The children at the orphanage were doe-eyed beauties in desperate need of love and attention, much like many of the other children I had been photographing throughout Asia. Frustrated nurses brusquely pinched the children’s noses while trying to shove food into their mouths. One baby I held was so small I was able to cup him in the palm of my hand. His brown wrinkled skin sagged around his tiny malnourished ankles. Another baby giggled uncontrollably as I threw him into the air. “Hold that beautiful smile, you” I thought. Covered in scabs and warts, this little cherub hadn’t yet realized his fate as an orphan in Calcutta.
On Easter Sunday, Mother Teresa came to visit the orphanage and attend mass. It was hard to believe that this small shrunken woman from Albania, a face full of wrinkles, had become such a prominent symbol of all that is good in the world. Gliding into the room, she gave me a blessing and a small silver medallion of Mother Mary to wear around my neck. With a knowing smile she encouraged me to see her home of the destitute and dying. Just to visit.
The next day I hired a rickshaw to take me across town. Dripping with sweat, the rickshaw driver dropped me in front of an unpretentious building next to a bathing ghat. Working my way around through the throng of people I stopped at the Kali Temple. Tended by a widowed priestess, women were tying stones and praying to a fruitless cactus tree covered with china roses in the hopes of becoming fertile. “This is a fertility tree,” a woman explained to me. “We come to pray here when we have trouble giving birth.” I wondered if their suffering must be part of the sacrifice. Ironically, this was right next to Kali Ghat, Mother Teresa’s Home for the Destitute and Dying, where people can come and die with dignity.
And dying they were. The street was lined with the sick and elderly waiting to get inside. I nearly gagged from the strong smell of antiseptic as I entered the building. I was immediately greeted with the sight of a nun carving the dead flesh away from a leper’s foot. Dressed in flowing white robes, with blue trim, one of the nuns guided me to the women’s area in the back of the building. The scene seemed as if from a concentration camp. Half-naked women with shaved heads ran from the staff and volunteers who tried to bathe them, while other patients rocked back and forth on the beds, mumbling incoherently. One woman with an open robe, exposed the fat, flesh, and bone gaping from an exposed wound on her backside. I felt ashamed by my recoil.
We continued through the room and into the men’s area. Again, the smell of pungent antiseptic was overpowering. Men stared at me intently from their rows of green cots with the unmistakable sounds of hacking tuberculosis and vomiting. Still, I felt relieved to be away from the screeching women. There was one more bed in the corner to pass before I was finally free to head back out the door and into the chaos and sunshine. A gray-haired old man, who introduced himself as Andy Devane from Ireland, was trying to feed a much younger Indian man lying on the cot. Andy introduced him as Bola, “strong one.” “He’s gotten this far,” Andy explained. Bola heard his name and craned his closely shaved head on the pillow to look at me. His eyes were soulful, yet imprisoned in a repulsive body, which was now flat as a Frisbee, from years of lying on a bed. His thin matchstick bones were abnormally twisted and misshapen.
“He seems taken with you,” said Andy. “Why don’t you try to feed him?”
This was more than I had bargained for. I was, after all, only touring the place. I wanted to return to cuddling children, not to confront illness and death to such an uncomfortable degree. Then I remembered that this was actually what my pilgrimage was about. Human connection without a camera. Globs of the pasty cereal were already dribbling from the sides of his mouth as I scooped up a spoonful of the gray gruel and tried to work it through his partially opened lips. Surprisingly, he managed to keep it down. Then another and another. Andy was amazed.
“We’ve been trying to feed him for days, and this is the first time he’s actually been eating,” said Andy incredulously. “He thinks you’re an angel.” Sure enough, Bola hadn’t stopped staring at me since I began feeding him. “Will you please come back tomorrow? No one else has been able to get any food into him. We’ve been afraid that he won’t make it.”
And so I returned every day for the next six weeks.
Every morning I made my way through the markets in search of the ripest oranges to squeeze to make juice for Bola. I found bananas, which I mashed to a pulp. I bought Cadbury’s chocolate bars, the Indian kind, made of wax, so they wouldn’t melt in the heat. I crushed them down to a fine powder and fed them to Bola when the nurses weren’t looking. The treats I brought became our secret. Unable to speak, the love pouring from his eyes spoke volumes. I wondered about the people in his life who had loved him enough to take care of him this long in such a drastically poor country, and then left him here to die. No one knew anything about his past. He was left at the doorstep like so many others.
One day I came in and Andy asked me to help him bathe a little boy who was in the bed next to Bola. We had nicknamed him Toro, “small one.” I had tried to feed him, but it was no use. His skin was peeling away from malnutrition and he had a hacking bloody cough from tuberculosis. He was so ill that layers of his skin came away as Andy and I pulled off the bandages. My heart broke, as I held his bony body in my arms, trying to absorb his pain into my own. With barely the strength to wince, he put his head on my lap and whimpered. “Poor thing, he just wants a mum to hold him,” said Andy. I stayed late with him, praying for him to die. But his will was so strong. Suddenly, I heard the rattle of death gurgling in his small chest. His eyes gave me a last look before they rolled back into his head and I felt his body go limp. That tiny bit of life in my arms was now free as a bird. “What an honor,” said Andy. “He chose you to help him die.” I should have been exuberant, but I felt overwhelmed with sadness.
I frantically looked around for a nurse, but they were all too busy to deal with this common occurrence. I thought about Andy’s words. This was my responsibility. I wrapped Toro’s small body in the still warm sheet, using a pin from my camera bag to close it up. Andy helped me carry him the short distance down the road to the Ganges River. We said a small prayer and dropped the body into the water.
Death is such a part of life in India. I tried to imagine dropping a body into the river in New York City, with hundreds of people watching. We walked back to the Kali Ghat home and made our way to the roof. I looked down at the senseless confusion of people below us. There was a continuous line of people waiting to get into the home. Vacancy by death only. It seemed neverending. The crush of people didn’t seem jostling and exciting to me anymore. It seemed pathetic. “I just don’t get it,” I whispered and began to weep.
Andy put his arm around me. “You know, my wife died ten years ago. She was the sweetest woman in the world and loved me immensely, but I took her for granted. I was working as a very successful architect in Dublin. I was a philanderer and it hurt my wife greatly. One day she came home and told me that she had been diagnosed with cancer. Ironically, I had to have a triple bypass at the time, and we spent four months in the hospital together. We grew so close during that time, and it wasn’t until then that I really appreciated her. She died the day I left the hospital.” Andy had learned his life lessons harshly.
“After her death I gave up my job, and came here to work at Mother Teresa’s full time, hoping to redeem myself. I’ve been here for five years. I still don’t have any answers. In my room I have statues of Buddha, Ganesh, and Christ. Who knows what happens to us when we die, but I want to be sure to have my bases covered,” he said with a chuckle. “All I know is, one person can’t save the world. But if you touch just one person then that’s something worth living for.”
I returned to Calcutta a year later. Bola’s bed was empty. No one there even remembered him. But I did.
Since receiving her first camera and journal at ten years old, Alison Wright, a freelance photojournalist and writer, has traveled from the Arctic to the Amazon documenting the traditions and changes of endangered cultures in remote areas of the world. In 1993 she received the Dorothea Lange Award in documentary photography for her photographs of child labor in Asia. Documenting Tibetan life in exile has been her project of passion for over a decade. Her published work includes The Spirit of Tibet: Portrait of a Culture in Exile and A Simple Monk: Writings on the Dalai Lama, as well as inclusion in Wild Writing Women and Travelers’ Tales Nepal. She is currently working on a photo book of children around the world titled Faces of Hope.
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