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, Room 44
Kolkata, India

I think I am the most worn out I’ve been these whole two weeks, right now. Today was just so full.

My last shift at Shanti Dan was probably my best shift. If all I saw was today, I probably wouldn’t have concerns about the place like I do now.

First, we had our morning gathering at the Mother House. The volunteers sang the good-bye song for those of us who were working our last shifts. We each received a packet of cards and tracts that tell Mother Teresa’s story, and a few of us got our photo passes that give us permission to take photos at the homes. Sister Mercy Maria asked what I had thought of Shanti Dan, and I said that I was glad to have gone there to work. That is true. Shanti Dan provided me with an opportunity to see what life is like for a very specific group of women in the world. I worked hard, made a few meaningful connections with people, and got to see firsthand what a controversial ministry like the Missionaries of Charity looks like in action. I feel lucky that I can now have an informed opinion on the order, not just an outdated one.

During my shift, I changed a few beds and got Noori into a wheelchair so that she could be showered by the mashis. I brought her back to her bed and dressed her, dried some women after their showers, and sat with a few patients that I’ve felt a connection to. One woman likes to have her hands massaged, so I did that for a while.

I spoke with Sister Benedicta about taking photos and was given her blessing after I was able to articulate that I didn’t want to make objects out of any of the residents by taking their pictures without permission or in an exploitative way. I was able to get several great shots of the facilities. I only took photos of patients if they asked me to. I did not ask to take any of their photos. Several did ask, but I was careful not to let it become a spectacle.

I found one woman, Sita, weeping. She called me over and hugged me to her, clinging to me, crying, “Auntie! Auntie! Auntie!” I was worried about her–she seems quite old and frail–and so I called over a mashi who speaks English. “Why is she crying?” I asked.

“Because she knows you are leaving,” she said.

I was expecting that. I imagine she does this with all of the volunteers who leave, but it was still touching to know that my presence had meant something to her. Of course, it was also unsettling. Is this environment good for her? This constant coming and going of people who care for her physical needs?

Two more times during shift, I went to her and held her while she cried. I learned that she has been here for three years. Before that, she was on the street. I assume she has some sort of mental health issue, based on the fact that most of the women on the first floor do, and because of her behavior. While on the street, she was bitten by a dog and ended up losing her leg to infection. She has lived at Shanti Dan ever since. I hope she feels some happiness there. I hope she has peace there.

I found a chance to say good-bye to both Rajkumari and Nirmala, the mashis I befriended. They seemed genuinely disappointed to see me go. I think we recognized in each other a certain friendliness and kindness. They were kind to me when I didn’t know what I was doing, and I went to them first every day to see how I could best help. I think I will miss their company.

I fed Ganga her lunch before leaving, and Sita rubbed my back while I did. She has done that several times now. I don’t necessarily like the experience–I feel like she is doing something to serve me, and I certainly haven’t done anything to deserve being cared for by a woman so much older than me. She deserves my respect and care,  but I certainly don’t deserve hers. Even so, I don’t think it’s appropriate to stop her from expressing herself in one of the only ways she can. She isn’t just kind to me, either. She also shows this gentleness to Ganga, who lies unresponsive on her mat all day. I have seen her at Ganga’s side many times, speaking softly to her and rubbing her head. Ganga does not respond.

I left my shift sweaty, relieved, and in good spirits. The day was nowhere near over.


This gallery of photos was taken with permission.