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India 3 (Premdan)
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- Subject: India 3 (Premdan)
- From: "Roberta Jenkins" <robertajenkins@xxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Sun, 02 Jan 2005 19:01:10 +0900
A note before reading...I did go to Shantydan yesterday - the place I
wrote about in m last message. It was a very quiet and peaceful place -
the women were lovely. But there was really nothing for us to do - the
women are already self-sufficient, more or less, and so the morning
passed VERY slowly. Aside from getting lost on the way and cramming 7
white girls in a single motorcycle cab, that is!!!!
So, last night 3 of us decided to leave town a little earlier than
expected, went to the train station, bought our tickets for tonight.
This morning we went to finish off at Shantydan, and got coopted by an
elderly fireball of a woman, french, whose volunteered here for the last
7 years and hauled us along to a different home. "Too many there is
just enough!" she declared while hauling us through some of the roughest
areas of Calcutta. This letter is what followed ... I'm so happy she
I spent the morning at at Premdan - a "home for the destitute and dying"
in a railway shantytown in the core of Calcutta. A place beyond
Street women -most very sick. Poverty in the extreme. It was
INCREDIBLE. I wish I hadn't bought my train ticket out of here for
tonight - I could see staying at Premdan the whole of my 7 weeks.
Amazing place. I Know I could change my tickets without losing much
money, but also know once I'm on the road I'll probably wish I had more
time everywhere else, so will leave it for now. I fly out of here at
the end anyway, and they'll need more help in February once all the big
school groups go home, so I can always do a week then if I want to.
To get to this place we had to walk through an old railyard/village in
the middle of the city. Row upon row of plastic shacks for the lucky
ones, most didn't even have that. Babies sitting on top of garbage
piles, chewing on god knows what, smiling away. YOUNG mothers sifting
through beside them, looking for food or sellable/useful items. And not
trash like at home either - oozing, rank, puddles of gunge that have
aleady been sifted through a thousand times before it gets to these
people. And yet they'd still stop, say namaste (hello) to us, smile,
wave. A place in the gutter of humanity, yet that literally radiated
joy side by side with its helplessness.
The center itself, though right there, is invisible until you get to it.
Suddenly there's a big steel door and when it opens, this oasis of
cleanliness - even a flourishing dahlia garden (with flowers in multiple
shades literally the size of my head). The 70 or so women who live
there have mostly been there a long time - many have TB, in addition to
who knows what else, so we had to wear 2 layers of aprons, gloves,
masks. Several of them were too emaciated to sit, one had carefully
wrapped stumps where her feet had recently been removed. All ages.
Most of them were very coherent and sociable, a lot of them spoke some
A stunning 15 year old girl with "an asthmatic disease" had come all the
way from Bombay on the train by herself last year. Her family had all
died off one by one and she found no one in Bombay who would offer a
poor person free medical care. She knew about mother house and so set
off at 14 to get here. She says it's an amazing place. A couple of
days ago a 22 year old girl with the same condition as her died at the
house, someone who'd been there since she was young, so everyone was
sad, telling stories about her. Still, the overall mood was really
happy and open and caring - like a big family. And they were delighted
to have us there, show us the ropes (which there were a lot of!!).
We spent the first couple of hours doing laundry. Boiling it in big
cauldrons over a ledger-fed open fire and beating it on cement
flagstones. Scrubbing by hand in a succession of 3 different soap and
chemical baths. Rinsing, rinsing, rinsing, rinsing in 4 different vats.
Wringing out, hanging. While we were doing it a narrow water pipe burst
over our heads, much too high to get to without a ladder (which
they didn't have), so a lot of the work we did as if in the rain. Loads
of women volunteers all scrubbing side by side, chatting away, laughing,
getting soaked. Very social and entertaining, despite being damn hard
After the laundry we went in to the women. Gentle massages (feet and
hands), and talking to them. Most of them are bed-ridden, so they liked
having different faces coming and going. So smart!! A lot of valuable
tips about life in India and life in general gained in that short time
(40 minutes?) - not to mention many laughs. Jokers to put my Dad to
shame (which is saying something!)!!
Before lunch we got a break in the garden, tea and plain biscuits amid
the flowers. To fortify us for lunch duties I think, when we served the
food to the women in their beds, fed them, cleaned up (them and
everything else). Since I was stronger than a lot of the volunteers
(and emaciated women are still remarkable heavy), I was taught to help
transfer the women (either back and forth from the toilet or just to
clean the beds around them). The woman I helped to feed, though looking
about the worst of them all, was really easy - she ate and ate and ate
(3 platefuls!)! Most of the other feeders had a much harder time of it.
The long term volunteers did the really nasty jobs - like actually being
in the toilets, and cleaning up the women who couldn't contol
themselves. It was incredible to see them, all matter of fact and
really wonderful in some really, really, really nasty stuff. And
everyone smiling through it all.
After lunch we scrubbed down with reems of soap and then hit the road.
Since it's Sunday now, not much is going on around here. Even a lot of
the beggars are absent - though there really weren't too many anyway (I
mean, a lot, but not like you'd think from the pictures and stories).
Very quiet. I picked up a few things for the road (more film,
toothpaste...) and had a bite to eat. Have been feeling much better
today, finally, and so am managing to try a few things. Will fold up
yesterday's wash and my new Indian dresses (2) and pack my bag when I
finish here, then wander the streets with my camera for a while.
Meeting some people for supper, and then will probably just chill out
with my book for the evening until our train leaves at midnight. A
good, good, good day. I am so, so lucky to be here!
Next stop...Bodhgaya. The place where Buddha attained enlightenment
under the Bodhi tree. Wonder how long I will have to stay to attain my
Much love to you all - Roberta