Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Slept on the Streets of Calcutta

In 1988 while a senior in Mrs. Bertha Mansker’s Spanish class, I heard her talk with wonder about the Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, and what a personal inspiration that woman had been to her helping the sick and defeated of the world. I knew at that time that I wanted to be a teacher, but I never believed in myself enough to think I would be able to do it. For years I watched men and women in front of the angry and confused faces of boys and girls armed with nothing but their bare hands and hearts trying to makes sense of the world for others. I only wanted to try and be one of them. So that day I made a vow to myself. I wrote it on my hand as if stitched across my heart. I was going to sleep on the streets of Calcutta one day. I was going to be a teacher and do everything I could for the hurt people of the world.
Six years later, after finishing my first year as an educator, I traveled to Barcelona and wrote the Mansker family a postcard. Bertha’s husband Rod had been a former 400 meter hurdle Olympian and had also given me such great direction as a boy chasing a state title. Sometime after that, I heard of Mrs. Mansker’s passing and was greatly saddened as I’m sure many of you were too.
As I write this, today is actually Easter Sunday in India, and I have fasted over the last 24 hour to arrive starving and half mad in Calcutta to find a massive sprawling beautiful city with cricket stadiums, lush parks and fine apartments. Yet in the cracks and crevices of this city, in the wells and gutters of this onetime British capital, the pavement swells with absolute slums of filth, human waste, and degradation of the soul. Especially across the river, which is where I am headed.
I have checked my backpack in a bus station locker and have begun walking. I have no money. No identification on me. Only my camera, these wads of paper in my pocket, a cell phone to act as flashlight, and a pen. I am going to walk this night until my legs give out. I am going to find the slums where Mother Teresa worked, lived, and died, and I am going to lay my head down on the cold road and sleep with the others. I am doing this because of all I have seen in this country that I cannot explain. I know no other way. I just need to keep moving, to hurt so that I can understand.
The following poem is dedicated to two of the greatest teachers of my life.
Rod and Bertha Mansker had a lasting impact on me. It has taken me over 20 years to accomplish this and to say it to them. I hope it is one of the best nights of my life.
Wait for the markets to wrap up their stalls
Put the sunglasses and t-shirts
Neckties and panties into boxes.
Wait for the shop owners to pull down their gates
And lock them with keys
Along the streets where the British created this city on the backs of slaves carrying tea.
Must keep moving. Follow the dying light.
For tonight I am to sleep on the streets of Calcutta.
Drunks stagger into alleyways and fall low
Yellow cabs turn off their duty signs and barrel away
Rickshaw drivers curl up on bench seats like twisted root
Vegetable sellers beat horses to pull the cart away.
Must keep walking. Feel your fear.
For tonight I am to sleep on the streets of Calcutta.
Cold now by the river
Midnight and I am walking legs over high bridge slow
Apartment lights flicker and go out
Leper with no hands fades back into the shadows
Street urchins paw my legs and cry for crumbs
Rag woman rocks a child weeks dead.
Must not falter. Feel only pain.
For tonight I am to sleep on the streets of Calcutta.
Streets stripped bare, city asleep.
I am under the bridge and stumbling in the dark
Shirtless souls, hollow eyes, faceless monsters groaning in the night
Naked filth man covered in flies lays out a cardboard quilt and drifts away
Black rats cross my toes, burying my shriek
The banks of the Ganges have no more magic power than a puddle of rain
Must stay awake. Fight off the numb.
For tonight I am going to sleep on the streets of Calcutta.
My spot is here, little doorway corner where the cripples and lepers piss
Hard curb for a pillow
Wrap my face up in the collar of my shirt
Too weary to weep. Too scared to know.
Just close my eyes. It comes quick.
One eye open, boy. That’s the way.
Must remember all you have seen. Keep it in your heart
This moment you lived must be given away to all
The streets of Calcutta run through you now for a reason.

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