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The Calcutta Diary: A Volunteer’s Experience

Friday, November 21st, 2008

Life is getting a little more colorful…

I’m sitting here writing this blog wearing a cream colored pair of loose trousers, a tunic that is striped in bright kelly green and orange with blue polka dots, and a bright yellow scarf.

Yeah, I know. It sounds clownish.

But somehow here, it’s not. In fact, it’s totally normal.

During all of my travels so far, one thing I have noticed is how the women are brightly and beautifully dressed. They may live in gray, brown, plain places, filed with trash or in the middle of the jungle, but they are always decorated and dressed beautifully.

It’s finally rubbed off on me.

I arived here wearing ever-so-practical black and sturdy gray, and now I can’t imagine wearing such dull things.

Instead, I want sunflower yellow, bright orange, cobalt blue.

In fact, I haven’t worn boring black or Western clothes since I arrived.

What is interesting to me is that my perception of color has changed.

Before, in my old life, I was attracted to pretty things, but they were mostly pretty dull in color, in pattern, in texture.

Now, I walk the streets, attracted and intimate with it, part of the river of bright saris and salwaar kameez that flow by me.

It’s had me thinking alot about clothes and how they represent different things to different people.

Back at home, clothes are status symbols, people like brands on their behinds and on their chests and their feet.

People like subtle colors, because to them they say “expensive”.

Maybe they are also somehow kind of part of some Puritan mindset.

Here, it’s totally different. Actually it’s different in every third world culture I have had the pleasure to become aquainted with.

The world of women is actually defined by clothes, by colors.

At home, women who spend alot of time on clothes are considered superficial. Here, a woman who does not spend time looking her best is..well, not a woman!

The wearing of saris, salwaar kameez, is actually one of the ways women show rerspect to their traditions, and it’s how they express who they are. The colors tell you their mood, their state of mind.

Even the poorest woman on the street will have several saris of different colors. It tells you who she is, how she defines herself.

Walking around in the salwar suits is such a lovely experience for me. Women will often start conversations with me about what I am wearing and tell me if they like it or not.

It’s a wonderful way to meet other women that I would normally never have the chance to even talk to.

What’s really funny about it all is that they like to give advice.

You see, at first I started out slowly..wearing say, navy blue salwar suits. For me, that was pretty wild.

“Tsk.Tsk.”, Indian women would say on the street, shaking their heads.

“Is it good? Do they like it?”, I am wondering silently to myself.

“You should wear orange.”, they exclaim, and continue by telling me that I apparently can wear any color in the rainbow–why am I restricting myself to boring old navy blue?.

“Okay”, I think to myself. Note to self, try orange.

At home I was in a charchol gray rut. Now, suddenly I am wearing bright orange and feeling perfectly normal.

It helps to have a tailor.

My tailor is named Martin, and he’s Muslim. He’s very devout,and the only time he is not in his tiny shop is during prayer time.

He’s very tiny. Maybe the tiniest man I have ever seen, with a shock of dark hair and a full beard and big black eyes.

I go to visit him and he offers me cold sodas and he says, “Sit, sit.”

I sit there and look at rows and rows of bright saris, beaded saris, two tone linen, endless pashminas…in every color you can imagine.

Some how Martin makes it all look good on me.

Due to his efforts, I have the brightest, most colorful wardrobe of my life..and here’s the thing:

I’m not going back to charchol gray. It’s so dull. I’m going to go home and wear bright yellow and pea green and turquoise and cobalt blue everyday. It’s so cheering, I can’t imagine going back.

The other day, I had to do my laundry. all I were the travel clothes I had arrived here with.

I sat on my bed, wearing boring pale blue and gray and balck, feeling ridiculously practical and dull. I actually had to put a salwar suit on before it was entirely dry to cheer up again.

It’s strange, because I have always been very uncomfortable with wearing a lot of colors from head to toe.

A man I work with told me the other day that he went out to shop for candles.

He was looking for white candles, or gray ones, or blue ones.

All he could find were orange ones, dayglo hot pink ones, neaon green ones.

“It was terrible”, he said, sighing in exasperation.

I told him, “But imagine this city with no color. No dayglor candles in front of the shrines. No women in bright salwars and saris. No hot pink buildings…”

He said, “Ah, that would be beautiful.”

(Perhaps this is because he is from a cold, European country?)

I replied, ” No it would be awful. This city without color would mean all you would see would be the filth, the dirt, the grime in the streets; the moldy decaying buildings; and so on. The colors distract you and they make it beautiful.”

Of course, as I was saying this I was wearing a brilliant blue salwar suit of cobalt blue with pink elephants on it….


The Calcutta Diary: A Volunteer’s Experience

Friday, November 21st, 2008

Journal entry from the 18th of November…


Simply exhausted.

Things at dany Dan have taken a new turn: the head sister has suddenly become very ill and has left several long term volunteers in charge of the upcoming Christmas music concert.

The boys and girls that are able-bodied and are able to participate are all going to be singing and playing instruments fro two hours! They will be performing six times, including at the Motherhouse and for the Governor.

It’s a new experience for the kids, who now have to stand still, follow commands, get up on  stage, sing, remember how to play their instuments and so on.

It’s a new experience for the volunteers working with the kids, too. We’ve all been chosen to help out because we are are all there fro a long time, through Christmas.

It’s a new experience for me to have to work with a group, with no particular leader, trying to accomplish what is an awesome task. We all have to get along and do our best.

The head sister who is ill is a lovely woman but she is also very strict, so one of our biggest challenges has been to get the kids to listen to us and do what they are told without acting disruptively.

I constantly have to remind myself that in spite of the expectation of the Sister for these kids to be “normal” and behave “normally” they are special kids with their own set of issues, who aren’t going to always sing on cue or suddenly stop playing the bongos and wander off stage.

I think the main goal I have is to make sure they have fun, and that whatever they accomplish will be enough,that in fact, it will be perfect.

Working with autistic kids all day is a good way to let go of one’s urges towrds perfection–or at least redefine what perfect is.

My additional task is work with Binoy who is quite fantastic at playing the drums. It is hard for him to stop playing once he has started though! So I have had to come up with creative ways to get him to stop playing between sets consistently.

Binoy and I have become very close. We spend alot of one on one time together as I am his main teacher and volunteer. It is getting to the point that I know what Binoy is going to do before he does. It is amzing how when the children have a special individual volunteer they really bloom, begin paying attention, and become more loving and affectionate.

I know it will be very difficult for me to leave him when I go.

The schedule the volunteers–who are in charge of the Christmas program– must keep from now until Christmas is actually quite strenuous: we all work our normal shifts, from early morning until afternoon; then we take a break and return to practice fro the concert for many hours. We also have to practice with kids individually. Our only days off from now until Xmas are Thursdays.

I have had to take an additional afternoon off after working in the morning or I am too tired to take care of myself.

Off to bed,


The Calcutta Diary: A Volunteer’s Experience

Sunday, November 16th, 2008
Journal entry from yesterday, when I went to see "George" at Prem Dan... Today I went to see "George", the man who I found on the street and took to the hospital several weeks ago. I went with M., the Irish nurse ... [Continue reading this entry]

The Calcutta Diary: A Volunteer’s Experience

Monday, November 10th, 2008
Everything is coming up roses...  Well, not exactly roses, but let's just say things have much improved. I went out yesterday and had a lovely day..went out for a proper cup of coffee at a fancy place and then watched the new ... [Continue reading this entry]

The Calcutta Diary: A Volunteer’s Experience

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Although I don't have morethan a few minutes, I've decided to spend them giving you all a brief update since yesterday..

I spent the night dreaming horrible dreams, scenes from the hospital. I've been dreaming of these horrors every night since ... [Continue reading this entry]

The Calcutta Diary: A Volunteer’s Experience

Sunday, November 2nd, 2008

I haven't written in awhile. I haven't had the time, energy, or inclination. Here's a quick entry that will have to fill in the blanks over the last week until I have time to post from my journal on Thursday...

Today ... [Continue reading this entry]