I guess that is not what I ever would have expected people to call Kolkata: City of Joy. Yet, there it was on a sign, welcoming me into the city upon arrival at the airport. Everything I had ever heard about Kolkata was awful. People dying on the streets, poverty everywhere, dirty, smelly… I was told over and over again what a difficult place Kolkata is. One of my colleagues who goes there often calls it her “crying city.” Something in me, however, has always wanted to go to this place, almost needed to. Mother Teresa may be the main reason. She is one of my heroes. Her life, her choice to live a life of complete selflessness, to help others in need for the glory of her God, it is a life I have always marveled at. My direction in life is, of course God guided, but, Mother Teresa inspired. I knew I could never be her, but I wanted to live a life of helping others as best I could. I was certain that is how you would get the highest level of intamacy with God, when you were able to see him in even the most hopeless of circumstances.
So I set out on this trip expecting the worst. What I found, however, was pleasantly surprising.
First of all, though Kolkata is only a two and half hour plane ride from Bangkok, we stepped off the plane into a completely different world. The trip in the Taxi from the airport to where we were staying was quite telling of what we were getting ourselves into. The crazy drivers of Bangkok seemed like orderly commuters in comparison. They don’t even bother with lines in the road in Kolkata. It literally feels like a free for all. And the honking… it was like everyone who was driving was also blind so you had to just to keep honking to let every one else know you were there.
Second, we stood out way more. Being white is rather normal by now in Bangkok, there is an ever growing community of western expats as the city continues to develop. But Kolkata is at least 20 years behind Bangkok, there are very few financial ventures to pursue there, and it is not a very desirable place to live or visit, so a white person is still quite the spectacle. I hadn’t realized how used to I was to blending in. Being short with dark hair, some people have even mistaken me to be Thai from the back. But in Kolkata, I stand out. And the people there have no problem staring, some even asking to take pictures. It was a little disorienting.
Third, the energy of the people there was completely different. Thai people are some of the most laid back people you will ever meet. Most Thais hardly ever make a fuss about anything and there is a strong avoidance of all confrontation. They also keep quiet in public spaces, you will hardly ever hear a Thai person talking loudly, let alone yelling. Indian people seemed to be the opposite of that. Lots of yelling and arguing and horn honking and passion. Confrontation is not considered rude as it would be in Thailand, its just a part of life. Sanitation did not seem on the forefront of anybody’s minds, either. Not that Bangkok is the best at sanitary practices, but this was a new level.
And then, of course, the poverty. I am no stranger to seeing poverty. Bangkok is wealthy, but has pockets of large slum areas. So coming from Thailand, it was not quite as shocking as it may be to some people. There were, however, lots more people sleeping on the streets, whole families. There are community water pumps that these homeless people and or people without running water in their dwellings, would bathe themselves in the mornings and evenings, a thin towel wrapped around them. Most shockingly, however, were the kids picking though trash heaps. It’s hard to imagine a life that required digging though trash heaps for survival.
But I didn’t “feel sorry” for these lives as much as others might. Because a lot of what some of us “rich folk” tend to see as debilitating poverty is sometimes just a different way of living. That is not true for all things, obviously if there is not enough food to feed your family so you have to dig through trash heaps to make ends meet, that is a problem, but not having your own private bathroom is perhaps just a different way of life. And there is even something about poorer communities that seems more alive to me. Wealth has its extravagances and comforts, but can be awfully sterile and empty. There was so much life as we walked though this community that we were staying in. It’s so refreshing somehow to see communities of people gathering around the small tea shops talking, playing games together, joining around the community pump to shower and collect water. It’s a nice change from seeing people lost in their smart phones or personal laptops, headphones in, shutting the rest of the world out. There were smells (good and bad), music, loud voices, street food. It was all very intoxicating.
And the people! All I wanted to do was take a picture of every single one of them (of course I didn’t because I had just learned what it is like to be made a spectacle). Their clothes were stunning. Even the poorest of the poor seemed stand out with their wears. It’s as if someone down the history of India decided, if we are going to live in a difficult and dirty place, we are going to brighten up life with our clothes. The fabrics, the jewelry, the shoes, I felt a constant level of jealousy the whole time. I wanted to take it, the whole essence of it all, bottle it up somehow, and bring it home with me.
Every evening I would lounge on cushions next to the apartment’s balcony and dreamily think about my day, grateful for the opportunity to visit people doing great things for God in Kolkata, all lights in the darkness. There was something about sitting on old sari laden cushions, curtains billowing from the wind coming through the french doors that overlooked the bustling town. Hardly any of the large city noises that I’m used to, but certainly not the eerie quit of the suburbs I grew up in. We were in a 5th floor apartment, higher than most of the other buildings in the area, so we could literally look out over the town and the roofs where the locals were busy hanging their saris to dry, making dinner, or watching their children play. It created an ache in me for a more communal life. One that feels more connected to community around me, something that is incredibly hard to acquire in a modern urban city.
I know that Mother Teresa was drawn to this place out of her God given compassion, but I wonder if she was intoxicated by its charms as well, if she saw something other people didn’t. I think one of the great gifts of Mother Theresa had was being able to see God’s beauty even in suffering, her ability to see life even in great need, even in the dying. I did not experience even a small portion of what Mother Teresa experienced in the day to day. But in order to keep going in such a heartbreaking environment, I am certain you have to find your pockets of joy from somewhere. I know that is what I have to do in Bangkok, which I see now is not even half as hard of a place. I know she also suffered greatly internally, she struggled with feeling God’s presence for decades. But she still chose to serve in this difficult place. Despite all of her struggles, she chose to do the things no body else wanted to do with great, great love. It seems fitting that I got to visit the “City of Joy” in my year of joy. And since it is my goal to find joy in even the simplest of things, it seems even more fitting to have experienced the abnormal type of joy one can find in Kolkata.
I think one of my favorite days was when I visited Mother House. This is the humble little convent that Mother Teresa started to serve the poor. There are now multiple locations that the Missionaries of Charity run to meet various needs, including the home for the dying. We were not able to visit these other sites in our short time, but we did join the sisters for a early morning mass. In the back of the simple chapel was a kneeling statue of Mother Theresa, almost blending in with the other sisters, her presence still lingering. After mass, we volunteered to help clean, scrubbing floors and walls alongside these precious Sisters of Charity. Even these smallest of acts held such meaning, to be a small part Mother Teresa’s legacy, and to live out a bit of her famous words:
“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”