I’d read about other Teresa of Calcutta in the City of Joy and the plan was to find Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity and volunteer a few of my 183 days to a good cause. The guidebook said it was easy enough and the only thing you need to do is ‘show up’. Before knocking on the nuns’ door however you are advised to take a deep breath.
Volunteering at Mother Teresa’s, I discovered, was hugely popular among foreigners (especially the Spanish and the Japanese). I half expected to be the only when I showed up but thousands of Catholics ‘pilgrimage’ to Calcutta each year to live, work and sweat among the poor (inspired to do so by the holy Mother herself). On the first day there were around a hundred Spanish women (Catholics) and bus-loads of Japanese teenagers. After we signed up and waited for our names to be called I asked the Japanese guy next to me (indicating to the hordes of Japanese) whether volunteering was ‘big in Japan’ and then laughed like an idiot at my own joke.
Before you start volunteering you need to register and get interviewed by a nun, presumably to determine if you are of sound mind (after 3 months in India I was curious about that myself). The nun conducting the interview asks your name, nationality and where you want to work. There are many options and you can really find a charity that suites your needs, so to speak. There are homes for the destitute and dying (strangely, the most popular), for the elderly, for mentally disabled children and so forth. The idea of working with disabled children made me uncomfortable in a way I didn’t expect and I was shocked when I heard myself answer ‘Daya Dan’, a home for disabled children. I volunteered to stay 10 days but after I left, I noticed that the nun had accidently included an extra day on my work card and instead of 10 days, I got 11.
Volunteers have to arrange their own accommodation and meals and I found a dorm-style just around the corner from ‘Mother House’ (the charity headquarters) and shared a room with 2 Spaniards and an Italian, also named Teresa. I attended the 6am Mass at Mother House but I had forgotten what torture Catholic Mass can be and I decided not to go again. After Mass is breakfast, i.e. 2 slices of dry white bread, a tiny banana and a cup of chai. Then you head off to your chosen ‘home’ to volunteer your time and love to the poor and the needy. It all sounded very noble and romantic and I couldn’t wait to roll up my sleeves and help the helpless but I must have forgotten to take a deep breath because what I saw when I walked through the door of ‘Daya Dan’ made me come down to Earth, hard. These children were severely mentally and physically disabled and it was absolute chaos with most of them screaming and crying all at once. Ok, keep it together, I told myself. But it was a shock, all of it, and painfully overwhelming for me.
There was nobody to meet or greet us. You literally walk in the door and try to find something to do as quickly as possible. I saw a Spanish lady squatting down next to a boy and just stroking him. Monkey see monkey do, so I did the same. The girl I chose sat alone to one side and the moment I got close she grabbed both my hands and dug her nails deep into my palms. OUCH! I managed to free myself from her grip and then tried to restrain her clawing fingers. After a long struggle I gave up, clasped her hands together in mine and hugged her so tightly that she couldn’t move. This calmed her down but only for a minute. She freed herself, violently, and grabbed my hair. EINA! Then she was trying to bite me, hitting me in the face and scratching at any unprotected part of me. I looked up at the Spanish lady and saw that her kid was sleeping peacefully in her arms. I smiled at her, sheepishly, and said ‘do you want to trade?’ but immediately regretted my joke. Nothing about this was funny but I was in luck, she didn’t speak English. Phew.
I soon discovered that nobody except a few of the foreigners spoke English. The nuns and local volunteers spoke Bengali (my little bit of Hindi would be useless here), most of the Spanish spoke only Spanish or badly broken English and the Japanese, only Japanese (not to mention that they also keep to themselves). I was in fact the only ‘native English speaker’, as the nun who blessed me with an extra day, pointed out. This bizarre language-barrier made Daya Dan feel like some twisted Tower of Babel scenario where we were all trying to work together without being able to understand one another. At this point my kid relaxed a little but only because she had soiled herself. Thankfully, it was time for her bath and a nun took her away before I could start panicking.
I observed the other volunteers carefully; the Japanese preferred washing and cleaning while the Spaniards just naturally took to nurturing and caring for the children. I was caught somewhere in the middle but having nothing to do was almost as bad as having something unpleasant to do so I joined some Japanese girls, who were wiping the beds down and putting on clean sheets, grateful that I would be occupied for at least the next 10 minutes. Then I followed some other girls into the therapy-room where we’re supposed to give the children physiotherapy. Some of them are so severely deformed that you can’t make out where the body ends and the limbs begin. There was one girl, named Angel, who was still without a volunteer. Her body was so stiff that not even her fingers could bend. I was terrified that I would hurt her and sure enough, when I started to gently massage her tiny, deformed legs, she screamed. Angel couldn’t talk, she couldn’t move. She could only stare at the ceiling. Again there was nobody to give direction and we were terrified of hurting someone. I speak only for myself of course but I recognized the fear in everyone’s eyes and that’s when I started thinking that I may not be able to survive 11 days of this.
I stroked Angel’s arms and legs and tried to act natural but in truth I was ready to make a run for the door. Then suddenly things got worse, much worse. It was feeding time. A nun came in and started pointing at kids and then at volunteers, pairing them up. I would not be able to feed Angel, this both the nun and I knew so she took Angel away and pointed at a boy who was sitting in a chair. The boy, Sanju, had trouble keeping his head up so I had to hold it up with my left hand and feed him with my right (balancing the plate of yellow sludge on my knee). It took me a while to realize that on top of all his other disabilities, Sanju was also blind (each time I brought the spoon close to his mouth he got a fright). The poor Japanese girl next to me had a girl that kept choking, making an unearthly sound that made everyone look up in a panic every few minutes. I could see that she was on the verge of crying.
After lunch I strolled over to a group of girls sitting in a circle. Picking the smallest one up, I made a space for myself in the circle. There were about 6 of them and they eyed me suspiciously when I sat down. Then I made a mother of a mistake, I forgot to support the girl’s head and she fell forward slamming hard into the floor. The circle broke into a frenzied chorus telling me to go. ‘Auntie GO!’ ‘Auntie GO!’ I apologized profusely but it was no use. I had to walk away, in shame, to search for something else to do. I was hoping that by the end of the day they would have forgotten about the unfortunate incident and just before I left I said goodbye and waved. One of them, a particularly bad-tempered down-syndrome girl, named Leema, pointed at me and yelled ‘Auntie BAD!’. No such luck.
Later that night as I was trying to sleep, it felt like Leema had hit the nail on the head. I was a bad Auntie. It seemed ridiculous now but when I decided to volunteer, I was actually worried that I would start feeling really good about myself (like a saint or a martyr) and would miss the point of the experience entirely. But I didn’t feel good about myself, I felt wretched. Even when I started crying, it just made me feel worse. What on earth did I have to cry about? My mind and heart were being tortured by every kid in Daya Dan. I felt defeated and, crying, prayed softly ‘please God, help me to do better tomorrow’.