Tag Archives: motherhouse

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!




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.