a pan-indian carrom board match: volunteering in mother teresa’s hospice

As India gears up for Daan Utsav, the national Joy of Giving Week festival held from 2 to 8 October, this year has a special significance for me. In my role as a volunteer with the festival’s Mumbai chapter, I organize various events of giving for the week. A handful of them are usually held at the housing complex I live in. And guess what, this year one of the events is centred around donating groceries and spending a morning at the Mother Teresa and Missionaries of Charity’s Home for the Destitute here in Mumbai!

If you wondering what’s so special about this, well, it is a reason for me to revisit some rather magical personal memories.

Some time ago I had spent an afternoon, just like the upcoming one on 5 October, volunteering at Mother Teresa’s hospice for the sick, destitute and dying in Kolkata. It was one of the most beautiful days of my life. A day I would like share with you today in my blog. 🙂

Do you volunteer at a shelter or hospice? What have your experiences been like? Do tell me in the comments section. Would love to know about them. ❤

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“Show me your pass. Monthly or weekly volunteer?” A grey, wrinkled guard looks at me quizzically as I stand at the door drenched in sweat, my backpack weighing down on my shoulder.

“I don’t have a pass. I am not a volunteer.”

“Then why are you here?” At this point I am convinced I am going to be turned away and the thought of going back into the sweltering heat is a miserable one.

I am at the Mother Teresa Kalighat Home for the Dying in Kolkata on a day long halt on my way to Bhutan.

I look at him half-pleading, half self-righteous: “I have come to visit.”

He points me to the door leading inside with a dismissive wave. That’s it? I feel I have just won an unnamed yet crucial battle. Grinning ear-to-ear with relief, I tiptoe past him and enter a huge hall with scores of low beds arranged in neat rows. It is empty save a couple of destitute too near to death to have the energy or will to rise. The rest are all in the dining area, taking a break.

Kalighat, the Home of the Pure Heart [Nirmal Hriday]—formerly known as Kalighat Home for the Dying—is a hospice for the sick, destitute, and the dying. It was founded by Mother Teresa on her 42nd birthday in 1952, two years after she established Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata, then Calcutta.

Sister Alix, a resident nun from Kerala, and an unfathomable concoction of cynicism and selflessness leads me in and promptly leaves me amidst around 50 male inmates and a handful of young non-English, non-Hindi speaking registered foreign volunteers washing dishes and cleaning wounds with quiet love. There are trauma patients, lepers, some without arms, some without legs, some paralysed or diseased, and one, once-upon-a-time maggot-infected good-looking young man, with his left eye now stitched together.

In no time I find myself in the grips of a pan-Indian carrom board match with the inmates. Since there is a certain degree of anonymity associated with the patients, we rename ourselves as city teams. Hence, there is Jabalpur versus Indore versus Bhubaneshwar versus Lucknow versus Mumbai, and so forth, all of us piled around the square board.

“Who won?” I ask, bewildered, every now and then.

“Who cares!” is the answer I get promptly.

A legless beggar from Gwalior tells me, his eyes misting over, “Bachpan yaad aa gaya [I am reminded of my childhood].” The others call out in jest, “Rondu [cry baby]” and he breaks into a bashful smile.

I don’t remember when I last laughed so much nor had such a super chilled out time. There were hoots of joy, loud guffaws, and little jigs danced every time a score was made, punctuated by intense focused strikes. The rules were all broken, each one of us playing so that we could win, and if the scattered disks did not allow for it, then so the next could win.

Gathered together in the heart of Mother Teresa’s City of Joy with her poorest of poor, I felt I was with a bunch of buddies. Not for a moment did I feel sorry for any one of them, and that is the honest truth. They did not see themselves as victims, and because they did not, I did not. That’s how simple the universe works.

A once upon a time vegetable seller on crutches, run over multiple times by passing vehicles as he slept on the footpath, shows me his battered legs. “What will you do once you are well again,” I ask him. “I want to work here. Wish me that it happens.”

After three rounds of the games, it is time to serve dinner and then clear the tables which I pitch in with. It is also now nearing 5:30 pm, when the hospice closes its doors to visitors. As I walk by the beds, wishing each of my newly-made friends goodbye, they call out, “Jaldi vaapas aana. [Come back soon.]”

My friend from Gwalior tells me warmly, as he shakes my hand, “Hum dobara milenge, mujhe maaloom hai. Main fort ke baahar baithta hoon. Hum dobara zaroor milenge. [We will meet again; I know we will. I sit outside the fort. We will surely meet again.]”

Nirmal Hriday is the first Missionaries of Charity home set up by Mother Teresa, and often referred to as her first love. Dedicated to take care of the most destitute in the city with medical and emotional care, inmates suffer from AIDS, leprosy, malnutrition, cancer or unidentified illnesses. Despite the name, an estimated 70 percent get well and go back home.

I give Sister Alix a huge bear hug on my way out. My way of saying thank you for the joys the afternoon had given me. I am not a Catholic. I am not even a Christian. For me the experience was just about being human. I also realise the number of regular Indians as volunteers in these homes is close to zilch.

She looks at me almost fondly in parting. “We have as a rule, volunteers for a period of a few months or a few days in the least. You are ‘our’ one-day volunteer.”

I turn around and look at the inmates one last time: some have fallen asleep; others are still waving at me. One final good bye, and I cross the threshold back into the 44 degrees Celsius heat, a part of me now with them, and a part of them now in me. ❤


Volunteering Tips
Nirmal Hriday is next to the Kalighat Temple, Kolkata.
Visiting Hours for the Homes: 9 am – 12 noon and 3 pm – 5.30 pm.
Volunteering period: Both long and short term; Minimum period is a week.
Orientation and Registration: 3 pm, Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Nirmala Shishu Bhavan (Home for Children), 78, AJC Bose Road, Kolkata–700016.

Bring your passport to show it to the Volunteers’ Coordinator at the Orientation.
Volunteers’ Coordinators are not available on Sundays and Thursdays.
Thursday is a day of prayer for the Sisters.

Photography is not allowed inside Nirmal Hriday.


Photo credits from top–Omar C. Garcia, Mark Makowiecki.

Note: The above post forms part of my blog’s Giving Back series which explores giving back initiatives in India.

zoroastrian khorezm: the ancient viloyat of uzbekistan


A journey to Samarkand is about medieval mythical cities and ancient forts going as far back as 500 years before Christ. First Zoroastrian, followed by Islamic, the sites still stand in all their glory today—many restored, others in ruins. But in spite of this, the journey is not just about geographies, edifices or time. It is to the grandeur within us. But that, I hope, will become clearer as my blog post series on Uzbekistan unfolds. 🙂

I started in Nukus. You may well ask why Nukus for it is not the usual starting point. Well, my answer is: It is the western most city, has the finest collection of historical and cultural artefacts at its State Art Museum Savitsky Collection thereby offering a splendid introduction to the country, and is the most low key in the circuit. Everything only gets more fantastical from here onwards.

Nukus also lies on the outskirts of Khorezm [or Khwarezm or Chorasmia (Persian)]—an oasis, the site of an ancient civilization by the same name, and now a province. Continue reading

the golden journey to samarkand


[I traveled to Uzbekistan for 11 days in September 2015. My below post first appeared as a travelogue in Hindustan Times, one of the largest newspapers in India, in both its print and online editions. The online edition can be read here. The post remains a personal favourite, and I wanted to share it with you. 🙂 ]

– – –

‘Ishani!’ I can feel scores of eyes bore into me. There is the blatant stare, the questioning glance, the shy surreptitious gaze. They are all invariably accompanied with the word ‘Ishani’ whispered in hushed tones. The wide-cheek-boned faces soon, thereafter, break into warm welcoming grins and I hear the magical word again, ‘Ishani’. Aah, I get it. It’s a greeting! Ishani to you too, my dear.

I have just arrived in Nukus, a remote, Russian-ised town in north-west Uzbekistan where I am to start my 11-day journey across a country I have dreamt about, bucket listed and hankered to visit since I read the poem The Golden Journey to Samarkand by James Elroy Flecker:

“We are the Pilgrims, master: we shall go
Always a little further …
White on a throne or guarded in a cave
There lives a prophet who can understand
Why men are born.”

Continue reading

photo essay: marrakech, stories told and untold

Marrakech is my last stop as I travel through Morocco.

What could be a better way as well, to end my Moroccan series, than a blog post on the city after which the whole country was once named.

From medieval times right until its independence, Morocco was known as the Kingdom of Marrakech. Till date, in both Persian and Urdu, the word for Morocco is Marrakech.

Whichever nickname you choose to refer to it by—Red City, the Ochre City, or the Daughter of the Desert—Marrakech brims with stories. But a little more than the usual. Some told and recounted again and again through guide books and travellers’ words. Some a little less obvious. Did you know, even the UNESCO-listed status for its vast medieval square, Djemaa el-Fna, is based on its oral traditions of story-telling. 😊

A tradition which goes back a thousand years. To 1070 AD to be exact. Continue reading

top 15 memorable things to do in fes, morocco’s cultural and spiritual capital


It was everything I’d imagined it to be, and more.

When travellers claim no journey to Morocco is truly complete without a halt in the Kingdom’s oldest imperial city, it is no hogwash.

Fiercely spiritual and traditional. A centre for learning with the world’s oldest university. Yet fearless when it comes to voicing contradictory ideas.

Here the arts and crafts thrive, unhindered and unadulterated, as they have for 1,200 years. At the peak of the Almohad empire in the 12th Century AD, Fes had 372 mills, 9,082 shops, 47 soap factories, and 188 pottery workshops. But Fes is also politically voracious.

Its nine thousand alleyways are notorious as a place guaranteed to get lost in. Even locals claim they stick to the lanes they are familiar with.

Enigmatic and mysterious, it has secrets it does not divulge to the casual feet and eye. Continue reading

the 5 untold cultural treasures of rabat, morocco’s medieval and modern capital city

I fell in love with Rabat at first sight.

Sophisticated, Mediterranean, with a world-class museum and gallery, Morocco’s capital city is a breath of fresh air in a country otherwise steeped in romantic orientalism. Whitewashed Art Deco buildings vie with an ultramarine blue sky for attention here. Street-side cafes serve delectable tagines and kebabs accompanied with steaming cups of cafe nous nous.

Faced with the exotic wonders of Morocco further ahead, not many travellers break their journey in Rabat. What does a capital city have to offer in comparison to the enigmatic imperial cities of Fez and Marrakesh, and the wild call of the Atlas Mountains and sweeping dunes of the Sahara Desert?

The answer is: A different kind of Moroccan experience. Continue reading