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.