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In the Eyes of Kolkata

There are only a few people in my life where I’ve actually seen love in their eyes. I mean, real love, the kind where I want to cry because it almost feels tangible. The kind of love that makes the eyes dance when they stare and shed tears when they blink.

I saw this love in Kolkata.

Last summer I journeyed to Kolkata, India, a city whose streets greeted me with the stench of meat strung up under the morning sun, the sounds of chickens squawking in their cages, and the uncomfortable stares from men under cluttered market kiosks. Tiny street children would often run up to me shouting, “Auntie, auntie!” while playfully tugging on my pockets for some spare rupees. The children’s eyes were dark and hopeful, and I wanted to stop and see the love in them. Instead, I only saw a reflection of myself, a privileged white woman from the West, who thought she knew what love was.

Love. Love was why I came to serve with the Missionaries of Charity, an order of nuns and monks founded by Mother Teresa, who have dedicated themselves to serve among the poorest of the poor. My mornings began at the Mother House, where my two friends and I would catch an overcrowded bus to Shanti Dan, a home for mentally challenged women. Since I worked in the mental-health field back in Toronto, I believed that I would be able to connect with the women at Shanti Dan and understand their mental challenges. Little did I know that these women had been found rummaging and roaming through garbage dumps and train stations all over Kolkata. These were women who had been found squatting in puddles of contamination, chanting unrecognizable words under their breath. They had been taken advantage of and left to die alone. And I thought that I would be able to connect with them.

Who was I anyway? I was just a Canadian girl with a head full of rules and behavioral strategies, standing in the heart of India where I learned it wasn’t in the technique that changed lives. It wasn’t about the advanced medical treatments I learned about in abnormal psychology class. It wasn’t about how much I knew, it was about how much I needed to love. I needed to discover the love of Jesus in the eyes of these women.

One morning at Shanti Dan, I sat and combed lice from the roots of a woman’s hair, a daily duty for the female volunteers. As I combed, I quietly sang. The woman seemed to like it when I did. In seconds, our song was interrupted by screams echoing in the stairwell, the highest pitched shrieks I had ever heard. Two of the sisters flanked a girl who had just been pulled in from the streets. The girl flailed and scratched uncontrollably, her screams breaking into short sentences muttered in Bengali. Her hair was wild and ridden with lice, her blue sari torn and soiled, and fear was in her voice. My first response was to ask myself, “What should I do?” And just at the end of this thought, the sisters and the street girl disappeared into Ward A, the door slamming behind them. Silence. There was no protocol to be followed or incident report to be written up. The sisters had their own procedures that I needed to comply with. From that point on, I gave up all of my preconceived ideas, and just let go. I needed to trust that they knew what was best for our newest Shanti Dan girl.

With a quivering voice, I continued to sing in the ear of the woman sitting in front of me. I slowly combed out the tiny gray bugs from her dark brown hair, thinking about how much Jesus loved her.

The next day, I heard familiar screams coming from the third floor. I was immediately summoned by Sister Ruby, the sister on duty in Ward A. I felt completely unprepared for what I was about to see. Our newest Shanti Dan girl was violently swaying back and forth, dripping wet from a recent shower. Her hair had been cut off, her brown face finally visible. She was unbelievably beautiful. Sister Ruby told me to hold her down. I felt sick from her request, but I submitted.

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Using an uncomfortable amount of force to pin back her frail shoulders, a long needle was injected into her rear end. And all became quiet and still. Sister Ruby assured me, “She needs to sleep”. It was in these whispered words that I understood that there was nothing I could do for her. I just needed to be with her. So I sat down on the floor and stroked the girl’s face. My fingers traced a deep scar on her left cheek as her large round eyes looked up at me. I saw the love in them. It was a love that was wildly gentle and without reproach. Yet, in her eyes I also saw myself, a reflection showing me that I was just like her; broken, afraid, and in need of rest. I thought of Jesus as He washed His disciples’ feet. It was a humbling example of His commandment to “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 17:34, TNIV). Love is service, and service brings peace.

Later, I was told that in Bengali, Shanti means peace and Dan means gift of. Jesus became their home. Jesus became their “gift of peace”.

As I continued to walk down Kolkata’s streets, I could see love in the eyes of the tiny street children, and in the dark eyes of the men at the market. Even now, here in North America, I can still see those round brown eyes staring up at me with the real love that makes me want to cry.

I had just met Jesus in Kolkata.

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