Mother Teresa, the Missionaries of Charity and Calcutta Remembered
Shishu Bhavan and Mother House in Calcutta / Kolkata
Like many others, it was Malcolm Muggeridge’s book about Mother Teresa, Something Beautiful for God, that inspired the first of my two visits to Calcutta, and I booked a flight to Delhi because it was a cheaper option than flying direct.
I don’t know what I was expecting (or even thinking), but I chose not to take out travel insurance before I left England, which I self-righteous believed was a cop out: I mean, the poor of Calcutta didn’t have insurance, did they?
A travel novitiate, I hadn’t long been on Indian tarmac before I had grave doubts about my gesture of solidarity with Calcutta’s poor. This was in the days before Delhi’s modern airport terminal and the battered hangar from which we picked up our bags did much to convince me I’d been idiotic – the ‘sensorium barrage’ I met in the street confirmed my desolation.
I spent the first two days of my stay shuttling back and forth between a dismal, mosquito-ridden room and the airline office, trying to arrange a flight back home. Fortunately for me, Syrian-Arab airlines (!) shipped most people out to India without confirming their seat on a return flight, so the mayhem in their New Delhi office barred me from a swift and cowardly exit. Instead, I tagged along with a newly graduated teacher from Brighton and was soon in Nepal with my tail between my legs.
Whilst fretting about how I’d ended up holidaying in Kathmandu, I heard that the Missionaries of Charity had some Sisters at Posthupani Temple on the outskirts of the city. Apparently, many Hindus went (or were taken) to this holy place to die, to escape the cycle of rebirth, but a natural death rarely works to a convenient timetable and many people weren’t so much dying as rotting away: hence the appearance of Mother Teresa’s Sisters to tend to the near-corpses.
I had no idea what I was going to do when I got to the temple – perhaps I saw it as part-fulfilment of my original purpose – but apple pie and cosy chit-chats with Peace Corps workers were not the reasons I’d left England. As per my usual wardrobe, I arrived at Posthupani with a camera hanging off my shoulder and for lack of anyone too ask, I walked into a courtyard fringed by alcoves.
For a few minutes the silence told me I was alone. But I slowly became aware of life within the recesses, for peering out of the darkness were the people awaiting death.
A special strain of humiliation is set aside for folk who employ a camera, particularly if they’ve retained enough humanity to know when to turn the bloody thing off, and I felt its sting that day. By the time I reached the centre of the courtyard I was the sole focus of attention for those who’d come here to await the next life. So, having nothing worthwhile to offer, I lowered my eyes and left.
This was the jolt I needed to get me out of tourist mode and back on track. Within a few days I was in Calcutta.
My two visits to Calcutta and the Missionaries of Charity homes were some nine or ten years apart. But as I’ve drawn elements and scenery from each visit, and mixed them up to form a fictional palette to paint relevant pages of a novel, it is now difficult for me to separate the various strands of memory.
What I do remember about Mother Teresa’s Kalighat Home for Dying Destitutes is that it was a pretty intimidating place, particularly for people with no prior experience of things medical. I went back a few times and tried to be useful, but I was made to feel evermore useless by the diligence of the other helpers, many of whom were nurses on a busman’s holiday from places like Ireland, the USA and Australia.
Not long before my first visit to Calcutta, the British journalist Jeam Rook had done a whistle-stop tour of India and her Indian dispatches suggested she was hoping to meet Mother in the Oberoi Grand (fat chance!). As the story was related to me by a volunteer, who was in Calcutta at the same time, Jean Rook turned up at one of the Homes for Destitutes a little overdressed.
‘How can you touch them?‘, she apparently asked the volunteer in attendance.
‘It’s easy’, replied the irked volunteer, and she made a show of stroking the hand of the dying person in their midst.
Jean Rook’s reaction was predictable and I doubt even a crashing light on the Damascus Road would’ve changed her heart, though the riposte contained a forgiveable hint of pride.
As the great Kierkegaard wrote, mankind is religiously designed and there are myriad ways of reacting to the heart’s call (and fake religions spring up like ‘toadstools after a rain’ to profit from that design), and I suppose it is how we respond to that initial call that effects the outcome in each of us – God will only finish the job if we let Him.
I remember being at the Middleton Row clinic with Jack Preger one day when he pointed to an elderly couple walking towards us. As Jack told it, they were well known for cataloguing their own experiences in periodicals back in Ireland, which amounted to a bigging up of their own good works and Mother’s Sisters were reduced to walk-on parts.
One of the flaws embedded in Catholicism of the recent past, particularly the Irish Catholicism of my grandparents, is the proud notion that you earn grace by your own efforts; in the words of a Bono lyric, ‘you can lend a hand, in return for grace’.
But Grace is not eternal currency, to be earned and banked like some meritorious, Crusading indulgence: this theology is more in step with swaggering Sanhedrin legalism than Christianity. Rather, it is very Grace that enables a heart to humbly rise to the bottom of the human pile in the first place, which gives the Widow’s Mite a might greater than any other indulgent currency on this earth, and makes Saints of the most unlikely candidates.
TS Eliot here summarises the complexities (though unlike Grace, the observation ‘recognised by all men..’ is now defunct):
It is recognised in Christian theology—and indeed on a lower plane it is recognised by all men in affairs of daily life—that freewill or the natural effort and ability of the individual man, and also supernatural grace, a gift accorded we know not quite how, are both required, in co-operation, for salvation.
And at the height of Mother’s worldly renown, Calcutta probably saw as many people drawn by her fame as to her contemplative flame, and some of us were ill equipped for the tasks that the Sister’s accomplish so beautifully by the fruits of a prayerful devotion. And if, in the words of Isaac the Syrian, Humility is God’s clothing, then the Sisters are some of the best dressed amongst us.
Whilst I was sufficiently attuned to the magnetism to be drawn to Calcutta, my heart was cluttered with enough worthless junk, along with a kind of youthful self-righteousness, to disable me from being at the Home for Dying Destitutes in spirit.
Andre Louf simplifies it thus:
the role of an emptying… must take place before we can receive, and all the more confidently aspire to grace… a state where one finds oneself literally at ground level.
And so squeamishness, lack of a true spiritual compass and the inability to tie a bandage meant I was good for little but making chai.
The Missionaries of Charity children’s home (Shishu Bhavan), however, was a different story. I’d already had experience teaching youngsters (more so on my second visit) and children do have a habit of overcoming worldly fears for you. I recall with some embarrassment that, at the end of my first stint as a volunteer at Shishu Bhavan, I got so attached to one of the children that I went to see Sister in charge to ask about adoption.
‘Are you married?‘, enquired Sister, with the stern look often adopted by Mother’s Sisters-in-charge, but which was most often modesty cloaking the contemplative’s windows of the soul.
‘No’, replied I, ‘but my parents are!’
I’d got it into my head that I would be arriving home to greet ma and pa, with a backpack over one arm and a child under the other. I was naïve to the ways of the world back then, but in retrospect it does seem rather sweet. I suppose if I’d been more worldly, I would never have gone near Calcutta in the first place… certainly not without medical insurance and funds for a comfortable crash at the Fairlawn Hotel!
Anyhow, Sister was unperturbed by my request and she let me down gently: from the way she almost smiled I gauged that mine wasn’t the first heart to become attached.
One of the most memorable aspects of my Calcutta adventures were the masses and prayers at Mother House. If Mother Teresa was in town, she’d take her place against the back wall, just inside the first entrance to the chapel, and on Sundays would make herself available after mass, occasionally serving tea to visitors in the small room downstairs. When I saw someone requesting the same, I asked Mother if I too could have some of the blessings, which she wrote on slips of paper that had obviously been printed (very cheaply!) to fulfil never-ending requests for mementoes. The bits of paper had a picture of Mother and a quote from Isaiah, and I came away with half a dozen or so. On occasion I regret not having kept one for myself. But I’m sure wherever they now are (I gave tennis player Mary Joe Fernandez one – wonder if she kept it?), those slips of paper are valued beyond currency, and the impressions left on me, by having fumbled my way to Calcutta and tumbled into that humble place of prayer, are keepsakes of a different order.
The most notable of these imprints was pressed one night in the chapel of Mother House. I’d been at Shishu Bhavan in the afternoon, and by the time I got to Mother House, Calcutta had been given a makeover by one of the regular electricity blackouts. After evening prayers, as a few remaining Sisters finished chanting the rosary, I decided it was time for supper at the Blue Sky café off Sudder Street.
Before I could get to the top of the stairs to put on my sandals, Mother Teresa appeared on the balcony and took hold of my hand. She sang the praises of a visiting priest, overcame all of my efforts to wriggle free of my impending forgiveness and bundled me off to confession.
These days, the confessional is often a deserted place and confession a seldom sought cure for a sullied heart. But I’ve spent countless hours down the years, developing the seeds of this encounter into a relevant and powerful apology for the Sacrament of Confession, as my fictional protagonist sweats it out in the spiritual sauna of a dark Calcutta night, before a Priest who has been drawn from the words of Saints Francis de Sales and Augustine.
By chance, the next day Mother was serving communion at the mass so not only did she send me to confession, she also administered the complementing host.
One of Tolstoy’s short stories has two friends set out together on a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Jerusalem. But on the way, they come upon a village stricken by disease—one of the friends chooses to stay behind and help, and when the other finally reaches the Holy City, he realises that his friend got to the true Jerusalem long before him.
Similarly, the essence of Mother Teresa’s Calcutta is a state of heart, achievable by any one of us in any place, using ways and means made forever available. And whilst personal encounters like the above rarely make anyone a better person, they have provided a real and vibrant Calcutta setting in which to end a story I believe is worthy of the telling.