In Yamuna Bazaar
This will not be a pretty e-mail.
I just thought I should say that from the outset. So consider this a disclaimer if you are interested in reading it. Some parts might come across as a little indecent, but then again I’ve seen some pretty indecent things lately.
Susan and I woke up, as usual, at 5:45 on Diwali morning. Think of it like Christmas, only with firecrackers. Lots of them. We went in to the office to make coffee, as is our habit, around 7 and ran into Nino there. We had quite an interesting conversation, and then he impulsively suggested, “Should we take the ambulance into Delhi today?” I had still not been into the city with him so I got very excited.
Before I came here, everyone kept asking me what this ashram does.
It’s a community of the poor, I answered. They rehabilitate the destitute. They go into the city and pick dying people up off the roadsides. THEY PICK DYING PEOPLE UP OFF THE ROADSIDES. Really, what do those words really tell you? Not much. I think it wasn’t until Diwali that I really understood the meaning of it, the grisly, face-to-face physicality. The very real grace that hides in very real ugliness.
Susan, Nino, and two employees piled into the ambulance with me for our daytrip. Dilip is one of my favorites here—a former TB patient, he arrived here several months ago and is now a paid staff member. He originally ran away from an abusive rural home and, for years, was exploited as a child laborer. Obviously, this is unfair, but to me, it’s also unthinkable. It doesn’t seem possible in my head. This boy whose sweetness is so complete, so permeating, whose heart is so sincere. Exploited? I still can’t well imagine it. He’s one of the hardest working people I’ve ever seen. He’s up at 5 in the morning emptying bedpans and singing about it. He is a 17-year-old boy.
He also has leprosy. I didn’t even know it until that day.
Suresh is a former patient who is now employed by the ashram to go to the government TB hospital and take care of people who have no family members or attendants to care for them. Since personnel at government hospitals basically administer medicine and not to take care of the basic needs of patients, what this means is that Suresh spends every day acting as an attendant for TB patients who are alone in the world. Indians are expected to be accompanied by someone in the hospital, usually a family member, who will care for them, feed them, wash them, help them to the bathroom when they need it or at least change their bedpan. Those who have no family or other connections are left to fend for themselves. If Suresh didn’t go every day, many of them would waste away in the squalor of their own feces and hunger.
Apparently one of the best government TB facility in India, this is a massive campus of wards—dozens of patients in each one. Building after building, dirty white block after dirty white block, floor after floor, corridor after corridor—they all look the same. Since I am, after all, here to make a video, I put my camera in my backpack and smuggled it into the facility. Nino, Dilip, and I tried to finesse the guards into letting us enter the campus (my mouth set in a humble, polite smile, holding eye contact, while my camera was secretly strapped on my back) even though it was closed for Diwali. Meanwhile, Suresh and Susan waded through the sea of people, spices, and fruit outside the hospital gates. Suresh wanted to buy apples and oranges to give to his patients for Diwali. Patients are often discharged from that hospital before they are actually better (especially those without attendants), and since they are very ill and have nowhere to go they just stay there, still dying, at the gates to the hospital. Many ashram patients were found that way.
Suresh is quite at home here, and he doesn’t skip a beat when it comes to doing what he came to do. He knew his way through that icky labyrinth well. He knew exactly where all of his patients are, even though every floor completely bled together with every other floor in my mind. In every dim room we were met with the weak gazes of dim eyes. It was dimness and weakness everywhere. Oh my god, I thought, Ugh. I need to film this. How on earth do you call this taking care of people?
Nino positioned himself in the hallway while Susan filled the ward doorways with her body. Dilip held my backpack and when Nino cautiously scanned in all directions with his eyes and said, “GO,” I rapid-fire unzipped the backpack, whipped the camera out, and started walking through the wards, filming people. Many people wanted to be filmed, and others seemed apathetic enough to at least not care one way or the other. Until that moment, I had only been filming at the ashram, where basically anywhere you point the camera looks beautiful and oozes loveliness—physical, personal, spiritual… But I had to offset it against a more pervasive, unlovely, unbeautiful reality that far more people occupy… Nino would then give the signal, which Susan would pass on to me and I would slam the lens cap back on the camera, dash over to Dilip, shove it into the backpack, zip it up, and throw it back on my back so that by the time I walked out of the ward I smiled sweetly at the approaching doctors and hospital administrators.
They thought that we were just do-gooders passing out fruit to TB patients for Diwali. When we walked out of wards, people would call softly, “Happy Diwali,” and lift their hand a little bit, half-smiling, which was maybe all they could afford.
One of Suresh’s patients was the absolute thinnest piece of human being I have ever seen. Suresh, I think, had found him a few days before (when he arrives every day, other TB patients in the hospital are sure to point out new arrivals who may be in need of help). We walked up to his bed, and Suresh removed his blanket and some of his clothes. Aha, I thought, this is what Ton means by Auschwitz. And I’m not talking about the gaunt, haunting ALIVE faces gazing at cameras through barbed wire. I’m talking about the bone-thin corpses, with limbs flailed in gruesome directions, skeleton shining right through the skin. I’m talking about bodies that look like they can’t possibly be alive. Emaciated.
You can know a word your whole life by looking it up in the dictionary, by using it in flippant conversation, by compiling thousands of different contexts of usage in your lifelong memory. And then it can take only a sudden, descriptionless moment to really, really understand what it means.
As Suresh removed the man’s clothing, Susan and I both almost took a step back. There was the unmistakable stench of diarrhea, and it was all over the sheets on which this man was lying and moaning. He had probably been like that for hours. Nino eyed a hospital employee as he finished sweeping the ward room (and there were PILES of garbage around). Suresh removed all of the patient’s clothing and placed a mat down on the floor. He put his arms around the man and moved him gently on the floor (and with a speed and efficiency that impressed me) and then changed the sheets and put a plastic sheet over the clean sheets. He hoisted the man back onto the plastic and started to wash his body with a rag. I would have literally been afraid of breaking this man in half had I been asked to lift him. And yeah. I probably would have retched too.
Suresh turned his body over as he cleaned it, and my soul gasped for a second (I don’t know how else to explain it—I didn’t actually gasp but my whole spirit gasped in disbelief at the world) to see that his whole anus was just, well, THERE—without a molecule of fat on his body to make up a buttocks. I averted my eyes right away, since it was a naked man being washed (and in such a humiliating condition) and my throat felt full of I don’t know what. The floor-sweeper finished his rounds and left the room. Nino turned to me and said, “Ok, you can film now.” I looked up at him in disbelief, my mouth opened a bit, then looked toward the pile of bones on the bed. “That’s what you’re here to do, right?” I wordlessly got my camera out as Susan blocked me from view and started to film the man with discomfort, keeping my distance, trying to avoid the more shocking contours and regions of his body out of some attempt at decency. Ha. “Christa,” Nino told me quietly, “This is not the time to be shy.” And he’s right. Now is the time to get over my inclination toward timidity. This is a life I am choosing, right? So I looked at the man with some apology in my eyes and then you know what? He looked back at me, just looked at me, watched me do what I was doing, without accusation. So I went ahead and got up close, stench and everything, and filmed everything I just described.
From the doorway, Nino called out “I think that’s enough,” and I again hid my camera as Suresh finished up with the man and started feeding him. Nino and Susan and I made a filthy trek over to the bathrooms.
We entered one and closed the door behind us so that I could take my camera out again. There were so many layers of filth in there, I can barely describe. The urinals were full of old syringes, clumps of hair, shit. Nino touched the door to a stall to open it and it crashed straight off the hinges. I felt like the smell itself was getting into my hair and my pores in an incurable way. And me, a healthy person. Only passing through.
Before we left, we switched the tapes in the camera—a blank one went into the camera and Nino put the other one in his sock. I remember thinking, Wow, I am doing something for real for maybe the first time ever.
But we were not apprehended at the gate. I think no one even knew we had the camera. It’s all those espionage skills I’ve been honing.
The day was half done.
The rest of it we spent in and around Yamuna Bazaar. The retchy, rank-looking Yamuna River borders the east side of Old Delhi. In contrast to the relative, composed cleanliness of southern New Delhi, Old Delhi seems gritty, unkempt, and wild. This is where the poorest of the urban poor end up—by the river, on the roadside, under bridges, in the garbage. People like Dilip. In the garbage.
But much is also being invested in Delhi’s development. It is being “cleaned up,” so to speak. Old Delhi is now covered in “flyovers.”
Kind of like an overpass, these are pillars of concrete that raise the roads—newer, faster, better—over and across the tumult of much of Old Delhi. They get you from here to there, making good time. They fly you right over the deformities of the streets below. They really serve your convenience.
Many of the ashram’s former and current patients were found under the flyovers of Yamuna Bazaar. Nino took us on a slow, creeping tour through this maze of a world. I have never seen anything like it. We stopped under one bridge where several homeless men were living. Nino stopped the car and got out to talk to them. I followed, camera in hand, feeling a little bit on edge. Were we going to pick people up?
I wondered. Isn’t that what Nino generally did? But instead, we simply made conversation (well, Nino did, I just stood there like a dumb alien). I asked Nino how he knew, in these raging seas of rags, with so many collapsed bodies, broken bodies, tired bodies, whom to take with him, he said—You just know. He said that there are little clues to people’s well-being. You just have to develop an eye for it, to know how to evaluate it. And since the ashram is having this space crisis, we really weren’t supposed to take anyone new in. We really weren’t supposed to…
We pulled up to an intersection and waited for our turn. There was a little old man sitting on the curb. His hands were in his lap. He didn’t look too haggard. Nino turned off the engine and said to me and Susan, “You see that man? He was probably dumped here by his family, and recently. If you watch him closely, you can tell that he is new to life on the streets. Look at the way he is just looking around him. He doesn’t know what to do.” As I watched him through the dirty windshield, my throat was clogged with such emotion that couldn’t break any further. I couldn’t see Susan’s face, she was in the front seat with Nino, her back to me, but I could see Nino’s. I watched the little old man, hands in his lap, looking all around him, imagining the fear, the bridled in panic that he wasn’t letting sweep him up just yet. Trying to figure it out. To even process it, this new world he found himself in, friendless. And we couldn’t take him home. I just wanted to help him hobble into the ambulance with us and take him home and give him chai and introduce him to people. I was thinking of Spike somewhere out there. But we couldn’t. Because we don’t have room. In the front seat, I saw a little spark of curiosity light up Nino’s face as he reached over and touched Susan’s face, saying “What’s this?” I moved so I could see her and her face was transfigured with open tears. I was glad to see it, cause my own throat felt blocked with the same sadness. “But this is good,” Nino smiled. “You cry for the right things.”
We parked our car under a different flyover and got out to walk around. I hauled my tripod down amongst the rocks and blocks of broken cement under the bridge. Some young men were picking through trash, deciding what was salvageable. Others were strewn along the rocks beneath layers of blankets and flies. There was a shrine on one of the bridge pillars, and one spot had a faded picture of Jesus pasted up. I set up some equipment a little hesitantly. “Are you sure people won’t mind if I just film them, without asking?” I said.
“I’m sure,” Nino replied. “They can tell that we’re on their side.”
And the strange thing is, I think they really could. People looked back at with me some curiosity, but with openness. There seemed to be a kind of WELCOME into that world. Many of the people down there, especially around the Hanuman Temple (where homeless people congregate because the temple passes out free food occasionally) recognize the Sewa Ashram ambulance. And one of the things that really touched me is that even here, even in this run-down, dispirited street community (if you can even call it that), people occasionally look out for one another. When we stopped the ambulance and got out under a bridge, a small crowd of raggedy men gathered around Nino. They were trying to tell him about a man nearby who was worse off than any of them. Too sick to even crawl to the ambulance. We followed them past several people on the ground who I thought looked to be in pretty bad shape, but whom Nino patted on the shoulder and was able to walk away from after exchanging a few words with them. Not sick enough for our space constraints, I guess. But we were brought to someone who looked like an old man (although the last time I thought this about someone, the man turned out to be 40), and Nino was able to tell right away that he had TB. And that it was bad. “Ashram? Doctor? Ambulance?” he asked him. The man took Nino’s hand and limped back to the ambulance with us. He didn’t look particularly relieved, even a little apathetic.
But it’s kind of astonishing how someone in his position could react with such trust in that situation. To just take someone’s hand and get in the back of an ambulance. Anything is better than that life.
So we were bringing someone back to the ashram after all. We continued our way through the rumpled bodies of the Yamuna Bazaar, stopping to talk to and film people along the way. There were some street dogs lying on the sidewalk and I remember thinking that there was absolutely no difference between the dogs and the humans. Except lots of the dogs looked a lot healthier. We got back into the ambulance and Nino said, “There’s just one more bridge I want to show you.”
Under this particular flyover, the traffic zoomed like madness. There were wide puddles, dark with trash. Trash just absolutely everywhere.
The sides of the bridge were solid concrete instead of pillars, making the underside of it dark and claustrophobic. Nino slowed the ambulance down near a mostly naked man sprawled out on the sidewalk.
He had a blanket wrapped around his hips and half of his side. “Now this is the kind of person that we check on,” Nino said with a new kind of seriousness.
The four of us got out of the ambulance and walked up to him. He had lionish, licey white hair. His foot was mangled into a gigantic yellowing bandage that looked like it had been on there for weeks. I didn’t want to think about what was inside it. He was moaning for water. Nino knelt down to him, so I knelt down too, right next to him. He reached at me and at the camera, in a pleading, non-threatening way. He smelled awful. Tremendously horrible, unnatural. I had to breathe through my mouth because I was crouched up close to him, right at his face, kneeling along the side of him that was wrapped in a filthy blanket. His hands were yellowed and swollen and infected. He kept grabbing his hand right at the lens in supplication, with a terrible rasp. I was watching half through the camera screen and half with my own eyes, a little nauseous with the combination of nerves and stenches. Nino was completely calm, angelic even, just stroking his forehead and talking to him. Asking him in Hindi where he had pain, what had happened, what he needed. But the man was deranged and only responded, “Pani! Pani!” Water! Water! I was just thinking I’m sorry I’m sorry I don’t have any for you.
And Nino, crouching next to me and leaning over him, calmly reached his hand over to lift up the blanket. I remember thinking with sickening understanding no no no no no, don’t open that. Just don’t don’t look there. You can already tell from the smell. He did open it. The man’s entire left inner arm and side, a few inches under me, from his armpit down to his naked hips, was shredded open with green, infected flesh. And it was crawling with hundreds of thousands of maggots. Squishy, squiggly, squirmy white maggots, eating him alive.
I think I let out a vocalized soul-gasp this time, almost inaudibly, and just felt overpowered with tears and vomit. Susan was standing a few steps away, I’m sure feeling the same thing. I had to shake myself like, “Don’t lose your shit, Christa, you have a job to do.
Hold it together.” So I did hold it together, the most intense singular moment of my life. And got even closer to his putrid body, with my camera, and, just, FILMED it, and he held eye contact with me for a long time.
“This one is serious,” Nino said. We had to take him home, of course, space or no space. “Imagine what would happen if no one stopped for him,” Nino said, “the way that death would slowly overtake him, inch by inch by inch.”
His body would have died in slow waves indeed. That half of his body was already like a corpse—death-green, maggot-ridden, rotting, infested. As Susan said later, “That was such an overwhelming assault on MY senses. And it wasn’t even my own body.” Imagine if it was your own body. This is not supposed to happen to bodies that are alive.
As Dilip brought an extra blanket from the ambulance, I was thinking—how on earth, how is Nino going to hold this man’s body to himself, to press up against his maggoty side and his licey skin in order to lift him into the ambulance? Just the pure, straightforward, horrific PHYSICALITY of it. It’s incomprehensible.
But he just swept him up, cradled like a baby, and carried him to the ambulance.
The ride home was silent. The first patient, the one with TB, had flailed his arm over the back seat from the way back. It was next to Susan’s shoulder and she had her hand upon it. The other one, the one with maggots, My whole jaw was clenched with crying but I just didn’t want to start yet. I was thinking, once it starts, it’s just going to go on and on and on.
I was thinking about a lot of things as we made our way back up to Narela with no sound but the moaning of our new companions. I was thinking about how I can try to write to you all about the utter incomprehensibility of it all, but I will never be able to translate it. Because words can only do so much—they’re just descriptors, just a synthetic skin draped over realness. They’re not real and they can’t hit you in the face hard enough. We all know so much intellectually. SO much. I can write reams of theses on social justice, on economic development, on poverty and exploitation and death… and still not really KNOW it. Not smell the way flesh can rot right off living bodies. Not be spun into the black hole of trying to understand, for REAL, just how it’s all at all possible. It’s just not an intellectual understanding, it’s above and beyond and deeper than that. There’s something else that moves and clicks in you when you encounter physical realness.
I was thinking, after all this, why is it so UNUSUAL that someone like Nino does this? What is so out of the ordinary about helping someone lying on the street rotting to death? Why NOT stop to pick someone up who is dying? How CAN you not? If it was someone who looked like us, we would. Someone who didn’t look like they belonged in the dump.
I was thinking, this isn’t about the Indian social structure. About the power politics and socio-economic strife of one country. If you pass it off that way, you miss the point completely. Aside from the obviously complicated relationships of EVERY country to one another’s economic and political positions, there are still homeless people in my neighborhoods at home, asleep under blankets in the cold, in my own city. PROBABLY they have more access to social services if they seek them out. PROBABLY they’re better off. PROBABLY they’re not dying of maggot-infested infections. But that’s not the point. The point is that we don’t really lift up the blankets to check whether they ARE dying or not.
I was thinking, which came first—the crazy or the homelessness? The derangement or the destitution? Certainly, a lot of mentally ill people find themselves on the street. But it’s too easy to pass off homeless people as crazies (in which case, doesn’t that make them even more in need of help?). But that kind of derangement can happen to any of us. I promise you—no matter how hard-working and well-adjusted you are, if you have a brain stroke, become paralyzed in half of your body, and are dumped under a bridge in India by your own family for being burdensome and defunct, develop bedsores from being unable to shift your body on the cold cement and are also unable to defend yourself from the swarming flies that burrow into your skin and lay their eggs (all of this what Nino deduced about the man we found), you would go a little crazy too. If you can feel maggots burrowing around your insides and can’t do a thing about it, well, pretty soon your mind would start to disengage from reality because it’s too traumatic to deal with.
I was thinking that culpability comes as much from ignorance as action. That the world is divided between those who have the luxury of being able to flush their ceramic toilets. To expel their own filth with the push of a button. I was thinking of how many times I must have thoughtlessly flushed the toilet my whole life, not even knowing where it went, and imagining how it would feel if at the end of it all I found out there was one sorry, broken person at the other end, beneath it, and I never even bothered to check.
I was thinking about the kinds of things you read in the bible—about washing each other’s bodies and taking care of the poor and sick, and how in all of our savvy intellectualness we assume such simple and obvious lessons must be metaphors for something grander and more abstract. But then, why??? Surely it leads you down some kind of path that is hard to wrap your head around (and there we go again, using the head)….but…. ISN’T it straightforward? DOESN’T that seem obvious? And in the end, at the heart of it all?
These may seem like such sorry clichés, but as I said before—you know things with your intellect, and then once in awhile, through fortunate windows, you suddenly KNOW them. And things become cliché for a reason.
When we got back to the ashram, my work wasn’t finished. For half an hour I filmed in the midst of the former patients who were cleaning this man with their own bare hands. They were pouring water over the shreds of his skin and picking out the maggots with tweezers. There were thousands of maggots running down the drain. And the flies were eating them, swooping down and feeding on their fat white bodies.
They poured some kind of ointment over the wound (they had already injected him with a painkiller) and bandaged up his entire side.
Throughout the night, the ointment would induce hundreds of more maggots out from deeper in the depths of his body. Bigger ones, fatter ones, ones that had been feasting longer.
But until then, he was wrapped in warm blankets, given some hot chai, and put in bed. His head was shaved to get rid of the lice.
After my filming was finished, I was totally shaky. I walked back through the beautiful gardens, smelling of basil, to the office. The contrast of how beautiful the world could be was overpowering.
I got into the office, and Gerwin was at the computer. “You’re back!”
he said, then glanced up from the screen as I walked up to him. He took one look at my face, and without saying anything, just grabbed my hand and wrist in one strong, sweet motion. I stopped at his chair and gripped back. All it really took was that contact, that easy gesture of love. And then, I started crying.
Late in the night, I went into the clinic to get the key to the bathroom, and he was awake again and moaning. I don’t know what he was saying, but I stood in the dark and held his hand for awhile.
The thing is—they come back. Even from such realms of derangement.
Even from much worse ones. In the bigger picture, I don’t think that what I saw was even that bad. Nino was certainly cool and collected about it. Totally unfazed and just, I don’t know, calm with the certainness of loving someone like that. There is Bola—a teenage boy who is constantly jumping up to help, who smiles, who sits on his bed with his friends and laughs, who sings at meetings… He was found, a naked boy, in the same place, maggots filling his eye socket, and he was crawling around the ground, eating dirt. There’s Shankar, who, even the first day I arrived, had the look of a deranged animal in his eyes. He had been found in the garbage. Now he laughs at my jokes, even though he can’t understand them. He laughs when Susan and I act things out. He plays badminton with me. He goes for morning walks with us. The first day I was here, I was afraid of him. Nino had said they found him quite literally left on a trash heap, acting possessed. Surely, I thought, you can’t salvage the person buried in there that might have been. Surely they don’t come back from that far away.
It turns my whole head and heart inside out.
And I’ve only been here three weeks.
That night was Diwali. The ashram, Old Man’s House, and Kids House were totally covered in candlelight. Every walkway, every surface, every rooftop was lined with oil-soaked wicks in tiny clay pots.
Thousands of lights for this festival of light. All these rehabilitated people working together, draping the grounds with this soft, peaceful light. Susan and I climbed up the stairs on the side of one of the square buildings to stand on its flat top. The roof was lined with candles. The steps were too. Below us in the courtyard of Old Man’s House, Gerwin was showing Saraj, a little boy with paralyzed legs, how to light one of the candles. Sonnu, a teenage retarded boy, was grinning, looking on, flapping the ears of his pink fleece jacket that has rabbit ears for some reason. He has a special dance that he does when he can’t contain his happiness. Everyone was out in the streets, lighting each other’s candles, laughing together in voices that were a little bit softer, the way you sometimes whisper when the lights get low. We stood up there and looked at each other, at all these wonderful people, and thought—so many of them did come back from dark places. And here they are—helping each other and laughing together and really being a family. We were both, I think, shaken by the extremes we had seen that day. We were both unsure how to reconcile them.
There is the idea of life, and then there’s life itself.
It will take your breath away, the horror AND the beauty.
All the best to you in all your separate corners of the world, Christa