It was one of the most pure moments of my life.
The five of us girls squatted on the dirt floor stirring the rice, dal and the innards of an unidentifiable animal across metal saucer plates with our filthy fingers under the persuasive study of our host. My eyes concentrated on the cloudy blend in my water glass, understanding the others’ cautious sips, fearing it had been drugged. My apprehension would have been unwarranted except I had very little trust for anyone in this city. Men grope me as I push through a crowd, unfriendly strangers follow me all the way to my front door and it seems every monetary transaction is another opportunity to take advantage of my foreign status. I could see the headlines now: “Five American girls gone missing in India.”
Despite the kind gestures of our new acquaintance’s hospitality, my concern is condoned by my daily routine devoted to working with women who have escaped the red light district in Kalkota plagued with brothels amassed with girls trafficked in from Nepal and Bangladesh. I am overshadowed with tragic stories of stolen innocence, freedom and joy trampled in the dust of retreated justice.
Cue a trip-beat bedlam cadence, images of pandemonium to the exponential flying through your visual cortex. There is a reality in this country beyond the artistically attractive silhouettes of cleverly filthy street kids and women folded under wrinkles, wrapped in dirty ornate saris. The ornery boys cannon-balling off the top of your ferry transporting you under the Howrah Bridge where millions trample back and forth from the train station with loads balanced on top of their heads—which would warrant an “over-sized load” ticket on a flatbed truck in America—to the endless markets tucked in endless mazes of ghetto and stink.
While choking on the pollution and incomparable smells, through your burning eyes you realize there are three children tugging on your arm, with the sound of a blind man tripping through the streets shouting “hello” and the incessant jangle of the two coins in a woman’s cup with a bend in her spine that has her folded in half. Somewhere, someone is fervently sweeping, sweeping the rubbish into more rubbish. The sound of brisk, determined efforts to sweep away the foul smell, long dulled by conditioned experience. There is a man haphazardly sprawled across her path, insects roam his motionless limbs without permission but without contest. She nonchalantly steps over him like a cellophane wrapper discarded arbitrarily without a care.
“Despite broken hearts and memories that would make you cringe, they smile in a city where you can’t buy a smile and hug me when I should be hugging them.”
Not two arm lengths from his dead or alive carcass sits a woman who looks as if thousands of days of contending with survival has beaten time into her face so severely, or she is truly older than God, but either way her existence of squatting in a puddle asking for coins is too much to dwell on longer than a fleeting glance, otherwise reducing me to a puddle of tears.
But not all hope is lost. Somewhere, amidst the discord in this city, the lights go out after tea time. Dabbing incessant perspiration from my brow with my dupatta, I drop my eyelids and draw a deep, labored breath. I somehow achieve some actual oxygen from this stinging, toxic haze for a shallow second. Engulfed in the saris of 20 Indian and Nepalese women casually snoring and whispering, the honking, shouting arguments, whistles and disgusting crow of stray ravens rings in my ears while the chaos is fainting away. Peace diffuses into my veins; it’s naptime at the ministry where I am serving. Money could not buy the real estate this moment holds in my daily routine.
These women are my heroines. Formerly working the “line” in the red light district of Kalkota, their determination to surpass the past has brought them to this sanctuary. Despite broken hearts and memories that would make you cringe, they smile in a city where you can’t buy a smile and hug me when I should be hugging them. The strength it must take to face each day, to even look others in the eye and claim interest in Jesus Christ in an unfriendly Christian environment in the same city that has chewed them up and spit them out is beyond any accomplishment I have even witnessed in the Olympics.
Their ability to find peace amongst the insanity of this city is a miracle and an honest testament to Christ, the hope of glory, living inside of us. Knowing this truth, rather than my immediate reaction to shout with certain four-letter words at most berating men here or assume the worst of every person approaches me, I am reminded that my attitude should transcend circumstances. In fact, because of the scarcity of a mere smile, watching these women laugh, knowing what they have been through; I know Christ is a real peace beyond any manufactured man-achieved peace. The Bible promises we can shine like stars in a wicked generation and I know this promise is real as I am drawn to the elation of the women that have been restored from a mere commodity to daughters of a king.