My brief memoir on volunteering with Mother Teresa is including in Philip Zaleski’s Best Spiritual Writing, and is included in my book, Wandering Between Two Worlds (amazon.com) or on amazon.co.uk
Kalighat, the Home of the Dying Destitute, was the toughest assignment in the Missionaries of Charity convent, reputedly reserved for the mature. But I was greedy for challenge and kept asking for it until I got it. The place glowed in the light of literature, the poetic accounts of Malcolm Muggeridge, Desmond Doig, and Edward Le Joly; I had to work there.
We entered the quietness of Kalighat after a long Jeep trip through Calcutta’s streets, raucous with the honking of buses and cars, the blare of radios, the shouts of vendors. We recited the rosary above the din around the Jeeps as the rule decreed we should, no matter how unpropitious our surroundings. Our voices growing hoarse and our throats parched, we trolled through the fifteen mysteries of the life of Christ.
This chanting was meant to serve as a barricade against distraction and doubt. Just as well perhaps. While we hurtled through the three-wheeled autos called “bone shakers” and snaked amid stray dogs I sometimes saw get run down (willfully? out of fathomable malice?), it was not easy to clasp simple verities: There is a God and God loves me as he loves every human on this crazy street. It was easier to believe in a “watchmaker God,” who hurled the world into motion and then absconded, a notion I had heard denounced from the pulpit as atheistic absurdity.
Hail, Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus, we chanted as our Jeep swerved through street children, trams, lorries, motorcycles, scooters, and dangerously lurching buses with youths leeching onto windows, railings, and roof. I usually kept my eyes closed. Calcutta was unnerving to a small-town girl. To open them was to contemplate the possibility that our driver would collide with rickshaws dragged by scrawny men and crammed with housewives and their purchases or hit a sacred cow or crush a child, and so cause an ugly communal riot for us to sort out. I remembered the time my father had to bail out a Jesuit professor, his colleague, who was nearly lynched when he hit a poor Hindu boy with his posh car.
Entering Kalighat is akin to entering a city church—or, for that matter, our chapel at Mother House in the center of Calcutta. You are stunned into stillness, into a guilty awareness of your racing pulse, your distracted mind. The silence shrouds you until you are aware that it is not silence, not really: There is the rustle of supplicants, the rattle of rosary beads, the breathing from bowed heads. So, in Kalighat, after your jangled spirit laps up the apparent silence, you hear soft sounds—low moaning, a tubercular cough, patients tossing in pain and restlessness.
Still, Kalighat felt like holy ground. I often sensed God in the dimness and hush of that place. Bhogobaan ekane acche, Mother Teresa whispered in Bengali as she went from bed to bed:God is here. Her creased face looked sad and sweet. This is Bhogobaan ki badi, God’s house, the sisters tell new arrivals, believing that Kalighat is sanctified in its very stones by the thousands who have died peaceful deaths there. Perhaps the light created this aura. The light spilled from high windows through a filigreed lattice, spilled into the dim room with a stippled radiance that made working there an epiphany.
In this place Malcolm Muggeridge, curmudgeonly Catholic convert, experienced what he called “the first authentic photographic miracle” as he filmed a BBC documentary on Mother Teresa in 1969. The cameraman insisted that filming was impossible inside Kalighat—dimly lit by small windows high in the walls—but reluctantly tried it. In the processed film, the shots taken inside were bathed in “a soft, exceptionally lovely light,” whereas the rest, taken in the outside courtyard as an insurance, was dim and confused. Muggeridge wrote: “I am absolutely convinced that this technically unaccountable light is Newman’s ‘Kindly Light.’ The love in Kalighat is luminous like the halos artists have seen and made visible around the heads of saints. It is not at all surprising that this exquisite luminosity should register on a photographic film.”
Perhaps Kalighat had that sense of being holy ground because it was an ancient Hindu pilgrimage site, the dormitory for pilgrims to Calcutta’s famed Kali temple. I wondered whether the devotions of generations of Hindus, no less than Catholics, had hallowed the ground. Surely, I reasoned, all kinds of God-hunger are acceptable to Christ, who chose as his symbols bread and wine, who offered his flesh to eat, his blood to drink. Perhaps what happens in a pilgrimage spot is not that God descends to earth in a shower of radiance and the earth ever after exudes his fragrance. Perhaps it is we who make spots of earth sacred when we bring our weary spirits, our thwarted hopes, the whole human freight of grief, and pray—our eyes grown wide and trusting; our being, a concentrated yearning. Perhaps that yearning, that glimpse of better things, makes the spot sacred and lingers in the earth and air and water so that future pilgrims say, “God is here.”
On our way to work, we frequently picked people off the pavements where they lay and transported them to Kalighat to die, in Mother Teresa’s phrase, “within sight of a kind face. ” “Stop,” we’d cry to the driver, who helped us carry them into the Jeep. Occasionally we picked up a drunk, who cursed us on his return to consciousness. Most people we picked up were as emaciated as famine victims; they lay limp on the pavements, a feeble hand outstretched for alms. And yet there was no famine in Calcutta; our prime minister protested that nobody, simply nobody, dies of starvation in India.
These people had probably worked all their lives. But in a land where it’s not easy to find work that pays a living wage, to survive is enough. For an illiterate worker, saving money is a nearly impossible dream. “Naked they came into the world, naked they depart,” as Job mourned. Many end their lives destitute on Calcutta’s streets. They waste away as they grow too weak or sick to scavenge for themselves or root for food in the open garbage dumps.
For these people who are kicked aside, cursed, and ignored, Kalighat is an inexplicable miracle, a last-minute respite, a stepping-stone into grace. In her speeches, Mother loved to quote the dying man she brought to Kalighat from Calcutta—”All my life I have lived like a dog, but now I die like an angel”—which was, perhaps, just what he said or, perhaps, a composite of many experiences.
Kalighat consists of two L-shaped wards accommodating about sixty men and women, with rows of low cots snuggled into every cranny. The Missionary Brothers of Charity, the male branch of the order, founded by Brother Andrew, an Australian ex-Jesuit, serve in the male ward; they sponge patients, change soiled clothes, hack off elongated and hardened toenails. When I entered the male ward to dispense medication, I would see these sweet, serious, humble, and hardworking men. Perhaps I perceived them in clichés since I never actually talked to them; a novice does not hobnob with men. We novices mainly worked in the female ward, an oblong room bathed in dim light from the beautiful white-filigreed windows.
Iris, a tubercular Anglo-Indian patient, was Kalighat’s presiding Fury. She hobbled all over the ward on her walking stick, which she thrashed around when enraged. Her puckered brown face was a maze of hate lines, and as she limped, she cursed: “Those bloody Muddses, I hate those swine…”
“What’s the matter, Iris?” people asked, mocking her—for everyone knew her story by heart and was fed up with it. And as if it were new every morning, she’d repeat her tale of the Muddses, her distant relatives who, in her old age, evicted her from her house and pushed her down the stairs, breaking her leg.
“Those bloody Muddses,” she muttered, her rosary of hate. She was fond of me and would stroke me, telling me that I was nice, her smile surprisingly sweet. Everyone had to be very good to me when Iris was around, or she would brandish her stick at them, reprimanding, “No, this is a nice sister.” Poor Iris, balladeer of old grievances, anger always at boiling point for old wrongs. Her grudges had driven her crazy, devastating her long past the original injury. I often talked to her, asking her about her childhood in pre-independence India, to try to divert her mind from the injustices over which it obsessively brooded. I realized how wise Mother Teresa was when she admonished, “Forgive. Never allow yourself to become bitter. Bitterness is like cancer; it feeds on itself. It grows and grows.”
Sadness also grew in Kalighat. One round-faced old lady, too weak to feed herself, kept pushing away my hand that waited with the next spoonful of rice. While I tried vainly to feed her, we talked. Her son had deposited her on the streets, where the sisters had eventually picked her up. “I haven’t seen my three sons in years,” she cried.
I gave up on the rice and fed her the mango. She loved that. She fixed her eyes on the diminishing fruit, then asked for more. There was no more. So I folded the skin in two and drew it between her lips, again and again, until she had sucked the last drops of juice. Suddenly, her eyes lit up with love. Tears streamed down her face. She caught me, pulled me to her, and rocked me in an embrace, crying, “Ma. Ma. Ma,” her mind reverting to childhood, her face grown baby sweet.
I hugged her back, not even trying to remember if she was tubercular, forgetting my mask and mycobacterium tuberculosis spread by the respiratory route. During that insomniac night, I thought of her. The next evening, I sneaked out a mango from the convent kitchen and concealed it in my saree. I went straight to her bed. It was covered with a white sheet. She had died in the night.
Death was a constant in Kalighat, that home in the temple of the goddess of death. Only the ostensibly dying were admitted. About half recovered with rest, medication, and nourishing food. For the rest, this was the end. When we entered the ward, stark white sheets, the color of mourning in India, covered the beds of those who had died the previous night. In the face of death, its inevitability, how trivial much of life seemed. “Teach us to number our days,” the psalmist cried, “that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” I realized why the novice-mistresses preached detachment to us. Guard your heart, I admonished to myself, chary of emotional involvement with one who might soon be a corpse in the morgue or burnt to ashes on the shore of the River Ganges.
In a place like Kalighat, perspective is everything. My parents, on their monthly visits, complained that it was a grim place, daunting and unpleasant—and so it is until its strange charm, its eerie radiance, works on you. I loved Kalighat for its tiny miracles. An old, almost bald woman with a shriveled face occupied a bed in a corner. When she could sit up, she’d curse all within earshot. She spat gobs of yellow phlegm all over the floor, perversely ignoring her spittoon. Once, as I tried to feed her, she lost her temper and slapped me, sending my glasses flying across the ward.
Dealing with her was not a pleasure. So the other patients had often eaten their dinners and fallen asleep before she was brought her tray of gruel and boiled vegetables. One evening, chiding myself for my fastidiousness, I braced myself and took her tray to her. As I approached, she smiled, and her face glowed. No one had ever seen her smile. I hugged the memory to myself as a shaft of grace—though perhaps it was a trick of the light.
But I remembered Gerard Manley Hopkins, my favorite poet:
Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Most patients in Kalighat, too old or too weak to walk, crept around the ward or to the bathroom while squatting on their haunches, slowly moving one tired leg after the other. Since their diseases were highly infectious—cholera, typhoid, and especially tuberculosis—we had to be vigilant. Sister Luke, the stern-faced nurse who ran Kalighat, ordered us to use masks all the time we were in the ward. These we sewed ourselves, a double strip of thick cotton cloth that covered the nose and mouth. I often disobeyed orders and dispensed with my mask, partly because my smile helped in this difficult work with difficult people. (Months later at home, when I grew too weak to get out of bed and coughed blood, dread symptom, and X rays revealed a shadow on the lungs, first sign of TB, I looked back on those days of idiotic, uncalled-for faith with bemusement. I then had a sense of inviolability, common to children and puppies, a half-conscious sense that providence would protect the simple-hearted—and the foolish.)
The actual work dispelled any vestigial illusions of the glamour of being a Florence Nightingale of light and mercy. I often forced myself through the chores by sheer willpower. I reminded myself that I had decided to imitate Christ, and to be a saint in the tradition of Francis, Damien, Schweitzer, and Dooley, as I fought nausea and changed sheets fouled by the stools of those with cholera or dysentery.
Why do you do it? Monica, an intense, curly-headed, West German volunteer—an atheist—asked. No one assigned me this chore. (On the contrary, as one of the better-educated sisters, I was allotted the more “prestigious” jobs, which required some expertise: to give the patients their daily medications and injections, to set up and administer an intravenous drip when a patient was admitted delirious with typhoid or with the withered skin, sunken eyes, and icy hands of the cholera victim.) No, I chose. I was struck by the paradigm of Christ, “who, though he was rich, yet he became poor.” Born amid a stable’s dung, as literally as we cleaned feces; homeless during his ministry; dying naked on the cross. Come follow me. “One must go down, as low down as possible to find God, ” I reasoned with an eighteen-year-old’s intensity. And to what did I equate God? Joy. Certainty. Peace.
The romance of the spiritual life, its pilgrim’s progress through internal hills and valleys, shed a gleam on everyday chores—washing clothes and windows or scrubbing the stainless steel plates left pyramided on the courtyard floor after the patients’ evening meal. We hoisted up our sarees (a rare glimpse of legs) and squatted on our haunches to scrub the endless pile of plates with a piece of coconut husk and our homemade detergent, ashes and soap shavings. Western volunteers helped, professing amazement at our primitive methods of washing clothes and dishes. “Mother Teresa has been offered dishwashers and washing machines many times and has refused. Mother says that we should live just like the poorest of the poor to be able to understand them.” I’d parrot this explanation, smugly and self-righteously—repressing my annoyance at her rigidity on the many days that I was exhausted.
The new admission was brought in on a stretcher—a young girl with a prematurely haggard face, her hair an uncombed matted mass that I could see we’d have to cut off. How to unravel it? When I undressed her to bathe her, I saw that her thighs were bloodstained, her vulva a raw, feces-encrusted sore. I involuntarily moved back at the stench. A group of men had slashed her crotch with blades, she said.
“Why did they do that?” I asked, ignorant of perversion. I gathered from her faltering reply in Bengali that she had been forced into prostitution, and that there were all sorts….
“How old are you?”
She was my age. I stood, staring at the raw flesh, wondering what to do first, when Sister Luke appeared. She pushed me aside, her long serious face grim. “Go away, child, go away,” she growled, as she bent her lank body down to the patient, sponging her down swiftly. Sister Luke later explained that the girl had venereal disease, something I’d never encountered before.
Sister Luke was good-hearted, but her volatile temper and gruff, no-nonsense manners scared patients, novices, and volunteers alike. My parents, visiting, were shocked and upset to hear her scream at the patients. Indeed, her manner was far from the ideal for workers in the Home of Dying Destitute that Mother Teresa recommended in the Constitution: We train ourselves to be extremely kind and gentle in touch of hand, tone of voice, and in our smile so as to make the mercy of God very real and to induce the dying person to turn to God with filial confidence.
Since she perceived me as responsible, Sister Luke, a trained nurse, entrusted me with deciphering the doctor’s scribbled prescriptions and doling out the evening medication. I also gave the injections and intravenous drips when I came on duty. In the absence of professionals, we picked up the elements of nursing from one another. I am sometimes appalled remembering our amateurishness, but then I recall that we looked after people we carried in from the streets, whom no one else cared about, and that we did alleviate their pain.
One evening, I balanced a tray of medicine—chloramphenicol, ampicillin, streptomycin, para-aminoslicyclic acid, isonazid—sorted out in little cups, in one hand as I rushed from the office to begin my rounds. I tripped. Hundreds of pink, white, and parti-colored pills raced over the floor. Sister Luke had locked the medicine cupboard. Too terrified to ask her for a fresh dose for the 120 patients, I began to pick the pills off the floor, intending to use them anyway. The colored or unusually shaped pills were easy to separate. I slowed down at the homogenized mass of white pills, fond hope and guesswork intermingling as I sorted, when Nemesis descended.
“What are you doing?” Sister Luke stood over me, her hands on her hips.
I told her.
“You blessed child. You stupid child,” she shrieked, throwing the tray into the trash, cups and all, tossing me her keys to get a fresh dose.
Sister Luke had probably sworn freely before she became a nun. Now, she ingeniously transmuted worldly expletives into heavenly ones. “Get the blessed bedpan to that blessed patient,” she’d scream. Sister Luke was admired, almost hero-worshiped, by all who worked in Kalighat—she was dedicated, efficient, and unpretentious—so “blessed” became a common expletive for all “Lukies.”
For the first few weeks, I scrupulously followed the doctor’s charts as I gave the patients their medication. But as the medicine and dosages grew familiar, I began to trust my memory. Teachers and friends had often commented on my “photographic memory,” and I was proud of it. I made a point of smiling at Krishna, an emaciated, pale-skinned teenager with close-cropped hair, as I gave her medicine. (“Smile five times a day at people you do not feel like smiling at. Do it for world peace, “Mother Teresa said. I’d cheat, though, selecting targets whom I liked, at least a little.)
Too frail to sit up, Krishna lay on propped-up pillows, a faint smile on her face, her eyes huge and haunted. She looked classically tubercular, like Severn’s portrait of the dying Keats.
One evening, Krishna shivered feverishly, face flushed, eyes streaming. Her forehead burned. The thermometer read 106, the highest I’d ever recorded.
I went to Sister Luke. “Sister, the girl with TB has a very high temperature.”
“Krishna!” she laughed. “You know, Krishna was severely malnourished when she was brought to us. She looked as gaunt as a TB patient. We thought she was going to die. But she is recovering nicely. I think we will be able to discharge her soon. You say she is sick?”
Malnutrition! I flushed. Krishna was not sick. She had starved. And I had given her the dosage of isoniazid for a severely tubercular patient. Sister Luke had urged restraint with these potent drugs, cautioning us of the side effects.
“Krishna is feverish,” I mumbled, and slunk away, stunned, too cowardly to tell her what I’d done. If I have to confess, I will, but please, oh, God, oh, God, heal her.
A Calcutta volunteer doctor was at work. I feigned jocularity. “So Doctor, what happens if you take drugs for TB when you don’t have TB?”
“You want to kill yourself, Sister? You could pop off. That’s potent stuff.”
I had guessed that already; why did I ask? Miserable, remorseful about my hubris, I dashed to Krishna’s bedside with paracetamol for her fever and laid my hands on the surprised girl’s head. “Now, Krishna, listen. You are not feeling well, right? I’m going to pray for you. Right now.” I prayed desperately, imploring for her life.
No result. I had other duties, but every few minutes I stole to Krishna’s bedside, praying for her, for a miracle. Gradually Krishna’s fever subsided.
I felt close to Krishna after all this. The severely malnourished girl had grown too weak to walk. And since she lay all day on her jute-strung cot, her legs atrophied. As she grew stronger, I helped her to walk again, walking beside her, her arms around my shoulders, or walking in front of her, holding her hands, until she regained balance and confidence and strength.
Krishna walked, shakily but unaided, before I left Mother Teresa’s congregation. I saw her discharged, another Lazarus restored, another woman returned to Calcutta’s Darwinian struggle for survival, but with an ounce of hope. Just one drop removed from the ocean of misery— but the ocean would be greater were it not there.
(From Notre Dame magazine; reprinted in The Best Spiritual Writing 1999, edited by Philip Zaleski. Used by arrangement with HarperSanFrancisco, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright 1998 by Anita Mathias)
Read the rest of my autobiographical essays in Wandering Between Two Worlds (amazon.com) or on amazon.co.uk