True Facts

~ Wednesday, May 29, 2002
I Can't Explain

Kolkata May 2002. It is sensory stimulation hour and I have been given a child. St Francis of Assissi is about eight years old, autistic and probably blind. He wears a threadbare orange T-shirt and grubby corduoroy shorts. His hair is shaved close to the scalp, revealing freshly scabbed wounds. He can't, or won't, walk by himself. I'm helpless. It's years since I've done care work and I don't know what to do. The aging electric massager has four attachments - a suction cup for the face and neck, a ridged rectangle for the limbs, a blunt snub for the torso and a square for the head. I also have toys of different textures - a rubber daffy duck, a piece of fur. And I can use my fingers to tickle and pinch, my voice to cajole and soothe. He might not be able to hear me. But maybe the words aren't for him. Gradually, I apply the different tools at my disposal to St Francis. Mostly I get no reaction. But occasionally I get a smile. He particularly likes to rest his chin on the vibrating rubber suction cup. Maybe it reminds him of the crook of his mother's arm as she weeps. Maybe he just likes to rest his chin on vibrating rubber cups. The plug for the massager is heavy and the socket is set high above the table on which we work. I have to pull him out of the way when it falls. By the end of the hour, he has wrapped himself around me and I must gingerly prise him off. The vibrations have opened up the wounds on his scalp and a trickle of blood mixes with the drool on his shirt. With the sound of my sweet nothings battling the smell of stale urine, I walk him downstairs.

Communication: (n) An impossible necessity.

Telepathy: (n) A consistent and pernicious human wish. The idea that we can communicate without the barriers of language. that we can have direct access to another soul without confusion. Without interference. Without effort. This wish wilfully forgets that it is through confusion, through interference, through effort, that our relationships are born. The muscles in the mouth and throat and arms and fingers - all the work to make communication worthwhile. If we could do it perfectly once, what would be the point of doing it gain. Maybe we are already telepathic and the silence we sense is the true state of our mental affairs.

Misunderstand: (v) To create an opportunity.

Kolkata May 2002. A rickshaw wallah dogs at my heels.
"Friend. Friend. I take you there very cheap. 25 Rupees."
I stop short in surprise.
"You don't know where I'm going yet."
Maybe her does. Maybe all the rickshaw wallahs in Kolkata are telepathic.

Kolkata May 2002. We are going to the leprosorium in the suburbs of Kolkata run by the Brothers. Twenty of us set out from the Mothership early on a Thursday morning. We catch a bone-shaker bus to Sealdah station. There isn't enough room to sit so I grab onto the wooden frame of the bus that sticks
out like ribs. The ticket guy asks for money - ten rupee notes fan out from his fingers like a peacock knuckle-duster. Within minutes we pull up outside Sealdah station and us visitors are led of the bus by a smartly-dressed young man. The ticket guy looks at the young man, then me, then shakes his head. His expression is unreadable.
The young man leads us to the ticket counter and then onto a local train. The women travel in one carriage, the men in another. We swiftly break up into linguistic groups (French, German, Spanish, Japanese). I am left with Ryan - a zealous catholic from Indianapolis who wears a crucifix that may be life-sized - but I'm too scared to get that close. Ryan has the habit of answering questions with
pre-packaged slices of papal dogma. He asks me why so many walls in Bengal have a Hammer and Sickle emblem on them. I tell about the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and the ideas of 'communism' and 'socialism' in general - expecting a thorough smiting
for the espousal of such a godless creed. Instead he listens and asks questions. I ask Ryan about the young man. Apparently he's been with the Sisters since he was a child and carries out little errands for them. He's mute. he shows us a tattoo of a cross on his arm. This pleases Ryan no end - "Praise God", he warmly shouts at our bemused Hindu carriage companions. The mute then mimes playing a guitar and tries to sing. But all he can say is "Ammmm" - which sounds like the Bangla for mango. As nobody seems to know his name, I call him Mango.
Leprosy - or Hansen's Disease - is caused by a bacterium. It attacks the skin, muscles and nervous system. Sufferers literally lose their feelings (I wonder how many Indian bureaucrats suffer from it). Without the presence of pain, they injure themselves - losing fingers and toes to boiling water. Their bodies are out of the loop. The mute takes us into the leper colony. We see the cured, non-infectious patients - treatment takes 6-18 months we are told by one of the Brothers. Some work spinning cloth - made into clothes for the poor and the blue-edged saris worn by the Sisters. They make prosthetics for lost limbs and shoes for broken feet. They raise animals and farm land. There is a school for their children. Two girls at the school sing and dance for us, their routine scuppered by the constant interruptions of a stage-struck tiny tot.
What affects me most is the dressing room. Patients treat other patients - removing old bandages, cleaning wounds, applying fresh coverings. All done carefully and efficiently. We visitors are unnecessary. What the hell are we doing here? Providing human warmth?
Contact? Communication? Satisfying our curiosity? Parasitizing these people for emotions is the same way the TB bacterium parasitizes their bodies ? One guy runs towards us shouting: "Photo! Photo! Photo!" What could he want? We are lead through ward after ward of patients. Some greet us. Some shake our hands. Some look away. Who's watching whom? We visitors have split into linguistic groups again. I overhear a French couple discussing whether it is possible to catch the disease off the cured patients - they haven't been listening or maybe understanding.
At the end of the tour we are back at the office of the Brothers. Someone suggests that we give the mute a few rupees each. But he insists that we donate the money to the Brothers.

Kolkata April 2002. Tiny Tim has just come back from Bangladesh. "They always ask you what religion you are", he says. Tiny Tim does not believe in God. "Saying you have no religion is like saying you don't have a language there."

London November 1998. I talk to my flatmate's sister late one night. She writes poetry and had a strong religious adolescence. I ask her if writing ever feels like possession. She smiles.

Kolkata May 2002. One of the long term volunteers asks how the leprosorium trip went. I say OK. I mention the mute. He warns me Mango is a confidence trickster and to be on my guard.

Bodh Gaya March 2002. I take photographs of the school children to interest Western sponsors. I want them to look downtrodden yet hopeful. A bit thin and ragged wouldn't go amiss. I want emotional blackmail. "The Money Shot" they call it in fund-raising circles. The school children turn up in their best clothes. Well groomed and mustering all the confidence they have. They don't look poor enough! They pose for the camera wearing saris kept impossibly clean in mud huts.

Bodh Gaya March 2002. I have talked to some friends about getting sponsorship for the school children. No one hs replied so far. I check my email. There's a message from an ex-colleague, replying to my request. It's says he's sorry but he can't spare any money. But he does offer me something. It's a piece of advice; If the girls at the school become prostitutes they can probably earn some money. Also included is a link to a book on about vaginal fisting. I start crying. It's a joke. And so are these people's lives. Some of the tears are for me too. What I see and hear and do and feel, I try to put into words. They aren't up to the job though. I can't make you understand. I can't explain.

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