This post is part of a fifteen-day series covering my trip to Kolkata, India in May 2013. Some entries have been slightly edited for length or content, but they are mostly copied directly from my journal.

Hotel Circular, Kolkata
Room 44

I was reminded several times yesterday of my position as group leader. First, upon receiving the news about Grandpa Joe, I felt the need to keep it to myself, even though I read the e-mail while sitting in the lobby, surrounded by the others. I tried hard to mute my reaction, as we were about to leave for the day. As we waited at the Mother House before our bus took us to Titigargh (the leprosy community outside the city), Emily asked how I was, obviously noticing that something was up. (I suspect she is our most empathetic and observant group member). I admitted the news, tearing up as I did. But still, I didn’t want to cry or make a scene or make anyone feel awkward, so I assured them that everything was fine. And it was, in its way. I was able to say goodbye to Grandpa the week before I left. He gave me a kiss, and I knew it would likely be the last time I saw him. I expected to receive this news. Still, I was reminded of my place because where else could I be but in leadership where no one would even offer a hug of consolation? Someone on the team would have hugged anyone else on the team had they received the same news–with me, they’re not quite sure what to do.

Another reminder was at Titagarh, right after our tour. We had been split into two groups and led through the grounds of the community. I remembered little of it from my visit there in 2000, to be honest. I remembered a staircase up to a classroom, and I remembered that there were people working at looms, but I did not recall the stretching corridor lined with men and women spinning cotton onto spools or weaving thread into the linens that are used by the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata and around the world. The hallway went on for so long–loom after loom after loom. Many of the workers greeted us warmly, and many continued to focus on their task. I definitely did not remember walking through multiple medical/housing wards, feeling like I was a tourist there to gawk at the disenfranchised. I don’t know what business we had walking through the medical wards, returning the smiling “namastes” from these men and women with bandaged wounds, missing extremities, and sores open to the air.


Photo by Co-Leader Tom

Titagarh is both an in- and out-patient facility for individuals and families affected by leprosy. Leprosy is treatable, but many who receive treatment long after becoming infected will deal with the after-effects for the rest of their lives. Loss of sensation is never recovered in patients who have had leprosy, and of course fingers are not regrown. Injuries sustained because of sensation loss are also life changing. Because there is still a stigma attached to the disease, and because of the permanent side effects, places like Titagarh seem like a good thing.

Being in the community itself was not a problem. Seeing the work, the grounds, the prosthetics center–that all made sense. It was simply walking through the medical wards that made me uncomfortable–especially because there was no separation of gender. Our group was co-ed, and we walked through both the male and female wards. That seemed intrusive to me. Perhaps if there had been time to talk with any of the residents, that would have been different, too. But we just walked, walked, walked.

This made me feel separate from the group because they had so many questions for me, and I couldn’t answer them. (Noticing a trend.) I occasionally sensed frustration from them, but what can I say?

Touring the facility left me with far more questions than answers. Was it right for us to be there? Were the residents cared for as well as they should be? For people who are there as individuals, are their families welcome to visit them? Are the workers paid well? How are the conditions–can they take breaks when they need them? Are they provided with good food and plenty of water?

Some questions that I had were answered by the Brother who was in charge of the tour. The children who sang to us, he said, were all enrolled in local schools,, but play and learn in the facility turn their free time or while their parents worked. None of the linens made by the residents are sold at market, so there is no profit to be made from the workers’ labor–although volunteers were welcome to take a blanket in exchange for a donation by the volunteers. The chickens, goats, and pigs on site are used to feed the community and the order. The concrete ponds are for raising fish for consumption.

I was impressed by the cleanliness of the place. In India, it seems impossible to keep things clean, but Titagarh was well kept up. The pig stalls were the best example–they were tidy and sanitary. The work that must go into keeping the place is surely extraordinary.

Some students had questions about the donations in exchange for the linens. Those are the ones I was least able to answer. I felt I had to be honest–the biggest criticisms of the Missionaries of Charity seem to be rooted in concerns about how much money the order really has, and where that money goes. I suspect that the donations made on site support the immediate community of Titagarh, but I can’t promise my students that. We had a good conversation about the ethical issues of necessity vs. want, and we asked some good questions, like whether or not the necessities of the residents of the Missionaries of Charity homes are being met. I don’t know the answer to that. Some people argue that no, the residents of the MC homes are practically victims of Mother Teresa’s praise of suffering. I don’t see that in my memories of Daya Dan or Kalighat, but those are the old memories of a 17-year-old girl. How trustworthy are they?

There were still more times yesterday that I felt separate from the group. One was when I realized that my life experiences are far closer to those of Eileen from Hawaii, a volunteer with two grown daughters who is traveling alone through India, than with the team. Another was when I sensed their frustration with me and Tom as we tried to get them from place to place during our first real excursion into the city. It’s so difficult to walk down a street here, and walking in a group is even harder. They surely felt overwhelmed, especially when they were sure where they were going because we weren’t sure. I felt a lot of pressure to keep an eye on everyone and make sure everyone was doing okay, and I was so relieved when everyone seemed to have a good afternoon of shopping and exploring. Several of us went to tailors to get clothes made to pick up next week.

I don’t think it’s bad that I felt separate from the group in some ways. I do hope they see me as someone here to support them,  not as someone who is here to tell them what to do. I don’t want to be that kind of leader.