Her boys and her one little girl.

Sahana has been cleaning little faces, feeding little humans, making their beds, sanding cribs, washing laundry this past month and a half. Apart from all the chores I mentioned she is also offering her services as a human jungle gym to 4 or 5 toddlers; her boys as she calls them.

At the beginning of the year, she decided to spend her summer volunteering for an orphanage in India. She was, of course, thinking of college applications. But she was also thinking of seeing a bit more of the world, outside the insular bubble that she lives in. And she wanted to know her grandparents a bit more – from a different perspective, not as an indulgent granddaughter visiting for a couple of weeks.

So she packed her bags, filled her suitcase with text books with the illusion that she will be studying in her spare time, boarded the plane and went to live with her grandparents. The first few Skype conversations were casual:

“How did it go?”

“Fine. I sanded cribs today. My arms are sore.” (Do imagine the casual teaanagerish monotone as you read the line).

“I sanded more cribs. The kids are cute.”

Gradually as the days went by, the Skype conversations became more animated.

“Mom, the kids are SO CUTE! I held hands of two kids and crossed the road to take them to school. I was sitting there being a jungle gym while 4 little boys climbed all over me!”

The monotone disappeared, replaced by squeaky enthusiasm.

“I truly appreciate washing machines now, I spent the morning doing laundry! But Mom, the kids are so cute. I kiss their fat cheeks every day!”

I got to hear of her four boys who she took care of, played with, fed them, taught them and hugged them. I heard about how naughty one was, how quiet the other and smart yet another. One day the naughty one bit the other little dude and Sahana had to discipline him. He cried then, and had to be consoled. She was first called Aunty and then she got ‘demoted’ (or promoted, perhaps) to didi (big sister) as slowly she became a playmate from a care giver. One kissed her on her cheeks and her forehead. Another said he loved her. She talked about a baby girl, abandoned at birth, who, when picked up, curled her little body around the care giver and gratefully sucked any shoulder she got. Sahana held her as much as she could, knowing full well, she may never see her again. She got reassurance from the sisters and caregivers, almost all the children got adopted.

Sahana and another volunteer from Spain discussed the relative good condition of the orphanage compared to what they had expected. The facility was clean, the children were well fed, regularly checked by doctors and even loved by the care givers.

Now there is just one week left for her to say goodbye to her boys and the baby girl. She realizes she will never forget them while they will most certainly not remember her. She said, “I did not realize before I came what a life changing experience really means. I thought I would just go and hang out with some kids. But after coming here, spending time with my boys, taking care of them every day, I know my life has changed in some ways. I will most likely not feel about this as intensely as I do now come January. I will get busy again with school work, SATs, college applications. However, I know for sure during my most busy time, I can reflect back on this month and a half to take me away from MY life at that particular moment and give me a perspective of the fact that I am part of a bigger world.”

I believe this is what I wanted her to get out of this endeavor. A perspective that she is part of a bigger world. The life she leads now is simply preparatory to launch her into a bigger system where she will learn, work, live, contribute, accept and hopefully, find fulfillment.


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.

I was a library grandparent once.

I was at our local library talking to the volunteer coordinator about my volunteer application. She looked at it and turned to me and said, ‘We need a few library grandparents, would you be interested in something like that?’

‘What exactly does a library grandparent do?’ I asked, bewildered.

‘You will read to the children!’

Yes, I would love to read to the children but being a library grandparent didn’t seem that grand to me. Don’t get me wrong, I want to be a grandparent….one day! Maybe, twenty years from now! Sahana, are you reading this? Anyway, to show I wasn’t really that old, I said, ‘I can only volunteer during the morning hours since that is the time my son is in PRESCHOOL!

Lady, my son goes to preschool, I am the mother of a preschooler, don’t make me a library grandparent!!! The sweet woman was very accommodating. She figured out a time that fit my schedule, smiled, thanked me for being a library grandparent and sent me on my way.

That evening at dinner table I proudly told the family that I will be volunteering at the library once a week. They said awesome, what will I be doing. ‘I am a library grandparent!’ ‘You are what??? Hahahahaha! A grandparent?’

The day I went to volunteer, the coordinator took me to the librarian in the children’s section and introduced me as ‘This is Piyali, she is our new library grandparent!’ The children’s librarian looked at me, chuckled and said, ‘She doesn’t look like a grandparent to me, may be we should call her something else?’ Thank you!!! But the coordinator had better things to do than get into the nitty-gritty of names. What’s in a name anyway? So there I was, serving the community as a library grandparent for two years.

I loved being the reader in the library. I took my book and read quietly on a rocking chair till I felt a little presence by my side. It was fun to watch the different personalities of children. There were the outgoing ones who brought the books of their choice to me and wanted me to read them, then there were the shy ones, who wanted to hear a story yet didn’t want to make the first move. At first, I asked them if they wanted to listen to a story, some said yes and came to me, others said no, yet stayed close by. I picked up a book from the table turned the pages and started a soliloquy about the illustrations, characters, words, colors. Slowly, I felt the little body sliding closer to me, I didn’t make eye contact but kept looking at the pictures and talking about them, when the child was next to me looking at the pictures, I went to the first page and started reading the story, he or she stayed. The parents gave me a grateful smile and wandered around looking for books or sat nearby, taking a break.

The biggest perk of being the library grandparent was bumping into my library grandchildren in stores and supermarkets. Familiar faces came up to me to say hello. I, of course, with my swiss cheese brain couldn’t place the faces till they reminded me I read to their children. It definitely made standing at the check out counter in the supermarket a little sweeter when people came up and told me that their child would like to come back for more book reading, which day did I  read at the library.

Now I work (read volunteer) behind the scenes in our new, swanky library. For company, I have a staff member and a scary, loud machine that spits books into different bins to be sorted and interfiled. It often shrieks “System Jammed” in a mechanical voice (oh, yes, it is a machine) till somebody flicks a switch. I am surrounded by books and the smell of books, I get the first pick as well. This job has its own perks. I am learning a new skill and developing a renewed respect for librarians. I had no idea so much work goes in to provide us with shelves full of lovely, wonderful books. Love that. But I do miss my library grandchildren.

Eventually they changed my name or designation from “Library grandparent” to Guest reader. How boring!

Can’t end this post without a bow to my man, Ben Franklin. Ben, you are “The man!” Thank you for creating the first free libraries in the U S of A. I fell in love the day I walked into the Enoch Pratt free library in Charm city and the love saga continues!