The first time I see Mother Teresa striding down the hall, it’s clear that she has let go all pointless baggage. She’s short and wide, she has energy in spades, and she barrels on like a tank. She can’t be stopped. She comes to chapel early, kneels on the right-hand corner mat, and gets busy praying.

The room where mass takes place is spare — a simple altar, floor mats for the nuns, bare floor for those who have come to work at Kalighat, where the destitute come to die. The priest comes in last. His voice is the call, ours the response. Through high windows fiery light pours down, the room fills with lifting energy, and our words fly up and out the windows like a flock of doves. I imagine that nothing my hand touches will ever again be hard cold matter.

*

Calcutta in July is a petri dish multiplying microbes. Sidewalks fill with sneezing, coughing citizens. Lorries crowd thoroughfares, revving engines, grinding huge gears, and I sweat, cough, sneeze with the multitudes. The hospice is next door to a Kali temple. Did Mother Teresa choose Kalighat’s location because Kali Ma, the Hindu triple goddess of creation, preservation, and destruction would reside next door?

I arrive as Sister Luke instructs a young Brit to get down on his hands and knees and scrub the entrance threshold. Roughly half the volunteers are in their forties or fifties, and the others, like this Oxford undergrad, are the young who aspire to change the world. Would Sister Luke admit that she likes seeing this privileged boy on his knees?

I introduce myself, and Sister Luke nods.

“Women work on women’s ward,” she says, pointing.

Luke goes back to her desk on a raised platform between the men’s and women’s wards, and records a new donation of Bactrim in her ledger. Thus ends my training. Karin, who is my age, shows me where to find supplies of clean gowns, sheets, towels, soap, points out the bathing area, toilets. The only medical apparatus is a handful of thermometers and one drip bottle hung from a coat rack. There’s a cabinet of meds, mostly over-the-counter pain killers — that’s it. But this bare simplicity doesn’t feel austere. I have friends in the states who are nurses, and I recognize the atmosphere they mysteriously create with their presence. Kalighat houses the harrowing of illness and death, and it’s also the harboring landscape of love.

*

As a child I’d played beneath an elm next to my grandmother’s yellow irises. Into this bower I brought abandoned things — a fallen blossom, a dying cricket, pebbles that called to me. A cracked saucer of rainwater. I’d cherished these forgotten ones and played at comforting them. I suspect that this play was a way of assuring myself that I would also be comforted.

Here I go the rounds from 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., collecting more of the world’s abandoned. Unless we participate in the dread, the sense of loss, the anguish, the dereliction and the destitution of the crucified, wrote Thomas Merton, we cannot enter into the mystery: the mystery of the interconnection between all things. We are not always aware of this interconnection. But when we notice it, to participate in makes obvious sense.

Karin asks Sister Luke where she keeps the shrouds.

“You are here three days,” Luke says, “and you do not know where are shrouds?”

The windows are above our heads: they afford privacy but let in light. The cots are low, so I must kneel, and the lower you go, the less high and mighty you can pretend to be. I can’t understand Bengali, nor can my language be understood. And how fitting — for I’m in a place where my actions will speak louder than words. I mime: shall I carry you to the bath? Help you walk to the latrine? Do you want a cup of water? A woman nods: yes, please. Another pushes the glass away. When they chat with each other do they assess me? It doesn’t matter.

Kneeling beside their cots, I’m bowing to them. I practice this bow the way I practiced the piano over and over. The women are the black and white keys, the possibility of love’s music. Some are starved, some worn down by the hard work of living without wealth. I fill their cups with water and remember myself at four years old, working in the garden with my mother. Afterward we bathed together, and my mother looked weary but happy. Work was an elixir, and she’d drunk it down. Her body’s satisfaction was a kind of wealth. Now her body is giving in like the bodies of these women. Like Calcutta’s old mansions that once were grand, they’re crumbling.

*

In the nineteenth century the Bengali elite built their palaces in Calcutta, the cultured classes flourished, and the poet and mystic Rabindranath Tagore recited his astonishing poems. Now Mother Teresa’s work has pumped up Calcutta’s prestige again. She bows to this city every afternoon between 3:00 and 4:00, when she opens the door of her private quarters and steps out to receive anyone who comes.

The new French volunteer, Clarice, is just out of high school, and aspires to become a nun. As a first step, while still in Paris, she’d shaved her head.

“Come with me to visit Mother. Please! I am too frightened to go alone!”

I remember the hot feel of idolatry when I was four: my mother, I believed, was the repository where all secrets were kept. Clarice is in idolatry’s grip, and ardor like hers, in someone so young, is sweet. We bus to the Motherhouse and join the line of supplicants waiting. At 3:00 p.m. Mother opens her door, steps out, greets the first petitioner. The line moves slowly as each supplicant departs, floating above the parquet.

Clarice is nervous. Will meeting Mother bring on palpitations? Fainting, it occurs to me, is very French. Does Clarice carry smelling salts in the pocket of her lacy cotton blouse? A family of five Bengalis in front of us takes their turn.

Clarice clutches my forearm. “Mother is so close!” she whispers.

The five hustle off, and Clarice sinks to her knees at Mother’s feet. Mother grips her arm and tugs her up. Clarice is in shock: forbidden to kneel? This cannot be! Again she collapses. Again Mother tugs her arm: there will be no groveling!

“What is your name?” Mother asks. “Where are you from?”

Clarice is weak from the strain of being gazed upon by a saint.

“Paris!” she gasps.

Mother explains that the Sisters of Charity operate AIDS hospices all over France, and urges Clarice to volunteer when she returns. Clarice nods vigorously. Mother has instructed her how to proceed in life! Clarice holds out a tiny St. Teresa medal and presses it into Mother’s hand. Mother’s hand presses it back.

“I have taken a vow of poverty,” Mother says. “I can’t accept gifts.”

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.

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.

“Come.”

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.

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