Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Calcutta: Volunteering at Prem Dan

Nearly 20 years ago I stepped off a plane in the crazy beautiful city of Calcutta.  From my journal:

The Mother House is a yellow-ish building that looks simple and actually modern on the street.  It is nondescript but everyone knows what it is, and who lived here.  Simply say “Mother Teresa” to the taxi driver and he’ll know where you want to go.  He’ll take you here through very sensational Calcutta.  I say sensational not like I’m describing a really good book or movie but because Calcutta is a city that bombards your senses.  I am gasping for air within the pollution.  My nose is confused by all these new smells.  The cacophony of taxi horns, men yelling, babies crying, music blaring, and trucks revving floors me.  And the sights: my brain cannot process what I'm seeing fast enough.

I am here to volunteer, to give what I can.

I choose to work at Prem Dan, the home for sick and dying destitutes.  To get there, I wind my way through the back streets of Calcutta, which are surprisingly quieter than the traffic-filled big streets that seem to have the loudest deadlock I've ever heard.  Does a car without a dent exist here?  I doubt it—the cabs should be made of rubber so they bounce off of each other during the inevitable daily (hourly?) fender bender.  Anyway, from the outside Prem Dan looks like a low security prison.  When you walk up to it, you stand even with the tall walls.  From there, you descend a very steep set of stairs down towards the gate, knock loudly to be let in. And then you stroll through the courtyard to where the patients are.  

Once you’re inside it looks less like a prison.  The courtyard is clean and has some flowers, just simple stuff to dress up an otherwise cement landscape.  The paint is old, and exhausted from the heat, humidity, and pollution.  That paint is tired of holding itself to the wall in anything but a dull shade.  

Prem Dan is divided in two: a male ward and a female ward.  As the volunteers enter, men head to the male side and the women go to the female ward.  It’s just another way that we have gone back in time here in Calcutta.

The work here is basic labor.  Every morning each room in each ward is cleared out and scrubbed clean—walls, floors, mattresses, beds.  Each morning, we volunteers throw water on the floor, add some turpentine and swish the stuff around with short, 14-inch brooms.  Crouching down low, butts just inches from the ground, we flick our whisks and push the water around, scraping up anything that remains on the floor from the night before.  This included bodily fluid, dal or rice from breakfast, or medicine that wasn’t taken very well.  We push the water towards the far end of the room.  We’re supposed to wear gloves, but those cheap, plastic gloves have found hands before ours to protect.  Within minutes the old gloves have holes in them and are filled with the nasty water we’re pushing around…there’s no way that wearing them, getting that nastiness trapped in next to our skin, is more sanitary.  After most of the puddles are gone and our thighs are smoked, we move on to wiping down the beds, the plastic mattresses, the walls.  This is repeated each morning; it takes about 45 minutes with a handful of volunteers, sometimes longer if there are new volunteers who are chatty and unhelpful.  Sometimes less if everyone is seasoned and focused.

The inefficiencies are somehow good, and wonderfully un-American.  I realize my own ability to make this situation work without questioning the hierarchy, and I am more cautiously aware than others that the system works for a reason.  Like the army system in which I was steeped for the first chunk of my life, there is a chain of command here that should be respected and, when unquestioned, things run more smoothly.

In those days in Calcutta, when I was barely 20 years old, my slice of life involved the Sisyphean tasks of cleaning the same room again and again, washing the same robes again and again, feeding the same women again and again.  The Sisters of Charity do all of this for years--decades!--with a smile on their face and a lightness in their hearts.  It was an incredible place to start growing up.


  1. What a way to shape a young life! You must have so many lesson stored in you from your time in Calcutta! Your words bring life to the realities in many places even today. Every place has rules--some we understand and some we don't, but we follow them because they are there for a reason.

  2. "Sisyphean tasks"--awesome description. I hope you follow up with entries about what you did the rest of the day.