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There is an army of crows outside. Their constant wretched squawk is cracking holes into this feeble building left over from the East Indian Company. The road leading to it, Sudder St., the tourist street, has fallen in beneath the vigilant sentinel of construction as if to ward off invaders like a wall in reverse. I have to tightrope my bike along two narrow plywood boards to make it across.  Men in lungis (a long tube of cotton tied into a knot at the waist) work morning and night and middle of night with chisels and mullets and picks hacking away more and more of the road. We let them lull us to sleep, the last sounds of the city that fades from our consciousness.  

India rises up around me in waves of curry. I smell it as I type messages to friends and relatives in the net bar. It’s in my clothes. It calls me like a wicked finger into the streets that are stuffed with particles manifesting themselves into legs and hips and hands linking hand-pulled rickshaw to yellow cab, sari to earth-tone dreadlocked tourist to baggy salwaar rags sagging from tourist’s body to cow to cow pile to sleeping goat to street side excrement to street side urinal to Brahmin priest in white to DDT pesticide nozzles in gutters.  
 If Zen’s theory of interconnectedness were to manifest itself into literal form, India, which doesn’t acknowledge Buddhism as separate from Hinduism  – would be its incarnation. Not an ounce of space is to be spared. At least, the space that does exist tends to connect us rather than separate us.  
Walking the streets of Kolkata (the new phonetically accurate spelling change from Calcutta) gives off the sweaty, sticky fumes of being perpetually touched. And human touch, something we despise in favor of personal space and private time in the West, is becoming normal to me. Or perhaps, it was always so. I miss it like it was something I knew before. Like it was a nipple. 
I try to apply this new comfort into the care for patients at the Mother Theresa Hriday Nirmal (Kalighat) hospice for the destitute and the dying where I have been volunteering for the last three weeks. One can see from Kalighat’s meager and archaic facilities, that the intent was not to provide state-of-the-art healthcare.

The smell of antiseptics floats from the door through the isles of narrow, aging cots where patients at different levels of emaciation and pain stare at you with worrisome eyes. Volunteers are requested to make patients feel loved whether they are changing bed sheets, feeding the weak, giving a massage, or applying bandages. 
On my first day, I stood in the middle of the room shrugging my shoulders feeling the classic volunteer frustration of helplessness. Then someone gave me a ball and told me to help with “exercise”, and I soon learned how a simple act can turn into a lot if done with care and attention. The brown, jaundiced eyes of a small young woman lit up when she started tossing the ball volleyball style to the other women who were stealthily creeping up and raising their hands to catch.  
 I am not religious, but in this circle of glowing women, I felt like “instrument”. As my eyes fell on dresses coming loose, my hands instantly crept up to re-button the slit at the back. When water spilled, my legs moved to find a cloth to wipe it up. If someone coughed, my eyes searched for a cup and filtered water. I felt the muscles that throbbed beneath my fingers as I caressed. I forgot myself and my need to feel useful. I simply became whatever they needed. 

The callouses of growing up and acquiring self-awareness and a knowledge of other people’s comfort levels, mastering that innate sense of self-preservation, and an obsession with my own independence and need to make my own decisions leaves a person scalded and bald. We are not touchy-feely people, and when someone touches us on the sidewalk, a brush of a waiter’s apron on our arms, an accidental elbow jab from someone trying to get out of the subway, an intentional tap on the lap from someone who wants us to lower our voice on our mobile, we question their motives. 
 In uberconvenient Japan, where Zen influences much of the culture, life is simple. The rules are the rules, and there is very little reason to have a confrontation if everyone follows them. Pay money. Receive good. Take a number, wait, give haiko (personal identification stamp), receive service. A simple exchange of services. 
In India, what transpires is an exchange of promises, of good names and head wobbles, chatting, a cup or two of sugary chai, and in the end a symbiotic arrangement. 
 After my first visit in 2006, I went back to Japan telling people that this country was the absolute opposite to theirs. Here, people are overtly honest. If they don’t like your hair or your shirt, they tell you. If they are in a hurry, they push and shove. They shout fiercely when angry. They stare, even when you stare back.  India still rung in my ear when I was sitting on the express train from the Kansai International Airport, shell shocked from the blazing white walls and plastic seats dotted with black business suits and the tops of peoples heads looking down into newspapers and glossy mobiles and laps. 
If India’s Zen is on the ground, Japan’s in the head. India bleeds into every scrape and cleft of the old colonial bricks, Japan remains tucked discreetly into a briefcase. 
Images and sensations race at me at such a fast pace that it is difficult to write about them extensively. I can only list: the heat, the cough-inspiring vapors of deep-fried samosas and puri (a round dough rolled with spices inside it, then deep-fried into a crispy hollow bread), the smell of soap men use to bathe themselves on tile surfaces next to street side pumps. The eyes lashed in lustrous black stare so deep you forget where you are and what you are doing.  My senses are on fire and I come back to my hostel feeling limp. 
Southeast Asia is old and far away from my mind though I left it only a month ago. I have no more space for it in my head as India swallows me up whole in its spicy cauldron of haughty women and slippery hands that wiggle in the spaces between where my arm hangs from my body. Hands that lead to little dirty faces pouting professionally, mouthing the word “money”. Ammonium wafts of gutter piss will float on the raven wings of shrieking crows up to the balcony of the Salvation Army Red Shield Guesthouse where I rest for 70 rupees a night. 
 Sudder Street, the tourist street is criticized for endorsing the worst type of corruption in Kolkata: prostitutes, professional beggar businesses and drug sellers Kolkata.  Volunteers are warned by the Sisters of Charity not to give money to these beggars who will just pay their bosses rent to live and “work” on such a profitable street.  Yet, I’ve observed a level of organization and community among the street people on Sudder Street. Gossip spreads as if in a mud hut village. When a new tenant arrived a few days ago without bags and two passports, people rallied for help from their tarpaulin sidewalk tents.  
The dread built into my memory from Western accounts of Kolkata  – the child prostitutes, the brothels, the starving beggars, the slums, Mother Theresa’s house of the dying and the destitute, the grayness of photographs taken of the city under the douse of rain – has not materialized as much as the interconnectedness of Zen: everything is a continuation of everything else. Mind over matter. Despite the slums, people are friendly. I cannot walk around without someone inviting me to chai or lunch, explaining their thoughts about politics and philosophy.  
So when the French guy at my guesthouse asked me if I was ok on my second day, I said uneventfully, yes. No frightening stories to tell. Only the anticlimactic admission that I wasn’t that shocked. I sat back into the chair next to him, lulled by the ceiling fan above my head and struck up a conversation, amused by his ideas that sounded more interesting in French English. 
 He told me of the business classes he teaches teenagers living at Howrah Station in Kolkata. He doubts he’s actually doing anything to help because the street kids know more about the complex kiosk business system based on bureaucracy, borrowing, bargaining, and bribery than he does. What can lectures about supply and demand and time quality management do for street kids in India?  He has the familiar volunteer insecurity that comes from zealously wanting to help, but not knowing how.  We Westerners like concrete results for our efforts.  
Still, not sure what will come out of it, Paul just goes with it. A continuation in the coincident of human relationship.
 Most of the people I’ve met staying at the Salvation Army Guesthouse volunteer at the Sisters of Charity Missions. Some volunteer for 9 month stretches. Some for 2 weeks. Others start there, and branch off to join another NGO or to form their own. A friend of mine from Spain, started a school after numerous trips back and forth to the slums of Kolkata.  Another friend has involved himself in the community of beggars on the street, and they come to him when something is wrong.  
I have my own reservations about volunteer tourism and I have questions about the doings of many NGO’s, yet not enough to invalidate people who, through their need to help or simple curiosity, might learn something about the human spirit – how to love without wanting love back, how to forget self, how to touch. Searching in the dark to fulfill those human needs to be of use to others, we touch hands with the same needs. Others we can help thereby fulfilling our own needs. Others in transition. Others bleeding onto the smeared canvass of human connection.   
The fan that blows sleepy air around the five bed dorm room hums me into infantile solace. I remember hot summer nights when I was a child in The Bahamas. My sister and I would lie for hours sweating in our underwear, waiting for the breeze to turn cool and plump, to push itself into the cracks between the planks of our wooden house and through the blades of the whirring fan. It was this sound we heard before we went to bed every night.  The white noise webbed across the contours of barking dogs and delinquent boys breaking beer bottles on warm asphalt. 

4 Responses to “Closeness”

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