Shishu Bhavan Calcutta / Kolkata
Malcolm Muggeridge’s book about Mother Teresa, Something Beautiful for God, inspired the first of my two visits to Calcutta, and I booked a flight to Delhi because it was a cheaper option than flying direct.
I don’t know what I was expecting (or even thinking), but I chose not to take out travel insurance before I left England, which I self-righteously believed was a cop-out: I mean, the poor of Calcutta didn’t have insurance, did they?
A travel novitiate, I hadn’t long been on Indian tarmac before I had grave doubts about my gesture of solidarity with Calcutta’s poor. This was in the days before Delhi’s modern airport terminal and the battered hangar from which we picked up our bags did much to convince me I’d been idiotic – the ‘sensorium barrage’ I met in the street confirmed it.
I spent the first two days of my stay shuttling back and forth between a dismal, mosquito-ridden room and the airline office, trying to arrange a flight back home. Fortunately for me, Syrian-Arab airlines (!) shipped most people out to India without confirming their seat on a return flight, so the mayhem in their New Delhi office barred me from a swift and cowardly exit. Instead, I ditched my Calcutta plans, tagged along with a newly graduated teacher from Brighton and headed to Nepal with my tail between my legs.
Whilst in Kathmandu, I learned that the Missionaries of Charity had Sisters at Posthupani Temple on the outskirts of the city. Apparently, many Hindus went (or were taken) to this holy place to die, so as to escape the cycle of rebirth, but a natural death rarely works to a convenient timetable and many people weren’t so much dying as rotting away: hence the appearance of Mother Teresa’s Sisters to tend to the near-corpses.
I had no idea what I was going to do when I got to the temple – perhaps I saw it as part-fulfilment of my original purpose – but the famous Kathmandu apple pie and cosy chit-chats with Peace Corps workers were not the reasons I’d left England.
As per my usual wardrobe, I arrived at Posthupani with a camera slung over my shoulder and for lack of anyone to ask, I walked into a courtyard fringed by alcoves.
For a few minutes the silence told me I was alone. But I slowly became aware of life within the recesses, for peering at me from the darkness were those people awaiting death.
A special strain of humiliation is set aside for folk who employ a camera, particularly if they’ve retained sufficient humanity to know when they should’ve turned the bloody thing off.
Rooted to the spot in my designer sandals, I knew I had nothing worthy to offer these people and shooting pictures was no longer an option. I lowered my eyes and left, though the episode did jolt me out of my tourist sleepwalk and within days I arrived in Calcutta.
My two visits to Calcutta and the Missionaries of Charity homes were a good few years apart. But as I’ve drawn elements and scenery from each visit, and mixed them up to form a fictional palette from which to colour relevant pages of a novel, it is now difficult for me to separate the various strands of memory.
What I do remember about Mother Teresa’s Kalighat Home for Dying Destitutes is that it was an intimidating place, particularly for those of us with no prior experience of things medical. I went back a few times and tried to be useful, but I was made to feel evermore out of my depth by the diligence of other helpers, many of whom were nurses on a busman’s holiday from places like Ireland, Holland, the USA and Australia.
Not long before my first visit to Calcutta, the British journalist Jean Rook had done a whistle-stop tour of India and her Indian dispatches suggested she was hoping to meet Mother in the Oberoi Grand Hotel. As the story was related to me by a volunteer, Jean Rook turned up at one of the homes for destitutes a little overdressed.
‘How can you touch them?‘, she apparently asked the volunteer in attendance.
‘It’s easy’, replied the irked girl, and she made a show of stroking the hand of the dying person in their midst.
Jean Rook’s reaction was predictable and I doubt even a crashing light on the Damascus Road would’ve changed her heart, though the riposte from one of the more useful volunteers contained a forgivable hint of pride.
I recall being at the Middleton Row clinic with Doctor Jack Preger one day when he pointed to an elderly couple walking towards us. As Jack told it, they’d attained a low-level fame back home for cataloguing their exploits in Irish periodicals, which amounted to a bigging-up of their own good works and Mother’s Sisters were reduced to walk-on parts.
One of the flaws embedded within the Catholicism of the recent past, particularly that of my Irish grandparents, is the proud notion that Grace can be earned by one’s own efforts; in the words of a Bono lyric, ‘you can lend a hand, in return for grace’.
But Grace is not eternal currency, to be earned and banked like some meritorious, Crusading indulgence: this theology is more in step with swaggering Pharisee legalism than Christianity.
Rather, it is very Grace that enables a heart to humbly rise to the bottom of the human pile in the first place, which gives the Widow’s Mite a might greater than any other indulgent currency, dwarfs every billionaire ‘philanthropist’s’ vanity project and makes Saints of anonymous blind-siders.
TS Eliot here highlights the complexities:
It is recognised in Christian theology that freewill or the natural effort and ability of the individual man, and also supernatural grace, a gift accorded we know not quite how, are both required, in co-operation, for salvation.
And at the height of Mother’s worldly renown, Calcutta probably saw as many people drawn by her fame as to her contemplative flame, and some of us were ill equipped for the tasks that the Sister’s accomplish by the prayerful fruits of devotion. And if, in the words of Isaac the Syrian, Humility is God’s clothing, then the Sisters are some of the best dressed amongst us.
Andre Louf simplifies a necessary surrender thus:
…the role of an emptying… must take place before we can receive, and all the more confidently aspire to grace… a state where one finds oneself literally at ground level.
Whilst the do-gooder within me was sufficiently moved to be drawn to Calcutta, my heart was cluttered with enough worthless junk, along with a strain of youthful self-righteousness, to disable me from being at the Home for Dying Destitutes in spirit.
And so squeamishness, the lack of a true spiritual compass and the inability to tie a bandage meant I was good for little but making chai.
The Missionaries of Charity children’s home – Shishu Bhavan – was a different story. I already had experience teaching youngsters (more so on my second visit) and children have a habit of overcoming people’s inability to put themself last. I recall with some embarrassment that, at the end of my first stint as a volunteer at Shishu Bhavan, I got so attached to one of the children that I went to see Sister in charge to ask about adoption.
‘Are you married?‘, enquired Sister, with the stern look often adopted by Mother’s Sisters-in-charge, but which can be a protective veil cloaking the Contemplative’s windows of the soul.
‘No’, replied I, ‘but my parents are!’
I’d got it into my head that I would be arriving home to greet ma and pa, with a backpack over one arm and a child under the other (I’m sure they would’ve been thrilled – ‘Hey Mum! Look what I’ve brought you back! ’).
I was naïve to the ways of the world back then, but in retrospect it does seem rather sweet. I suppose if I’d been more worldly, I would never have gone near Calcutta in the first place… certainly not without medical insurance and funds for a comfortable crash at the Fairlawn Hotel!
Anyhow, Sister was unperturbed by my request and she let me down gently: from the way she almost smiled I gauged that mine wasn’t the first heart to become attached.
Tolstoy wrote a tale in which two friends set out together on a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On the road, they come upon a village of folk stricken by disease. One of the friends chooses to stay and tend the sick whereas the other opts to venture on alone. However, when the lone traveller finally reaches the Holy City, he realises that the friend he left behind was in the true Jerusalem – the Citadel of the Heart – all along.
Similarly, the essence burning so brightly in Saint Mother Teresa’s Calcutta is – at it’s best – at it’s highest – a state of heart, that, as Mother often pointed out, can be achieved by any one of us in any place at any time, using ways and means made forever available, but only to humble hearts who know the source of true power, and who have courage enough to open from within.
One of the most memorable aspects of my Calcutta adventures were the masses at Mother House. If Mother Teresa was in town, she’d take her place against the back wall, just inside the first entrance to the chapel, and on Sundays would make herself available after mass, but I reckon this merits a short piece of its own.