The Shining Lights of Calcutta: Volunteering for Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, Calcutta Part 1

By Paul Sinclair (One World One People)

Hello champions, how are we all? Nurse Paul reporting here on a day when too much Calcutta was never ever, ever, going to be enough in a million years. Yes thatís right my very big family, this place is awesome.

Missionaries of Charity
Every Thursday, young novices under supervision, tend to the needs of the patients of Kalighat
© Courtesy of Simon Weinstock

I am just sitting here while some very happy Hindus parade down the street, banging the drums and playing the fluteseven though India has just lost the cricket! It really is incredible because Calcutta is a very harsh place. I have been to many third world cities before, but with a population of 12 million people and an unemployment rate of 60%, this is the poorest place I have ever been. If you walk around at night, there are people all over the place sleeping in the streets as far as the eye can see. Despite this, the Bengali people are one of the friendliest peoples in all India.

So far, I have been truly having the time of my life. I have been working (thriving) in Kalighat, Mother Teresa's home for the Destitute and Dying, and I have been loving nearly every second of it. I think I have learnt more in the last week than at any time in my life. What a place! The great Gandhi forewarned me of this when he said, in his autobiography, that he considered it an absolute pleasure to nurse people especially the poorest of the poor. He was always up to this sort of thing, even putting his life on the line twice to nurse bubonic plague victims. Mother Teresa also mentioned in her book what a pleasure it was to serve the poorest of the poor, and she said that it was nearly impossible to give more to them, than they give back to you. When I first registered myself at the Mother House the Sisters explained to us that very often volunteers felt guilty that they got so much out of the experience of serving, far more than they could ever give well, this is certainly the case for me. I count the hours down to the time I can get back in there to my patients. In fact, we work a six day week there, but they deliberately make all volunteers take Thursdays off, because otherwise we wouldn't.

I got round this, last Thursday by making good use of the day, by spending it with a Jesuit Priest who has been living and working in Calcutta and India for over thirty years. I bombarded him with a million and one questions that he was only too happy to answer, about the poverty here and what might be done to fix it. Next Thursday I have gained permission to visit the Leprosy Home outside Calcutta.

Some of you may be wondering how a place like Mother Teresa's home for the destitute and dying could bring its workers so much enjoyment. It is very simple; we make it so. This place is a healer's paradise. Besides the fact that happy workers make good workers, there is no place for anything but a smiling face and a joyful attitude in a place like this. As I seem to have limitless energy when I am in Kalighat, I have made it my responsibility to always joke around, smile and be affectionate toward everyone. If there is any need for encouragement I love delivering it.

Unfortunately, some of my friends sometimes make the mistake of getting emotionally attached to the patients. This you can't do and expect to last more than a day, because people suffer and pass here. If you allow yourself to get emotionally involved, it follows that you get emotionally drained and emptied. You can only ever heal successfully with compassion, effort and with a smile. It's like in life: if you encounter a major problem, you can either get all emotional and waste your energy by getting worked up and worried, or you can stay emotionally detached and attack the problem with a clear head, giving it your full energy and effort. It is clear which approach is superior and this is the same with healing people. I have had my moments though. When I first walked into the place, I thought to myself,'What the...... do I do now? Where do I start?' The place was full of living skeletons, people with horrendous wounds and illnesses. You name it! A lot of the patients are also mentally ill, so at first it appeared (to me anyway) like Mount Everest. If you throw yourself into it, you soon get used to it and gain the confidence and knowledge to just get on with what ever needs to be donethatís what I have found anyway. So have all the happy Koreans and Japanese, Australians, Brits, Canadians, Spaniards, Italians, Indians (you name them) that are currently working there. We all work together and are good friends and it's fantastic!

Conditions at Kalighat, like the rest of India, are pretty basic and we really try to do the most with the barest minimum of medicine and medical equipment. Also, I have found some work to be a real challenge. For instance in the afternoons I have to switch from nurse to torturer (well thatís what it feels like sometimes) when it's time for exercises. Most of the patients just want to lie there and sleep, but the problem is that if you allow this, their joints don't get used and they begin to swell up. Also, their muscles most often have to be rehabilitated as most of them hardly have any left because they are so malnourished. A lot of them just want to lie there and die, but that's just not on. You can tell how much a volunteer loves their patients by the amount of effort they put into the exercises. Sometimes, you have to be cruel to be kind. There is a lot of love in there because, despite Kalighat being a home for the Dying, 60% of the patients recover and walk out of there. I have been very lucky, since I have been there no-one has passed.

Kalighat is a very special place because of all the love there and when I finish of an evening, I am charged up with energy. Unseen, there is constantly a lot of special things happening. Once, a Western Photographer visited Kalighat with the intention of photographing the wards. To his disappointment, he arrived after dark and was in two minds whether to take the picture or not, in case it didn't turn out. So he took it anyway and when it was developed, everything was illuminated with a beautiful white spiritual light. The camera had picked up what he was unable to see with his own eyes.

It is a glory beyond description to be a part of what happens when an untouchable (someone who has been treated like human trash all their life) for once, has a person from heaven (they think that the West must be a heaven) showing them great love, by caring for them and treating them with dignity and respect. I could not find the words to accurately describe the appreciation some of them feel toward us.

Anyway, someone up there really cares about me because they have bestowed on me another great privilege. Tomorrow, I start work in the front line. I had felt a great desire to go out on the streets here and start working, directly with the poor. The only problem was that I did not have the confidence or expertise to just go out and serve. Then, the other morning, I saw a young guy down at the Mother House sitting alone and immediately felt that I had to speak with him. This champion, turned out to be part of a team that goes every day to the main train station and anywhere else where the destitute are to be found.They mainly clean and dress the wounds of the destitute and feed people who are emaciated. If they find anyone who has a very serious illness or condition or is dying, they put them in a Taxi and take them to Kalighat or a Hospital. After five minutes of conversation, he told me that he would be leaving Calcutta soon and asked me if I would take his place. I was overjoyed!

I start work tomorrow champions, so I'm off to bed to get some sleep so I can give my very best. Until next week when too much India, will once again be barely enough; take good care of yourselves.
(Nurse Paul's orders)

Bye now.

Click here to view images from Calcutta

Other articles in the series:

Volunteering for Mother Teresaís Missionaries of Charity to serve the Poorest of the Poor
in Calcutta, India Part 2, 23 October 2000
Volunteering in Calcutta, India Part 3, For the Benefit of all My Brothers & Sisters Who Survive by Begging, 31 October 2000
Volunteering in Calcutta India, Part 4 World Poverty and the Final Solution,
10 November 2000

If you are interested in volunteering in Calcutta or other homes run by Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity please visit their official website for volunteers.

Further information can be found in 'The Lonely Planet Guide to India' chapter on Kolkata.

Volunteers from all over the World gathered at the Motherhouse

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© One World One People, 24 January 2002
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