India 2004 

Just another day in Kolkotta...

“Though just a drop in an ocean of need, the ocean would be less because of that missing drop” Mother Teresa of Kolkotta.


Rudely awoken by the “tut, tut, tutt, toooo” sounded from the multitude of yellow Ambassador taxis which parade this slum city with a certain pride and in which the driver sits honking at his horn at approximately 20 times a minute, I turn around in my bed trying to find a position which blocks out the noise from my ears. Sadly I turn to the wrong half of my bed which was is and will remain broken! It creaks loudly in response, and I am jolted into consciousness.


After dressing, I make my way to the shared faculties, but the stink from the poor victims who have spent most of last night in them coming to terms with their guts prevents me from entering. After all today, I feel less nauseated than previous days and for that I thank God. As the other volunteers assemble in the lobby of our pale green painted guest house, one of us takes note of the rest of the group ill in bed. Normally that accounts to a third of us.


 Stepping out onto the grey streets we are greeted by the pouring monsoon rain.  By the time we have got to the corner of the road from were we usually hire an auto rickshaw, (a three wheeler, the cheaper form of taxi service found in India.), we are drenched to the bone. The taxi man seeing us in such a pitiful state rises to the occasion to take advantage of our weak position and ups the fare. Having no option we squeeze like sardines in the back of the vehicle and drive off, to the sound of ear deafening Indian pop music, which usually involves a woman screeching at the highest possible pitched voice. The drive is a roller coaster ride, breath stopping for the frail hearted, involving swerving around buses, trams, cows, passing in between groups of people but straight into the numerous puddles, soaking us while adding spice to the value of the ride.

Stopped half a kilometer from our place of work we make our way through the surrounding garbage village. On an ordinary day we would be greeted by hoards of street children crying out to us “hello chocolate, hello money!” But today was different the children we rejoicing and jumping around in the street water, accompanied by their mothers who were washing the family’s clothes in the stream created at the side of the road.


 We enter Prem Dan (give love), one of the largest houses run by the Mother Teresa Sisters, which offers shelter to over 400 people who were picked off the streets. Half of whom were homeless, chronically debilitated, physically or mentally disabled, the other half were actually unwell. Most of whom  malnourished seeking refuge and a substantiating meal for a couple of days before getting on with their busy lives, meaning in hope of one day successfully sustaining their families, which in Kolkota proves to be extremely hard considering the amount of over population. There are over 22 million inhabitants thus equal division of the area would leave six by three feet for every individual. At the gate the volunteers are greeted by the Sister in Charge. She is a well built African Sister, with a broad smile, a positive outlook to life but always with a sarcastic comment. “Good morning, you are late! (And yes it’s true I was always late.) Thought you were not coming today! Come on there are many new patients you have to see, some weak ones admitted with chest infections and those two patients I took x-rays for yesterday are waiting for their plaster.”


Walking into the ward I was always impressed by the chorus of welcome that would be bestowed upon us every morning by these great people. Most of the morning was spent in the clinic examining and dressing all forms, shapes and sizes of infected wounds. What struck me the most was that these frail men, who suffered from life threatening diseases, would not complain about their ailments. Instead they seemed more interested in how I was feeling that day and constently passed comments wishing us volunteers good health.


As I finished examining the seriously ill cases that morning and was walking out of the ward to get a tea break and a substantial supply of biscuits, I am called over by one of the novice Sisters who asked me to review a patient just brought into the home. On the way she told me that it was Mother’s Teresa’s death anniversary and that this morning she had prayed so that all poor people alone on the streets would be brought to the Sister’s Houses, she said this was God’s way of listening to her prayer. In the corner of the sluice room I glimpsed the frame of a frail eighty year old man, blind from both eyes and a dirty bandage covering his hand. On removal of the cloth  I was groasly greeted by a wet gangrenous wound with numerous shiny white maggots falling out of it. The debridement took me the rest of the morning, but left me a lot of food for thought.




For lunch the group of volunteers would meet up to get our staple ration of obligatory stomach burning spicy curry and rice, before rushing off for our next shift of work at the dispensary run by the Missionaries of Charity at Sealdah station. This serves as the main train station in Kolkota but also as the home of thousands who arrive in Kolkotta penniless with the dream of a future. This soon fades away when they are left jobless and so without food or shelter or a loving hand.


The afternoon shift this day was no different to the usual. In the small three roomed shack we saw to queues of people’s needs, ranging from education regarding basic hygiene, feeding the undernourished and following up the medical patients.


As the little sunlight which manages to penetrate the smog filled atmosphere started to fade and the kites flown from the hands of the children started to colour the sky, replacing the non visible stars, I started packing my bags and prepare for my daily relaxing run through the intoxicating lead fumed city. My Spanish friend who was having a cigarette break outside called me to carry in a man who needed help. As I carried this 40kg bag of bones one would call a man, I noticed he was the most wretched being I had ever seen. He was running a high fever and reeked of all imaginable types of organic decomposition. He was so dirty his hand left a black mark around my neck were it held. He had an amputated leg and the other was grossly infected too. He also had skin signs of leprosy. In view of his poor condition we  caught a taxi transferring him to the home named Prem Dan. Just when I thought the day of work could be over Kolkotta assured what the Sisters and the volunteers were doing was only the tip of the iceberg.


The day after, he was transferred to Tittigar, the leprosy centre run by the Missionaries of Charity, Brothers. This is situated in a village run by people who were treated for leprosy; they sew the saris, clothes for the patients, table cloths, and bed sheets for the Missionary of Charity houses all over the world. This place was founded by Mother Teresa in 1953. She  would leave the city centre to tend to the socially rejected people suffers from leprosy, to think that all this started from one woman with her first aid bag working under the shade of a tree.



Two weeks to date, I remained awed by the improvement in the physical condition, but most especially by the hasty recovery of the wound in the hand of the old man cleaned a fortnight ago. What I will never forget is the smile he would welcome the volunteers every morning. Word from Tittigar was that the man picked up from Seladah train station was receiving treatment for leprosy and was making a steady recovery. When well he would be offered a job there. I was also informed that he was were grateful to the brothers and reciprocated by helping those around him in the ward.



Mother Teresa once said “nobody in the Home for the Dying has died depressed, in despair, unwanted, unfed or unloved, that is why I think this is a treasure house in Calcutta. We keep helping them become a better person, according to the book, be it Hindu, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or Catholic, or Protestant or of any other Society”. Referring to the poor in Europe she added,”Homelessness is not only of bricks but comes from the terrible loneliness that the unwanted, the unloved, know along their way. Are we there? Do we know them? Do we see them?”