Indiana University Northwest pre-med student Rohini Chatterjee always knew that she wanted to practice medicine. After participating in relief efforts on the impoverished streets of India twice last year, she better understands why.
“Once you start doing it, it’s something that just attracts you every single time,” said Chatterjee, who gave a talk about her experiences on April 16 at the IU School of Medicine – Northwest (IUSM-NW). “It kind of defines what your life is. Because now I know that I want to graduate from college and get my medical degree. We don’t really know what to do when we get these (medical) problems (on the streets). So I want to get a degree so I can help them out.”
Chatterjee, a graduate of Munster High School, goes to India every year to visit family. Beginning in the summer of 2007, and continuing last December, she used that opportunity to join a fledgling group of activists called the CRAWL (Children Resolution and Women Learning) Society, members of which take to the streets, alleys and train stations of Kolkata, India, to provide food, basic medical care and other assistance to people whose lives are a study in hardship.
Better known to Westerners as Calcutta (of Black Hole fame), Kolkata is a city, located in the Indian state of West Bengal, whose denizens witness or experience unimaginable daily suffering. Poverty, homelessness, prostitution, domestic violence, rampant drug use, child abduction, starvation, and lack of medical care make the streets a desperate and scary place even for the relief workers who come there to help.
“When you’re in India, you tend to look over the fact that people are sleeping on the street,” said Chatterjee, who is pursuing a B.S. in chemistry and a B.A in Spanish at IU Northwest. “You tend to look over the fact that there are people who don’t have food. But when you start talking to them and living with them and listening to their stories, you realize how desperate they are.”
CRAWL Society volunteers dispense food, bandage wounds, provide education, and offer solace to hundreds of people in Kolkata, most of them women and children. For many Kolkata citizens, the volunteers’ most valued role is that of friend.
“One of the things we got to do with these people was sit down and listen to their stories,” Chatterjee recalled. “When you have 16-year-old girls coming to you and telling you that they were forced into marriage because they were raped by this person … and they have nothing better to do than get married to that person, whether that person is 40 years old or 50 years old … when that 16-year-old comes to you and tells you that, you don’t know how to respond. You really don’t do much in that situation. You just listen to them and try to be a friend to them.
“Many of these people, they don’t want money, they don’t want anything else,” she explained. “They just want somebody to listen to them.”
Such stories, and worse besides, shocked Chatterjee and her fellow volunteers. Equally distressing was residents’ evident acceptance of such acts as just part of daily life in Kolkata. Chatterjee recounted another story of a young woman whose own father had repeatedly sexually assaulted her. When the woman’s mother was questioned about why she did not intervene, her response was stunningly matter-of-fact.
“The mom said, ‘It’s okay. She will learn about the realities of life in this way.’ Obviously, the mom was high at this time,” Chatterjee recalled.
For an aspiring physician, the experience in Kolkata was a blunt object lesson in what happens to people when even the most rudimentary healthcare is beyond their reach. Chatterjee saw broken arms that had healed improperly, untreated wounds festering with infection, even the unattended birth of a baby in a train station.
“(The mother) was a person who was slightly mentally challenged, and she was seven months pregnant,” Chatterjee said. “I think she had just sat down to go to the bathroom, and the baby just started coming out. When I got there, the baby’s head was out.
“I had never been that close to that young of a child,” she continued. “I had never been close to that situation before. I was confused, to say the least, about what to do. I didn’t want to touch her, because I didn’t know what to do to deliver the baby completely. Fortunately, the baby just kind of slid out.”
Chatterjee and another woman assisted as best they could, cutting the baby’s umbilical cord and taking him and his mother, who was bleeding heavily, to a nearby shelter that had been established by Mother Theresa. Chatterjee checked in on the child during her return visit in December and said he was doing well.
Chatterjee said that most of the people with whom she had contact appreciated the CRAWL Society’s efforts, and that many of the children came to view the volunteers as role models. Chatterjee recalled two youngsters who would accompany her home every night to make sure she arrived safely.
“They said, ‘You are the only ones in our lives with the stability. We know that when tomorrow comes, you will be there food and water. If something happens to you on the streets, we are done for,’” she said. “This sentiment was the same for all of us. They loved the volunteers.”
In the areas where help was most needed, safety was definitely a concern, Chatterjee said.
“This guy, Raj, was actually a very, very rich drug dealer in the (train station),” said Chatterjee, who noted that Raj used drugs freely in front of her while she bandaged his badly lacerated leg. “The only reason we treated him, and the only reason we gave him food, was because he used to threaten to kill us if we didn’t. There is kind of a legend, passed down from volunteer to volunteer, that he has HIV. So everybody was kind of scared about what to do with him. So we just treated him, because we were scared to do otherwise for our safety.”
Chatterjee admitted that her proximity to such unremitting misery exacted an emotional toll. She took heart, however, in the uplifting spirit exhibited by many who live there, especially the children.
“They find joy, they find excitement, and they find laughter amongst the saddest things in life,” she said.
Chatterjee emphasized that not every area of India, or even of Kolkata, faces the same social and economic hardships as the streets where she worked. But the poverty that exists in India, she said, seems much more harsh and extreme than what many people face in the United States.
Back in Indiana, Chatterjee is working to find a market for Indian jewelry made by some of the women the group aided in Kolkata. Part of the CRAWL Society’s mission is to help women learn a craft and earn money for themselves and their families.
Chatterjee, who credited IUSM-NW Assistant Professor of Biochemistry and Microbiology Dipika Gupta, Ph.D., with introducing her to the CRAWL Society, said she intends to remain involved with the group’s efforts to bring relief, education and hope to the women and children of India. She also plans to do volunteer work with Rotary International.
“I’m just trying to expand my borders,” said Chatterjee, who aims one day to work for international relief agency Doctors Without Borders. “Before I do that, I really want to experience different kinds of social work.”
For more information on the CRAWL Society, visit the Web site at http://www.crawlsociety.org/, or email Chatterjee at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chatterjee is also available to speak to clubs and organizations about her experiences in India. Contact the IU Northwest Office of Marketing and Communications at (219) 980-6802 for details.