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

In some ways, Shanti Dan is a respite and a refuge from the rest of the city. The campus is large and, like the other Missionaries of Charity homes, gated. It is painted in a soft cerulean blue, and the grounds are extremely clean and tidy. There are several buildings on either side of a wide stretch of road, although I have only been in a few of the buildings. Volunteers only work with some of the populations.

There are two options for volunteering: working with the “girls” or with the women. I say girls because they range in age from 12 to 50 on that side. The majority are adolescents. On the girls’ side, helpers are assigned to a specific classroom, like the Angels or the Butterflies or the Rainbows. Every resident has been placed into one of those groups based on her levels of ability and mobility. There is a folder of information about each of the groups that is available to the volunteers–it has the girls’ names, characteristics, abilities, etc.

My volunteering friend Eileen works on that side and tells me that it’s hard work. Much of her time is spent one-on-one with a child, and that is great, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of awareness of the therapeutic options that should be available to the patients. They are treated kindly, Eileen observes, but there is little consistency. Because she has worked with children on the Autism spectrum and with special needs, she has suggested some strategies for play and stimulation. Those ideas have been well received by the teacher, who is new and said to Eileen on the first day, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with these girls.” She seems kind, but unprepared.

Morning volunteer shifts for the girls’ side end after lunch and diaper changes, when the girls go down for naps.

Meanwhile, on the women’s side, the set-up is quite different. I wrote a couple days ago about the two-floor layout, and about the types of women there. I also wrote about the cleanliness of the place, but I should amend that.

The grounds are doubtlessly clean. No trash. No animals, aside from a friendly cat that I’d love to touch if I weren’t afraid of contracting diseases. (I don’t touch animals in Kolkata.) When I look around, I see cleaning happening everywhere. Floors are swept and mopped. Bedsheets are changed frequently. When the beds are changed, the rexin-covered mattresses are washed down with a disinfectant called Dettol. The tables in the dining room are disinfected and rinsed after every meal. I see the mashis washing their hands with soap often. There seems to be caution taken with the handling of wounds. The mashis and nurses who provide first aid don’t wear gloves, but they do use sterile bandages and supplies, from what I have seen. The women with injuries are treated with care.

Dining room, photographed with permission

Dining room, photographed with permission

In comparison to the rest of the city, yes, the home is extremely clean. In comparison to what I am used to at home? Or what I think is the best way to manage what is essentially a hospital environment? It’s a little shocking.

Like in other places I’ve seen in India, cups are not washed with soap–just rinsed with cold water and put back on the shelf to be used again. The same may be true of meal plates. I’m not sure.

Soiled bedclothes are handled without much care. They are pulled off the bed, and if they have feces on them, they are rolled up before being put on the dirty laundry pile. That doesn’t mean that they will stay rolled up, though. I should ask Emily, who has worked with the laundry, how that process goes after the linens are taken from the dorm rooms.

The Laundry

The laundry process, photographed with permission

I have found discarded bandages under the beds while cleaning. Are they dropped there by the person changing the bandage, or are patients removing them themselves and dropping them? When women have accidents, they are sometimes not cleaned up in a reasonable amount of time. I’ve seen women peeing in drains in the bathroom instead of walking a few more steps to the toilet.

We peeled papayas yesterday and weren’t able to wash our hands first. When one of us dropped a piece on the ground, the mashi just rinsed it in the papaya water and threw it in with the rest.

These things make the whole experience a big disconcerting. I am touched by the peacefulness of the grounds, and the general neatness. The specifics, though, are unsettling.



While riding home in an auto rickshaw during a torrential downpour, I said to Dylan, Anne, and Devan, “Just think of all the things we did today that we’ve never done before.”

Singing Hindi praise and worship choruses at the Kolkata Assemblies of God Church. Walking through a gorgeous, spooky cemetery filled with monuments to men and women of the East India Company. Crowding onto a public bus with dozens of other volunteers to go to an appreciation dinner. Spending an hour in communal prayer of the rosary and then silence. Walking in a Kolkata rainstorm. Paying any price just to get out of the rain and have auto rickshaws drive us home on back roads.

It wasn’t supposed to be an eventful day, but in India, you should expect to never get what you expect.

Soaking wet after a trip home in the rain

Soaking wet after a trip home in the rain