Recollections of Calcutta

Tomorrow I will be showing a film by Louis Malle on Calcutta. It was shot in 1969, and I wasn’t in Calcutta until 24 years later, in 1991. But judging from the film and my own experience nothing much had changed. While watching the film it brought back many memories of the time I had spent there, which I have written up and publish here.


In 1991 I went to Calcutta to do voluntary work with Mother Teresa and her sisters. I had worked with the Sisters at their house in Kandy, Sri Lanka, for a few months and so I already had some experience and knew something about what the work involved.

I had got involved with this work because in 1989 I had looked after my Mother while she slowly, slowly died of cancer. Although this was, of course, very harrowing, I had seen some remarkable changes and growth in my Mother during that time.

I also felt I had come to understand something important about dying: that if you show no fear around a dying person, they can also lose their fear. This helps enormously with the necessary letting-go which comes with dying.

When going I had intended to work at the Home for the Dying in Kalighat, though I knew Mother Teresa had around 20 other houses in the city at that time, and I was determined to go wherever they needed me.

After arriving I sorted out my lodging in a hotel not far from where most of the volunteers were staying at the Salvation Army Hostel on Sudder Street. I think for most of the time I was there, there was hardly ever a Westerner staying in the hotel that I stayed in, though I never worked out why.

The next morning I found directions and walked a couple of kilometres to the Mother House on the Lower Circular Road, which was the main residence in the city, and indeed the place where Mother Teresa herself lived at that time.

Mother-Teresa

I only saw Mother herself twice while I was in Calcutta: this first day when I attended mass, and four months later on virtually my last day, when there was a big celebration for her after completing 60 years as a nun. [1]

I was assigned to help at Prem Dam (Love Home), which is supposed to be the orphanage, although at that time it was much more than that. Owing to the nature of the demand, and the limited resources, it also functioned as a home for the sick, many of whom were terminally ill. So it was in fact like a mini-Kalighat, but with kids thrown in.

For reasons best known to the Sisters I was very soon assigned to the worse case patients, those who were in very great pain and/or dying. To be honest the Sisters were worked off their feet and had more to care for than they could really hope to manage, and the patients I worked with demanded more attention than the Sisters could give them.

My first job in the morning was to see to a paralysed boy who invariably had fouled his bed overnight, and was still lying in it hours later. It was not the most pleasant job just after breakfast, but it had to be done. It was a matter of carrying him to the bathroom, bathing him, changing his clothes and the bed-sheets and getting him back into bed.

He was around his late teens, we didn’t know how old, somebody must have been looking after him for most of his life, but one night he had been abandoned in one of the railway stations. He wasn’t able to talk, only make a kind of whistling noise, so we weren’t able to ask him anything about his background either.

The next thing was to feed him, and this was the real agony, because somebody must have known what he could eat, but we didn’t. We tried everything, but he was not able to take anything except liquids, and someone can only survive on liquids only for a limited time.

After a few months in which he was still hanging on, there was an outbreak of malaria on the ward. I kept going in until I caught it also – the first of three times I had the disease, though the second time was probably a relapse from this occasion.

Once I was down with malaria, of course, it was not possible to go to work for a while. I did start going again about a week later, which was really far too early, but I was concerned about the patients, so I went. In the meantime the boy had died. No one knew his name or religion and there was no one to claim his body to bury it so we gave him a name and religion and he was buried as a Muslim. [2] He was assigned a name, given a religion, and he was buried as a Muslim.

* * *

A number of other patients I worked with during that time also died. One I remember was called Mani. He spoke fairly good English and we became quite good friends over the time I knew him. He had been an armed communist fighter in Bengal during the 60s and 70s and had played his role in producing the first elected communist Government in the world, but when the fighting stopped he had drifted to the city presumably in search of work.

The Government had reputedly been quite successful in raising the lot of the peasant in the countryside, and was still quite popular, but in the city it was something close to a disaster area, and they were only able to supply electricity to the city on two days out of three – living in a concrete jungle in the tropics with no electricity cannot be recommended: besides the unbearable heat, there were mosquitoes everywhere.

Mani was rotting away when I started at the house, and much of his body was covered with open sores. I never found out what was causing this, but I saw it once or twice again later – people whose bodies have stopped rejuvenating and are rotting away, while their minds still cling to their dying bodies.

While working with the Sisters I was also trying to keep up a meditation practice, so I was working in the Home in the morning, and spending the afternoons in meditation. One of my most vivid recollections from Calcutta is seeing the faces of people in pain screaming in my mind during my meditation sessions, and Mani’s is the face that I remember well even to this day.

Medicines at Prem Dan were very basic because, although the medicine cabinets were full we simply didn’t know what they were, they had been donated from Japan or Korea or other countries whose language we could not read. So the treatment we offered was not what it could have been.

It was my job to clean his wounds every day and put on new dressings. At its height, as things slowly deteriorated, that was taking more than two hours of my time – there was so much flesh exposed. The only medicine I had was iodine, which will keep wounds sterilised. If you have ever put iodine on a small cut you might realise how painful it is, so you can imagine what it was like on large open wounds.

One day Mani’s sister came to see him. This was a big surprise, as normally even if a patient has relitaves they don’t come, because if the Sisters find out that there are families they have to give the person into their charge. It’s a double-bind situation that comes with the policy of treating only the poorest of the poor. [3]

It was good to see them together, and I felt so happy for him that day. I didn’t know before that he had a sister, he had never mentioned her. It was an odd meeting: she sat on the bed and they looked at each other. I hardly saw them exchange words at all. It was very curious. She stayed for an hour or so and then got up and left. The next day he died.

* * *

As I was going to work one morning I noticed that the inhabitants of the shanty town near the last bridge before Prem Dan was hectic with activity: people were piling rocks and other heavy objects on the roofs of their homes. I wondered why? That was in the days when I was not reading newspapers or listening to the radio, or indeed getting any source of news.

So I asked one of the other volunteers: it turned out a cyclone was heading for Calcutta. That was not expected, and I had no idea whether I should be worried or not. The person who told me didn’t seem to be. But I enquired with a few others and a number were getting ready to leave the city.

As it happened the cyclone changed course at the last moment and hit Bangladesh instead (see this Wikipedia page for details). Officially 138,000 people died, and 10,000,000 were made homeless. At least one million crossed the border and entered Calcutta. No homes, no work, nowhere to sleep. But I have wondered many times what might have happened if such a destructive typhoon had of hit Calcutta, we would have been facing millions dead, and even more displaced.

* * *

During my last week in Calcutta the national elections began. I knew this it because I could hear gunfire every day as the people went to the polling booths: many of the booths were taken over by armed thugs who made sure you voted the right way. Opposition thugs would then come and try to capture the booths.

I got up one morning and went to my usual cafe for breakfast, but it was half-closed. Then I noticed that most of the other shops were totally closed. There was also hardly anyone on the streets and if you’ve ever been to Calcutta you will understand how odd that looks.

Rajiv Gandhi

I still didn’t really understand what was going on. I ducked under the half-opened shutter, sat down and ordered my usual fare. There were some others inside and one was holding up a newspaper which allowed me to see the front page. There was a big photograph of Rajiv Gandhi on it.

I immediately knew something must have happened, and it took only a few short enquiries to find out he had just been assassinated in Madras. There are many Tamils in Calcutta and the expectation was that they would be attacked and their homes sacked. Beyond that no one really knew what might happen.

For the next couple of days the streets were like empty dust-bowls, and it looked like a scene from the Wild West. The tension in the air was palpable, as if something was about to explode. Fortunately, it never did, and slowly things returned to normal, at least to what is considered normal in Calcutta.

* * *

The chaos and confusion of Calcutta is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life – the documentary I am showing tomorrow will give you an idea what it is like – but Prem Dan, where people were living and dying every day, sometimes in terribly distressing circumstances, always seemed like an oasis of sanity in the midst of it all.

Things there were by no means easy, but people truly cared for each other as best they could. That best was often inadequate in a material sense, but never in a spiritual sense, and if there is one thing I learned from the experience it is this: in this world living and dying are hard enough, but living and dying without love is unbearable for most people. The Sisters at least managed to bring something of the latter into the lives of the people they worked with and that is really the grace they brought to their work.

 




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Notes:

  1. As I remember in between those times she had gone to open the first of the Sisters’ homes in Albania, Iraq and China.
  2. Various religious groups volunteer to bury those who have died in the Sisters’ houses.
  3. Many times it is overlooked by the Sisters, who know the families cannot care for them, but it was official policy, and the families were wary of being burdened once more with relatives they couldn’t support.

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