Before leaving Nepal, Ben and I agreed we wanted to continue our work with All Hands. The organization had just started a project in Malawi, Southern Africa building wells for a community that had just come out of a severe drought. We decided to apply for the project and were accepted shortly after. Our start day was Oct. 15 which gave us a window to travel around the North of India.
After traveling through Ladakh, Dharamsala, and Rajasthan, we decided to go to Calcutta to visit our friend Pankaj. We met Pankaj in Kathmandu while volunteering together with All Hands. When we told him we were going to India, he insisted we visit him.
Getting to Calcutta from the far West by land was a very long trip, over 1,000 miles in total. But there were a couple places we were interested in seeing along the way, namely the Taj Mahal and the famous holy city of Varanasi. So Ben and I decided to go against our usual habits and make a plan. We would head east, taking three overnight trains, and stopping in these two places on the way, before arriving in Calcutta. Here we would end our trip in India and fly to Malawi.
I didn’t really know what to expect from Calcutta. One thing about the city that stuck out in my mind was Pankaj’s response when I asked him if he liked living there. It was right after we just met, we were eating dinner in the common area of the All Hands house in Nepal. When I asked he responded almost defensively with genuine emotion, “I love Calcutta” and nothing more, as if I was asking how he liked his own mother. For some reason, his simple response stayed with me. Any time I’ve ever asked anyone this question, their response is usually a half-hearted ‘yes’ followed by a quick pros and cons list. I can’t remember anyone ever responding that way before.
We stayed in Pankaj’s flat in the south of Calcutta, where he lived with his mother, brother and nephew. It’s the norm for people in India to live with their parents indefinitely. As Pankaj put it, “We think it’s so weird that people in the US move out of their parent’s house and live by themselves”. It’s one of the many differences between the family life of Indians and Americans.
That weekend Pankaj took us to all his favorite spots in the city and explained how Calcutta is different than the rest of India. The main difference is that a majority of the population is Bengali, an Indo-Aryan ethnic group that is originally from the area of Bengal. In 1947 the Western part of Bengal became part of India and the East became present day Bangladesh. Bengali is the primary language spoken in Calcutta, but most people are fluent in several languages. Pankaj proudly proclaims to know 9 languages.
Calcutta is credited with being the center of the revolutionary independence movement against the British and was the base location for Indian communism. Most Bengali’s are very proud of their history and it’s the one place in India where Pankaj said we might get the cold shoulder for being Americans. It’s also the birthplace of modern literary and artistic thought. Some of India’s best artists, writers, and filmmakers come from the streets of Calcutta.
It is in Bengali literature, inspired by those living in extreme poverty on the streets of Calcutta, where the nickname “City of Joy” came from. The book “City of Joy” chronicles the huge wealth gap between the rich and the poor as well as everyday life for people living in the slums at various levels of poverty, caste, and religions. I’ve never read the book, but I’m told that it is both beautiful and horrific. It’s central theme being that, despite their terrible living conditions, lack of sanitation, hunger and illness, people still maintain their mental well-being and believe that life is precious and worth living.
The Durga Puja festival was coming up and the city was in a frenzy to prepare for the event. Durga Puja is a four day celebration to honor the goddess Durga, who is considered by Hindus to be the mother of the universe and the power behind the creation, preservation, and destruction of the world.
During the festival thousands of Durga statues will flood the streets and parade through the city. Giant prayer rooms, some several stories high, are constructed throughout the city to house some of the statues and allow people a place to worship. It takes about 4-6 months to prepare for the event. Pankaj took us to the area of town where all the Durga statues were being created. The alleyways contained giant rooms with artists that were hard at work sculpting colorful statues of Durga. The scene looked like a Bollywood film set.
Durga Puja was Pankaj’s favorite festival. Each time he explained how important this event was to the people of Calcutta, he got goosebumps. He asked us several times to delay our trip to Malawi so we could stay and experience it. We thought about staying longer, but Malawi was too important to us to change our plans.
We decided to spend our last day in Calcutta volunteering with the Mother Theresa mission. I’d always wanted to know more about Mother Teresa and her charity before coming to Calcutta. In 1952, after seeing the condition of the people living on the streets, she opened her first house for the dying and destitute. The house was an old, abandoned Hindu temple that she converted into a free hospice. She is most famously quoted for saying: “A beautiful death is for people who lived like animals to die like angels—loved and wanted.”
Since then the charity has expanded, opening many hospices, orphanages and leper homes all over India. We went to the volunteer house and, after getting an explanation of the rules and what type of houses needed volunteers, we decided to go to Daya Dan, a house that gives care to orphaned children with mental and physical disabilities.
We arrived to the house with about 10 other volunteers at 8:30 in the morning. The boys stayed downstairs and girls upstairs. Ben and I were assigned to the girl’s floor. When we entered their living area I was really surprised by how nice it was. There were two large, clean play rooms full of toys. First we helped the staff make the kid’s beds, and then went to the roof to help wash and hang laundry. When we went back downstairs the kids were there. I haven’t spent very much time with children with mental or physical disabilities, so I was a little unsure at first how to approach and interact with the girls. Each volunteer paired up with a girl and helped them in any way they could, anything from walking around the room to get some exercise to helping them eat their snacks. One volunteer brought a violin and played music for several kids. We stayed with them for a few hours until it was time for their nap. We left with a really good impression of the center and would have continued working there if we had more time.
In a country like India, where at times there seems to be a survival of the fittest mentality, those with special needs or debilitating health issues are often marginalized in society. Many of these kids do not come from families with the ability to care for them financially. Places like the Mother Theresa House are really the only net to catch them when they fall through the cracks. They allow both children and adults who cannot care for themselves to live their life with dignity. It’s a beautiful thing to see and be a part of, even if just for one day.
The next morning we said goodbye to Pankaj and thanked him for everything. He spent a lot of time showing us around his city, cooking us delicious food, introducing us to French films and discussing every topic imaginable about Indian culture. He was an amazing host and an even better friend. Our time in India was over, or so we thought. And it was time to board our flight for Malawi to continue our volunteer work with All Hands.