Monday, August 4, 2014

Kolkata Mutton, or Letter to a Goat (repost).

The following is a re-post from I had the opportunity to go to Kolkata, WB, India this spring with MOVE, and this is my follow-up reflection from the trip.

The first time I walked from our hostel to Mother Theresa was the morning Goat made me laugh. Goat was scratching back with head, neck impressively flexible as it moved side to side, soothing some invisible goat itch. I didn't know goats could do that, I thought, chuckling to myself and continuing along the rugged dirt-and-brick sidewalk.

For many mornings after, Goat and I continued to exchange friendly glances and nods. Most often I passed by in the mornings, other times on the way to a market or otherwise.

One morning while making my way by Goat’s post, I didn't nod ‘hello’ like previously. As I passed, I heard a voice bark my name, and whipped around to see who it was. I only saw Goat staring back at me. ‘Hello?’ I questioned, scanning the street to find the voice that summoned me.

‘What’s the matter?’ asked the voice.

My eyes fall back on Goat, and I saw one raised goat eyebrow staring into my soul.

‘Goat I’m shocked’ I say. ‘I had no idea you knew English.’

‘And Bengali and Polish,’ Goat replied, ‘but what’s the matter this morning?’

‘Well Goat,’ I began, ‘I feel frustrated by so many volunteers here. People who have taken months off from their respective lives to travel around the world and pass through here. All of us come from somewhere I suppose, but I've met so many people whose motivations for being here seem superficial at best. It all seems an act! If we’re so humble in servitude, why are we so uppity and superior?’

‘What makes you think volunteers find themselves superior?’ asked Goat.

‘I guess it’s the way some of them talk. One woman I overheard wouldn't stop yapping about having held the hands of God, having touched the face of God, while she was assisting an older patient at the hospital yesterday. Not once did she talk about the patient, only the God she supposedly touched.’


‘So I find it annoying that she can’t just hold the hand of another person! Why does she need the glove of religion to hold someone’s hand? It’s as if she’s choosing not to see the person in front of her. Do we need to erase the experiences of other people by focusing only on serving some elusive construction of a creator?’

‘You’re frustrated.’

‘They’re crazy!’

‘You’re talking to a Goat.’

‘That’s not the point,’ I blurted. ‘I just don’t see why people feel the need to pretend.’

‘Don’t you also pretend?’

Twenty to forty passengers disembarked a passing city bus, and we fell silent as the crowd passed.

‘I suppose I pretend in some ways,’ I conceded as the last passenger walked by.

Goat met my glance, nodding head with a tilt to the side in the fashion of West Bengal. I realized it was time to go.

‘Til next time Goat,’ I said, turning in the direction of the Mother House.

‘Til next time indeed,’ Goat agreed.


A day or two or three later, I approached goat as goat sorted through a pile of rubbish on the street. Goat heard me as I got closer, nodding head in a tilt as a gesture of greeting.

‘Hi goat. I've been thinking a lot about our conversation before.’ Goat stared at me, waiting for me to continue. Goat’s ear twitched to swat a fly away.

‘I realize it’s a waste of energy to criticize how other people decide to do service. It’s all to the same end, and individual experiences are the individual’s prerogative. At the end of the day, everyone’s just dishing out lunch or mopping or caretaking.'

I paused.

‘But as volunteers we don’t accomplish much anyway! How is volunteering like this not just poverty tourism?’

I think Goat laughed, but I may have imagined that.

‘If you only thought you were here to spectate poverty, would you have come?' Goat inquired. 'Before you came, did you not consider what might have motivated you to buy a plane ticket and a visa to a city half way around the world?'

‘Yes but I have all this privilege and—‘

‘But you already knew that. Why do you think it was important to you to choose Kolkata, above other places, to do service?’ Goat asked, locking my gaze.

I paused for a moment, keeping eye contact.

‘Goat, why are you the only one that talks to me? Why don’t other goats talk?’ I asked, not knowing what else to say.

Goat burped and said nothing, then finally turned back to the pile of rubbish. I chuckled, and turned back to the hostel for lunch.


It was the last day in Kolkata, and I made my way quickly toward the storefront where Goat sat.

‘Goat,’ I said, approaching the shop front briskly, ‘Goat, I think I know why I flew halfway around the world.’

Goat sat down, preparing to listen.

‘I think I’ve struggled most with the element of ego; there’s something narcissistic in thinking that one would be able to make positive change anywhere, especially a 14-hour plane ride away.

I pause, Goat nods.

‘But there’s also something valuable in the human exchange that necessarily becomes a part of service. Since I've been here, people have shared with me tremendously, shown me the places they've lived and struggled. At the same time, I've done my best to reciprocate. I've tried to listen, remember, and value these stories for what they are, not what I’d like them to be. How can I pity the successful student and full time worker who happens to live in a plywood home on the sidewalk? I see that she experiences hardship, I know that her life is in danger, but pity does no justice to explain neither her strength nor the beautiful smile she wears as she shows you her home. Corporate theft, unjust economies, and social systems of oppression are real, but in opposing these destructive institutions we should not forget to be human with other humans.’

I stopped talking, and Goat did nothing but nod his head in a tilt to the side. I smiled back.

‘It’d be wise not to miss breakfast today. It’s gonna be a hot one.’

‘Thanks, Goat.’

‘Any time human.’

‘This might be the last time, actually. I leave tomorrow.’

‘In any case; til next time. Best of luck, human.’ And Goat turned back to the pile of rubbish.

‘Goodbye Goat,’ I said, and turned to come back from whence I came.

-Ben Rosbrook, 2015

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