Positive Chronicles - The Power of Love
by Rajendar Menen
Mother teresa touched many lives.here are stories of two who drank at the fount of her love – the writer, and an irishwoman who responded to the call
Noeline Delahunty is among those who have come to India to help out. She looks for a breather, sights a packet of Charms, makes a go for it, and then changes her mind. She decides to pour herself another cup of tea instead. We are in the visitors’ room at Asha Dan, the late Mother Teresa’s hospice for the hopelessly dying in central Mumbai. Graffiti screams across the walls, Bob Dylan is playing in the background, and the laidback air of recess threatens to convict the stark simplicity and rigid discipline of the home with its playful theme. Late afternoon sunlight streams in, patterning the wall, the ceiling, and the floor.
Joy is prayer - Joy is strength - Joy is love - Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls. – Mother Teresa (1910-1997)
A haven of hope
Asha Dan or Gift of Hope is a hospice made up of several large and airy sheds. Cots are placed in them with clean mattresses and sheets, and the floors are washed with antiseptic. Every day, the dying and the destitute are picked up from the street, and brought here. There are men, women, children, and those suffering from AIDS. Their families have abandoned them, several have been on the streets for years, and many are dying of terminal disease. Some are deformed and disabled. All of them have been calling out for death from deep within their souls. At any given time, Asha Dan can accommodate only a few hundred. The numbers on the streets in search of help are legion, and there is never enough space.
All of Mother Teresa’s hospices are invariably located in the midst of great squalor. I remember meeting Mother Teresa in Kolkata many years ago. She has several homes there, and each one of them sits like a happy cherry atop a pile of great deprivation. At that time, leprosy was rampant. It is still widespread, but contained somewhat by easily available medication.
The poverty in Kolkata is much coarser than the poverty in Mumbai. It is hopeless and crushing. In comparison, Mumbai is a wealthy city. It has a lot of cash floating around. Mumbai also offers capitalist hope. If you have the skills and the daring, nothing can stop you. If Mumbai is the city of riches, Kolkata is the city of rags. Poverty is evenly spread out all over India in as many flavours as there is in chocolate. The absolute and overwhelming penury all around needed a saviour. The cry was gift-wrapped, and handed to Mother Teresa on spotless china.
At her hospices, during free meal hours, hundreds of the desperately poor would be fed from large, steaming cauldrons of food, constantly prodded by giant ladles to keep them from getting gnarled at the bottom of the container. Lepers and others with horrible and scarring diseases would be attended to with love and compassion. The Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity did the work, helped by volunteers from all over the world. Mother Teresa had set the agenda. The planning, the logistics, the vision, and the delivery of salvation were her handiwork. She was the author of a dream that had bonded with peoples from all over the world with a shoulder to spare.
Our meeting was dramatic. I was running up the stairs at Nirmal Hriday, two at a time to meet up with a volunteer who had come from Sweden. I was late for the afternoon appointment. A huge picture of Jesus Christ looked down at me from the landing, while I ran up. Suddenly, without warning, a small, gaunt, wrinkled and bent figure stood in front of me, smiling with kindness at the impatience of my running feet. Two thin blue lines travelled along her white frock; it was the logo of the most visible brand of compassion in the world. I instantly knew who it was, and stood transfixed. Our eyes met. It was surreal. It was as though she had emerged from the large, framed picture of Jesus Christ, to greet me at the landing. We were to meet later in less startling settings, but the first connect with Mother Teresa will be impossible to erase.
Healing with love
Asha Dan is no exception to the deliberate choice in location. It lives and thrives in one of the larger wounds of Mumbai. All around it, the city festers like an open sore that can’t be surgically removed. It is in Byculla, opposite the notorious J J Hospital where AIDS patients commit suicide like a rash that is difficult to diagnose, where criminals escape from toilets under police patronage, where resident doctors strike work for the basic amenities of life, and scams of all kinds are as difficult to snip, and as widepread as the weeds that carelessly spread over the large campus.
On an inconsequential road named Sankli Street, riddled with dust and traffic, and the hovels of refugees from Bangladesh, are the large gates of Asha Dan, barricading the small island of tranquility from the tremors of despair all around. Close by is the AIDS awareness and testing centre of the Salvation Army, and a hostel for working women, both in need of some repair. The road wanders into the thicket of the city, piled on either side by huts and shops overflowing with human life that somehow dropped into this world without a survival kit.
The hospice is run by the Missionaries of Charity, by women in white sarees with a blue border, their heads always covered. They are young and pretty, and forever laughing. You wonder what’s wrong, how could there be joy in such dismal surroundings? Why are they always smiling? What’s the catch? “We see the Lord in each one of the sick and dying,” they explain to me. “We are honoured that he has come to us for help.” They feed the ailing, wash and clothe them, change their bed sheets, give them medicines, and pray for them. Freelance social workers help out, and several organisations in the city pitch in with money and medicines. “One by one, they all die,” say the Sisters. “But they die with a smile on their faces, and joy in their hearts.”
Responding to the call
Noeline is in her late 20s. Tall and fair with golden-brown hair, she is in an off-white kurta pyjama. “I am not used to interviews,” she warns me. “In fact, I have never given one.” I tell her that I am not scared. Noeline is from Ireland. I ask her how, of all the places in the big, wide world, did she land up here? There are more people in a crowded Indian locality than there are in her country! She calmly tells me, “It is the Lord’s bidding. I got a call, and had to come here.” The ring on the middle finger of her left hand, given by her mother for passing the school examinations, flashes brightly in the sunlight that is bouncing off the walls.
Noeline is from Laois. She was born to a farmer in a quiet, lush green village in the Emerald Isle, and was part of a large family of four brothers and seven sisters. “It was a cushioned existence. I didn’t step out till well past my adolescence.” She had heard of Mother Teresa, and seen her on television. “I had the usual life of an Irish schoolgirl with studies and socials, but inside I knew I was always different.” She learnt nursing, and took up a job at a private hospital in England. Then decided to chuck it all up, and work for Mother Teresa. All this is not uncommon in Ireland, but “my family thought I was cracked.”
Noeline went to Nigeria. She drove ambulances, and worked with doctors in the bush. “It was lonely, and very hard. The conditions were pathetic. I used to get homesick. All the time I was there, I kept thinking of India. I don’t know why, but it was a recurring dream that had to materialise some day. I expected India to be thousands of times worse. But that didn’t deter me one bit.”
Doing the Lord’s work
She came to Kolkata in 1983. “As soon as we touched Dum Dum airport, I wanted to return. It was in such a sorry state. I had prepared for the worst, but it still shocked me. I went to the YWCA to stay, and there was a power cut. What an introduction to India! I soon moved to an apartment, and subsequently changed places many times.” Noeline should come to India now. It’s a very different place.
She began working the very next day, and met Mother Teresa a few times. “I had met her in Liverpool too, before coming to India,” she continues. “I asked her about India, and she told me, ‘Charity begins at home. Why do you want to come to India?’ I was insistent. She finally said, ‘If God wants it, it will happen’. I know that the Lord wants me here.”
Kolkata, like Mumbai, but in a different way, has a way of getting you to like it. The people are warm and friendly, and the soft flow of life is endearing, despite all the difficulties. There is a fatalistic air, which keeps the people relatively content. “I soon fell in love with Kolkata,” says Noeline. “I spent almost two years working in Nirmal Hriday (Tender Heart), and Prem Dan (Gift of Love). It was wonderful. The day began early. We used to bathe the patients, prepare their breakfast, give them medicines, wash and clean them as well as the surroundings. After lunch, we did the dishes. It was so fulfilling.”
Noeline had visa problems in Kolkata, and so, “Mother suggested that I go to Mumbai. The work here is the same, but I enjoy it more because I live on the premises. I am on call all the time. I like to be useful. I am not the regular type of young woman. I feel and know that I am different. I am detached from the cycle of money, marriage, fame and ambition. This is all I ever asked for. It is Jesus who propels me. If not for him, I would have left long ago. India has glaring inequities, and it is very frustrating. Nothing can be done about it. So I just work harder. My faith is blind, and I don’t question.”
Humbled by love
Noeline has been working with the dying for long, and is now used to seeing death up close. “So many have died in my arms. It is so common here. I feel sad that they have suffered, but happy that they have died here in the midst of so much love. I believe that life is temporary, a bridge to the next one.”
She hasn’t been home for three years. They talk over the phone, and write letters, and the family is happy for her. Occasionally, she sees a film. She also enjoys folk and pop music, and has got used to simple vegetarian food, and a lifestyle without frills, like sleeping on the floor. “I have seen the film, Gandhi, and am deeply influenced by his simplicity and love of non-violence.” There are several foreign volunteers from all over the world helping out. “They all have their own reasons,” says Noeline. “Who knows what has happened in whose life, and from where and how the call has come? On a micro or macro level, I have no plans. Every day is a new day. But given a choice, I would like to do this all my life. The poor give me the greatest privilege of serving them. What greater miracle can I ask for?”
It is prayer time at Asha Dan, and time for me to leave. I get out of the large gates, and step onto the road that is crying in pain.
(Excerpted from Karma Sutra: Essays from the margin
by Rajendar Menen, Saga Books, Canada)
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