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 back at Shanti Dan this morning. Each time I go I see something different than the time before. When I arrived, I went straight to the sick room, where I usually go to help Nirmala and Rajkumari, the two mashis that have taken me under their wings a bit. Sitting on one of the beds was a woman who usually seems pretty lucid and cogent. She had defecated in her bed. She was sitting there, trying to clean the feces off herself, but it’s not like she had any towels or washcloths. She just had her soiled bedsheet and the towel that covers her Rexine bed pad.

A mashi made her lie down on the cot and wrapped one end of the sheet around her hands. I was instructed to take the other end–the end wet with urine–and help to carry the woman in a make-shift sheet hammock. We carried her to the bathroom, where she was laid on the floor and washed with soap and water. I hurried to disinfect her mattress and put a new sheet, Rexine pad, and covering in place before she was carried back from the shower.

This was certainly one of the things I haven’t seen before.

I suppose I am quite efficient at changing the sick room bedding. I know how to make the beds and where to put the dirty linens. I can get clean things from the storage room. I clean the floors with a broom and then a mop before helping to clean the bathroom, scrubbing and washing the toilets and floors. I wash my hands after almost every task.
I noticed this morning that Noori, a woman who lies in a hospital bed by the window all day, mostly unresponsive, had wet herself. She was lying in a puddle of yellow urine, and like the woman a few beds over from earlier, she was trying to clean herself. She has limited physical capacities, and I don’t have any resource for understanding what diagnoses she might have. I have seen her communicate twice: once to greet Sister Benedicta (the nun in charge) with a smile and namaste gesture, and once while she was weeping.

I called Nirmala over. She helped me lift Noori into a wheelchair and get her clean. We changed her bed, showered Noori in the bathroom, and got her back into the bed. What I saw then was important–Nirmala was kind to Noori.


Often, the mashis are not unkind, but I don’t usually see active kindness from them toward the residents. Nirmala, however, sang to Noori, and said her name several times in a voice that got her attention. She dressed her sweetly and gently.

I don’t think this was because I was watching or something. After all, I’m always watching whenever I’m there, and I don’t see that from the mashis at other times. Nirmala’s kindness said to me that my concerns about the place can be somewhat assuaged from the place that there are certainly people working there who are compassionate. It doesn’t erase my concerns, but it does make me feel a bit better.

I changed Noori again later, and some of the other women. When i change them, I try to be respectful of their bodies. From what I understand, most of the women have been the victims of grave physical and sexual abuse. I want to be careful in the way that I touch their bodies because of that. I don’t have words to help me communicate, but I can try to be mindful of what I say with my touch.

I am very aware of the body when I am working there. There is little concern for nakedness–women are stripped, bathed, and dressed again by whatever worker or volunteer is nearby. Some wear shorts-style underwear, others wear cloth diapers. Still others don’t wear anything but their dresses. When they lie in their beds, their dresses may hike above their waists, and no one seems to notice or care. I don’t know what to make of that. I don’t want to imply that they should be more modest, or that their bodies are anything to be ashamed of. It’s just that the whole situation doesn’t speak very much to a communal valuation of bodily dignity. No one has privacy, no one really has autonomy. That bothers me.

And so I return to the exact same place I’ve been since the beginning: isn’t this better than the alternative?

The shower room at Shanti Dan, photographed with permission

The shower room at Shanti Dan, photographed with permission



You know how refreshing it feels to get clean after being really, really filthy? The way a shower feels after a hot day of outdoor work, or camping, or a run? One good thing about being a wealthy tourist in Kolkata is that you get to experience that every night when you get back to your hotel and finally shower.

It was a long, fully day. Work in the morning, lunch here at the hotel (which took two hours because they are the slowest restaurant ever). The team was nervous midday when the lobby was suddenly on password-protected lockdown. I checked with the staff and got things resolved–they just had to track down and inform of us of the newly-implemented password. After checking in with Chalupa and coming up to the room to journal, I met up with Heather, one of my teammates. The team was on their way from different places in the city to Oxford Bookstore on Park Street. Heather and I left early enough to stop by Park Street Cemetery to find a cool looking memorial with a great, tragic inscription about a husband lost far too young. I left a small scattering of Kevin Pratt-King’s ashes, as his widow, my friend Tashi, requested. She wanted him to travel in death in ways that he couldn’t in life, and so I found a place I think he would have loved to see. (Photo gallery here.)


After that, we met up with our group at the bookstore. Truthfully, our group isn’t particularly great at making decisions, so I’ve started trying to make some for them. I found a place to eat dinner–Kwality Restaurant--and told them to be there by seven. I am proud of their growing adventurousness, because instead of staying put at the bookstore that is next door to the restaurant, they split into small groups and went on some of their own errands. One group went off shopping for records and tabla drums. Heather and I went through the Chowringhee Markets, where I found two cute little skirts for Ada to wear. By seven, though, we were all at the restaurant for dinner.

It was good, but a little on the expensive side. ($70 to feed our gorup of 9.) We splurged on ice cream for dessert. I think everyone was just excited to be eating someplace new.

The funniest/most ridiculous part of the night was when seven of us squeezed our way into one taxi because the driver insisted we could fit. What do you know–he was right. If you keep a lenient definition of “fit.” He had to slam the door shut on my rear, and there was some lap sitting in the front seat, but we made it.

And when I got back, I got to have that glorious feeling of a cold shower on my hot skin, and now I’m going to bed–early, like I prefer, ready to sleep well, through the night at last. If I’m lucky.