The leprosy patients were the ones that were the most memorable. On the banks of Chitpur, in the outskirts of Calcutta, the makeshift leprosy clinic was always full. The clinic provides treatment to 15–20 patients daily, mainly long- term sufferers from leprosy and its permanent effects. Most patients no longer have active Leprosy but have been left with deformities and unhealed wounds.
People sitting in rows under the tents shading them from the heat of the midday sun, slowly completing their physio exercises with disintegrating limbs but always big smiles. They were grateful for the help to deal with their condition and to find a place where people cared, and where they could be without feeling the stigma attached to their illness. It took work to get them to the clinic — turning up meant admitting that they had leprosy. Highly contagious in confined living spaces like the slums in which the majority of them had their lives, the community often rejected them and many were initially reluctant to seek the treatment that would help improve their quality of life. The clinic was free, run by Calcutta Rescue, where I was volunteering as an admin coordinator for the organisation. Calcutta Rescue is a non — governmental organization (NGO) operating in Kolkata and parts of rural West Bengal for over three decades, supporting with free medical care, education and development to the poorest and most disadvantaged people of Kolkata and rural West Bengal irrespective of gender, age, caste, or religion.
Admin Coordinator was a lose term — one day I would be dealing with the logistics of the handicraft project we ran, where women recovering from illness or disabilities were trained up on craft skills which were then sold both locally and overseas in fair trade shops in cities such as London. The next day I would be attending a clinic meeting where we would be discussing the long list of patients needing treatment, the cost involved, what we could afford to fund, and sadly who would not make the list. They really were conversations about life or death.
In amongst the day to day running of the organisation were the volunteers — doctors, nurses, logistics — mainly from Europe and the US — who had all for their own reasons decided to take time out of their careers and life to offer their skills to the organisation. We were a motley crew, and the tough times were made easier with strong camaraderie and laughter, all of us all experiencing our own ups and downs of life in Calcutta. Many an evening was spent on the roof top of the run down hostel where we based ourselves, debriefing about the day, talking through challenges or funny moments, and figuring out what needed to happen the following day to keep things moving. Life was communal and meals always spent together. Often times the nights and conversations were long, and the call to prayer from the local mosque echoing over the city as dawn was breaking reminded us that it was time to sleep.
The stories from this time are endless, and the things learnt timeless. One thing we all came away with was a new, or stronger, perspective on the privileged lives we had back at home. Simple things that people took for granted — clean water to drink, flushing toilets, easy access to food that would not make you sick — were newly appreciated. Material things were not important — clothes on your back and a bed to sleep were, but apart from that we learnt what we could live without, and ultimately that happiness was not found in accumulating more “things” around us. Returning back to our homes we all experienced reverse culture shock, readjusting to living back in western societies — In Calcutta, I went to sleep hearing the sound of cockroaches or rats scuttling around the room or roof top. A shower meant washing out of a bucket with cold water. A meal meant sitting on a bench eating street food dhal (the best) for 10 cents in amongst rickshaws and chickens wandering on the road. I had a sense of wonder returning back to the UK and being able to drink clean water straight from a tap again.
Most important of all, this shared experienced established friendships that would last for a life time, and every year the team still come together for a reunion, giving us a chance to reflect on the old times and celebrate our lives as they are now. I often meet people who talk about wanting to volunteer or ‘give back’ something one day. I always encourage them to take that leap and reassure them that they will never regret it. Even though the motivation was to give back, we all walked away feeling that we received just as much in return, and although there was no financial gain, the experience was priceless.