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’m having some trouble finding the motivation to go out this morning to volunteer. I just don’t want to be hot anymore. I don’t want to be sweaty, smelly, and red in the face.

I’ll go, of course. I just really don’t want to.



It was the wrong day to start out apprehensive of the heat, because I’m sure that only made it worst. It was the hottest day of the trip so far.

I must have sweated and wiped away my sunscreen, because my face is now pink with sunburn, my thighs are covered in heat rash, and the backs of my legs are mean with sun poisoning. It’s bad enough that I don’t think I can work tomorrow. I can’t risk getting sweaty again and making everything worse. To avoid sweat, I’ll need to stay in the room pretty much all day. That doesn’t sound very exciting, but perhaps the day off will allow me to rest, pray, read, and recover.


At Shanti Dan this morning, I started voicing questions. Why is Teresa, a young patient, restrained with silk scarves to either her bed or the chair where she sits on the porch? Nirmala, a mashi I’ve befriended, says that Teresa bolts and then falls, hurting herself. I believe that. I know that restraints are used at home, but for how much of a person’s life is it okay to be gently restrained, even if it is for that person’s safety? She doesn’t pull against the scarves, so perhaps they serve as more of a reminder than an actual restraint. But still. It is strange and unsettling to see it. I find the idea of tying a person’s wrists to their bed for most hours of the day really disturbing.

Teresa, photographed with permission (and following her request)

Teresa, photographed with permission (and following her request)

I can’t shake how institutional the place feels. A peaceful environment doesn’t negate the fact that the patients at Shanti Dan are under-stimulated, left sitting in chairs or lying in beds for much of the day, have their hair shorn to prevent lice, and are treated with a certain roughness from the paid staff. The fact that most of these women are the victims of grave physical and sexual abuse makes it worse. Sister Benedicta says that the most important role we have as volunteers there is to contribute to the knowledge that there are people in the world who are not abusive, and yet I saw one of the mashis strike a patient the other day because she was sneaking ahead of line to get some food. Does it matter that the slap wasn’t all that hard? Or that this culture is more inclined to physical discipline than mine? Does that matter when the recipient of that slap was likely abused in her past? How does a physical reprimand benefit her?

To be clear: I don’t think Shanti Dan’s residents are abused by their caregivers. I just see so many ways that their care could be better. More productive. Kinder.

Is all of this because Mother Teresa valued suffering? That’s what her critics argue. I don’t know. If Mother Teresa really believed that suffering makes a person closer to God, as her critics say, then why did she attempt to alleviate any suffering at all? Shanti Dan is certainly safer than many of the places these women could be–lost, raped, abused, starving. I do not expect the facility to function at an American level of cleanliness and order. But surely it could be better than this? Couldn’t it?

Laundry at Shanti Dan, photographed with permission

Laundry at Shanti Dan, photographed with permission