“The earth for us is a place to live in, where we must put up with sights, with sounds, with smells too, by Jove! - breath dead hippo, so to speak, and not be contaminated.” (Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad)
The low point of Greg's and my trip was the 6 hours on the Allahabad platform waiting for our train to Kolkata. Allahabad station is large, over 15 tracks run parallel through it. The fog was so thick that trains on all tracks were delayed. As night fell, more and more people congregated on each of the station platforms. Unlike us, people were prepared. Little did I know that when you travel in North India in the winter you carry a blanket and wear extra thick clothes. You might just have to spend the night on the platform.
On a particularly congested platform, thousands of birds alighted at dusk, dropping white on the heads below. Some women decided it was too far to the public restroom and squatted on the platform instead, their urine mixing with the bird excrement causing an unholy stink to arise. Big bandicoot rats (these are the size of cats) dodged here and there, nibbling biscuit crumbs and potato chips off the ground. In the midst of all that people were making their beds on the cold slate floors, spreading blankets, and positioning luggage as pillows and foot rests. Whole families pulled out picnics and huddled close to keep warm.
There we were, without blankets, and I was starting to feel like I had just arrived at some homeless shelter or refugee camp. Greg kept plying me with hot drinks, but it was difficult to stay upbeat.
Our train finally arrived, and chilled to the bone, we crawled up on our bunks. The usual 14 hours to Calcutta became 24 on that train winding slowly through the white mist. Instead of the two days I had planned in the Kolkata workshop, I only had one.
Arriving in Howrah Station, Kolkata, late in the afternoon, Greg and I went to our hotel and met up with some family members and friends who were visiting Kolkata. And since it's the city where Greg and I were engaged twenty-one years ago, and the city of my birth and early years, we sneak away for a nice meal, to reminisce, to remember, to pause.
The next morning, after a forty-five-minute train ride from the center of the city to its edge, I step into quiet and clean suburbs. A dusty road, a little path through some weeds, and I am at the workshop. As I walk through the door I pass shoes lined up neatly in rows; the girls are all barefoot inside and leave the city dirt at the door. Breezes waft through open windows from the small lake just outside of the building. There is serenity here. The frigid, filthy night we spent on the Allahbad platform feels like a million years ago.
Zeenat Anwar manages the Ruhamah production center in Kolkata. I've come to help her with designs and colors. Her girls are skilled embroidery workers and can take just about any idea and turn it into something beautiful. The workshop is bursting with creativity and purpose. We try embroidering tiny flowers onto silk framed in a hand-hammered earring hoop. I've never seen anything like it before. They are like miniature pictures set into frames. Will it sell? Who knows? But its completely unique, and its fun to experiment together. I just have one day, and I know I don't have enough time to develop anything complicated.
I call girls together in an empty room. We sit on the floor in a circle. Part of my job is to give them a little pep talk. Let them know how important their work is. Let them know that people love it. Then I move into a slightly more personal realm. “Does anyone want to share something they are going through?” Its quiet for a little while and then the newest girl speaks.
“Bad things have happened to me. I am sad. I am sad all the time.” Her eyes are aged and weary but she can't be more than 23. This is more than depression. This is the anguish of the soul. We are all quiet. There are no answers, except time. I talk about how a new environment will help her. She will make new friends. Slowly, very slowly, the pain will become easier to bear, I say. I look around. Several girls have tears in their eyes. They are sharing her sorrow. We breathe the same air, inhale sorrow, hopelessness, and brokenness. A prayer is said, and we share that too. I believe there is a God who cares. But there are no pat answers, no easy fixes.
Tea time is over and the girls move back to their Aari looms and settle themselves at their work. A comfortable silence settles over the workshop, there is comfort in work, in purpose, in direction, in focus, in the predictable flash of the needles pushing through the silk, in the creation of beauty. My heart rises as we leave the past, and every second that ticks is one more second of their now. This place is safety, security, peace and they build toward a better life for themselves and for their children. Every movement is purposeful. Every moment has meaning.
A breeze moves over the reservoir tank, palms sway, and the scent of jasmine and clean damp earth wafts through the workshop.
The January Journeys are almost over. Tomorrow afternoon I fly to Coimbatore and then take the three-hour drive up the mountains to our home, and our waiting children. Greg stays a few more days in Kolkata, networking with other anti-sex trafficking organizations and meeting key partners. The trip was just 10 days but I have taken several months in the telling. Traveling with Greg and catching a glimpse into his world of investigation, raids, and police relations was fascinating, and I understand the work we do in a much greater way. The best part for me? The fact that we did it together.