This post was written by my husband, Sean Callahan, in 1994 when he first arrived in Kolkata. I plan to write a post about his experiences in my city. His perspectives – as an outsider. I discovered this journal in old papers, and with his permission, I am posting this in my blog site.

Sean writes….

As I entered, I noticed he was gaunt yet tranquil. But when I returned moments later still tying my smock, they were lifting him from his bed to a stretcher. They then folded the sheet over him and placed him by the door. As he lay there peacefully, a man scrawled on the little blackboard “death on bed 34”. I turned away confused, helpless, bewildered – shouldn’t we have taken a moment of silence, some words, a prayer; shouldn’t we cry? What about his family? Instead I picked up another plate of puffed rice and a glass of water, and I handed it to another gaunt man sitting in the corner on the concrete floor.

Good morning! It’s 07:30 am and I have begun my day by attending Mass at the “Mother House” of the Missionaries of Charity at 06:00 am (30 minute walk), and then taking a bus to Kalighat. The Kalighat home is the first home started by Mother Teresa in Calcutta. At the Kalighat home the Missionaries of Charity along with some volunteers like (yours truly) tend to the basic needs of the dying. In fact, this is a home for the dying.

The men, mostly old, sick, and abandoned, ate slowly and they occasionally grunted something in Hindi; to which I promptly responded by bringing them more rice, water or tea. Somehow, we communicated and they ate more quietly. As they finished we (the volunteers) collected their metal bowls and cups and we formed a scrubbing circle in the kitchen. Bob gave the first rinse, Christopher applied the detergent, and Rich gave them a final dunking and then stacked them by the (now) dirty tubs of water where we worked. As the “system” got going we began to enjoy the rhythm of the work. We were finishing the plates of the 48 men we served breakfast for, when some women came in with an equal number of metal bowls and cups. Although the home was segregated (male/female) out of a sense of dignity for the ‘guests’, the volunteers joined together in the kitchen to perform the menial, yet essential, tasks.

I was pleased by our successful completion of Phase I – breakfast and kitchen duty, but I was apprehensive about Phase II – bathing. As I entered the ward, a MC brother (the Missionaries of Charity have Brothers, Sisters and Priests, as part of their order) signaled me to carry a skeleton of a man the bathing room. As I entered the room, the man protested and moved around uncomfortably. Since I couldn’t understand him, I looked toward the MC Brother who nodded towards the bathroom. “Wonderful”, I chuckled to myself perversely. I carried #48 (many of the men have no names since they have been abandoned and often can’t communicate even with the local linguists) to a trough with holes periodically placed. As he rested his legs to the sides of the trough, I held his upper body until the deed was done (“Are we having fun yet?”). Back to the bathing room. where the MC Brothers cleaned these men, who, by now were covered with their breakfast and excrement. As I placed #48 on the tile bench, I was signaled to carry out a man who had just been bathed. I carried this naked and dripping man to the main room where we dried him, clothed him and returned him to his cot (which in the meantime had been cleaned by some other lucky volunteer or MC Brother). This process continued for 30 minutes – one man after another – until all 48 men were clean. The women, of course, performed similar functions on the other side of the home.

Phase III – laundry. Again, I was a bit apprehensive about washing the clothes of these men as they truly needed to be washed (if you catch my drift). Anyway, we set up our assembly line: heavy detergent soak, light detergent soak, rinse, and the roof to dry. I, unfortunately, was assigned to the rinse and wring section (I started getting the feeling that these people of slight/small build were trying to take advantage of my ‘brute force and ignorance’). Despite my apprehension, the washing was O.K. But just as we were finishing, a man came in the kitchen (now the laundry room) and signaled me to come. “Me?” I questioned, looking around. “Yes, carry body,” he replied. “Oh”, I thought, “another man needs to go to the bathroom”. But as I left the kitchen, the stretcher with the folded sheets caught my eye. I looked at the board again “Death on bed #34”. Sister Dolores (previously stationed in Latin America, New York and Baltimore with Missionaries of Charity) was talking to two men, as I approached the stretcher. Since I was concerned about the formal goodbye, I guessed this was somebody’s way of giving me more time with #34. There was a small box on top of the sheet which I thought might have been his possessions, but one of the MC brothers said, “Open it.” I lifted the sheet, it revealed a small body born/died last night. I turned to MC Brother who said, “He is from the children’s center. They send all the dead to Kalighat. Last week we found 5 babies in a plastic bag.”

I carried #34 and the tiny box to a van, and I accompanied them through the crowded streets to the Police Station for the processing of papers. They have no name, no family, no one. They were taken in by the MC’s, given food and clothes, bathed, and given love and joy. They were given PEACE, before they died. The Police’s approval allowed me to carry #34 and the small box through the street and down a long alley. I felt the eyes of the crowd in the street as they watched this foreigner carry the stretcher to the back of a temple. I, then. lifted #34 onto a pile of ashes near a wall and I placed the small box on top of him. The man accompanying me then took a metal stretcher and placed it against the wall to shield the bodies from the vultures that hovered overhead. I returned to the home with the empty stretcher.

Phase IV: Medical Treatment: This included holding the men as the MC Brothers cleaned and treated their open sores and wounds. Again, I became confused as I had to overpower frail and sick men while their wounds were treated. Some struggled, some screamed, others just cried. They had been beaten (cane and whipping scars), broken (one man’s back), and infected (worms, TB, bone infections, etc). It wasn’t pretty, but I could tell they knew they were being cared for. They may never have been treated with such love before.

Lunch time, and the process resumes: Serving, cleaning, caring. I lucked out again – garbage duty. All the waste was placed in a vat that Rich and I carried on a bamboo pole. We proceeded down the street from the home with the viewers again searching us. When we finally dumped our cargo, a woman (barely dressed in rags) scared the dogs away so she could have first choice.

The plague, TB, cerebral malaria, and leprosy are always on my mind when I volunteer in a home, visit families in the city or see a rat scurry by, but for some reason, it is an awareness – not fear. Although sickness (and mortality) maybe more prevalent due to the socio-economic and environmental conditions of those with whom CRS works, I feel somewhat secure that the risk is relatively small. I must admit that I do wonder with each infection, if it is something that would be catastrophic for me, is a visible and regular occurrence for my neighbors in this city.


Getting ready.

I am floundering. I am a rudderless, drifting, bewildered ship in a raging, stormy, turbulent sea of teenage. The turbulence is not constant, mind you. There are many, many moments of blue sky, sunshine and gentle breeze. But then, all of a sudden, the storm comes unannounced and leaves me spent, exhausted and very sad.

Some nights, after a particularly exasperating argument over the usage of electronic device or some form of distorted truth that I was told, the sadness in my heart is almost palpable. I don’t recognize this stranger. Yet when I brush the hair off her sleeping face and plant a kiss on her forehead, I fall in love all over again. There is a phrase in Bengali,

Sneha nimnogami. (Love, like water, flows downwards).

Parents feel it. Sneho is indeed nimnogami.

As I watch her sleeping face, I see traces of the five-year old girl, who we uprooted from the land of her birth, India, and planted in the soil of USA.

We moved to this house when Sahana was 5 years old. We gave away all our earthly possessions except our clothes and my books and moved thousands of miles in exactly seven duffel bags. Sahana gave away all her toys to an AIDS hospice and came away with one stuffed toy and some books. When we found this house and camped in due to lack of furniture, little Sahana was left with a very sick mommy, one stuffed toy, some books, a new, unfamiliar house and her imagination. We moved in the summer of 2004 when the obnoxious cicadas were out in full force. Sahana was convinced there was a giant cicada with big, red eyes in the basement of this house. She was afraid to leave my side. I stayed in bed the first few months of my second pregnancy. The simple act of opening my eyes was too much of an effort. I remember Sahana prodding me every fifteen minute or so ‘Mama, are you done sleeping? Can you get up now?’ We were literally joined at the hips.

Slowly but surely the glue that stuck her to me started diluting. I could feel her loosening the grip. These days she is most comfortable in her space, buried in her books, her writing and lately, her device. Life is full of friends, frolic, fear, apprehension, silliness, laughter and yes, some unexplained tears too. Although I understand her need for space, it would be a lie if I say that this aloofness doesn’t bother me at all. It does. I once asked a friend, who was getting ready to send her daughter to college, ‘How does it feel to send your child out into the world?’ She told me, ‘When your time comes to send her on her way, you will be ready. They themselves make you ready for the separation. Don’t worry!’ Can’t say I believed her then. But I believe her now. My daughter is helping me get ready to let go of her hands. As I watch her slowly try out her wings, she writes this letter to me on my birthday:

Dear Maman,

…..so thanks for bearing with us as we learn how to stand on our own two feet. That’s parenting. Once we learn to stand on our own, you can let go of our hands. You can stop chauffeuring, cooking, cleaning and all sorts of housework, and just focus on you and Dad. That is, if either of you have the ability to sit down without napping. Or you still have a house left after both Ryan and my college tuitions! Yikes!
What I said about letting go, Mommy? Don’t. Hold my hand tighter than ever!’


Her last line beautifully captures the paradox of teenage. Give me space to grow, don’t crowd me in. I am ready to fly. Yet, hold on to me. Don’t let me fall. The world is exciting, intoxicating, yes. But it is a bit scary too. I need you still.

We are holding on….


I have been duped…

Forgive me, for I have misled you. I have given you false information from the beginning and I am truly sorry. Well, please believe me when I say that I haven’t willfully told untruths, I have been duped.

It all started when the yellow fuzzball came to our house. It was veni, vidi, vici – we were silly putty in his little paws, floppy ears, cute pink tongue and round chocolate drop eyes. He saw the male in the house and very wisely showed him the belly in submission. Now, I understand, it was all a ploy – to sneak into our hearts and make his permanent abode there.


I took him to Ryan’s preschool for Ryan’s show and tell. The 20 week old puppy lay quietly on his back so 16 little 4 year olds could rumble over him. He didn’t bat an eyelid but savored the love. He was the star student in his puppy kindergarten class. The trainer insisted I should think of using him as a therapy dog. He is an honorary lap dog, he crouches down low so the little dogs and puppies can have an access to his face. He literally whimpers as we walk by the lion-hearted, neighborhood alpha dog Chihuahua’s house. I almost crumble at the behavior of my 94 pound dog and the ultra pacifist, anti-war me urges him to ‘stand up tall since he can eat that little dog for breakfast!’ He doesn’t kill the stink bugs, just sniffs them and turns away. His dad is very curious about what he would do if he ever caught a bunny or a chipmunk.

‘He won’t know what to do with them. He will probably end up licking them and loving them!’ says the man.

I used to nod my head as my heart swelled up in pride for our pacifist, gentle, loving pup. But now, I am not so sure.

Sage has worked hard at building up his image of gentle giant. I puff up in pride as I grant the requests of children and adults

‘May I pet your dog?’

‘Oh sure. He is very friendly!’

It took him a few years to figure out that he really can’t do much damage to the teasing chipmunks and the taunting bunny rabbits in our yard, so he shows them a sagely non chalance. He exudes a ‘I have achieved Nirvana, and you can’t reach my inner peace’ kind of a vibe when the annoying animals come close to his fence. He pricks his ears and watches the blue jays and cardinal couples carefully as they land on and take off from his fence post. I don’t quite know what he thinks of those species who fly around in air. Only the fox who peeks in our yard from time to time is simply intolerable, still. He paces the floor when he smells the fox scent, tells us with his eyes to open the back door and once we comply, he flies out to yell obscenities at the fox and drive him away from the periphery of our yard. But the beautiful fox points out the futility of Sage’s manic behavior as he calmly sits and grooms himself, just partly hidden from the human and canine sight while Sage foams at the mouth.

I believed in the gentleness of my boy and I expounded it in blogs, updates and conversations. But I have been disillusioned and it is time to tell the truth.

On a beautiful summer evening, my shadow and I ditched the kids in the house and decided to spend some quiet time on the back deck. Just Sage and I, and the cerulean sky above us, the emerald foliage around us, the few fireflies, the occasional chipmunk, some birds and the general stillness. I sat looking out at the big tree in my backyard, looking up to see the sky turn pink with the rays of the setting sun, Sage rested his head on the ledge as he kept his eyes on the flitting birds. There was a small white butterfly/ moth like creature hovering around Sage’s snout for a while. It was flitting around him, doing its dance. Sage was so still, I wondered if he even felt it. I was contemplating getting my camera so if the butterfly/moth ever sat on Sage’s fur, I would take a picture of my gentle dog who wouldn’t hurt a (butter) fly. Suddenly…SNAP and the CRUNCH MUNCH!!! He calmly snapped at the poor thing, took it in his mouth and crunched munched it up. Very calmly, in a very Sage like way, but very expertly like a professional killer.

‘Sage, you monster!!! You just ate a poor, little, pretty butterfly!!’

He looked at me with his gorgeous chocolate eyes ‘Lady, do you mind keeping your voice down? I am contemplating nature here!’ And turned away! Not a trace of remorse! Nada!!

Now I can never say ‘Oh Sage won’t hurt a fly!’ Because he FREAKING ate one. Not a fly, perhaps, but a butterfly!!! Or a moth!! Or whatever that winged creature was.