Eating Beside A Dead Animal

Mar 28, 2014 by

“India will repel you – and then draw you in. At which stage are you?” This question was presented to me in an email a couple days ago by my very dear friend Kathy. Being the Brit that she is, Kathy has some interesting ties to India; her mother came from a French colony, and her father’s family came to India sometime around 1830.  Kathy was “sent off at the age of four to boarding school from February to December in the south… up in the coffee and tea hills south of Madras.” As she says, “it reads like a history book!”

Over the past few weeks, I have observed the cycle of emotions that India shoves on a person. Just as the tide comes in and goes out, so do the feelings of repulsion and attraction. Today I had one such day of repulsion.

The story begins yesterday. The little office at the school in Khar can comfortably hold 2, maybe 3 people, in my spacious Canadian opinion. On any given day (as today), there can be upwards of 10 people in the room. There is one (broken) chair. Everyone else sits on the floor or wooden boxes. We fit into the space like ill-fitting puzzle pieces. This is the room where the nurses who share my little volunteer apartment have been doing their assessments. Yesterday, amid the shelves that bow from too many books and the stacks of papers and health charts, one of the nurses noticed a smell. The room was promptly emptied, shelves were scoured, and the investigation did not stop until the source of the odour was located: a dead rat covered in maggots.



The Room.


This was on the same day that a wedding procession made its way loudly down the street in front of the school. I have grown used to hearing drums sporadically while I work away at class plans and writing exams, but when the music didn’t stop and the noise didn’t let up, India insisted that I be pulled from my work and drawn to the street. There were horns and drums and trumpets and people people people. The bride was beautifully adorned in bright colours and brilliant gold jewellery, protected from the sun under a theatrical parasol.



Wedding Party.


This morning, when I arrived at the school, there was a funny smell in the main room, the room where I took the photo featured in this post. It is the room where all the kids eat, where all of my personal teaching materials are stored and where I often eat too. It wasn’t the first time I’d smelled something off in that room. There was one time that I thought someone had vomited, and the product of said vomit was baking in the heat, but it turned out to only be garbage day. By the end of the day, the odour had dissipated. Today, the smell was somewhat like garbage. I tried to think nothing of it and work through my revulsion. Not long after our arrival someone asked, “Is there another dead rat?”

I hadn’t been in the room when they found the rat the day before. “Is this the smell of a dead rat?” I asked.

“It is.”

Whenever I opened my cubby hole to retrieve my books and pencils, a puff of vile air came my way. I put my diaper breathing skills into full effect (short inhalations through the mouth). There were various attempts made to find and dispose of the odour producing culprit with no success.



Then lunchtime arrived.

For one reason or another, our class schedules have gone out the window. After Holi, there was a huge drop in attendance, something we dubbed the Holi Aftermath. Since then, we have been preparing our students for exams, still with patchy attendance, and all of the holidays coming up in April haven’t helped the unpredictability of my day. Matters don’t improve when I don’t even get the memo that my last class has been cancelled, and all the kids run off to play. The last few days, I have been working through lunch, which I didn’t do at the beginning of my stay here. Thus, we finish school earlier, and I just eat a little later. That’s fine, but today I was served during lunchtime, and my food sat in the the office for an hour getting cold. By then, I almost didn’t want to eat it. Cold rice and sauce that I would have to spoon up with my bare hand? Not exactly appetizing. When I was ready to eat, I went to wash my hands, and the soap had a long, black hair coiled up on it. As I tried not to gag while pulling the hair off of the soap, I had an internal debate with myself about which was worse: the smell of the maggot-covered rat or the hair on the soap. The jury is still out. I went to find a place to eat in the room where the children eat, the same room where the current dead rat is residing. All the boxes had been stacked up and placed out of reach for my clean hands to grab, so I hoisted one up with my foot, lowered it to the ground and hoofed it across the room, as far from the dead rat smell as I could get. So I sat there, spooning up portions of cold rice and sauce with my right hand, trying not to think about the hair on the soap or the dead rat that was in the room with me.

India, I have been repulsed.



Lunch. Every Day.


As I ate my food today, I heard a sniffling noise behind me, almost like someone was laughing. I turned around to see one of the fathers of the school crying. Big, fat tears rolled down his cheeks. He was inconsolable. I didn’t understand why he was crying, as it all happened in Hindi. Some of the teachers tried to console him, and a couple of the kids stopped to watch him cry. I turned away and gave him what privacy I could. When he left, I asked one of the staff what had happened. I was told that his father had died this morning, and he didn’t have the money to afford to go to the village. The heart breaker is the fact that his father had called him yesterday, asking him to come visit, which of course he couldn’t do because he didn’t have the money. Today, he was loaned the money so he could make the trip home.

Shortly after that, I went into the office to set up a work station for myself on the floor, only to find one of my (favourite) students in tears. It is no mystery or secret that her family is torn. Her mother left them (4 children and a husband) some ten days ago and works at the school. While she is at home, the father drinks. When she is not home, the children are happy, and the father takes care of them. Again, I don’t know what transpired today to bring her to tears. She is a brilliant and strong girl with a warm personality and a definite sense of humour. Occasionally, her father makes appearances at the school or at the park where we play on Saturdays. He came to the school today, and the interaction between mother and father was a brief bout of fighting. I don’t know what was said, but perhaps the words exchanged were as vile as the smell of dead rat in the room. I can only assume the drama had weighed enough on my student that her only recourse was to cry. When I saw her, she seemed reluctant to share this emotion, strong girl that she is, so I pretended not to notice. I was glad she was getting hugs from Tania; had she not been, I would have grabbed her and squeezed her until the tears stopped and her smile returned.

Later, while all the teachers and nurses were settled awkwardly into the office to pore over exams for the upcoming month, my lack of personal space, the thought of that gross black hair on the soap, the dead rat and maggots (both found and unfound), and the turmoil in the lives of my students and their families got to me. When someone brushed up against me to get some water out of the filtered water jug, I almost screamed. Instead I turtled and tucked my head into my knees and took a few deep breaths.

By the end of the day today, we still hadn’t found the rat, and the smell had permeated the entire room, even going so far as to follow me out of the school and a few steps down the back alley.

I know tomorrow can (and probably will) bring an entirely new repertoire of experiences, that once again, I may be lured from my place of work to be absorbed into something as magnificent as a wedding. I just don’t want to know what that dead rat is going to smell like in a day.


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  1. Oh man, I feel ya. I drive past the dump daily to work, and we play the “is that smell a dead body in the dump” almost daily. We’re right about 40% of the time, unfortunately. I can also differentiate the smell of dead dog and dead chicken on the side of the road now (wait, I better go add that to my resume). Also, for future reference, if this smell ever happens in Canada it’s probably a bag of potatoes you forgot about in the back of the cupboard that rotted and liquefied and will explode in a mess when you try to take them out of said cupboard and then your whole house smells like a dead body for weeks and your condo association sends the police over because they think you’re hiding a dead body. Not that it ever happened to me 🙂

    • Colleen

      OH MY GOD. I actually did that last summer with a bag of potatoes that I forgot at my place in Waterloo. That was some nasty shit to have to clean up when I got back 4 months later. Who knew potatoes could become so… liquidy!

  2. Zhu

    Wow, this is tough. Everything, the situations you are facing, the environment. It seems to be a constant “ying/yang” world, joy and despair, life and death, etc.

    • Colleen

      It really is. Every day is different, and all the emotions I experience are powerful. There is nothing fluffy about India.

  3. Not good. It’s definitely not going to smell good.

    • Colleen

      Ha! Thankfully I didn’t end up having to go to school on Saturday! I can live in bliss just a little bit longer.

  4. I totally get the gagging from many life experiences of my own, Colleen. I feel our senses get activated…in order…sight, smell then taste. I hope you find the source and are able to dispose of it asap! It’s got to be so difficult to invest so much of your heart into these beautiful children then to have them not show up for classes. Amazing post 🙂

    • Colleen

      How incredible is the sense of smell? My dad calls me a canary, so when I’m smelling stuff other people can’t smell, they think I’m crazy or just insane for being so bothered. But I’m just sensitive!

  5. I love reading about your experiences in India. It really reminds me a lot of the two months I spent volunteering in New Delhi. There were lots and lots of days when India repelled me. But of course there were many more that drew me in. India is such a unique place, and I really think it changed the way I travel and really view the world. I might have already said this, but we’re hoping to get back next year because my 18-year old sister will be volunteering there for a year. Your posts make me want to go even more. Though I do hope you (or someone else) finds that rat!

    • Colleen

      Hey Casey, that’s so cool that you volunteered in New Delhi. What was the organization, and what did you do? I’m glad my posts give you the urge to come back, that is great to hear! It is definitely a special place, and to experience it more than once will be wild. Hope you get to come, and have a safe and happy Holi with your man by your side! 😀

  6. Uncle Buck

    Hi Colleen,
    I know you’re probably trying to fit in with everything and the culture…but why not consider buying a gallon of liquid hand soap and a pump dispenser or just keep your own bar of soap at school.
    Eating with your right hand I understand as that is the way they do it…but I would still probably keep my own utensils handy at school…better to do that than get sick.
    Get a cat to come in the office to find the dead rat…
    I enjoy reading your updates!

    • Colleen

      You are probably right in that I should have my own soap and stuff, but at this stage, I have less than a month left of real work, so I’m happy to just stay the course. Oh, and there are so so so many cats here that I want to adopt. Ugh it’s so sad.

  7. I am just heartbroken for that man.

  8. Those sorts of days are so tough to come to terms with, but at the same time I love them, because that is life on the regular for so many people. We are truly so lucky to be Canadian, and I think it is so important for us to travel and have these types of experiences to give us perspective.

    I hope you have more days of attraction to India on the way. And I hope the other rat is found ASAP.

    • Colleen

      I completely agree… people who don’t travel really have no clue how lucky they are, especially to be from a great country like Canada.

  9. India is a country I really want to visit and I must at some point. I have been putting it off because I know how tough it can be, but at the same time I’m aware of how incredibly amazing it is too. Your experience and stories are so incredible and even if they reveal the not so “easy” side of being in India, also they encourage me to visit this country more and more.

    • Colleen

      It’s interesting… most travellers understand how tough visiting India can be, and it seems to me that this is one of the draws. It’s such a life experience. People talk of how it changes them and how they see the world. I think I won’t really know the true effects India will have on me until I am back home in my cushy life in Canada.

  10. Reading this post sent my emotions up and down like a yo-yo, never mind what it must be like experiencing it all first hand. The situation regarding the man is all too common in countries such as India, it’s so upsetting. You’re really talented at travel writing Colleen, you always tell a story.

    • Colleen

      Hey, thanks… I’m not sure I consider myself a travel writer, more of a story teller, so it’s nice to be able to marry the two on some level. More than anything I just want to write, and when I travel, the stories seem to find me!
      I like your description of this post as a yo-yo. That’s really what it feels like here some days, and that day particularly.

  11. Stay strong! I know it’s been a couple of days, but I want to send the love now.

    Also, I like the depth that the blog has takes when you’re staying in one place for a while. Especially when it comes to the connections with the people there.

    • Colleen

      Hi Kevin, thank you for reading and commenting! It’s true… the stories one experiences and the bonds one builds are just that much deeper when staying put for a while. Can’t wait for lake beers. x

  12. Wow Colleen, rough day! I hope you were able to relax later. Wow.


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