Random tales of working

March 9, 2007

Mornings at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying and Destitute begin with feedings and in-bed bathing of those who haven’t been able to get up and do so for themselves. I still haven’t mastered the art of scooping up grit-type breakfast with the fingertips of my right hand — it’s a wonder to see even the severely disabled artfully scrape food into perfect bite-sized balls and eat them with no mess. I feed Shanthi while she’s still lying on her back, and though I’m constantly panicked that she’ll choke on the softened bread or grits or hot chai, she does fine, yelling and grinning between each bite. (If you’ve been following her story, check back on the post called “Chumma” to see an updated photo.)

Once everyone has eaten and has been bathed, the housekeeping begins. After assisting clumsily for a week, I realized that I was finally doing things right when the girls in charge of individual tasks india-231.jpgstarted yelling at me in frustration to do this or move there just like they do to one another, and stopped treating me like a porcelain guest who might dirty her dupata. The mostly open-air facility is enormous, and made entirely of highly polished cement; we scrub it top to bottom three times every morning. First with soap, then with disinfectant, and finally with a rinse of water.

It is a highly organized, effective, well thought-out routine with each contributing seamlessly towards the greater goal, at his or her own ability. Whether it’s sweeping up leaves with reed-brooms, filling and carrying buckets, squeegey-ing the floors, straightening the beds, rinsing the tin cups, checking each other for dirt or injury, making sure that others are out of the way when the disinfectant is poured, scrubbing the clothes or hanging them to dry, stitching up torn sheets, making outfits for new arrivals out of donated fabrics, or picking leaves out of the drains — all are productive, and a part of the team. Otherwise listless or disruptive residents perk up with purpose and authority when the time comes to work, and God help you if you get in the way. Who could have guessed, woman of convenience andindia-232.jpg privilege that I am, that crouching over a giant tin tub with ten ladies with histories more different then mine than I could ever know and learning how to scrub clothes clean without the benefit of a shared language, would make me feel more connected to my gender than I ever have felt. Being part of this group — a member of this odd-shaped family centered around traditional rituals of womanhood, seems to help anchor these ladies too, and may go a bit towards helping keep the despair of loss at bay.

It’s in this spirit that I’ve tried to avoid the tendency to gravitate to the most effusive, the happiest to see me, the most ready to engage and connect. That’s not to say haven’t made fast friends among the cheerful souls and loved every minute of it. But it’s the ones that no one else much cares for that draw me in, because among the already “destitute” these are the left-behind. The more “well” girls tire of the “drama” and “crazy” of some of the other women. On the best days, they exclude them. On the worst, they can border on cruel. High school all over again. Early on, when I relied on their English and seeming authority, I sat by while they shoved away an older woman who seemed to need me urgently, repeating herself over and over or when they sent away a lovely, gentle woman with a crack of a broom handle who only wished to touch my feet in respect as she had been taught in her former home.

These days, I’m having none of that crap — new sheriff in town and all. I am trying to work with both the marginalized, and those doing the marginalization, to change the dynamic a bit. I’ve spent lots of time recently trying to soften the highly-functioning girls’ understanding of the behavior of others, and scold them for mistreating their sisters. I’ve also been repeating Shinta’s relentless phrases back to her with a knowing nod, though I often don’t know their meaning, trying to make her feel heard, acknowledging her contributions whether serious, delusional, or fanciful, and working hard to better assimilate her into the group. I’ve convinced the few English speakers to translate her urgent speech and sometimes she’s complaining legitimately about another resident stealing and hiding her few bent bangles, which they do because they’re amused by her weeping and assume I’ll just have to trust their assessment when they motion that Shinta is simply acting crazy again.

More recently, the translations have uncovered that Shinta is talking about her life as a child or young bride as though it were the present. I’ve begun to ask her about her (long gone) parents, and her brood of crying babies, making a rocking motion with my arms and wailing like an infant. It seems to delight her to no end to play in this realm and she’s having way more laughing fits than crying ones. Now, she’s entertaining the others with her stories of her household of babies she insists are sleeping in the back dorm and the new one on the way, laughing along side them in her new-found popularity as silly story-teller.

Said the tiny lady whose photo looks down from the dormitory walls: “There is so much suffering in the world — physical, material, mental. The suffering of some can be blamed on the greed of others. The material and physical suffering is suffering from hunger, from homelessness, from all kind of diseases. But the greatest suffering is being lonely, feeling unloved, having no one. I have come and more to realize that it is being unwanted that is the worst disease that any human being can ever experience.”


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