On the way over to the Mother House, the taxi driver recommends a place for me to stay. “Cheapest in Calcutta,” he says. The price that he quotes is so low, I wonder about his cut—if it’s even enough to spend on anything. But I already have a place in mind, so he doesn’t say much for the rest of the ride.
The Mother House is where they assign the volunteers. The windows are slits in the wall that do little to keep out the heat. This is the first thing you’ll notice about Calcutta, how people are always peeling fabric off of their skin. Here in the Mother House, there are no fans. This was Mother Teresa’s way of forcing empathy into her nuns. The poor know the poor best.
This time around, I ask for Shishu Bavan, because I am better with children. The Sister in charge gives me Prem Dan instead. She guides me with open palm, jerking it parallel to A.J.C. Bose Road, then snapping her wrist to the left, where I’m supposed to turn on Park Street. It’s right there, she says, the white building with the Jesus statue. Or just follow the others. We get a lot of help this time of year, she says. I tell her I know the place, and her mouth smiles.
I keep my distance from the rest of the Prem Dan volunteers. They march ahead, the khaki pack, white as a beacon in a dark place, sidestepping black puddles and talking in loud voices. A bunch of shirtless kids jog alongside them, their little hands stretched out in futility. At one point, one of the khakis reaches into her purse, and then changes her mind. The words that come floating to me—like syndicate—are ugly ones.
For the price of your big sacrifice, they really work you at Prem Dan. At first light, you’re scrubbing clothes in a concrete trough big enough to fit a cow. The water is red with food dye, murky with dead bugs. It bubbles with cheap washing powder, the kind that smells of sulfur and feels like it’s eating away a layer of your skin.
Reaching down through the surface, you never know what you are going to get. Maybe a stained dhoti, maybe undergarments. I like the suspense, because ever so often you fish out something that doesn’t need cleansing—a toothbrush or a lightbulb—and wonder how it got in there in the first place.
While we’re wringing the clothes dry, one of the volunteers, a short Austrian man with perfect skin, says, “Best experience ever, don’t you think?”
We spend the rest of the morning drawing water from the trough with iron pails, baptizing the compound with our bare hands and sodden feet.
When I snap my surgical mask on, the man I’m about to shave tells me that I look just like one of his granddaughters. “It’s the long hair,” he says, stroking both sides of his neck to make his point. He says, “She’s a nurse in Delhi now.”
“She comes by often?” I ask.
“No,” he said. “But I have people.”
“People that do the nuns’ work.”
As I push the razor up against his face, he purses his lips to make the skin on his chin taut. So there is where I start. His eyes are shut as the gray bristles fall away to the ground.
“And sometimes, they shout at us.”
Across the room, a Sister of the Missionaries of Charity is sponging down a woman with the tenderness of a saint. She is singing a song in Hindi I’ve never heard before, probably an ancient lullaby.
“When you’re gone,” he says, “sometimes they shout ‘shut up’ or ‘go to sleep’. But never when there are people. I think they are more afraid of people than they are of God.”
I go to work on his upper lip. The hairs are finer here—grayer, more obvious. I’m trying my best not to cut into the leather of his skin.
“So why don’t you leave?” I ask.
His lips parting into jaundiced smile, he says, “And go where?”
The first time I came to Prem Dan, it was for work. The friend that came along with me took pictures for a glossy magazine. The reason we came here was for a portfolio he was working on, some pet project he calls ‘A Different Runway’ about models and social work.
It’s not like he promised me that this would launch my career beyond the print ads that I’d been used to, but I agreed to sleep with him anyway. The pictures never sold, his wife never knew, and to this day I don’t know which is worse.
One time when we were walking the streets of Calcutta, he told me about Varanasi, the city on the banks of the Ganges some 500 miles west of here. He told me about the Buddhists and the Hindus that go there, how they take these pilgrimages to wash themselves in the holy waters. But the waters aren’t holy, he said. You can literally see bodies float by, dead as the day their hearts gave up the pretense. And there they are, he said, the Buddhists and the Hindus, discharging their sins into the putrid water.
“The point is,” he said, “to get good with God is the opposite of charity.”
“Maybe that’s where you can go to buy redemption,” I said, a thing he seemed to find funny.
Up ahead, a street vendor was shouting at a bunch of tourists, trying to sell them on the puppies he had stowed away in a large wire-mesh cage. “Give them a home!” he shouted. “Give them a chance—for just 250 rupees!” It’s an easy enough job, with those puppies doing all the work for him. Their yowls permeated the night sky like a dirge.
I’m thinking this time will be different. I will not tell anyone that I am out here. People miss the point all the time. Out here, I will surround myself with new friends. The massages I get will be cheap. The strangers I let take me home will be charming. And I will sleep well, not least because I will volunteer even more.
Someone close to me once told me never to expect to change anything with works. She’s passed on now, and when I say that I still grieve for her, I’m not pretending to be sentimental.