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June/July 2009


Prayer in Action: A Month in Kolkata



The magnitude and extent of poverty in Kolkata (Calcutta) is astonishing and is much greater than I ever imagined existed in the world in 2009.

Thirteen million people are crammed into the dying city of dilapidated colonial buildings, wretched slums, choking pollution, chaotic traffic, and squalid streets lined with sewage, carrion, and refuse. Nefarious smells regularly assault the senses. Emaciated skeletons sleep on the pavement without protection or camp in groups under tarps. For many, the only restrooms are the gutters and the only washrooms are public baths on the sidewalk every two or three blocks.

Butchered meat covered in flies hangs from stalls in the sun.  Animal ears and tails are cast into the street to feed the rabid and sickly dogs which usually lie motionless, paralyzed by disease and malnutrition.

Air, water, and noise pollution complete the picture of misery.

Breathing smog in Kolkata for one day is equivalent to smoking several packs of cigarettes. Everyone in Kolkata inhales smoke from smoldering garbage and unburned hydrocarbons from ancient bus and auto engines, not to mention ash from Hindu funeral rights. Water pollution is another serious problem.  Drinking bacteria-tainted tap water can be fatal. In addition, the amount of traffic noise is unprecedented. The sounds of grinding trams, honking horns, and rattling engines crescendo into a horrendous din. Since none of the roads have lanes, drivers must honk their horns frequently to alert other drivers, pedestrians, and rickshaw-pullers to get out of the way before they get run over.

Breeding ground for disease

Poor sanitation, overcrowding, limited access to medical care, flooding during monsoon season, and a tropical climate make Kolkata a prime breeding-ground for innumerable diseases.  Anyone traveling to Kolkata assumes the risk of contracting Hepatitis A, typhoid fever, Hepatitis B, Japanese encephalitis, rabies, cholera, influenza, tetanus, polio, dengue fever, malaria, tuberculosis, pneumoccocal pneumonia, Chikungunya fever, leishmaniasis, Avian influenza, diptheria, AIDS, HIV, pertussis, measles, and meningococcal meningitis.

Virtually every traveller I met in Kolkata had been ill at least once. One of my friends had to spend three weeks in a hospital to recover from a serious bacterial infection. Another became sick with typhoid fever even though he had received appropriate vaccinations before coming to India. A third traveller spent a week in a hospital on account of an intestinal illness. I suffered from a sudden and severe sickness which caused relentless vomiting, fatigue, dizziness, and loss of appetite. Even though I was mostly recovered after a very long night, my health had been undermined and I never felt completely well again for the rest of the trip.

Historical background

Naturally, one asks how the city came to be a place of such profound suffering. Kolkata was established in the late seventeenth century by an agent from England’s East India Trading Company. The settlement was based around Fort William, which was constructed next to the Hooghly River. The city’s purpose was to supply the west with Indian spices, textiles, and tea. Kolkata gradually became the most prosperous city in Asia and was the capital of India. The British Raj continued to rule until 1947, when India gained full independence.

Delhi became the new capital and infrastructure in Kolkata began to undergo a protracted decline. Corrupt politicians, corrupt military leaders, and a corrupt police force increased disorder. India’s infamous bureaucratic system stifled change and improvement.

In addition to a lack of infrastructure development and poor oversight from leaders unconcerned with public welfare, Kolkata was crippled by three events which exacerbated the city’s unsustainable population growth.

First, the monsoon, the month-long rainstorm essential to farming in Southeast Asia, failed to come in full force for several years. Farmers could no longer support their families by growing crops, so they had no choice but to migrate to Kolkata.

Second, a civil war in Bangladesh brought millions of refugees to the city.

Third, the Hindu/Moslem conflict caused another wave of people to enter Kolkata. There was not nearly enough employment for the multitudes of refugees so many families were reduced to absolute destitution. Men were considered fortunate if they could land a job pulling a rickshaw or cart.  Rickshaws pulled by human horses still populate the streets of Kolkata. Poor women sold their fetuses to laboratories for medical experiments so that their families could eat.

The terminally ill commonly sold their bodies in advance to be used in western medical schools.

According to friends I met in Kolkata who were there twenty years ago, the city is slowly improving. They say there are not as many people sleeping on the sidewalks as there once were. They say fewer people are in the lowest levels of poverty. They say medical facilities have improved dramatically. They say certain diseases such as leprosy are less common than they were before.

Kolkata is not a place for India’s emerging rich. The city has less corporate business activity than any other city I know of even one-fourth its size. There is no “downtown” area with high rises and office buildings. Though most middle- and upper-class Indians leave Kolkata as soon as they can, some can be seen in certain districts of the city. They dress very well, drive nice cars, and have all the latest technology. There is a remarkable contrast between the rich and the poor in India.

Home for the Dying

I went to Kolkata to volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity, the order established by Mother Teresa to help combat poverty in India and elsewhere. Volunteers come from all over the world to volunteer for weeks or years. I met people from Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Sweden, England, Ireland, France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, India, South Korea, Malaysia, Australia, Singapore, and Japan. Most had come for religious reasons while others happened to be travelling through Kolkata and decided to volunteer.

The Missionaries of Charity Sisters extend a warm welcome to everyone and they greatly appreciate the help. The Sisters oversee about ten centres around the city to help orphans, lepers, the mentally and physically disabled, the sick, the abused, and the dying.

I chose to work at Kalighat, the Home for the Dying, Mother Teresa’s first establishment. Kalighat is located next to a Hindu temple devoted to the goddess Kali. Mother Teresa chose the site because many people drag themselves to the temple to die. The temple is probably the most important Hindu place of worship in the city.

Animal sacrifice takes place regularly. Though I never attended the ceremony to verify, other volunteers told me that thirteen goats are sacrificed every morning at sunrise. There was often a very long line of Hindus waiting outside to get a glimpse of the stone idol.

The purpose of Kalighat is to give the dying destitute some peace and solace. There are a hundred beds in Kalighat, fifty for men and fifty for women. Some patients recover and are released back into the street or to a different facility. Most do not recover. An average of between one and five people die per week. However, there have been times when an infectious disease has claimed the lives of twenty-five or thirty people in a matter of days. The morgue room was almost never empty though effort was made to take them to the crematorium before much time passed.

The patients have thin, wasted, broken bodies wracked by disease and suffering and many look as if they are already dead.  Kalighat is a place for them to rest and experience the mercy of God through the Christians who minister to them at the end of their hard, short lives.

At first, being in Kalighat was quite shocking since it was unlike anything I had seen before. Besides constantly being in the presence of death, the most jarring aspect of being in Kalighat was that one did not know what diseases one was exposed to. In other words, there was no way of knowing how dangerous it was to be around the patients.

Any of the patients could have had tuberculosis or any number of other contagious illnesses. However, after being in Kalighat for a few days, no one seemed to be much concerned about personal safety. Perhaps compassion for the dying left no room for such considerations.

Daily programme

Six days per week, I followed a set schedule. I would get up at 5 am and have a cold shower (no hot water) while listening to the Muslim prayer call. Then I went to Mass at 6 am at the Mother House, the Missionaries of Charity convent where Mother Teresa is entombed.

Breakfast for volunteers followed Mass and consisted of a banana, Chai, and bread. This was a social time when I met many of the other travellers. We all said prayers, sang a hymn, then dispersed to our respective worksites. I took a public bus for the twenty minute journey to Kalighat, where I remained until noon. Then I went to lunch and returned to the dormitory where I was staying to rest.

Often I would spend the afternoons with other volunteers touring the city or just visiting. Evening Prayer was at 6 pm then there was Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Following the example of the nuns, we often knelt on the concrete for an hour.  Afterward, I would have dinner with friends or return to where I was staying to relax.

The morning routine at Kalighat began with washing dishes after breakfast. Then, we washed many piles of laundry and sheets by hand and hung everything on the roof to dry. When laundry was finished, some volunteers cleaned the patients and attended to their physical needs while others helped three Indian ladies cook lunch. One of the cooks was fond of me so I usually helped her chop squash, onions, peas, potatoes, cauliflower, cabbage, etc. Also, I crushed a lot of stuff with a pestle and mortar. Then I visited the patients until break time, when the volunteers met for socializing and a snack.

After the break, we served lunch, washed dishes, and folded the laundry. On Sundays, we had Mass in the patients’ room. I always found Mass in Kalighat it to be a particularly meaningful, special occasion.

God’s work

Working at Kalighat is rewarding for several reasons. There is great assurance that one is doing the right thing. From time to time, one remembers the phrase, “Even as much as you have done for the least of these, you have done for me.”  Also, it’s easy to see Christ in the broken people in their last days, in the sisters, in the priests who visit, in the volunteers, and in the Indian doctors and cooks. There is also a sense that everything done in Kalighat is a prayer. Every pair of pants folded, every onion chopped, every hand touched, every smile exchanged, every dish washed;  all are prayers to glorify God, to ask His mercy upon mankind, to pray that His will may be done, to place before Him all the suffering in Kolkata, and to intercede for the salvation of the patients who die in Kalighat.


This description of my trip to Kolkata is far from complete on two counts. First, it does not completely portray the madness, life, destitution, motion, and energy of the city and its people. Perhaps one has to be in Kolkata or a similar city to fully understand what it is like. Second, it does not describe the most important part of the trip - the people I met. Many of the volunteers were very genuine, merciful, and trustworthy.

It was shocking to return to the U.S. Everything is clean, spacious, quiet, and luxurious. Everyone looks so healthy and strong. Everything is so conducive to living a long life. The roads even have lanes.

Those who I’ve spoken with about the trip so far have asked what I’ve learned from the experience. During the trip, I wrote down things that I thought were worth remembering. The list of aphorisms is rather diverse:

• Always apply the proper perspective to life in this world. It must be viewed as a brief event rather than a prolonged state.
• Once one has had an experience, extending its duration is sometimes meaningless since it registers in the memory the same way.
• “Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required.” St. Luke 7:47-48
• Be sure to offer everything to God to diminish pride.
• Nothing we have is our own. One car accident is all it takes to change our health, status, etc.
• Books will be gathering dust long after you’re dust.
• The principles of wisdom are so simple yet so important and difficult to remember and act upon.
• It is often useful to view the present from a future perspective looking back on the past. All that is worthless in the lens of time really is worthless.
• You’re alive today. You’ll be dead tomorrow. Think on it and act accordingly.
• The idealization of any person, place, thing, or state in life is folly and a grievous error.
• In the end, there are only two ways to measure success. I will look back upon my life and ask, “Did I please God?” and “Was I happy?”
• Take care of the essentials and make wise choices about the rest.
• It is not uncommon that a soul is ruined through a labour-and time-intensive process.
• One cannot be saved through his own exertions.
• In a certain sense, one wants one’s life to be hard because others suffer greatly.
• It is difficult to measure the scale of good works. A kind service to one person is of immeasurable value.
• There can be pride in thinking one can do enormous good works in his life.
• The world attacks Christians hardest.
• The sacrifice of love towards spouse and family is as meaningful and righteous as the sacrifice of love for the utterly destitute.
• Everything is in God’s jurisdiction.
• Be careful what you wish for. There is a good chance that all of your wishes will be fulfilled.
• People treat the time they suppose they have left on the Earth as if it were eternity. They make the future years into an eternity.
• The more people have, the less thankful they are.
• Troubles often increase with riches.
• It’s hard to take the things of this world seriously because it will all shatter, break, and fade away.
• Being undisciplined about small things can lead to bigger problems.
• Satisfaction and psychological stability can often be found in simple activities, namely sleeping, exercising, reading, travelling, conversing, and keeping the body at the right temperature.
• God favours the present over the past. His approach resembles the stock market which is focused on the present rather than a savings account full of good deeds.
• In general, things are bullish at the start and bearish when they end.
• There is an insane and unbelievable aspect to life which disturbs the ordered expectations of the human mind. The unprecedented unpredictably interfaces with the real. Sudden death is an example.
• Many authors suggest that for a man to develop and improve, he must pass through a crucible of trials. Or he can be changed by a period of steady, righteous living.
• Never forget how frail your mind is compared to God’s.
• People are infinitely more important than any material item or any measure of worldly success.
• Different emphasis should be placed on different aspects of life at different ages. There is a time for everything.
• “Letting go” and detaching oneself from the entrenchments of life in later years can be a spiritual exercise.
• Think about what you want the ends of your occupations to be. Think about what you want to have accomplished before death.
• In Kolkata, the most profound suffering is physical. In the West, the most profound suffering is mental and spiritual.
• Given that one can do so little to significantly help the poor, at least one can take less for oneself.
• God’s work is much more enjoyable than man’s work.
• Men will make you work your fingers to the bone, but God’s burden is light. Further, He shares the same yoke.
• It’s about doing small things for God and people with great care and compassion, not large things.
• Serving the poor isn’t everything, though. It is a holy activity, but not the stand-alone most holy activity some believe it to be.
• The key to many relationships is: Things are not always as they appear.
• Money does not bring peace and happiness.
• Love is the strongest force there is because it has a special relevance to God’s nature.
• Do not fear the future. Let the stillness of God come upon you.
• People can survive on much less of many things than they think.

• A permanent state in life should not be the goal of this world.




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