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.

travel diaries: the true blue heroes of dharamshala

Meet Sunny from Chamba [left] and Rahul from Dharamshala [right]. Sunny is 23 and Rahul is just 18. They both work in a gift shop in McLeod Ganj.

Real heroes don’t wear shining armour. Neither do they strut across cinema or sport or on social media to the thundering applause of likes. Instead, real heroes live amongst us in our everyday lives, usually in anonymity. I met my two real, true blue heroes last week. 🙂

It all started with a mention of Dip Tse Chok Ling monastery whilst reading up about Dharamshala. The idea of a secluded monastery, perched half-way up the Dhauladhar range, wrapped in green forest was appealing. An alley, followed with a few hundred steps deep into the bowels of the valley, led me to it. On the way down, unfortunately, my hiking boots, perhaps at the end of their tether, gave way, and I had to pack my shoe’s sole in my camera bag. Continue reading

would you give away 50% of your wealth to charity whilst alive or in your will?

I just did. That is, I pledged aloud to give away 50% and more of my savings to philanthropy. And no, I am no billionaire. I am just an ordinary, working woman. This pledge is my birthday gift to myself. It is my birthday today. 🙂

It was not a spur of the moment decision. The idea to give away my hard-earned money was made subconsciously many years ago. The fact is, life has been pretty kind to me. I make way more than I need and so I figured I owed it to life to be kind in return. To pass on the blessings. What better way could there be than to pass on what I have received. But it felt nicer to acknowledge it publicly. Like I was setting myself free.

What made it doubly right was that I was not alone in my decision. I was joined by a score of others, all professionals like myself, guided by a desire to give back. Many more are giving it a serious thought as I pen this article—fighting both inner and outer battles. After all, it goes against the very grain of our social fabric to give away half of what we own.

The promisers so far:

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Continue reading

blogging workshops with me: evolve your blogging skills

Four years ago I was forced to re-evaluate my life. My father was in hospital and I ended up spending a lot of time waiting—waiting for visiting hours, counselling meetings with the doctors, test results. Times like these force one to look within and ask questions.

A seemingly simple enough question asked of me by my sister, over a coffee in the hospital cafeteria, triggered it further: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I did not have an answer. And that scared me. Like shit. It made me realize how disconnected I had become with my own self.

On the surface I had a fancy job in a fancy office. I worked from 9 to 9. But I had become so engrossed in the minutiae of deadlines and meetings, wrapped in the trees I had stopped looking at the forest aka myself and my journey.

A series of soul-searching questions later, I left my job, moved to Bombay and set up The Communique. I just knew I had to live out my purpose.

Purpose is a funny thing, wouldn’t you agree? Once we find it, it is hard to let go of it. I was lucky I discovered it—yes, it was in the same hospital. My dad was discharged, declared weak but on the road to recovery. And I walked by his side, with clarity in each footstep.

Those of you who have been following my blog for a while would have surmised I love blogging. It is a deep seated love which goes back 19 years. Building capacity in communication is the purpose which brought me to Bombay in 2014. A commitment to share my learnings in communication acquired over two decades of experience and study. Rather disparate, you will agree. Blogging and capacity building in communication. And for quite a while I accepted them as separate facets of myself where the twain were unlikely to meet.

Till three months ago. Continue reading

about me: in a bit more detail

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Compliments of the New Year! 🙂

It is already the 7th of January, and it seems just yesterday that I was contemplating the closure of yet another year and what all it had meant for me even as it paved the way for a sequel. There was a sense of déjà vu in the air.

Except for one thing—a chunk of my holidays was taken up in finalizing my personal site. Tweaking it and polishing it to ensure it was perfect, for me at least. You could call the site my fancy online business card, for a better word. But why a personal site, you may ask? Is a blog not enough? Continue reading

i am a registered organ and tissue donor. are you?

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Every year, in India alone, 250,000 people need a kidney transplant, 80,000 a liver transplant, 50,000 a heart transplant, and 100,000 a cornea transplant. These statistics keep growing as a result of the increasing number of organ failures that are rampant in the human life cycle. Please note these are only estimates, based on known requests, since there is no organised data available in India.

So you reckon that you’ll register yourself as an organ donor, and even if some of us do, the numbers can be met. After all in a 1.336 billion strong nation, it is not impossible. Wrong. Continue reading