walking around and hitting the others with a wooden stick she used to walk with. The women that I saw had a wide ranging of conditions – some looked completely fine, and were young, maybe they had more dormant mental conditions. Others had hunchbacks, were severely burned with their eyes bulging out with only their whites showing. Many were older and angry, unable to walk, and having to crawl around the cement floors. The place was soulless, and the sense of hopelessness was overwhelming. I did not think I could handle physically seeing some of the deformities, but to my surprise, I was not turned off or fearful of their appearance or impairments.
The women were lined up like cattle, sitting side by side on the outside area of the floor – there was an inside area with beds (cots) lined up next to each other, with no room in between, and outside there were cement benches, shelves, and grounds. Some of my observations: no use of underwear, bugs crawling up and down the premises, women arguing, rocking back and forth, and threatening each other, cuts, bruises, and sores all over their bodies, abuse, and absolute neglect. I am not sure whether being at Prem Dan is better than the streets. There were no activities for them, basic hygiene, or emotional support. Many express their desire to go “home” to their “families,” and by this they mean the streets. However, the sisters will not allow them to leave, especially the women (there’s another section for the men) because they are afraid they will be sexually abused. And so they are ultimately held captive.
As a young girl in high school, and even until recently, I always had this grand view of Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity. I am not about to criticize or make harsh judgments, but I am severely heart broken at the lack of care for the people who they have taken in and the way the workers treat the individuals at the centers. Many were rough with them, mocked them, and even pushed around the volunteers. Yes, the sick are off the streets, but are the better off emotionally? Are they receiving the medical attention that they need? Are they able to express themselves? Are they really safe, or do they FEEL safe?
After my experience, I did further research on Mother Teresa and her selfless goal to help “the poorest of the poor.” To my dismay, I now know she believed strongly that suffering brings you closer to Christ, and did not believe in pain relievers or alleviating the distress of the people in whom she was helping. I have read stories where people were forced to defecate in front of each other, were denied medical drugs for serious conditions, and electroshock therapy was used as a form of punishment. Much happens behind closed doors. I will not go into any more details, but I am not sure where all of the millions/billions of dollar donations are going? People are blindly giving money to the Missionaries of Charity with the notion that they are giving towards a humane cause. Little do most know, that the money is just being given to the church, or used to push the low-income towards converting their religion. I cannot pass judgement on that, but all I know is that much needs to be done at these homes. The people are stuck, with no hope, and the volunteers, who I admire so much, and who all were so kind hearted and wonderful, are not only putting their self at a health risk, but may not understand the severity of the problem. The burning images of the loss of hope in the eyes of some of those women will forever be in my heart.
This experience was life-changing. More than that, it showed that there exists many forms of realities in this world. Additionally, saints may really be sinners in disguise.
Well, I have exhausted my capacity to write any further. I miss you all and love you all.
We were not allowed to take picture inside, but I will show you what I was able to capture.
At Shishu Bhavan
Mother Teresa Pilgrimage Walk
Where some of the sisters are buried
Mother Teresa’s school
Where she took her final vows as “Mother Teresa”
The wonderful volunteers @ Prem Dan