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Journal From Calcutta: Just Another Day, Keeping Calm and Carrying On

 Look up Daya Dan, the orphanage run by Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity nuns in Calcutta, India,  in the media, and you will find a strange mix of reports, some negative .My experience being there was anything but negative.  If you want to really now what life is like there, read this entry.

Hello everyone. I’ve managed to swing getting the weekend off, so I’ve got some time for writing down  some of my journals here on this blog…

My general state of mind is good, but sometimes I am overwhelmed by either culture shock or reminders of what was a very painful return home.  

When I get overwhelmed by this, I know that the best thing to do is to read through my old journals..which have become my guidebook for how to live the life I now have.

At this point in my journals, I’ve crossed some sort bridge, probably a self imposed one, that took me from being a person that was worried and stressed and so caught in what other people thought of me that I couldn’t really give of myself totally. I did not have the capacity to be selfless for any thing more than an afternoon. And although I was capable of great generosity, I knew I had the capicity to give even more. Much more. In the past, I was always distracted before by my own needs and wants and fears.  At about this time in my journals, I see a real change, in that I’ve stopped complaining about things and worrying and so forth. I’ll use the words of a friend of mine from London, who said to me that day ” You just keep calm and carry on, that’s the brunt of it. Just get on with it, that’s what you do!”

Getting on with it. That’s a whole new skill set for me. It makes it so you can really give of yourself, and do so from reserves you didn’t even know you had.

This entry was written on the one day that I was actually able to keep a running journal through out a single day in live time…and it details what an entire day of volunteering at the Daya Dan orphanage was like for me. Reading back through those entries now, it blows my mind I had that much stamina! And it kind of helps me understand why I was so tired upon my return to the States.

 Here we go…..

I’m really tired. I’m so tired I feel like I can hardly write. I think the effect of being here, in the city, it’s come down to the wire for me. There is so much to look at and smell and taste and hear that I feel somewhat overloaded. Sometimes I feel like I have no more room in my brain for any more images or sounds or feelings.

I don’t really have much time to go online to blog, in fact the blog is somewhat dead in the water–I just can’t do it right now..journals will have to suffice. I worry about the people at home, but the problems I am dealing here are so much larger than anything that those at home might be facing. I feel very homesick. I also feel like since I will be home soon, I should focus on what is right in front of me.

Several weeks ago, my responsibilities at Daya Dan increased. I was already there a great deal and not taking much time off working full days and then leaving quite late in the evening and making it back to my hotel..then eating something, sleeeping and waking up to do it all over again. I love the work but it is very tiring. I do not think of myself at all and sometimes realize I have forgotten to take care of myself in small but important ways(drinking water, etc.).

 I feel like I am changing so much spiritually in this place. There is no other option but growth and self examination in a place like this. I could not function here unless I believed in something greater than myself. I could not make sense of it and I think I would not be able to see the beautiful moments as well as the difficult ones.

I have moved into the orphanage.

I do not think this has ever been done before by a volunteer-and it may not happen again-but the situation called for some creative thinking as the Sisters were are understaffed right now and the work is still there even when there are not bodies to do it.

Initially, I had only planned on spending a few nights on one weekend, but it was apparent that not only did they need me there but the children loved having me around, calling me, “their American mother.” Wow. The moment that the superior sister asked if I’d just go ahead and move in was such a lovely one, a real testament to how far I have come in my sense of responsibility and in my growing faith.  I had read about “personalism” before but now I had a chance to really put to to the test.

Living here has given me an even deeper understanding of what it means to be a sister here. Their lives are far from simple. I would describe their days as busy and hectic with much time devoted to the unexpected. They are called upon to problem solve the most varied of problems at every turn.

I had thought that the sister’s lives were devoted to prayer and contemplation, and although they spend a great deal of time doing that, they also spend a great deal of their time doing things from visiting the sick, running the clinic on the premises, running after children, feeding children, changing poopy pants and cleaning. And of course, running the place and all the day to day operations is an enormous task. There is no task beneath them and they are busy from 5 am until 10 pm at night, with only one “day off” a week. Even this day off is filled with activities, and of course the children are still there with all of their needs…so a day off is not really a day off around here.

Now that I am living here, the sisters have put me temporarily in charge downstairs of the boys. There is one other sister working with me, Sister Francis John, who is sweet and very young. The children love her but she is not much of a disiplinarian and so this falls to me.

The past few weeks I have often heard the Indian masseys say, “Do you want me to get Amy?” when a child is misbehaving. And most of time the child will improve at the idea that I will be called over to the situation. That’s a far cry from the aunt I was at home–not much for disipline or accountability and more of a “yes, you can have pancakes for dinner and stay up all night!” You know that kind of person…more of a friend to kids.

But being here has taught me that being a friend to a child is not a very good way to train them up nto being an adult–whether they have disabilities or not. Being here has made me appreciate the power of setting boundaries with children.

At home, I have often seen parents treat their children as friends, sharing with them as though they were adults or expecting them to decide things very independently. I have come to see that this way of raising kids is one of the cornerstones of the problems youth in the West are facing today.  (That is something I never , ever thought I would ever say. Just another example of how working in an environment that calls you to be so much more than who you were when you arrived affects one’s larger world view.)

The extent of my disipline is to simply be around. In other words, the kids behave better when I’m there and nvolved in what they are doing, taking an interest.

I spend alot of time putting kids in the corner. This is the time honored “timeout” method  we have at home, although here it is different, because you have to keep the kids in the corner and make sure they don’t run away. You also have to explain in very simple terms what they’ve done wrong. This requires great skill and patience and I like to use counting to ten over and over as a way to calm the child. These kids do well with consistency and once they have counted to ten in the corner a few times, they will actually sometimes put themselves in the corner on their own and begin counting!

Some children here do not understand right and wrong or complicated ideas. Some have severe mental disabilities and can not even count to 3. Yet, there is always a way to have a child understand not to do something wrong. The question is always how to find that way. With each child it is different. Some children get upset with even the idea of being put into the corner for a timeout and will change their behavior immediately. Other children need more than a timeout and need time and quiet space away from others to achieve understanding and tranquility.

I also bring many gifts for the children–particularly food, like samosas, noodles, fruit, and milk-sweets covered in silver foil or in a sweet syrup are some of their favorites. If a child is misbehaving, I often will tell them that they won’t get any of the special treats that day. You would be surprised how motivated kids are to be good when it comes to food!

The children are so excited that I am living here that they can hardly stand it. They are consumed with having me involved in every activity of their day and they do not like to have me leave for long amounts of time.

The sisters also do not like to have me leave very much. We are very understaffed right now–not many sisters and for some reason, many masseys are also out sick or something of that sort. Whenever I leave for more than 15 minutes I tell the sisters, and I have to return within a few hours. There are no tourist services in this neighborhood–I have to go all the way across town to get internet and so even email is impossible. Because I can’t send emails, I’ve been keeping special journals for the people closest to me in my life at home, and I’m going to give them to them as gifts. I think they will blow them away–the children have even been helping me with some of the special pages, doing the drawings and writing a little.

 The only time I leave these walls is to run across the street to the milk sweet shop to get sweets for the children or to the chai wallah I like down the street. Sometimes a cup of hot, milky chai gulped down on the street is just the jump start I need in the middle of a busy afternoon.

The response I get from everyone out on the street is amazing and has drastically changed since my arrival many months ago. The neighborhood is used to volunteers coming and going. The key word in that statement is “going”. People come and go, and most don’t stay too long. When they see a volunteer stay all day everyday, they are so appreciative, offering the “namaste” sign to me (hands folded together as if in prayer and a sight head bow) and often giving things for the children. I have a real sense of community not just inside these walls, but outside of them.

I spend alot of my time one on one with the children–especially in the afternoons, after naptime and lunch, when it’s quieter and less chaotic. Some of children can walk and I like to take them on walks in the neighborhood. There is a group of children that play cricket in the afternon near the alley by Daya Dan, and they will often put out chairs for me and a few of the boys I walk with to sit in and watch a few games. It’s very exciting for the kids, who are not used to so much action and the activities of normal children.

Everyone always wants to go on a walk, and often after naptime I am bombarded with requests to go outside.

But I try to be fair and take turns with all of them-including the blind children and the ones that cannot move and often seem as though they are not aware of anything around them. These ones have to be carried, as the wheelchairs we have are more like wooden chairs and are very heavy, not neccessarily made for the streets of this city.

Sometimes when I carry the ones that can’t move I feel like I cannot do it, but I always end up resolving that I can. Sometimes I only take them a short distance, but it’s still good to get them outside and exposed to more than what their everyday world is inside Daya  Dan.

There is one child in particular who is probably the most beautiful child I have ever seen, of unknown age but probably about 7 or 8 years old, who has enormous eyes framed by equally enormous eyelashes, who I must carry leaning his head over one of my shoulders. He never responds to anything at all, and the only movement he ever makes is a slight twitch of his mouth. Yet I notice on these walks that he shifts slightly and his eyes are watching what’s going o around him. Carrying him is like carrying a hundred pound sack of potatoes, and it’s tough. But I feel so good after I do it.

Sometimes I think that I can’t do this job, but I am constantly rewarded when I actually am doing it. This kind of work requires a kind of selflessness that I never experienced before. Even though home and the idea of home seems a long way off and far away, remote, to me right now..I know that I must find a way to incorporate this level of selflessness in my everyday life once I get back there. I wonder how difficult that will be.

My general day looks something like this:

4 am: wake up. There is no chance of sleeping in later, as my “bed” is actually in the exercise room which is directly above the boy’s sleeping room. Sleep comes fitfully as well, as my bed is actually just a thin mat on the floor and is often interrupted by the sounds of the children below. Some of the children call out or have bad dreams at night, others never seem to sleep, and sometimes it’s very noisy.

4;15 am: Binoy knows I am up and awake. (Binoy is the little autistic boy who I ahve been assigned to here for the last 5 months) This kid seems to have an automatic timer inside his brain! He is already downstairs in the big front room, with the lights on, spinning bits of paper and calling out, “Aaamy. Aaamy. Aaamy”, laughing as he does it.

I don’t have much time for dressing, I just throw on yet another salwaar kameez outfit, wash my face, spen some time in prayer for the day, and off I go , back to work. When I come downstairs, I am met by a group of the boys who all squeeze me and hug me and tell me they love me. Some have long term memory problems and are surprised I am there every mornng, jumping up and down and excitedly talking. Some have been waiting at the foot of the stairs for more than an hour, waiting for me. A great way to start my day.

5am- 7am This time is spent with the kids downstairs, and then the biggest boys and I go upstairs to the chapel for mass. It’s really hard for me to be at mass so early. I am consistently nauseated so early in the morning and we don’t eat until afterwards. But it is important not to miss it. I usually sit next to Mongol, a boy with a severe type of muscular dystrophy, and we hold hands. His hands are very small and slight, just bones and skin almost. His eyes are bright and happy and he has been a big teacher in my life here, teaching me much about what compassion is and how to love.

Volunteers are not invited this mass–it is a private affair, for sisters and higher-functioning children only. But since I am living here, they expect me to come and it is a real honor to be included. I love it so much more than the mass at Motherhouse, which although beautiful doesn’t include the children in it. Starting the day with kids from Daya Dan singing has become a neccessary part of my day.

Mongol is very funny, often complaining that he can’t understand anything this particular priest says. We laugh, and I always say,”Oh, I thought it was just me!”.

My other job is to make sure Mongol goes to confession if he needs to. He (of course!) rarely thinks he should but then again, who amongst us does? If it’s the priest he can’t understand, he never understands any part of the preists responses to what he’s said, but he always says, “Well, I do feel better at least!”

My favorite priest is an Indian man who is quite ample in both his physical presence and in his manner. His enthusiasm is infectious and he really seesm to enjoy talking to the children. Somehow his homilies always involve stories about princes or elephants or kingdoms, and they always have a moral ending.

7am: Breakfast varies. Sometmes, sisters make me a special breakfast and I eat upstairs with the priest and the kitchen table. Sometimes  the cook makes me something special and I take it downstairs and eat it with the boys. It’s usually a breakfast of fresh, hot chapati, some sort of chickpeas in a tomato sauce, or fried bread or gruel. Gruel is made of rice and water and sounds awful but it’s pretty good.

Sometimes I eat with the boys. The big boys breakfast is white bread and bananas and chai. This breakfast of very little nutritive value is the breakfast of Indian children all over the country. Stacks of loaves of white bread are sold on evey corner. It is eaten plain, but I keep a secret stash of peanut butter for myself and the boys so we sometimes eat it with that.

7:30 am The other volunteers start coming in  about 45 minutes, so there’s alot of work to do to get ready. Volunteers are the main people that socialize the children, and they are the teachers of the children that cannot go to a proper school. They also handwash all the laundry, change the beds, clean the children…and in general provide diversions from daily life inside the orphanage.

The Indian masseys from the night shift are leaving and the morning shift is coming in. Before they leave they bring me a thermos of hot, boiled water for my instant coffee that I must gulp down several cups of before I can propery think! or do anything!

We all gather at the Mary downstairs and they sing a song in Bengali. This is always a serene moment in the mornings, and no matter whatt else is happening(remember there are alot of little boys there!) the song is sung. The men who guard the front door at night have rolled up their sleeping mats and have also joined in–the only staff person who never sings in the Muslim driver, who is getting the ambulance ready to take the big kids to school.

After this is done, the big boys must get ready for school. They have a “schoolroom” where all of their things are kept and they struggle with putting on their navy and bright blue unforms. Some of them need help with their socks and shoes. They comb each others hair, pack each other’s backpacks, and off they go, not to return until mid afternoon.

8am: Prince is going crazy this morning,as he does every morning. Prince is a 15 year old boy that has been with the sisters since he was a toddler. He was found in the street, sitting atop a pile of garbage, with a terrible infection. He survived, but those early days of his life, alone on the street, have damaged him forever. He cannot speak and uses simple sign language to talk.

This morning he’s very animated. He wants me to turn the music on. He likes to begn his day the same way every day, dancing around the front room to music. I put a cd on but he doesn’t like it and bobs his head vigorously, telling me to change it. I put on another one, this one a very energetic collection of nursery rhymes in Hindi.

Prince likes to tell stories, even though he can’t talk. Once you are around him for awhile, you can understand some of what he says. His stories are all untrue and very wild. He will talk of jumping off the roof of Daya Dan, landng on a motocycle, and then seeing  a dog, and then jumping onto a passing bus. I am not sure how I can understand him, but somehow, after spending so much time with him, I just do.

Meanwhile two of the children are misbehaving already, some sort of disagreement over an object. Luckily they are Binoy and Ankur, who are good friends. I have them help me bring in some plastic toys and rockers from the entry room and they get busy playing and forget all about it.

We are also getting every child bathed, dressed and out of bed. All of this happens before the volunteers even arrive. We have only three masseys this morning and myself so it’s slow going. The mosre ambulatory children are easy–it’s the ones who can’t move at all that take a long time. Some are very heavy and this is also a real issue in the morning, because you need very strong people to lift and carry them.

8:30 am Volunteers are arriving. Now that I’m a bit more than a part-time volunteer, I see things from another point of view. Volunteers come from all walks of life, with all kinds of experiences. Some have never volunteered at anything before. Some have never been around children before. Some have no experience with developmentally disabled children or adults. Some have a chip on their shoulders, and come thinking that they will be in charge because of skills they have–others come in the door and never really do much at all, just leaning against the wall and talking to friends. Some are there for only one day, a four hour shift, or to take photographs. Some are there to volunteer with school groups and are teenagers.

Whoever they are, they must all somehow work together as a team to accomplish many things today, some of which they have never done: such as change poopy pants, feed children who can’t move, do physical therapy exercises, sing songs, teach, and in general, provide a consistent living environment for children that are going to be institutionalized for life. Some come from countries where..there are no developmentally disabled people walking about, willy nilly. One doesn’t see them. Some volunteers are in shock the first time they see an autistic child  or a spastic child or are in shock at the prospect of what we need them to do. Maybe they’ve never changed a dirty diaper before, or fed another person.

Today a new volunteer stood open-mouthed, in shock, as she was asked to change poopy pants. “The volunteers do that here?”, she asked, standing behind her face mask (!) and weakly waving about a pair of rubber gloves. (!!!Well …they aren’t going to change themselves!)

My job is to coordinate new volunteers and match them to children who need a partner for learning or what have you. I soon discovered that this was too big of a job for me, and I asked other long termers to help me.

Sometimes when I communicate to the volunteers I don’t have much time, and so if they don’t like having me tell them/ask them what we need from them that day, they get upset. Today I spoke with one young woman, about 19, and she took it the wrong way. I have had to “make it right” this morning and it was not easy. But I have to let to go and move on, because I haven’t the energy or time not to do so.

Laundry is the biggest thing we do in the morning. It is done in aluminum tubs with water and a soap out on the back patio. After being soaked and scrubbed by a group of volunteers, the volunteers must carry the wet laundry up three flights of stairs to the roof to hang it on clothes lines. This is hard work and physically taxing, but the sisters do not believe in washing machines. It takes a crew of at least seven volunteers to do the morning washing. Today’s crew is very energetic. They have been working together for about a week and they are from around the world-Korea, Japan, French, Italian, Indonesian.

The other volunteers are changing the sheets and washing down the mattresses in the boys’ bedroom or playing with the kids in the front room.

My main job is just to organize things and keep everything on time.

9am: At 9, we have all the children and volunteers meet in front of the small wall alcove in the front room that holds a cross and a statue of Mary, and we have a time of prayer. The prayer is done by rote and the highest performing boys stand in the front, leading everyone else with a few prompts. Binoy is the star of the show.

It is interesting to see how volunteers respond to this “prayertime”. Some are obviously uncomfortable at the mere mention of Jesus or God and stand silently, while others sing along. Here at the orphanage, it’s just a microcsim of life in the real world. People come here trying to work out alot of issues they have and sometimes those issues are about faith. But they are in a Catholic orphanage!, so I am always surprised that the religious part of daily life there is something that they struggle with. It seems like they would be expecting it..

At the end of prayer time, a  child is chosen to “bless” everyone present. This is done by having the child place their palm on the head of everyone, one at a time. If it’s a child that can’t move too much, they are carried by a volunteer and the volunteer uses one hand to bless for the child. I love this part of the day and the kids love it too.

9:15-10am: After prayertime, I must coordinate with all of the volunteers. Some will go to the mediation room with the higher preforming, more ambulatory children. Others go to physical therapy, while others are assigned to individual children.

This last group of volunteers are the ones that are the long term volunteers. They have to be very committed because  they have to show up. It affects the children very adversely when they get assigned someone who stops coming. So my job is to pay attention to what the volunteer really wants to offer and see if they are a good match for a child. Some children have many behavioral issues and need a volunteer with a stronger personality. Others need someone who is very relaxed and easy going. Some children are very heavy and must be carried to the bathroom, etc, and this requires a very physically strong person.

I always have trouble figuring out what to do with people that are there for one day only. That is not to say that they aren’t useful, but it’s difficult to give them a task that is short term and requires no training. They end up doing alot of laundry!

Meanwhile, the volunteers doing physical therapy are gathering up their kids and either carrying them upstairs or taking the elevator. They will be in the large physical therapy room upstairs exercising and moving all of the children who have limited or no movement. They begin their therapy session with a music meditation sitting in a circle on mats, and then the physical therapy part takes until lunchtime.

The blind children meet in a room upstairs with the Indian Asssocation of teachers for the Blind. The kids who are blind need some help to get to their classroom.

The other children all go to either individual teachers or to meditation. This group also meets upstairs in  rectangular room painted pale pink with flowered cushions placed in circle. We listen to music and we try to help them focus and relax. This is not always easy, as some children might get up suddenly and walk or run around the room; or might have trouble concentrating. After music time we take turns singing to the children and talking with them, using a script. For many of these kids, it’s their favorite time of the day.

I sometimes join in on meditation. I have been going to mediation for the entire time I’ve been assigned here, but my newer job duties mean that I can’t always sit thru the whole thing. This is a struggle for Binoy, who likes things the same. But I have found my replacement and I want Binoy to bond with him, so this has freed me up to walk around and check on everything.

There are always things that come up: someone knocked over their milk; someone went to the bathroom in the wrong place; someone needs to be taken to the toilet; someone can’t stay in the meditation room and needs a timeout; someone is sick. I am very busy for this period of time!

10am-11:30/12 noon :This is classtime for those kids that are not in physical therapy(which continues on until lunch). Some kids are with individual teachers, some kids are in a group class. I’m always assigned to Binoy and we’ve got a system down for each day of the week. Today’s work is in two parts: Reading and Behavior.

I’ve been teaching Binoy to read. This is not easy and it takes a long time for him to understand what he’s saying/reading. We work on that until he’s about to bounce out of his seat! and then we work on behavior.

Today we are working on not touching objects that are not his. He has a problem taking objects that appeal to him and hoarding them, hiding them, or throwing them on the roof of the neighborhood buildings. Sometimes he likes an object for it’s shape and spinning ability(he likes to spin things) but generally it’s because he simply wants it at that moment. In particular, he like to walk thru the physical therapy room and steal the children’s toys.

Today we spend half an hour working on having him not touch toys.

This sounds boring, but it’s not. Binoy has fond some very creative approaches to getting around doing what is asked of him. He is a smart and sometimes sly little boy. But he responds well to rewards and I have plenty of those in the form of biscuits and stickers in my pockets!

11:30/12 noon-1:00pm: It’s time for lunch for all the little boys.

The boys wear “school clothes” and must change into “everyday” clothes before eating. Once they are out of their red and white uniforms, they are taken to the dining room for lunch.  The blind boys also have school uniforms on for the blind school and they must change also. Some children must be taken to the toilet before lunch as well.

Volunteers set up the dining room with chairs around large brown tables. Food is brought out and put on a sideboard, usually rice, dal, and a third thing, such as chicken or fish.

I run around tying bibs on everybody who needs one and getting out tin plates.

Sister Jonafa has asked for three volunteers to always be in the lunchroom. This doesn’t include volunteers helping kids to eat who cannot move. Volunteers serve food, clean tables and kids and bibs, encourage children to focus on eating, and take them to wash their dish/use the toilet afterwards.

Lunch can be chaotic or it can be peaceful, but it’s always a busy time. For one thing, we have more than 15 children who must be fed and cannot eat by themselves. Then we have other children who won’t eat without a little help, and we have other kids who don’t like to eat and must have someone with them, urging them quietly to finish lunch. For example, Joachim today kept staring off into space or playing with a piece of paper in his hand and not eating and needed his teacher next to him the whole time, giving him simple prompts to eat.

Today I’ve brought ketchup–a Daya Dan favorite– for the boys. It’s amazing how such a small thing as a bottle of ketchup can be so exciting, but the boys all want some and they all seem to enjoy eating alot more with it. Even those kids who can’t talk but are aware are looking at me and making slight movements, showing they want more ketchup.

It kind of makes you look at how small things can make a big difference–especially things we take for granted.

Some of the kids are quite labor intensive to feed and it takes a very long time to feed them slowly and properly. Often volunteers are there for over an hour feeding  a child, or still there feeding them when other volunteers have left.

Food here is simple but nourishing, but it’s heavy on the dal and rice ( a mainstay for Indians!) and I’m not big on dal myself after eating it/looking at it day in and day out!

Volunteers not helping feed have the famous “tea break”–hot chai and biscuits provided by the sisters. This is sort of a community time, a time for the volunteers to rest and talk. I never sit with them–or at least, only rarely. When I first came here I did, but then, there’s always something to do, isn’t there? I haven’t much time for tea and cookies these days. Today a volunteer brought over some tea for me to drink, but Binoy took it and drank it before I could get to it.

12noon:It’s naptime for the boys. Some don’t really nap, and are extremly energetic at all times. Others are asleep the moment their head hits the pillow.The volunteers have all left and gone back to their hotels or to lunch before heading to their next placement–Kalighat or what have you.

Today I am singing “Amazing Grace” to Binoy, Ankur, and the other boys in their beds. I can’t sing well at all, but they don’t care. It’s very calming for them, and each one gets a turn with me sitting on their beds, giving them a little massage. They love it and it sometimes helps them be calm enough to go to sleep.

12:30-2:30pm The sisters have been taking turns making me lunch. This is quite an honor, I think..but I never know what I will be eating! My first few months here I just ate what the masseys ate, but I have to say, I was not accustomed to the food and was ill alot.

When I moved in, I did not want to ask about the food situation, so I said nothing. Worry for nothing, right? But somehow Sister Paula Marie found out I was eating pretty irregularly and arranged for the meals to be made for me. I am very grateful for this as there is not street food I would feel comfortable eating nearby except milk-sweets, and I cannot live on milk-sweets alone! Although I would like to!

Today I have an unusual lunch of homemade chicken soup–kind of like a clear broth, jelly and butter sandwiches, and a tomato salad with onions on it. There are about 8 sandwiches. I am constantly surprised at how much they think I can eat. I eat a few and stuff the rest in a cloth for later consumption by the big boys downstairs.

I am supposed to take a nap and rest at this time, but when I get downstairs Mongol is waiting for me. He wants me to help him eat his lunch. I’ve brought him some chicken(his favorite) and he has the usual dal and rice, etc. During lunch we talk about very deep subjects. Mongol has normal intellegence although physically he is limited. The conversation ranges from some cards he wants to make for some volunteers who are leaving; to what muscles and bones do; to the “dinner party” we are planning for Valentine’s day.

After lunch I take Mngol up to the roof to see his sister who lives at the orphanage too. We all go up to the roof and blow bubbles.

God, I’m tired. I have not stopped moving since 9 am. And thats not walking. Thats running!

After lunch Mongol doesn’t want to take a nap by himself, so we get some of the big boys to go up to the physical therapy room with him and they all lie down on individual mats while I play some soothing relaxing music. I don’t sleep at all, I just make another cup of coffee and work on Binoy’s classwork for an hour.

2pm:At two o clock, the boys are all waking up- both upstairs and downstairs. The little boys are caling my name out as they know I’m upstairs and they want me to come down.

I can’t though–we’re having an art class today with the big boys, and we are going to draw to music. I’ve found some beautiful music in one of the meditation rooms and I put that on the cd player and get all the boys arranged around the big work table. I turn the music on, and somehow an hour passes, with the kids drawing to the music and total silence. It’s good for them to do this kind of free expression–here in India it seems like there is much encouragement for kids to ‘draw inside the lines” and not much focus on creativity.

Downstairs, the little boys and all eating a  snack and the masseys are getting ready for their rosary. They do this everyday in the front room, with all of the children.

A few random volunteers show up, and the masseys ask me to come and talk to them. They are a big group, only here for one day–really just a few hours this afternoon. They all have cameras and although you can take photos in DD I tell them not to go crazy with picture taking, but focus on sitting with, talking to, and playing with the kids. They decide just two of them will snap a few photos and this seems to work out well. Some of them are senior citizens and the work is difficult–much bending, squatting, sitting, kneeling…so I bring them up to the art class where they can sit at the table with the kids.

Some of the little boys sneak upstairs into the art class and I tell the they can stay if they are good and behave nicely. One little boy named Joy is quite intelligent but is very stubborn. I am worried he will be a distraction in the class, but he finds a seat and sits there, doodling away, happy to be included.

4pm-5:30pm: We don’t have many volunteers regularly come in the afternoon. The only set program we have is the tutoring program for those bigger children that go outside the home for school. At 4 o’clock, a small group of volunteers arrives, including Josef, a friend of mine from Austria who is helping a boy named Rahul with cerebal palsy pass his exams so he can go to the next grade. Rahul doesn’t have  much of an attention span, but Josef has really stuck with it and Rahul has improved dramatically. Even his confidence has improved. It’s seeing volunteers like Josef who come in and give everything that really make a difference.

I’m assigned to two older boys who have difficulty with..pretty much..everything. One of them can count to 20 but the other one cannot count at all. One understands groups and differences between objects, but the other one sees no difference at all. We spend alot of time on matching today.

One of the things I love about tutoring these boys is when they do something really well, and I say, ” Wow, What a good boy! What a smart boy!” , their smile beams from where they sit to the next room. They are very easy to please and alot of their issues with learning have more to do with confidence than with not being able to do it. One of them has a very short attention span, but just practicing helping him focus for a few moments before beginning makes a significant contribution to what he can process that day.

5:30 pm-7:00 pm: It’s time for dinner. Little boys eat before the bigger boys.

I’m the only volunteer and there is alot to do. The dining room must be set up and we have many children to feed. Today I feed a boy who cannot move and is blind, deaf, and  has a very small head and a very small brain. I forgotten the name of his condition temporarily–but DD has several orphans who have it.

After the little boys eat, the dining room is cleaned up and I sit with the big boys while they eat. I help Mongol with his food–he needs someone to help him although he can do some parts of it himself. He cannot hold a fork or spoon, so if the meal requires that he needs to be fed. 

Mongol is the prince of Daya Dan–he is the only boy there who has normal, high functioning intelligence and he’s the only child who commands much respect from all the other children. In spite of being in a wheelchair and being quite small, he issues commands and requests right and left and he has a little group of boys that he is always with. He cares for the other boys and he has a lot of responsibility to be a good leader with them. He is ordering chai for me even as I write this down!

Tonight I have promised Mongol some one on one time, just with me. He is very attached to me and I think it will be very diffcult for him when I leave here.

7pm: I go upstairs and tell the sisters I’m going out for a little while. My dinner sits waiting for me on the table..I wonder if it will be jelly sandwiches? Those were much better than rice and dal! Either way though, one thing I have learned here is to be content with what I am given.

I walk out into the street, just to get some space and some air. Of course, the air is thick and grey and not really air at all here, but let’s pretend that it is.

The street is full of people. There is an Indira Ghandi center near DD and there’s some sort of political thing happening there tonight. The homeless families that normally live on that stretch of sidewalk in front of the center has been cleared off for tonight, and their bundless sit in an alley on one side of the center.

The children of those families still loiter about although their parents seem to have disapeared. One child is wearing a faded and torn t-shirt that says, ” Daddy’s Princess” although she is bedraggled beyond belief. She carries her little brother, who is entirely naked except for a battered knit cap of bright green that is tied under his chin and a tiny string tied around his waist.

I always struggle with giving people on the street anything–especially outside of DD. I don’t want the people living outside the orphanage to begin expecting volunteers to be giving out handouts(although it happens) . For example, one day I was followed for almost half an hour by a woman, reasonably well dressed and groomed, begging for money ust outside of DD. The thing is, if they are truly in need they can go to the sisters and they will help them –not with money but with food or medicine, yes.

Chuldren are exceptions of course–although they are often paid to beg.  I decide to give these two some food anyway.

I walk three blocks down to my favorite milk sweet shop. It’s the best one in the area, with a lovely array of milk sweets, some dusted with pistachios, some covered in real silver foil, some pink, yellow, green. I buy a box for myself, one for the masseys(who work so hard!), one for the boys at DD and one small one for the two street children.

The sweet shop is hot, thick with sweet in the air, filled with flies and sweating men rolling out sweets on the floor in the backroom. A large vat of hot oil bubbles and a small boy, no more than 7 or 8, looking faded and tired with large grey circles under his eyes, drops hot circles of dough into the oil and takes them out again. These donuts are one of the most popular things the shop sells and the boy can’t make them fast enough for those who are buying tonight–women dripping in costume jewelry and bright polyester saris, men wearing pastel button front dress shirts and grey or dunn colored slacks with flip flops, children still in their school uniforms.

I want a few , but I’ve already been gone too long.

Going back to the orphanage, I step over  a dead dog. It was alive this afternoon, I remember seeing it then. It’s a hard and fast life for dogs here, these pariah dogs of the streets. Someone’s covered it with some newspaper at least.

The streets are a mess, full of half hand dug ditches and valleys, as they are continually working on the roads around here. It’s as if the city must fix things by the most archiac means neccessary. Actually, this is true. The city has to find employment for thousands and thousands of people every year, and how they do this is to do public works projects in such a way that they take a long time and make a big mess. It is not unusual to see women, very tiny and slight, lugging wet cement on towels on their heads, slowly filling a road in; or men, wearing only their pants and some flip flops taking a pickaxe to a new section of the streets outside DD in the wee hours of the morning.

Watching carefully where I am stepping, avoiding everything from holes to gulleys to human excrement to mysterious green bubbling substances in the gutters in the street, I make my way back to DD.

I’m almost back to the door when suddenly a parade (or a protest ?) comes down the alley, heading my way–it’s the Communist party! They do these odd protest/marches all over the place, and it seems like around here in this neighborhood its at least once a week. I have to wait to get into the alley and as I wait, I watch the men walking by.

They are all tired looking, wearing clothes lacking the normal colors one sees on Indian men (hot pink ,bright white, bright orange!). Instead they seem to be representing every shade of gray. They carry big flags with the Communist emblems in red and white, and they sport red armbands on their right upper arms.

They sing out some sort of mantra….

 and in the silent part this is punctuated by the sounds of

 flip-flop, flip-flop, flip-flop, flip-flop, flip-flop of their cheap sandals flapping in unison on the pavement.

They do not seem to be phased by the traffic that they are holding up or the big yellow ambassador taxis honking at them or the open truckloads of people waving at them. They focus their sight straight ahead and do not even glance my direction (a rarity for me on the streets of this city!).

I find the street kids, give them the sweets, and they greedily tear open the box, breaking the red string tying it closed, eating the sweets by putting the entire thing in their mouths at once. They are very hungry.

7:30 pm: I’m back at DD again, having slipped out of my street shoes and put on a clean salwaar kamez, I go to find Mongol and he and I head upstairs for my dinner.

I’ve been trying to share these meals with at least one child, and this is sort of ends up being Mongol alot of the time because we do like each other so very much. He enjoys and needs alot of special attention.

Dinner is an actual green salad. Am I dreaming? My dreams here are often of lettuce and raw crunchy vegetables, I am not kidding you. Do I eat it? One isn’t supposed to eat salad here in India. And even if it was cleaned with clean water, it’s doubtful it was soaked in iodine.

Hmmm..to eat or not to eat? It is too tempting to turn down. I dive in. Ah, raw lettuce! Fantastic! I haven’t had raw lettuce in five months. I’m probably going to get sick from this–but not only is it very good, I don’t think I could turn down anything the sisters made for me.

We have potatoes and chapati and okra, too. Mongol, inspite of having eaten a dinner already, seems to be a bottomless pit and eats two plates of food.

We chat about the days events and talk about our dinner party that we are planning for Valentine’s day.

You see, the children love Kentucky Fried Chicken . It is extremely popular in India, maybe becasue the portions of meat are so large and also the place is very clean and sparkly, kind of unusual here in this environment. KFC’s are very crowded and busy here, and the kids love to go out to the local KFC.

But it’s very difficult. We have to get permission; then we have to dress them all; then we have to take them out onto the street; then we have to catch a cab that will fit us and wheelchairs (and not suddenly decide, once we have all the kids loaded up, that it will cost more money than it should); then we have to get there, all crammed into the cab and hanging onto dear life thru Calcutta traffic; then we have to unload them; then we are finally at the restaraunt! And then we have to help them eat, and take them to the bathroom, and so forth…

Mongol’s idea is to bring KFC here, in his own words, “to have a Daya Dan restarant!” We are literally going to turn one of the small classrooms upstairs into a restarant, complete with waiters and everything and real silverware and glasses (no plastic, Mongol says!) and so on.

So I’ve enlisted the help of several wonderul volunteeers and we are going to make it a Valentine’s day theme. The sisters cannot attend (they aren’t allowed to eat with others), but they have offered up Sister Paula Marie’s famous salad.

So Mongol and I spend the rest of our meal planning for this special night–he wants to have formal invitations and make it so everyone comng has to dress up. I have to wear a sari, he says…

9pm We are downstairs, sitting on Mongol’s bed in the big sleeping room. I’ve bought him a chessboard and I’m teaching him how to play. We are surrounded be all the other boys, some of whom (ie, Binoy) are eyeing those chess pieces as possible diversions or play things and contemplating how to steal one of the board.

By ten, all of the little boys are in their beds and it’s lights out. I change Mongol into his bed clothes and I sit on his bed, stroking his hair and telling him a story.

I told him a story, quietly, speaking softly, about a dog, whose tail would not wag. I’m making it up as I go along and he loves it, constantly asking me questions about the dog’s life, so that just a few paragraphs into the story it’s become quite a complex tale that may take several nights to finsh.

I am telling him the story when he fell asleep.

I sit there for a long time afterwards. I just sat there, in the half darkness, listening, thinking.

I thought I was alone in this when Rahul piped up (from several beds over), “I love you, Amy.” , and giggled his happy giggle. He’s been awake the whole time, quietly listening to the dog story.

“I love you , too.” I said, walking over to touch his face before going to the office.

10 pm: I need to tidy up the office alot before I leave here. It’s the repository of everything imaginable as all offices worldwide are, of course. But I saw a mouse in it yesterday and so I think it needs  a good cleaning.

I’m vigorously cleaning it when one the masseys comes in and tells me to go to bed! But first, eat a plate of food she’s brought in. God, could I eat any more food? I don’t have any room and I’m not feeling so great…but the masseys don’t have much and they’ve given me the best bits of chicken from their pot and the best rice.

I sigh and settle in to eat it, crowded in by three masseys watching me approprovingly and making apropriate clucking noises like hens over their brood..

11:30 pm: I’m going upstairs to lie on my mat and get some sleep. After a quick bucket shower (and I have to say..the bathroom here is much nicer than the one at my hotel was!) I’m going to make my to do list for tomorrow. We’ve got the party happening plus I somehow have to figure out how to get away long enough to send out an email for Valentines day.

Sometimes at the end of the day, I stop and pause and ask myself, “Is it really you doing this, being this person, doing this work?” This volunteer job, this work, it has carried me to a whole new place in myself. Yes, I’m tired. Yes, my body aches. Yes, I’ve still got alot to do. But it is the experience of a lifetime.

going to bed. finally.

gigi



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5,063 responses to “Journal From Calcutta: Just Another Day, Keeping Calm and Carrying On”

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