How much time does it take to change a life? A second, a minute, an hour, a lifetime? Or is it all these at once, a complex intersection of lives colliding like atoms, inextricably drawn together by the force of fate, destiny, or the otherworldly needs of two souls?
I was young, only twenty, a backpacker who had travelled to India on a whim, who had arrived unprepared for the poverty and the multitudes. After three stressful months of wandering about that vast subcontinent, I found myself in what was then called Calcutta, boarding at the Red Shield Guest House run by the Salvation Army. The guest house sat on Sudder Street behind the massive Museum of India, memorable (at least for me) only for its grotesque collection of deformed mammalian fetuses. The wide sidewalk of Sudder Street along the northern wall of the museum was prime real estate of the disenfranchised, for it was here that the busloads of tourists disembarked and could be accosted for alms.
At the hostel I befriended a British doctor who was in India researching pharmaceutical fraud, but who had taken to providing primary care for the Sudder Street squatters. She invited me to join her on her rounds, whereupon she introduced me to a prematurely aged woman with three children, one a newborn girl, the stub of her umbilical cord smeared with sacred cow dung, believed to bring protection but in reality often brought infection. I fell under the spell of this woman whose bright eyes and dignified air belied her situation, and took to bringing her fresh fruits and vegetables daily from the nearby market. My days fell into an easy rhythm whereby I would walk the fifteen-minute journey to the Amex office to check for mail, stop at the market on the way back “home,” and feed my adopted family before heading out to whatever excursion I had planned.
I had been doing this for about a week when one morning I turned the corner onto Sudder Street – and slammed into a wall of chaos. People were running and screaming, fear permeating the thick cloud of dust kicked up by their panicked footsteps. I thought a bomb had gone off. I fearfully searched for my family, panic gripping my throat when I found the sidewalk empty. Then, like a herald in the mist, a fellow hosteller appear out of the haze. I ran to him. “What happened?” I asked, bewildered.
“The foreigners complained to the tour companies about the squatters,” he explained in his thick German accent. “You know, the way they beg for money when the buses come. So the police came with bamboo sticks, beat everybody away.”
My heart sank and I could feel a cold lump forming in my stomach. “Oh God. Where did they go?”
He pointed down the street. “Down there, towards the other market.”
I ran in the direction of the market, frantically pushing my way through the throngs that had swallowed every available inch of space farther down Sudder Street. The crowd seemed at once impenetrable yet fluid, parting in small waves as an unseen guide led me through the maze of faces until I found my family.
She was standing with her back to me, her three children sharing a blanket with another family. Still clutching the brown paper bag of food I had bought for her and the children, I ran toward her, desperately wanting to embrace her, to let her know how relieved I was that she was safe. I tapped her on the shoulder.
She turned, and when she saw it was me her eyes turned hard and cold. Her gaze … her gaze cut through me like a knife. It said, Where were you? Every day you bring me food, but where the hell were you when the police came and beat me off my home? Where the hell were you?
I didn’t say anything; I just shoved the bag of food into her arms, and fled.
The next day, still reeling from the events of the day before, I began my first of three shifts as a volunteer in Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying and the Destitute. (At that time the government of India restricted foreign volunteers to three days of work at any of Mother Teresa’s institutions: the government found them an embarrassment, a constant reminder to the outside world of India’s lack of social progress.) I had volunteered believing that my labour would free the nuns to provide the personal attention these forgotten men and women desperately needed but which was sacrificed in the name of expedient care; and I became furious when, instead of doing as I imagined, the nuns chose instead to gather at the side of the room to gossip and laugh among themselves. Their chatter reverberated off the pile of dirty metal pots and breakfast tins we small group were busily scrubbing, and echoed into the patient hall where the sound of the nuns’ joy was quickly absorbed by the dead air of loss and abandonment that enveloped each bed, threatening to suffocate its inhabitant.
On my last day I was asked by the nuns to change an elderly woman’s diaper. The request filled me with great discomfort, not because it was embarrassing for me, but because I imagined it would be humiliating for her. Nevertheless I did as requested, and as I leaned over to straighten her gown, a frail voice whispered, “Thank you. God bless you.”
“You speak English?” I asked, taken aback. “Where did you learn?”
“I was married to an officer of the British Raj,” she explained, “but he died.”
I sat down on the edge of her cot and invited her to tell me her story. She had married twice again, she told me, only to be widowed twice again. She had a son, but just two weeks earlier he had gone into hospital and left by the back door. She was all alone. She asked me to read to her from her Bible; I complied.
When she tired I laid down the book, thinking her asleep, but she opened her eyes and whispered, “Why won’t Jesus let me die? If he really loves me, why won’t he let me die?”
My heart broke. I had no idea what to say. I racked my brain for something comforting. Finally I said, “I believe everything happens the way it’s supposed to. For all you know, tomorrow another woman who speaks English might arrive on that cot beside you, and your company will make her feel less alone, less frightened. You see, you just never know whose life you will change because you are here.”
Did I believe this? No. But it sounded good.
The next day I was in a rickshaw en route to the train station. I was thinking about the old woman, what I had said to her, and I realised I had not lied as I thought. I desperately wanted to turn that rickshaw around, to race to her and tell her that the life she had changed was mine. But I didn’t. I had to catch my train. I was so stupid. It was just a train.
Over the years I have often thought of the thousands of trains that have travelled between Calcutta and New Delhi. I could have taken any one of them. I vowed that I would never let that happen again, that I would never again ignore a person in need just because I had to be somewhere “important.” People will wait. Appointments can be rescheduled. Apologies can be made.
There will always be another train.