I am going to go back to Calcutta for a few paragraphs. Nirmal Hriday, however much I found it grim and earnest, at least provided people with a place to die that was clean and as comfortable as things get for the direly poor in India. It was not trying to solve a large problem.
The foreigners with whom I worked were varied as the jars on a spice shelf. I spent most of my time with a Dutch woman who was a psychiatric nurse in Holland, taking care of people out in the countryside. This couldn’t have been a big change of occupation for her, although the work was more physical than mental. There were a couple of Danish girls who had come for a week or two. There were Catholic groups organized by parish priests from all over the world. One such group was a dozen women from Malta, among them a dwarf. She attached herself to me because, as she explained, “You know what you are doing.” This, of course, was not true. But we had a good time together. She had a sharp wit in four languages.
We were given buns and tea at some point in the morning. Usually we went up to the roof to sip and nibble while viewing below us people buying fish cooked on a wooden spits over a tiny charcoal fire. There was a barber who shaved men, trimmed beards and one day cut a woman’s hair and then shaved her head. We thought it might be lice but it could have had a religious meaning.
We may have been sad at the state of the women but we all accepted the situation and our work whether unpleasant to us or not. I found bathing the women difficult because their mortality was a fact beneath my hands, the tactile certainty of bone under the thinnest integument of skin communicated the fragility of life, what would quickly and what more slowly be consumed in the fire at the ghat.
However, one day a young American woman arrived who it became apparent had thought she was coming here not to wipe up diarrhea but to sit sweetly, in a nice outfit, next to the suffering, hold their hands and say kind things to them. She was aghast by what surrounded her and walked around in rubber gloves doing nothing. I finally handed her a rag and said, “Wipe that up,” pointing to a pool of yellow diarrhea in the middle of the floor. She did wipe it up but that was the last we saw of her.
A very beautiful Italian girl sat, as instructed by a nun, beside a dying woman, holding her hand. She complained to me afterwards, ”I couldn’t talk to her. She wouldn’t understand me. I don’t know that she could even hear me. It all seemed so useless.”
The reason there is little contribution from the Indian community is due to the idea of karma. Your karma is the result of your actions in your past life. If you are a beggar dying on the floor of Howrah station it is quite possibly because you were a rich miser or you were mean or even violent to your daughter-in-law in your last life. Your fate in this life is a result of your deeds in your last life and you deserve it. This is a philosophy that certainly makes not giving guiltless.
Out of India and into Barcelona where this was the week children were allowed out of their houses. When I saw my first stroller occupants I was astonished, as though I had come across a furry duck billed platypus in a forest. They have such wonderful tiny fingers. They were looking a bit stunned too. Having been deprived of the outside world for almost two month must have made the streets a terra incognita with all those strange adults wandering around in masks, and then your own mask. They were very good about their masks. I wish I could say the same about the adults.
I have taken to scowling at people who don’t wear masks and occasionally asking them why they aren’t. To those who wear them dangling around their necks I want to say, “Is that a necklace? Do you have earrings to match?” Then there are those who wear their mask below their nose. For them my question is, “Do you breathe through your chin?”
I did a 10km walk, actually three of them, this week, one from Hospital up to Lesseps along Gran de Gracia where I turned left and wandered among small streets with delightful small houses until I came down again, stopping on Gran de Gracia to call a friend so that I could wave to her up on her balcony. Another walk took me up Balmes to Sant Gervasi where I took Via Augusti back down, switching over to Aribau to go to the cat food store on the way home. The third I started by walking down to the Post Office which I love for its beautiful stained glass ceiling—they had sent my package back to HK—up Laietana to Urquinaona, continuing on Bruc to Diagonal and coming down Balmes, all wearing a mask. The one to Sant Gervasi was a killer because the up hill part is aggressively steep.
There were people out but not too many on each walk; the sun was shinning. I would stop to gaze at flower shops, being tempted, and then not buying because it was a long way home and the weight sufficient to discourage a purchase.
I have discovered how difficult housework is in your 80’s and how boring cooking for one can become. However I have shelved books that have been lying about for months and weeded out about 35 that can be given away. I still have to go through my travel section where I cling to out of date guides to India. I would like to cut that in half. But I will not give up my family’s collection of Baedeker’s from the 1910’s or mother’s So You’re Going books.
These date from the 1920’s and were written by Clara E. Laughlin, a woman of great respectability and the very best taste. She knew her American audience was historically ignorant so she delivers small vivid dramas of great moments from the past to enable them to understand the importance of certain sites, saturating them with atmosphere. Her history is sometimes history and sometimes the richest gossip but it works.
When I was deciding to come to Barcelona to live I looked up Barcelona in So You’re Going to Spain, published in 1931. There is very little about the city in her book, which covers Gibraltar, Málaga, Granada, Córdoba, Seville and Madrid. I have to quote this excerpt because it reduces me to laughter every time I read it.
“He (Arthur Stanley Riggs) says the Church of the Holy Family is characteristic of both the city and its spirit and the Barcelonese regard it as their finest expression. Have you ever seen a picture of it? Those I have seen have given me such a feeling of horror that I have never wanted to go to Barcelona. Foolish, of course! I’ll get over it—or, at least, I’ll learn not to look at that church, or to think about it, and enjoy the things in and near Barcelona that are beautiful, even sublime.”
Ah, the opinions of a refined, cultured American lady, in the 1920’s and 1930’s.