Life in Kolkata (Calcutta)

For some context, my name is Melissa Dossey, and I'm a 2008 Pepp Law alum, licensed to practice in Texas, and living in India while working with a human rights group that focuses on making public justice systems work for the poor.  My office focuses on forced prostutition.  So, back to my first week in Kolkata (Calcutta).  All week I’ve been seeing the worst scenes I’ve ever seen in my life and I’ve been shocked, certainly, but I didn’t really feel anything.  Last Friday it was as if every bad thing I’ve seen thus far came crashing its way into my head all at once.  My heart was literally broken.

Why?  Because that Thursday I began to process things – it was one of the best and worst experiences of my life, contributing to my meltdown today.  I had the rare and humbling privilege of accompanying girls from a government-run group home on an excursion to the movies and the mall.  Yes, Kolkata has both these things (more than one too!).  These girls were abused, abandoned, orphaned – basically the government had to, for one reason or another, take over their care.  These girls had never been to a mall – or the movies.  We saw Monsters vs. Aliens in IMAX 3D – that was an experience!!  It took some cajoling for the girls to put on the silly 3D glasses, but once they did, they were reaching up and trying to grab whatever image was being flung out at them through the magic of technology.  They were absolutely on the edge of their seats the entire time.  I myself, being jetlagged, slept through a solid ten-minute stretch toward the end, but afterwards I found new energy as I had to help escort 30+ girls who had never even seen an escalator, down three separate escalators.  It was a joyful misadventure and a lesson in trust.  A few girls were brave enough to go it on their own, but they clung to the rail the whole time.  Those who wanted an escort were more willing to look around and enjoy the ride.  I had many trembling hands squeeze mine as I tried to communicate without words (because I don’t speak Hindi or Bengali…yet) the idea of 1…2…3…GO!  They caught on quickly and had a blast.  Their next new experience lined up was eating a melting ice cream cone – let’s just say many napkins bravely gave their lives in aid of this cause.  

But as things here usually go, the bad comes with the good. One little girl begging on the street was the straw that broke my back. I cried more than I have in years. But that night, I talked with people I trust, most especially my mom, and I began to see that it was truly, as someone I work with said as I sat crying my eyes out earlier in the day, an act of faith to not be disheartened by what you see here.  It takes guts to stick by the belief that God loves these people just as much as He does me.  And it takes humility to realize, as Isaiah did, that our minds literally can NOT even comprehend God’s mind.  I’m not supposed to know why these people appear to have nothing and I seem to be blessed with so much.  I’m only called to believe that God is providing for them, for they are vastly more important to him than birds or flowers, something he still takes care of.  The same wise woman at my office said that little girl I saw begging had her own story, and I probably wouldn’t know what that was until we all stand with Jesus at the end of all things.  This is a choice I will have to continually make, day after day, that He is good and I will take Him at His word, that the lack of material possessions doesn’t indicate a lack of love from the Father.

On a more practical note, a local charity here founded by someone who, since her death, has been beatified by the Holy See, has this stance towards beggars: they give them nothing. It might seem harsh, but they have very good reasons for this. First, in most cases, they have a beggar boss who collects whatever the children get from people, so in giving you are supporting organized crime. Also there are ways for people here to get help. And if that stance is good enough for them, it's good enough for me. Of course, you don't ignore them, as that denies them their dignity. So you say no, and then, if they persist, only then do you ignore them. Never ever sacrifice human dignity for your own personal comfort.

Psalm 145 and 146 also give me spiritual comfort when I am struggling with life in this city:

The Lord is merciful and compassionate, slow to get angry and filled with an unfailing love. The Lord is good to everyone. He showers compassion on all his creation… the Lord helps the fallen and lifts those bent beneath their loads. The eyes of all look to you in hope; you give them their food as they need it. When you open your hand, you satisfy the hunger and thirst of every living thing. – excerpts from Psalm 145

Praise the Lord!… He gives justice to the oppressed and food to the hungry. The Lord frees the prisoners. The Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are weighed down. The Lord cares for the orphans and widows, but he frustrates the plans of the wicked! – excerpts from Psalm 146

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