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Clarice is stricken. For months she has worn the medal on a chain at her throat and fantasized about laying its slight weight in Mother’s hand. Again Clarice offers it. Mother is cheery firmness: no. I chat a few moments with Mother, then turn Clarice toward the stairs. Clarice is teary with the triumph of success and the devastation of failure. Halfway down the staircase she stops and thrusts out the necklace.
“Please — please!ill you take it? I must give it to someone!”
My cough and runny nose subside, but heat and sweat go on. Every day thousands more Bangladeshi refugees arrive in Calcutta. People fight over taxis. While the bus hauls us through diesel air, past corrugated tin shacks and small, faltering shops, I think of Boulder, Colorado. Our Pearl Street Mall is Armani et al. Get your designer socks here, twenty-five bucks a pair. Much attention goes to the politically correct purchase — not the cotton but the silk zafu and zabuton set. You glimpse the young man from Nuevo Laredo only as he’s disappearing down a manhole to repair pipes. You see the restaurant’s Nepalese busboy only on your way to the restrooms.
Now I’m the foreigner. When I step down from the bus, a beggar sits on the sidewalk, waiting. Take along your sense of humor, a friend warned me. You’ll be a White Person, a mark for Calcutta’s beggars — some of whom work for themselves and some for The Man. And how, I asked, will I tell true beggars from charlatans? You can’t, my friend said, but that’s ok. Charlatans too need work.
Some of the volunteers have a beggar policy. Give to the first three, then stop. Put fifty rupees in your pocket and when it’s gone, that’s it. And don’t give to children begging, because it encourages them to become lifetime beggars. I don’t have a policy. Every day is a new day, and this beggar has one arm. He wears a ragged Notre Dame tee, and with his one arm holds out his bowl. I take a fistful of coins from my pocket, drop them in — the beggar bows — and I’m off down the street to Kalighat.
Indians know that when someone can no longer contribute to the family’s income, you take that person to Calcutta’s train station, confident that Mother Teresa’s van will come and the saint herself will take over. Today the van brings Salwari, the wife of a farmer. When she broke a leg, her husband couldn’t afford to pay a doctor to set it. And when it healed, she was crippled and couldn’t work in the fields. She became a mouth her family couldn’t afford to feed. Now she has bedsores. She is in pain and has told Luke she hopes to die soon. She’s stopped eating. Sister Luke cleans her sores, applies disinfectant. Salwari is stoic: not a wince.
“God,” Luke says, disapproving, “is taking a long time.”
My fourteenth day: simplicity is a monastery. Here where routine repeats there’s no reason to hurry, and I see more clearly. Mid-morning, the van delivers Hasina. I guess that she’s in her thirties. In Bengali she tells Luke she’s fourteen. She’s starving and too weak to sit up alone. She can’t hold a cup. I carry her to the bathing stall, chatting in English on the theory that the sound of a voice is food. Then I towel her, dress her, carry her back to the cot. I kneel and prop her up, lift a spoonful of curry. She is ravenous, eager for each bite, but she can’t yet eat much at one time.
The distance between the hungry and the fed is the most vast distance there is. But hunger is also an altar where we learn to feed each other. The hungry and the fed, the starved and the fat: we are equals in need, the need to be loved and the need to love. Like a key and its lock, the hungry and the fed are designed to fit each other perfectly.
Feeding another person is the simplest of acts, and from this act, feeling begins to flow. When I feed Hasina, I am the generous and powerful giver, and at the same time some neglected part of me is also fed. The act of offering the spoon leads straight to the heart of the mystery — the mystery that in raising the spoon to her mouth, I fill us both.
Today Mother’s van brings a woman beggar. Her skin is dark from days in the sun and her eyes are infected, bound shut with pus. Her broken left hand has healed into a flesh corsage, permanently pinned above her left breast. Her right arm thrusts straight up to accept coins — she can’t lower this arm. The fingers of her raised hand are clenched shut.
Luke speaks in Bengali. The woman utters a moan. “Bath,” Luke says.
I peel off the woman’s clothes, carry her slight body to the tub. Her moan is a low drone. I bathe her eyelids and try to open her clenched fingers. But it’s as though her fist has fused shut. I bathe her and talk to her quietly.
“I’ll make you comfortable, I’ll feed you. Don’t worry, you’re not alone.”
She doesn’t know my language, but she hears the tone of my voice, and by speaking to her, I also reassure myself. I carry her back to her cot, offer a spoonful of rice. She won’t or can’t eat.
I cover her with a thin sheet and go from cot to cot with my pitcher, pouring the women drinks of water. We make little jokes. Sometimes a woman wants me to sit with her, hold her hand. Going among these flagging bodies reminds me that I too am vulnerable, I too will suffer. I keep one eye on the woman beggar. Her eyes are still shut.
I go to her and offer food again. Again she refuses.
Her moan is a sound worn thin.
I sit on the cot next to her. She needs to be held. So I sit her up, lay her one free arm around my neck, put both my arms around her. I hold her and rock us back and forth. She moans, and I moan in return. Back and forth, her moan, then mine. Then I switch, so that I moan when she moans. Our moan has become a song.
As we go on, our bodies breathe, and we loosen. We are less bodies now than vibrations coming in waves. No money changes hands, no one is counting. We inhabit the mesh of belonging and go on rocking. Then comes a moment when these waves of energy, mine and hers, become ours. I can scarcely tell myself from her, nor from the fan’s whir, stirring the air.
Salwari lies on her side. Luke swabs an open sore, but Salwari doesn’t flinch. Luke is impatient: where is God? That’s the powerful for you, she seems to say, never there when you need them. God is present, Simone Weil wrote, at the point where the eyes of those who give and those who receive meet. Salwari opens her eyes.
She looks at Luke. “I die soon.”
I kneel beside two men from the men’s ward, the three of us scrubbing sheets and towels by hand. There are many, many sheets, and we concentrate on scrubbing and fall silent: the only sound inside is the swish of wet cloth, and beyond the high windows I hear the orchestra of traffic.