Tag Archives: Kolkata


I wanted to post this one a little while ago.  I feel like many of my blog entries are dark and heavy and about serious things, like mentally-ill homeless people or starving children.  I am actually also doing and seeing fun, light-hearted things in India.  A quick photogallery of some of those things:

IMG_5402 excellent shirt smallA hilarious shirt that I saw for sale in Delhi.  I have seen some prize-winning shirt slogans here, including several sightings of “Being Human” as well as below a small cartoon of a pregnant woman, “Mary Had A Little Lamb. The Doctor Was Surprised.”

IMG_5567 MBA small

There was also this excellent book title on a shelf in Darjeeling, i.e., the one about MBAs.  Paging Becca Russell-Einhorn, Natalie Rubin and Rhiannon Kopynec… 🙂

IMG_5654 kati roll smallerHere’s my favorite local kati roll maker in Kolkata whipping up my lunch, a double egg roll.  It’s not an egg roll like you’re picturing: it’s a thin layer of bread, roti, cooked with scrambled eggs inside it, then rolled up with onions, chilis, and hot sauces.  Delicious.  Cost 22 rupees (about 40 cents).

IMG_5671 menhdi dry small


Mendhi design!  Aka henna, as we call it in the States.

This story is slightly less fun as I was pretty badly ripped off for this design and also was told I was buying food for hungry children only to realize I was falling for a pretty routine scam run on Sudder Street (in Kolkata) and that the food would probably be resold and the money would likely go to an organized crime syndicate of some kind.  But — I did want a good menhdi design, and I did get a good menhdi design.  It’s only really fully disappeared in the past day, so it lasted about 2.5 weeks, which is pretty good.

IMG_5659 rooftop chill 1 small IMG_5663 kevin idaho shakes it small IMG_5665 chloe kevin circus hoops smallThese are some pictures from a night in Kolkata, on the rooftop of some friends’ hotel near the motherhouse, when we met the girl from the traveling circus. …really.

It was Wed. night, the night before the volunteers’ day off, and we were celebrating with a few beers on the roof when one of the sisters materializes with a rail-thin white girl.  Draped over her shoulders, in addition to the requisite backpack, are two huge sparkly hula hoops.  Somehow — I really don’t remember the story — she was in Kolkata without either money or a room to stay in.  Maybe she had a couple hundred rupees.  Anyway, she found the motherhouse and the nuns helped her by directing her to my friend who had a spare bed in her room.

So this girl sits down.  We start with the standard traveler questions:  What’s your name?  Chloe.  Nice to meet you, Chloe.  Where are you from? “That’s…complicated,” she says in a light British accent.  She has an English passport but mostly grew up in France.  Several of us on the roof (the group is two Americans, a Mexican, a German guy, and a Swiss guy) speak French and the conversation flows between English and French for the next few hours.  We offer her a drink.  She offers us weed that she picked by the side of the road somewhere in northern India.  Of course.

We are wondering how Chloe has ended up on the roof of our hotel here in Kolkata with enormous sparkly hula hoops and virtually no money.  She explains that she spent the past year traveling across Asia with two friends, earning money as they go through street performance.  She refers to the group as a small traveling circus.  Hence the sparkly hoops. We ask Chloe for a performance.  She’s pretty good.  Kevin,  the other American, gives them a spin too.

Chloe explains that she’s due back in Bangkok in a few days.  I’m a little fuzzy on how she got to Kolkata with almost no money or awareness that rooms here generally cost more than 100 rupees (about $1.80) a night.  But it doesn’t matter, because this is the quintessential Indian travel experience and one of the things I love about India.  These are exactly the kind of people you meet here.  You’re just having a drink on the roof with some friends and someone materializes with a circus act en route to Thailand.  Sure!  Of course!

Oh.  Did I mention that Chloe the traveling circus girl, with the homepicked weed, is 18?  Years old?




The Nuns’ “Wedding Day”

On Friday, when I’ve been in Kolkata for nearly a week, I get to watch nuns take their final vows. I vaguely understand what this means, but ask some of the other volunteers (most of whom are Catholic and many of whom came to Kolkata because they were inspired by Mother Teresa) to explain. “It’s their final commitment, saying, yes, this is what I will do for the rest of my life. It is like they are marrying the church,” explains Natalie, a Malaysian friend who later confides that Mother Teresa has been an idol of hers since she was 15.

The mass, as Natalie correctly predicts, is two hours long. There is no air conditioning in the church, of course, and the large fans overhead seem to just be stirring the humid air into which several hundred people are breathing and sweating. I can hardly see the altar from my seat, but everyone shifts around enough that I keep getting great flashes of the shiny pomp and circumstance you get when the colorful world of India collides with costume-heavy Catholicism. The priests wear gold and red frocks and behind the altar is an enormous picture of Jesus studded with brightly colored bulbs that wouldn’t be out of place on a Hollywood marquee.

Large parts of the service involve singing, and while almost everything is in English, the heavy Indian accents render the lyrics unintelligible. But the nuns’ voices sound beautiful anyway. The nuns don’t take their actual vows until about 2/3 of the way through the service. The priest asks them to repeat a long series of commitments after him. Then each of the 19 nuns takes her turn swearing out loud that she is committing herself to a life of “chastity, devotion, and obedience” to “our Lord Jesus Christ.” When the last vow is taken, the church bells are rung for a few minutes. Then the choir sings again.

IMG_5678 nuns church

IMG_5681 nuns church celebrate

I watch the faces of the Indian family members who have come to watch their daughters, sisters, aunts make the ultimate commitment to their faith. None betray the happiness or joy I would expect to see on their faces. Are Indians really so deadpan? I wonder.

Later I realize the solemn faces were strictly for church. Back at motherhouse, a few of us slide into the vast celebration the rest of the nuns are holding for the new 19. There’s a cordoned-off section for family and friends, who are now laughing and grinning and peering at the courtyard in anticipation.  The upper two floors are ringed with fellow nuns.

IMG_5682 nuns balcony

After a few minutes, the novice nuns come dancing in singing. Their song is part hymn, part theatrical chorale, but their dance is all Bollywood (a chaste version, of course). After applause, the new 19 appear, and the applause erupts into cheers. Bells are rung from the top floor. Older nuns greet the new 19 with garlands of flowers, and then everyone surges into a second room, where family members kiss and hug their new nuns.

IMG_5684 me and natalie nuns day

(Me and Natalie)IMG_5688 nuns danceThe novices celebrate the new 19IMG_5693 nuns give flowersFlowers!IMG_5698 nun lots of flowersSO many flowers

A group of Spanish-speaking volunteers (there is a HUGE Spanish contingent at motherhouse, because South America / Spain = pretty Catholic) serenades one nun with garlands of fresh flowers and a clap-happy chant in Spanish. A Chilean girl who is involved later tells me the nuns asked them to perform this task because the nun, who is Mexican, didn’t have any family members attend. They did a great job, because from watching, you wouldn’t have had any idea the Spanish contingent wasn’t best friends with this nun.

I learn later from an American volunteer—who is back for her second summer at motherhouse—that immediately after this celebration, the nuns are given their assignments. I hadn’t realized that they wouldn’t all be staying in Kolkata. In fact, most of them will be sent off to missions in far-off countries, probably places they have never been, where they won’t speak the language and won’t know anyone, and they’ll stay there for at least 5 years. I didn’t realize that’s how this works. It deepens my appreciation for the “obedience” and self-sacrifice the nuns have committed themselves to taking. And it deepens my appreciation for them.

Watching the families kiss and hug the new sisters as they bury them under countless garlands, I say to Natalie, “Wow. This is pretty incredible. It’s so special we got to see this.”

She smiles. “Yes,” she says. “It should be. It’s like their wedding day.”

Wow, I think. Even more special than I thought. With those words, it feels almost intrusive to be here, uninvited, for the “wedding day” of these 19 women. But in the true Indian way—and perhaps also the Catholic way—no one minds at all that we are there.

The Week in Kolkata

I spend nine days in Kolkata.  I volunteer at Prem Dan every morning except Thursday, our day off, and I go to Shishu Bhavan, a motherhouse for children with disabilities, a couple of afternoons.

(Warning that I am about to describe some of the injuries and illnesses I’ve seen at the motherhouses.)

Things do not get easier after day one.  In fact, they get much harder.  The first day is much less of a shock than I was expecting—I was ready for the rail-thin, hunchbacked bodies of women who have been bedridden for months.  As the days go on, there are more and more moments that puncture my protective mental bubble.  One woman who sits rocking in her chair every day has no eyes and is missing part of her nose.  My guess was that she’s been a victim of an acid burning—sometimes women in India are splashed with acid by family members for failing to produce a son or otherwise failing to live up to their expected duties as wives.  I later learn from a longtime volunteer that this is indeed the case—the woman was burned by her husband after she learned he was having an affair.

Several days I have to help people in the bathroom.  There are two bathrooms: one that is fairly clean with standard Indian squat toilets and a sink with soap.  The other, the one where people go if they need help, has several commodes that open directly onto the concrete floor.  So the entire room is a giant toilet—one you flush by splashing a bucket of water over the floor towards the drain in the corner.

Some days have bright moments.  On my third day I feel a surge of warmth when a woman I’ve massaged a couple of times greets me at the door with a hug.

I befriend Justine, a sassy Indian staff member who scolds me in English—“Oh my God. Quickly, quickly with dishes washing!” as I toss metal plates too slowly into the rinsing water—before giving me a cheeky grin to let me know she’s joking around.

On my fourth day, I toss out a few Bollywood dance steps in time with the music playing behind me to entertain a few of the women.  They grin and point at me.  I twirl around and realize most of the Indian staff are also watching.  They are laughing and clapping.  “Dance, yes!” they encourage me.  I grab Justine’s hand and try to get her to join me.  “Challo!” I say (“Let’s go!”).

Other days are harder.  Every day there are a few new volunteers who must learn the routine.  Not all of the newbies speak English, and most of the Indian staff don’t.  So communication is reduced to a few shouted words, pointing, grabbing volunteers by the hand and dragging them to where they’re needed.  I am reminded of the scene in Kill Bill where Pi Mai tells Beatrix that if she can’t understand him, then he will “point, hit you, train you like a dog.”

Some days I see the staff treating the patients roughly.  At Shishu Bhavan, more than once I see a staff member pick up a child by her arm.  At Prem Dan, I see staff hit patients and shout at them.  Sometimes I see moments of kindness and tenderness, like when a staff member plays with a child and tickles his cheeks.  But most of those tender moments come from volunteers.

One day a few volunteers get scolded for talking too much.

One day Justine tells me she thinks I am doing a good thing.

One day two American girls make most of the beds wrong and we have to go around fixing all the sheets so they’re tucked in perfectly.

The patients never wash their hands after using the toilet.

A woman points to an open sore on her foot and when I tell a staff member, she shrugs and says, “Sister.”  Get a sister, a nun.  And walks away.

I try to give water to a bed-bound patient I’ve been feeding.  She’s lying down.  I can’t pour it into her mouth, and when I try to prop her up, she shrieks with displeasure.  I mix a little water into her food.  It’s 95 degrees outside and there is no AC in the room.  She needs the water, but I can’t give her the water.

One day an Australian girl, who’s only been volunteering for two days, has to assist as the sisters wash down a new patient who was found on the street.  I see the Australian girl crying.  Later she describes in detail the wound that was in the woman’s foot.  I won’t repeat it.

On my last day, a group of us eat at the Spanish Cafe on Sudder Street.  An American and his Dutch girlfriend are sitting next to us, and he strikes up a conversation about motherhouse.  He says that there are a lot of criticisms of the motherhouses, some because the procedures there are inefficient (true) and some because the work conditions aren’t as hygienic as they should be (also true, though some experienced volunteers said they were much, much better than at most Indian hospitals).  He also says that as a volunteer, he usually felt superfluous and like he wasn’t doing much to help.  “There are human connections you can make, like with small things you do like paint the ladies’ nails.  But the staff would still get the work done without the volunteers.”

I think about how slowly the laundry goes without us there to help.  I think about how many people we needed to feed by hand.  But I find myself wondering if he’s right, in a way, and spend a while thinking about what, if any, “difference” I’ve made this week, or that anyone makes in any week.

Later, the American, who is planning his next year of travel with the girlfriend (he tells me he’s been “traveling for 4 years”), looks up from a list of teaching and volunteering options across several continents and jokingly asks, “What should we do with our lives, Chelsea?”

I smile.  “Well,” I say.  I am thinking about the little girl with cerebral palsy who I held in my lap and sang to for an hour and a half to help her calm down.  “This is what I think.”  I am thinking about the little blind boy who squealed with pleasure as my friend Fatima tickled his stomach and danced him around the room singing him songs in Spanish.  I am thinking about a Malaysian girl, Jasmine, giving women at Prem Dam long, deep massages and the smiles of pleasure she elicited.  “I worked on the Obama campaign in 2008.  When I registered people to vote, some said, ‘Bah, I don’t vote, because it doesn’t matter.’  So, statistically, maybe, yeah, it’s a pretty small percentage, one vote.  But I always told those people (credit to my father for this next line), ‘If everyone felt that way, then no one would vote.  So it DOES matter.’  I’ve been thinking about what you just said, about volunteering at motherhouse.  It’s a small difference, maybe.  But I think it does matter.  So I guess whatever you do, believe that, I think.  You know?”

The American smiles slightly.  I don’t know if he does know, but he nods a bit.  “Fair enough,” he says.  “Fair enough.”

IMG_5711 me and surly patient

Me and one of the patients (who was always bossing me around, in a good way)

IMG_5717 desiree and patient

Desiree, one of the Australians, giving a hand massage

IMG_5716 am girl patient

An American volunteer with a patient

IMG_5719 patient

Another one of our lovely ladies…

IMG_5722 me and patient one eye

…and another…

IMG_5723 me and patient one leg

…and another!

IMG_5724 me and justineMe and the ever-sassy Justine.  I owe you one for showing me the ropes, buddy.

IMG_5732 prem dan

Prem Dan

IMG_5727 prem dan vols

The Prem Dan volunteers!


Photogenic Decay in Kolkata




Kolkata is a really photogenic place, but for not-great reasons.  Most of the city was built up during the British Raj — when British traders first landed in the 17th and 18th centuries, there were just a trio of fishing villages that the British eventually combined, with dozens of other villages, into the metropolis that houses 15 million people today.

A lot of the buildings are still from that era and look very colonial, British-built.  The Brits were probably the last people to clean or maintain any of them, too.  The vast majority of colonial-era buildings are crumbling semi-wrecks — they look the way deserted factories in Queens look.  Except most of these buildings aren’t deserted — they house stores, apartments, offices.  It’s the architecture of a ghost town populated by living people.

It makes for a nice set of photos.  And it makes for perhaps a less-nice city.

IMG_5647 decay sepia kolkata

IMG_5657 jesus muslim sq small

IMG_5652 crumble sepia sign kolkata

IMG_5653 sign kolkata crumble small


Anne and I meet in Kolkata to volunteer at Mother Teresa’s motherhouses, a handful of homes Mother Teresa opened for the “destitute and the dying” in the 1950s that continue to operate today.  Now there are homes for many ages, but all of the people were found on the streets, without family, and most have mental and/or physical disabilities.

My first day is a Sunday, so we start by going to mass.  At 6:00 am.  The mass is structured similarly to most other masses I’ve been to, with the Indian twist of removing our shoes before entering the room where service is held, as well as the Indian obstacle of the priest having his sermon sporadically interrupted by the loud sounds of Kolkatan traffic drifting in through the open windows.

A little after 7:00, downstairs we have a breakfast of toast, chai, and bananas. Then we begin the day with prayers and by singing a sweet little song to volunteers who are finishing their last day.  (“We thank you thank you thank you … from our hearts,” etc.”)

Anne and I are volunteering at Prem Dan, a home for the elderly.  I have really no idea what to expect.  Anne has said we might be brushing their hair or just sitting with them.  She has told me to be “emotionally ready,” even though we both agree we’re not sure that’s possible and we don’t know what that means.

We walk for close to 40 minutes to reach Prem Dan.  I later learn there’s a bus, which I take once, then resume the morning walk, which takes us through a Muslim neighborhood, packed with tea stalls, mango sellers, sweet shops, and—my least favorite—meat shops, from which hemorrhage the sickly sweet stink of rotting meat.  At the end we walk through a sort of slum near the train tracks.  Children follow us in the streets, shouting, “Hello!  Hello!  What’s your name?  How are you!”  A handful of naked toddlers sometimes run giggling into curtained doorways.  Then we arrive at Prem Dan, an oasis of calm, order, and space in the dirty crowd of Kolkata.

It turns out we start by washing laundry.  A motley crew of Indian women in scrappy pink saris and foreigners are tossing laundry from basin to basin across a huge set of stone sinks.  We join the end of the human conveyor belt and begin wringing out the sopping but clean garments.  A lot of the fabrics are simple and rough – plain plaid and crosshatch patterns in either green, blue, yellow, purple, red, and pink predominate.  I try not to spend too much time identifying what each garment is, particularly when I realize a lot of them are stained.  Soapy water sloshes over my feet and I realize the yellow dye on my sandals is dying my feet yellow.  But the water is refreshing, as any part of us not drenched with water is already drenched with sweat.  It’s 8:45.

We toss the wrung fabrics into metal buckets and then take turns carrying the filled buckets to the roof, where staff (and, I realize later in the week, some of the more mobile and capable patients) are hanging/laying laundry out to dry.  I will be collecting this laundry again in about 2 hours—and yes, most of it will be dry then.  It’s pretty hot here.

When we’re done with laundry, it’s time to meet the patients.  Anna and Kayla, two American girls who are here on a school trip—I later meet many college students who are here on service trips—show me where to find plastic gloves and hand me a bottle of baby oil.  “We usually give them massages now, or paint their nails,” Anna explains.

I tiptoe into the main room where the women (the house is divided into a men’s side and a women’s side) are sitting.  Most are sitting upright on benches and chairs.  A handful are in wheelchairs.  A few are missing limbs.  Most are missing teeth.  Some appear to be blind.  A lot look very tiny, the way many old people do, except some of these have the frailty of people who have never eaten a square meal in their lives—the skin clings almost directly to bone with little interruption of fat or muscle.

Many of the women, as it turns out, are fairly with it.  It’s hard for me to gauge, since the ones who can speak only speak Bengali—my handful of Hindi words are helpful only half the time—and I have no idea if what they’re saying is remotely coherent.  Some are clearly not with it—they gaze into space or fail to respond to any sort of stimuli.

But almost all the women are with it enough to recognize that foreigners wearing gloves means it’s massage time, and many clamor after us, calling, “Auntie!” and rolling up their sleeves and pointing at their arms.

Oh.  I didn’t realize massages meant rubbing oil on their arms and legs.  Well.  Okay.  I approach a tiny shriveled woman who is beckoning to me.  She rolls up the bottom of her dress and points to her shins.

They are bony and have the long hair of someone who has never shaved.  I get down on my knees and open the baby oil.  Then again, and again, and when I kneel for the fourth time and look up at the hunchbacked Bengali woman peering down at me, it occurs to me that white people don’t kneel in front of brown people very often in India.

How A 10-Year-Old Tried To Teach Me Bengali

On the train ride from NJP to Kolkata (allegedly 10 hours, actually 14), I am sitting across from a mother, father, and their 10-year-old daughter.  She is wearing a delightful purple and rainbow zebra-stripe outfit.  I cannot understand the words she says, but I understand that she has sass.

A man comes by and asks if we want dinner.  I answer in Hindi without thinking about it: “Nahin.”  The couple across from me look delighted.  They say something that I can’t understand but that involves the word “Hindi.”  I smile and give my standard reply: “Meera Hindi — thora thora.”  My Hindi — little little.

They speak about as much English as I speak Hindi.  We manage to communicate that I am from the U.S., New York, and they are from a town a few hours outside of Kolkata, which is where they are returning to now.  Also, I am going to Kolkata, and I was just in Darjeeling.  How long?  “Five days, Darjeeling, beautiful. Very beautiful.”

I explain in Hindi that my name is Chelsea, then ask the girl: “Apka naam kya heyn?”  She shyly responds something I can’t understand, and her mother gives me an anglicatization: “Mona Lisa.”

Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa has been shy at first, but now she hops over to my side of the compartment.  “You are from U.S.?”  “Haahn.  Yes.”  “Tell me about U.S.”

Hmm.  “Okay.  I’ll draw you a picture.”  I get out my notebook and draw a map of the world.  I circle both the U.S. and India.  I write “India” in Hindi next to the subcontinent, and everyone informs me I have spelled it wrong.

Then I draw a map of the U.S.  I ID some relevant cities: LA, NYC, Washington.  “Would you like to see some pictures from the U.S.?”  She would, of course.  We look at literally every picture on my camera.  When we get to pictures of my cooking, she frequently interrupts to explain the picture of a cake/curry/piece of bread to her parents in Bengali.

I show her my Hindi book to explain how I know Hindi.  She reads both the Hindi and English lines out loud.  Then she quizzes me.  “Parivar.”  “Family.”  “Dur.”  “Close.”  “No.  It is ‘far.’ ”  “Ahh.”  She teaches me a few words in Bengali.  Our train leaves a half hour late, but I hardly notice.

I take out my Lonely Planet book and we look at maps of India.  “Once the British were in India.  Then the freedom fighters fought, and the British left, and now we have independence and we are free.”  I smile.  “You know your history!” She bobbles her head.  “I go to school and we have history book!”

She begins calling me “didi,” which I gather means “auntie.”  “Didi!  I want to look at your Hindi book.”  “Didi!  Show me your map of the world.”  “Didi! [Bengali Bengali Bengali].” We go to sleep around 11, but we pick up right where we left off in the morning.

Mona Lisa and MeAt one point she asks me about music and offers that she can sing a song in Bengali.  I say I would like to hear her sing it.  She does, at 8:00 in the morning, with half the train still attempting to sleep.  Then she sings the Indian national anthem, which I recognize because it was sung every day at the school I taught at in 2010.  “Would you like to hear the American national anthem?”  This is the first time of many that I learn singing American songs to Indians has the potential to make me emotional.

Speaking of emotional, Mona Lisa then asks for paper and we use it for practicing drawings of India and the world.  She adds some very sweet captions, like, “I love my didi.”  What really gets me is when Mona Lisa writes, in English, “The world is a beautiful place.”  She adds a carrot and writes “very.”

India drawing


This is the purest sweetness of a child that I can imagine and, especially thinking about why I came to India and what I am doing here, it is hard to respond.  “Yes,” I manage.  “It is.”