getting high: something about a rooftop in India

If it’s clarity you seek, flock to the roof. Prem Dan, a home for the elderly, sick, and dying, is a microcosm in the midst of a city encapsulated by a haze of smog and spices: Kolkata, India.

The streets are vivacious with beggars and merchants bartering their fresh produce. Rickshaws and tut-tuts compete with taxis and buses for space in the tight mazes that constitute the roads. The gutters are intricately decorated with trash and dust strewn in piles. Pedestrians shuffle about with careful steps.

With a closing of the eyelids, the focus shifts to sound. It beats with an eclectic rhythm. Footsteps of thousands of people combined with the staccato of the cars honking set the stage for the bass and treble. From the roof, one can hear the throaty, Islamic call to prayer, the poetic Bengali folk music streaming from nearby window sides, and a train rumbling along the tracks all at once.

The sharp call, of “Auntie!” interrupts this rhythm that snaps one back to the reality that lies behind the doors of Prem-Dan. A little fast thinking and quick hands, and sopping wet dresses and shorts are flung from each direction, slapping as they hit the ground.

Slowly, the roof transforms from a bare no-man’s-land of parallel bars and perpendicular wires, to a rainbow maze of drying fabrics. Within the first few minutes, hands are already stinging from wringing out the laundry laced with lye soap.

This is a time for service, yet the concept of time itself does not exist. It is difficult to differentiate the third trip from the thirteenth trip up the six flights of stairs leading to the open air.

Instead, time is undercover as a metronome ticking with the alternating acts of entry and re-entry. Entry takes one down with an empty tin pail to the ground level, a chasm of medicine, chemicals, and fecal matter. Re-entry returns the passenger, bucket in hand now overflowing, to the scenic rooftop that welcomes with a comforting inhale of fresh air.

The rooftop is particularly transformative in that it is the source of clarity in Prem Dan. It paints a birds-eye-view picture of Kolkata. It is there that concentric rings and layers surround the city in a network-like fashion.

Surrounding Prem Dan is the concentric layer of poverty. Within that ring are many hidden rings of true poverty and organized begging cartels that traffick women and children into a cycle of oppression. The border of this ring is thick with indifference.

There is a layer marked by stark contrast. The ornate opulence of vibrantly colored temples houses gods, and the filth-ridden streets house people. The streams of friendly greetings to one another are welcoming, while the incessant honking and yelling is disconcerting.

Behind its fluorescent blue walls, Prem Dan is a world in itself, painted by poverty and contrasts. The metal cots are not draped with Frette, and the daal makhani is not served on a silver platter. Yelling and seemingly harsh methods of helping the women and men that reside may not strike a chord of unison with what volunteers would deem as appropriate, but there is an undeniable bond of hope.

Prem Dan is a community of care that unites thousands from around the world with its Bengali employees and nuns to serve with an open heart and mind. In the midst of another, larger place in which you are less valuable than a piece of chapatti, it is a place in which the good you do will feel impactful.

The rooftop shows a vast stretch of city, of which every inch is alive and beating with sensory overload. It is difficult to attain a glimpse of possibility to make impact and invoke progress. It is unclear where to begin, where to divert energy. Hell, it is impossible to snatch a second of quiet!

However, there is something about entering the doors of Prem Dan that turns off any notions of frustration and exhaustion from the exterior. Each exit from Prem Dan back to Kolkata brings a newfound sense of purpose and ambition.

This purpose and ambition is to put diligence into every small effort. Mother Teresa once said that although the entire world may not ever notice what you do, it is imperative to do whatever “it” may be anyway.

In the small vicinity of Prem Dan, the opportunity to pluck each chance for change awaits; to serve with purpose, passion, and senses of humility and grace. It no longer matters that the surrounding world is ridden with an infinite amount of glorious imperfections.

Though there are moments in which the vastness of Kolkata feels overwhelming, it is possible to find clarity in the midst of extremes just by simply standing on the rooftop of Prem Dan.


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