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. ❤

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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.

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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.

36 hours in kolkata

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Let me first clarify that this is not a mandatory schedule, or a list of top not-to-miss attractions. It is instead how I spent my 36 hours in the city of joy—as a traveller, art enthusiast, and a volunteer, and ended up falling in love with it, despite the lousy weather, crowds, and advertised poverty.

It is an attempt to see the city with very personal eyes.

Kolkata aka Calcutta is not a world city. I would not even call it an Indian city. It is Bengali where the faces are round and everyone and all road signs converse in the native tongue, under a colonial mantle.

The mix, I would like to believe, is unique to it. On one side Kolkata is deeply indigenous when it comes to deities and festivals, and the arts and music. On the other, it nonchalantly wears its monumental British legacy with ease and a stiff upper lip. Somewhere in between, the city has become synonymous with charity.

36 hours is not really enough to absorb all that it holds in its folds. But it sufficed as an engaging enough introduction for me, and maybe does for you as well. 🙂 Continue reading

indian sculpture’s 1,500 year journey at the indian museum, kolkata

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A nondescript placard on the wall reads: “Buddhist Stupa, 2nd Century BC, Bharhut, Madhya Pradesh.”

I turn around and almost knock into a magnificent red sandstone 9-feet high railing and 23-feet high gateway, teetering in awe at its grandeur and proximity. It is covered profusely with intricate imagery of secular life and Buddhist teachings in 2nd Century BC India. Short inscribed labels in Brahmi script record the names of donors.

The monumental piece is nothing short of breathtaking. Much like everything else in the archaeology gallery of India’s oldest and largest museum, the Indian Museum located just around the corner of Park Street, Kolkata, and built in 1878 by the then British Raj.

Arranged in chronological rather than thematic order, the gallery showcases 1,500 years of India’s sculpture art, from which emanate its various schools and inter-linkages, in a seamless story.

Piqued? Come join me on a virtual tour of this collection under whirring fans, encased in a hot humid corridor in a Doric columned colonial edifice. 🙂 Continue reading