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

Emily, who volunteers with me, and I have noticed that every day at Shanti Dan feels completely different. Even as we become more confident in our capabilities when it comes to certain tasks, we still find ourselves uncertain of our roles there. We spend a lot of time trying to master old tasks or navigating new ones. One day at Shanti Dan looks unlike any other day at Shanti Dan.

Today’s shift:

When we arrived, all of the women were already bathed. The beds in the sick room had been changed. Rajkumari, my friend, was almost done cleaning the bathrooms. I swept and mopped the sick room floor, which took a while. There is a woman who cries a lot, and she appeared in the sick room in tears. She held onto me for a few moments, and I got her talking about something–I don’t know what, as we don’t have a shared language. But soon I learned that she was crying because she was going to receive an injection to treat nausea, as a bug has been going around. She is terrified of shots, I quickly gathered. I watched at Nirmala and a nurse laid her in a bed and held her still (not roughly, but firmly) as they tried to find a place to inject the medication. (I don’t know why injections are used instead of other options for treating nausea–but I do remember that the only stuff that worked when I was pregnant was Zofran, which was incredibly expensive. Maybe this option is more cost-effective.)

After finishing the mopping, I went looking for something else to do. I found some women to sit with on the second floor. Up there they tend to be physically able and more mentally present. I sat with some women I met the other day, and we chatted as much as we could, then sang some songs.

Next I was on the roof, hanging laundry with Emily and Mina, a nurse from Japan. Laundry is something I’m starting to get the hang of.

Laundry on the roof of Shanti Dan, photographed with permission

Hanging laundry on the roof of Shanti Dan, photographed with permission

We took our tea break at 10. By 10:20, we were outside the meditation/prayer room. We didn’t want to interrupt the prayer time that had already started, so Emily and I sat outside the room with some women we’ve been getting to know.

Gita, who is deaf, and whose paperwork says Rita but whose picture on the wall is labeled Gita, told me about her husband. She had a photo album and showed it to me–photos of her wedding, photos with previous volunteers, photos with residents. Her husband is dead, she communicated through sign. He drank, she said. He used to hit her.

Mari, the woman who sits with Gita outside the prayer room every day, pointed out patients and told us whose parents have died, who have grown children, who was hit by a car while walking down the road. It was the first time I heard anyone’s stories.

I accompanied the next group for their meditation time while Emily painted fingernails in the main living quarters. I may have drifted off during meditation, but no one seemed to mind.

When I got back to the main building, it was lunchtime. I served water to the women as they arrived, helped some into their seats. It was chaotic when they were passing out the plates of food, so I took a plate to the sick room and fed Ganga, who is so thin that she looks like she could be in a Feed the Hungry-style commercial. She is mostly unresponsive, and I have never seen her communicate anything to anyone. She lies on a mattress outside the sick room, in the outdoor corridor. I suspect she lies on a mattress because she would roll off of a cot, but I haven’t been able to ask anyone.

I have no training in how to feed someone. She cannot sit up, and I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing as I try to figure out how to feed her without her choking.

It was already noon by the time Ganga finished her meal, so it was time to leave.



After work today, Emily and I bought chicken rolls on Park Street, and then I sat on my own at a coffeeshop for a while, reading Game of Thrones. I still ended up at Sudder Street an hour before I needed to be there to meet some girls at the tailor shop to pick up our custom-made Indian dresses. I was happy to see Eileen from hawaii, whom I’ve really enjoyed working with at Shanti Dan. (She works on the girls’ side, so we don’t see each other during our shifts, but travel there together and take our break at the same time.)

We walked to Blue Sky Cafe and drank pop and ate snacks and talked. It’s becoming a trend–I notice that the youngest Missionaries of Charity volunteers are the least likely to question what they see in the homes. Volunteers with some more life experience are more inclined to voice their concerns. Eileen is someone who is willing to ask questions, and she and I have had some great conversations about the good and bad at the homes. I always feel a little bit more sane after she and I talk–I feel like she and I have plenty to talk about.

I did meet up with the girls (Heather & Devan) at French’s Tailor Shop at 3. That’s when I learned that Anne, one of our students, had passed out in the hotel lobby this morning while exchanging money at the front desk! She had come to and was helped by the staff, but I was anxious about her condition. I parted from the group and went back to the hotel to check on her.

She is okay–and she does feel much better. Everyone else had plans to eat dinner on Sudder Street, but I didn’t want Anne to have to eat alone, so I stayed put. I spent some time journaling and watching TV before dinner, and then she and I had a nice meal in the restaurant. She is more hydrated now and has less of a stomachache. She’ll be fine.



Tomorrow is our last full day, so I left a note downstairs for the rest of the team to read when they get back with the plan for tomorrow. We’ll be volunteering, going to the movies, and going out to dinner as a group. I really hope Anne feels well enough to join us.

It’s been a very short trip, I think. Two weeks isn’t enough time in India. I don’t think I could bear to be away from Ruthie for more than two weeks, though, so I’m not too upset that it’s such a short trip.