Calcutta is every bit the bizarre and wonderful experience portrayed in literature and films. Images of families living in ramshackle huts under bridges, or sitting with their few earthly possessions on crowded sidewalks, linger in my mind as if they occurred just yesterday. Workers toil under heavy loads of rice or wooden wagons. Rickshaw runners pull overweight women in and out of the congestion of vehicles, animals and pedestrians. Beggars occupy patches of sidewalk, hands outstretched to receive any coin or scrap of food a passerby might choose to offer. In front of the post office a naked, armless boy jumps up and down, screaming, held on a short leash by a woman sitting on the hot pavement. She shakes a can of small coins, requesting donations for her hapless child. Returning to our hotel in the evening we pass a man lying on the sidewalk, motionless. He was there this morning when we went out for our day’s adventures. I wonder if he is even still alive. These are the poor unfortunate souls who have for many years been the beneficiaries of the love and labors of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
I arrived one morning with two traveling companions at Mother Teresa’s headquarters, and enquired with a secretary as to the possibility of seeing her at some point in the future. Moments later, Mother Teresa appeared, and casually began to chat. Small, lean, soft spoken and humble, she was hardly the western model of an international celebrity, the recent recipient of a Nobel Prize for Peace. After a short conversation which, to my dismay, focused on us rather that her, she excused herself and returned to a meeting in progress. I was so taken back by the fact that she had actually taken time to visit three young hippies that it didn’t matter- a few moments in the presence of a saint was all that I required. I had received my blessing.
Nirmal Hriday is the famous home for the destitute and dying, and another defining experience for me on my journey. Rows of low beds offer a final resting place for many homeless people rescued from sidewalks and gutters. They are bathed and fed by members of the Sisters of Charity and volunteers, and allowed to die with dignity. Those who survive may move ahead to a better life, or end up here again at a future time or, in some cases, dedicate their lives to the mission and become members of the order. In my talks on Chinese medicine, I use a man I saw here as an example, his dull lifeless eyes indicative of the loss of ‘shen’ spirit from his being.
A bus ride to the dusty outskirts of Calcutta brings one to the neighborhood of the leperosarium. Nearby, low cast ‘harijans’ (untouchables) butcher carcasses of dead cattle among hopping, squawking vultures- a truly hideous spectacle right out of an Edgar Allen Poe horror story, and one of the creepiest sights I have ever witnessed. Inside the center is quite another story. Men and women receive medical care here, as well as employment manufacturing clothing. The impact of this place on their lives cannot be overstated, for the disease spells disaster for those seeking to marry and lead any kind of normal lives. A cure offers the possibility of a happy future rather than years of isolation and suffering on the streets while face and limbs are slowly eaten away by the disease. The image of a young boy seated on his bed staring back at me is another which I will carry with me always.
At the orphanage I found Mother Teresa in the courtyard, talking to visitors and directing foot and vehicle traffic like a traffic cop, tiny yet very energetic and fully in control of the situation. In contrast to the other facilities, this one is filled with happy, smiling babies. Some lucky children were destined for lives with European and American families, and I saw several leaving in the loving arms of their new parents. One incident I witnessed here was particularly remarkable moment with Mother Teresa. I spoke with her briefly, then stood to the side, watching her among the cribs visiting each child in turn, when a nurse approached to infirm her that one baby had apparently just passed over. Mother Teresa went immediately to the child, held her, no doubt offering prayers and immersing the baby in her aura of pure love and compassion. Moments later the child returned to life, and I returned to my hotel wondering just what it was I had witnessed.
Although she has passed over a few years ago, Mother Teresa’s work continues and her spirit lives on in the hearts of people such as myself who have been touched by her incredible power, strength, compassion and generosity.