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Space is at a premium in Calcutta, and the clotheslines are on the roof. We carry wet sheets up the stairs and hang them. Crows flap past, and the smoke of incense from the courtyard of the Kali temple wafts upward. Worshipers mill, and I spot two men in suits with briefcases. Also, the baker from the shop on the corner. Women in saris appear, bells on their ankles. They join the priests circling Kali, shaking tambourines and chanting. I savor the sweet smell of clean clothes. This scent suggests the future in which I’ll bathe and dress the women. In the meantime I remember that Kali’s mouth is wide open, her fangs poised to bite.
I’ve been here three weeks, each day giving a beggar or two a little something. Today I made eye contact with a beggar and walked on. He leapt up and charged after me. I kept walking, but he ran and got in front of me, then turned obsequious, crawling on his knees, whining. When I ignored him, he stood and followed me down the street, shouting I know not what profanities. I felt beleaguered, then on the edge of fury. We were losing it, goading each other on. We had created a situation intolerable to us both, and both of us had cooperated to construct this fierce standoff.
Suddenly it hit me: our anger was cooperative. We’d conspired together to be furious at each other. In an instant my anger dissolved, and I giggled. The beggar was startled. We paused, assessing each other. Then he too grinned. I reached into my pocket, drew out rupees equivalent to a couple of U.S. dollars, and offered them. He accepted, and bowed to me. When he rose, I bowed to him in return.
Hasina is hungry between meals. She speaks her one English word: biscuit. I get her one. She eats a bite, hides the rest beneath the mattress. Her eyes ravenous. An old woman complains of pain in her hip. I look for aspirin, Tylenol, codeine, but we’re out. We’re also out of tea.
When we run out of something, Mother Teresa is Kalighat’s oil well. She prays and hustles, and that day or the next what we need comes. Hasina asks for another biscuit. I turn up my hands: no more left. Luke hails me.
I follow her. She points to the beggar woman I’d rocked.
“Dress her in shroud.”
No one I’m close to back in Boulder has died. I have no experience of the newly dead. Now I am in a place where death is common. And this woman and I have a history. In those moments of rocking each other we were two bodies become one being. I’d imagined the dead would be light. When I lift the woman’s leg, it’s heavy as stone. I maneuver, getting her body into the shroud. Then I ask Luke: is there a funeral ritual?
“Van takes them to Ganges. One priest is Catholic. He blesses those we bring.”
The woman’s fist is still clenched shut. I pry her fingers part way open, enough to see in her palm three pais, coins worth less than a penny.
I kiss her knuckles, take a breath and let it out. Let her go.
Today when I leave Kalighat the light lowers toward evening. The street leading to the main thoroughfare seems unusually quiet. Then I hear a communal shout. I edge through the throng standing along the curb. The boulevard has been cordoned off from traffic and is filled with ranks of barefoot pilgrims. They halt, kneel and prostrate themselves full frontal on the pavement. Then they rise, advance one step, and again prostrate themselves. After each prostration a Hindu priest chants a line. Those watching the pilgrims answer him with a collective shout.
Repetition reassures us that life goes on, and variation reminds us that our lives are constantly changing. Our bodies continuously slough off old cells and keep making new ones. In that way we are continuously appearing and disappearing. But we’ve learned to perceive ourselves and each other as solid bodies. Is the slow deliberateness of the pilgrims’ prostrations another way to enter the mystery? Prostration by prostration the procession slowly moves on.
The month I signed on for is almost up, and I’ve settled in. I’ve imagined that leaving Calcutta will feel like a tearing. Now the final day comes: I get off the bus and head to Kalighat. Not a beggar in sight. Did police do a sweep up? Even if they did, they’d have missed someone. Men pass me heading to work, women to market, children to school, but no beggars. This is proof that you can’t generalize about Calcutta. It’s a city jerry-rigged never to flourish and never to completely run down.
I open Kalighat’s door and step from the freshness of morning into the smell of excrement. Diarrhea, Luke tells me, has been rampant through the night. With the other volunteers I plunge in. I walk a woman to the toilet, then back. Another needs a bedpan now. She fills it, and I clean her and empty the bedpan. On it goes. All day the body mantra: wash the women, dress them, wash the mattress, put on clean sheets. Only Salwari is clean — she hasn’t eaten for weeks.
Here and then there a woman calls for water. With four other volunteers on their knees I scrub soiled gowns. When noon comes I’m tired, and so are the sick. A volunteer complains of the stink. Luke gives her a look: you came to Calcutta to sniff roses?
Florence Nightingale was born into a family where upper class women were supposed to play the piano and sing. She perceived her family’s privilege as a prison and chose instead a life of engagement. She was right to do so, for kneeling over and over changes the senses’ circuits. The one who is whole kneels and attends the one broken, and the broken one attends the one who is whole.
I think of Walt Whitman working as a medic, saying I become the wounded person. Becoming vulnerable has a beautiful consequence. It lifts my ego from the fortress of fear and sets it down in Eden’s pulsing field. Now the front door opens and a man enters bearing a box. The biscuit factory has sent a donation. I take a biscuit to Hasina. A woman calls out that she needs the latrine, but I don’t get there in time. I peel back her soiled gown, wipe her, my hands deep in the grubby detailsI keep getting down on my knees, and yet I feel like I’m climbing. These women are familiar, and I’m familiar to them. I’m weary, but here where the beds are low and the pace slower, loving is easy. And being loved in return sinks into my skin, flesh, bone.
Luke observes my labor. “Today,” she says, “a lot of trouble.”
Yes, oh yes, troublesome trouble. Now this trouble has become my bread.