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.

A Minute Moment of Major Mindfulness

Size matters. Whether it’s with actions or appearances, we are told that our purpose in life is to “do big things.” The fall of my junior year was no exception: it was a fast-paced semester of extremes.

In addition to a rigorous course load, I was faced with stressful news and decisions. I was diagnosed with a brain pineal gland cyst and my mother with uterine cancer. I disaffiliated from my sorority and stepped down as president of WakeRadio. Additionally, I was preparing to lead a service trip to Kolkata, India, the upcoming winter with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity organization.

Knocked off balance by this whirlwind series of events, I was determined to find clarity through this leadership role. All the while, I asked myself, “What matters?”

In the blink of an eye, I was getting six vaccinations. Then, I was exiting the plane, inhaling the scents, sights, and sounds that ignited my senses. Taxis and tut-tuts zipped around, honking ceaselessly. Market salesmen tempted us with silken saris and succulent street food while beggars prodded our arms, gesturing to their hungry mouths. This was home for the next two weeks.

Service started at 7 a.m. in a home for the elderly, sick, and dying. I first carried buckets of sopping wet laundry to the rooftop to hang them to dry. Afterwards, the focus shifted to taking care of the women. I noticed the other volunteers rapidly slathering lotion on their limbs in an assembly line fashion. Instead, I took extra time to sit with the women, gently massaging their chapped hands, and offering to paint their nails.

As the days passed, I noticed one woman in particular who would always summon me to come care for her. While I painted her nails, she would patiently rotate her hand to ensure I coated every crevice. Though she spoke no English, she would look at me with the warmest gaze, her deep brown eyes brimming with satisfaction and joy.

It struck me that something as simple as attention to detail was so meaningful to her. It made me recognize that every effort counts, no matter how small. In fact, what matters are the small things because, as Mother Teresa eloquently said, “It is in them that your strength lies.”

I found my strength in Kolkata and have striven to find it daily through the simplest of actions since my return. College is a time of immediacy in which doing the most as fast as possible is emblematic of supposed perfection. This often distracts us from pausing to revel in our surroundings and life’s simplest endeavors.

Whether it is taking a few spare moments to meditate in savasana, indulge in the delicacy of a flavorful conversation, or hold a door open for someone and ask them how they’re doing, I’ve realized that simple gestures go a long way. Size matters, but it is the smallest efforts that are the most spectacular. All it takes is mindfulness.

One Happy Return: A First-Day Musing

Maybe it’s my intuitive nature; maybe it’s sheer luck; but I have always had a knack for sensing when I have made a mutual, impactful connection with others.

When I came to Calcutta last year, I felt that the service I had done made a profound impact on me. However, upon returning not only through this very same trip, but also to one of my prior service placements, I realized that my service had also made an impression on those I had served.

Along with one half of the group, I serve at Daya Dan in the afternoons. Daya Dan is a home for orphaned children that are mildly to severely physically and/or mentally handicapped. It had been my favorite place last year, so I was excited to return.

As soon as I walked through the doors, I was ecstatically greeted by two little girls, one of which I had taken a particular liking to last time around: Priyanka. I had tried tirelessly to connect with her, and finally, after a few smacks and tantrums, she wouldn’t let go of me. You can thus imagine my excitement when she leaped right into my arms again with gusto.

The next hour brought many laughs and surfaced experiences both old and new. What happened next, however, was even more profound.

One of the older girls, Puja, rolled up to me in her chair, and immediately exclaimed my name. “Ashley!”

I was in shock: thousands of volunteers come to Daya Dan throughout the year, and yet she remembers my name. This moment was when I realized that service truly has an impact.

One of the more challenging aspects of this specific trip is that we reside on a street that has many women that are a part of a human trafficking cartel ring. They are usually young to middle-aged, and either offer henna or have a “sleeping” infant strapped to them and beg passersby for formula. Their English is limited to “Hello!”,”Happy New Year!”, and “Sister, you want henna? Henna?” or “Feed baby?”

However, the henna can have very adverse reactions, and giving them money or formula never directly helps them. Rather, it continues to perpetuate a horrible cycle of trafficking.

It is thus the service we perform that reestablishes the sense of altruism we often feel like we lose because of our total inability to help these women. For me, personally, pouring my energy into engaging with the children of Daya Dan truly helped cope with these feelings of confusion and doubt.

This experience has proved to me that my service somehow made an impact on another individual, and nothing, to me, is more rewarding.

hung to dry


the type of service we did throughout our two weeks is tough to put a single finger around. this is because it was hands down the most fulfilling, challenging, and rewarding service i personally have ever participated in. working with mother theresa’s missions of charity, each of the twelve of us were given two service placements: one in the morning, and one in the afternoon.

this photo is one i took from my morning at one of the homes that describes the ambience of what a typical day of service was like for me during the trip. on mornings like these, we would commence with the laundry on the rooftop, wringing the clothes out and hanging them to dry upon suspended wires.

after the laundry was complete, we would attend to the girls: it was a home for girls and women who were mildly to severely mentally and/or physically disabled. some of the tasks at hand included feeding, physical therapy, social interaction, and commute: taking some of them to the bathroom or putting them to bed for a midmorning nap.

this image reminds me of this experience and how it would set the intent to serve each and every day. though there was, additionally, a language barrier, there is infinite connections two people can make based just by showing selflessness, love, and care.