I’m in Kolkata, two weeks or so into a month of volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity. I’ve gotten sick, and I’m still recovering. I’m weak, I’m exhausted, and my insides are still as volatile as the temperament of the nearest rickshaw driver. I might be on the upswing, but the smells around me right now are strong enough to invade me, to live inside of me, and that just churns my bowels even more so I can’t be sure if I’m actually getting better. I have no confidence that I’ll make it home without any untoward incident. I don’t know what exactly it was that made me sick; I have my guesses as to what did me in, the strongest culprit being a lukewarm lassi. This famous Indian cultured yogurt drink is sold in just about every shop and in stalls all up and down the
streets. The particular lassi I bought, a mango lassi on my third day in India, was absolutely delicious—but I didn’t pay too much attention to how long the fruit in that lassi had been sitting out on the street, and so I’m pretty sure that’s what got me. It was moderately warm—enough said, right?
But this afternoon, I’m not dwelling on that lassi.
I’m walking past Sutter Street, the infamous “foreigners’ street” that leads towards AJ Bose Road and the Mother House of the Missionaries of Charity. I’m returning to my hostel, the Baptist Missionary Society, after a morning at Nabu Jibon. This is the center for boys, men and elderly residents where I spend my mornings while volunteering in Kolkata (you can get more information on volunteering if you’re interested by clicking here). This morning was particularly eventful. We shaved the residents and gave them baths, followed by lunch. In this place where the majority of the men have moderate to severe conditions (everything from amputated limbs to autism to infected wounds to completely undiagnosed conditions) these tasks are anything but simple.
So I’m wading through the current of smells in the area: open-air meat vendors to my right, with entire cow carcasses swaying without a breeze; a ten-foot pile of garbage to
my right, with cows and dogs and goats passing over and through the refuse. The smell of chai stalls in front of and behind me, with the sweet and spicy tea blended into the yeasty aroma of sweet crackers and cookies. The various olfactory offerings of the food stalls that line the streets: curry, chutney, daal, fried samosas, and dozens of unidentifiable aromas. Charcoal burning here, exhaust fumes there, smoke from other sources I can’t identify. The smell of leftover rain, old water, of floods from yesterday and floods soon to come.
These smells are alive: they’re breathing, pulsing, moving, strong enough to create their own current. Some are benign, some sinister, some so foreign I don’t know what to make of them and can just hope they won’t reach out and do even more damage to my fragile body.
The heat, too, has a smell here in this city, and in this Muslim section it’s particularly livid. It’s not just a smell but a way of life, a culture entirely of its own, something that could warrant its own sociological research.
But this afternoon I’m not interested in the anthropological value of the air.
I’m caught up in the memory of the morning at Nabu Jibon, of the shaving, cleaning and feeding of the residents.
Several of them did not handle the razor experience very well. Many seemed to be facing the blade for the first time, with the accompanying fear and resistance. There was shouting, pulling, twisting, beating, screaming—and, as you can imagine, bleeding, seething, and pain.
As I walk, my heart beats with emotions as myriad as the aromas that coalesce and ooze around me. I process through the absolutely mad Muslim neighborhood that will take me back to my hostel, and my mind processes me back through the halls and the rooms of Nabu Jibon. I try to sift through my feelings as I walk. Can I even process all of them? There are just so, so many—easily a hundred, if not two or three, as jumbled and perfectly mixed as all the aromas together in the incomparable air of Kolkata around me. Could I ever process all of them?
I don’t even know that that’s a relevant question. All I know is I want to be back there.
I want to be back there, to help with the next meal. I want to sit on the floor with William, the severely autistic child who does not speak but shakes my world with all the noise he’s making in it. I want to watch the sun move across the floor with him. I want to continue guiding him to eat with a spoon, because he literally shovels it into his mouth with his hand and loses more than half of his rice into his lap, with another quarter of it dribbling down onto the floor. I want to sit outside in the courtyard and hear what this little boy hears, to see what he sees, to sense what he’s sensing. I want to show him the birds again.
I want to return to sit and chat with the older residents, to listen to what I can manage of their stories.
I want to catch more of Hashim’s story in particular. He lost his shoe shop in an accident a few years ago (2012, I believe is what he signaled to me), and things went from bad to worse. Over time severe hunger, malnutrition, and mistreatment on the streets brought him to the Missionaries of Charity and his home now, Nabu Jibon. His cheekbones protrude not just shockingly but scarily, and his eyes are enlarged with perpetual hunger, with perpetual awareness of how fragile he is.
Who knows how many secrets this man has, how many pains, fears, hopes, how many lives already lived?
Yet he shares with an urgency and a vitality that fascinates me, that compels me to sit with him despite the language barrier. He uses perhaps three or four English words during our entire conversation—and will use them over and over again, just because he knows them—but that doesn’t stop him from grabbing my hands, my forearms, and spilling his life story with obvious emotion. I want to understand him, but I can’t leave because this is important. This is his life.
I want to continue holding the hand of Babu. I’m not sure Babu’s condition, but I never saw him without a bottle cap in his hands or in his mouth. When I arrive in the morning he’s one of the first ones to greet me. He then proceeds to tap my arms, my chest, my shoulders, my back, pounding (affectionately?) with his surprising strength. He grabs my hands and pulls me outside into the courtyard, rattling his bottle caps the entire time and grinning vaguely as we pass under the trees. Babu is off in his own world, but I feel connected to him in a way that defies—and doesn’t need any—explanation. I go slowly, our feet moving together since he struggles to walk on his own. I don’t know if it’s him matching his feet to mine, or my feet matching to his, but our pace becomes one. Time slows to match our rhythm as well, and we are simply walking.
As I continue on, I realize my insides are churning and moving around in me for a different reason this afternoon—not so much because of that lassi or even the incomparable olfactory milieu on the street, but because of the residents I just left. It makes my insides leap, jump, move in directions that are different than those caused by nausea.
As I continue walking through this Muslim neighborhood towards my hostel to get ready for my afternoon volunteering at another house, I’m still back at Nabu Jibon. I’m with one of the older residents, a large man who sits on a bench right at the entrance waiting for the volunteers to arrive in the morning. He rushes up as soon as we walk in, and gestures and smiles and grunts for a massage. He’s usually frantic until someone sits with him, and then he’ll calm down like someone slipped him a potion. The bliss across his face during the massage is incomparable.
I’m back in the main lunch room now, and there are about two dozen boys. They’re sitting , rocking back and forth, or playing quietly with whatever is at hand: paper, small balls, the legs of chairs. I lift one of the boys to his feet and he steps on my toes. Around the eating area we go, slowly, one leg up at a time, him on top of my feet.
And then I’m back with William.
This morning, just a few hours ago, I took him out into the courtyard, in a wheelchair because one of his legs is stunted and he walks with a severe hunch. We stopped in a sunny spot under the tree this morning, next to a few caged birds. I held his hand. It didn’t respond to my grip, but it was warm. I showed him the birds, and turned his chair so he could get a better look. There were two green and red birds, dirty and small, but colorful, alive, skittering and hopping across the small twigs in their cage.
That’s when William looked straight at the birds, and then at me, and he grunted.
William held my gaze. Then William looked away, gone again, and the sun disappeared behind the monsoon clouds and it started to pour so we had to go back inside before lunch.
But William looked directly at that one bird, and then he looked at me, and he made a sound. And I have no idea what that sound actually meant, but I can tell you, that sound, that look… that’s enough to make all my organs tumble around each other inside of me. That’s more powerful than any amount of street food, dangerous or not.
That moment contained all the joy I might ever need.
As I continue walking, I keep thinking: Jesus promised to set prisoners free, to release captives and bring good tidings to the poor (Luke 4:16-19). And I keep thinking: who is he referring to? Whose prisons is he walking into?
Whose bonds is Jesus breaking?
As I continue walking closer to AJ Bose Road, I fight back sudden tears. I keep thinking: this was clearly a moment of freedom for William. Something was happening: bonds were being broken. There were good tidings, release.
And so I can’t help but think: what bonds still need to be broken inside of me? What still needs to be released?