1964-1972>India, A Lesson from the Poorest of the Poor
A Lesson from the Poorest of the Poor
Returning home after my Peace Corps posting in Tanzania, I’d poked around Pakistan and India long enough. I felt ungrounded after my two years of intense involvement at my school. Christmas was approaching and I feared more unfocussed touring would only reinforce my miserable isolation.
On Christmas Eve, two women staying at the New Delhi YWCA Hostel generously invited me to join them at a Christmas party sure to draw many Americans. Given the sour mood I was in, it sounded like torture. I wanted to be with close friends, not strangers. I thanked them but declined. Pulling my sleeping bag tight against the cold in the open-air dormitory, I curled around my fat paperback copy of Exodus to feel sorry for myself.
The next morning, my funk lifted enough for me to realize that until I met my sister in Bankok in a few weeks, I needed to work on something to get through this rough spot. A disastrous flood had inundated some of the river valleys and volunteers were being recruited. I called Catholic Services. A male voice told me, "I'm sorry, we can't use you because you don't speak the language.”
What a blow. I couldn’t even find work for free. “Is there anyplace else that might be able to use a volunteer for a while?”
“Well, there is a nun in Calcutta who works with the poor and who takes on volunteers. You might see if she has something for you,” he said.
I wrote the unfamiliar name and address on a piece of paper and visited the airline office.
The clerk at the Calcutta Salvation Army Hostel gave directions to my taxi driver, who then dropped me outside a metal gate guarding a deserted courtyard. Every window of the whitewashed two-story U-shaped building was open to catch any breeze for relief from the intense heat and humidity. As I stepped through the pedestrian gate, a dusky sister in flowing white appeared at my side.
"May I be of assistance?" she said in a lilting voice.
I explained my interest in a volunteer position for two weeks, and she nodded without hesitation and said," Follow me.”
She floated ahead of me through a maze of dim corridors that gave the illusion of coolness. Deep inside the building she pointed to a wooden bench and said, "Wait here. Mother will talk with you when she finishes her prayers."
I was relieved to be out of the heat and chaos of the streets but I felt uncomfortable, seeing myself through their eyes. Would they think I was another do-gooder coming to gape at the poor people? During my two years in Africa I’d seen short-term volunteers rendered immobile by the poverty they experienced. I was over that stage, I thought, but India was different from newly independent Tanzania where, poor as they were, there was hope for a better future soon. What would I say I wanted? I questioned my sincerity. Nurturing wasn’t my strong point. Maybe I was really looking for escape or adventure, something I thought might be unworthy of the attention of these dedicated nuns.
Three nuns walked toward me with heads bowed, hands clasped in front. Two of them flanked the tiny one in the center. She was pale and slightly stooped, older than the other two. I guessed she might have been around fifty years old but she had more energy than I did in that thick heat. Occasionally one of her hands flew to the side to emphasize something she was saying and then returned to its mate. The other two took turns dipping a head in obedience. "Yes, Mother," they said when she spoke in her firm but gentle voice, still too distant for me to hear the words.
I rose from my bench, wondering what protocol was expected of a non-Catholic meeting someone so revered by the nuns. The sister who had met me at the gate introduced us in a normal fashion. As I usually do, I forgot her name immediately.
The older woman smiled and looked me in the eye. She took my hands and held them in hers in a Namaste. I found it difficult to return her steady gaze, afraid she would see through me but I felt acknowledged as a person regardless of why I was there.
In her spare and windowless office, she leaned forward across her battered desk and sketched a brief personal history. I learned of her own conversion in mid-life from being a mundane teaching nun to her inspired commitment to working with the poorest of the poor. Even after two years in Tanzania, the two weeks work I had in mind felt paltry compared to her lifetime of dedication. But she seemed willing to take whatever was offered without judgment.
She described the projects of her mission so I could decide where to work. Later, I noted my impression of the interview for my journal letters home. This was a good adventure, I thought, and then chastised myself for such a crass idea. But as she spoke, I felt myself drawn to her intense passion.
"Our orphanage is nearby,” she said. “We take in abandoned children, newborns of women so poor they cannot feed them. The sisters find the little bundles at the compound gate every morning. The orphanage is very crowded but no baby will be refused." She paused for my reaction. I smiled in acknowledgement but children were not my thing, so I waited for the next choice.
"We started our Home for the Dying only recently. It is a place where homeless people can live their last days with dignity. Our truck goes out every morning at daylight. The drivers look for people in doorways who are near death. They bring them to us and we wash them and stay with them in their last days."
This tweaked my morbid curiosity, but washing bodies sounded too intimate. The leprosy clinic was the third choice, but the clinic was finished for the day. I’d never seen a leper who wasn’t begging, and the beggars were grotesque. She spoke of them as unfortunates who deserved help to be able to live their lives with dignity. Was this what I wanted? I was intrigued, or was I the gaping tourist?
She suggested I work at the nursery that afternoon and then decide. I didn't dare say I wouldn't do as she suggested, but children scared me. Mixed up in that fear was some belief that if I did get on well with children it meant marriage and a family, a stifling life which I had evaded by joining the Peace Corps. I hadn't yet worked out that I could have a life of my own and like children as well.
At the orphanage that afternoon, the infants were wrapped so tight that feeding them was like poking the bottle at a football. After my first awkward attempt, the sympathetic nun in charge suggested I join the three-year-olds on the play porch. I sat down on a straight-backed chair in the noisy room and waited to see what would happen. A sweet cherub wearing only sagging cotton underpants toddled up to me, took my hands and showed me he wanted to play horsy. I crossed one leg over my knee and he climbed onto my suspended ankle. He bounced merrily for a few moments and then a huge smile spread across his face. My foot felt suddenly warm and wet. Urine dribbled off my heel.
I was right. Kids were trouble.
When I arrived at the compound the next morning I found a nun in a cerulean blue-trimmed sari shepherding three teen-aged novitiates into the back of the canvas covered truck full of supplies. They waved for me to hurry, and I swung up to join them on the hard side seats.
The three novitiates shyly watched me, the new volunteer, as our British Leyland truck jerked and groaned down the side streets of Calcutta. We braced our feet on the stack of tin cans of cooking oil and cotton bags fat with white flour, branded with the red, white and blue USAID label. The older nun preferred to stand and steadied herself by gripping the frame for the canopy that shaded us from the harsh sun. For my benefit she spilled out her well-rehearsed orientation monologue:
"Today, we will be giving out this flour and cooking oil that your government has given to us for the poorest of the poor. We will be going to the colony of lepers at the edge of the city where our government allows them to live undisturbed. We are the only ones who care for them. A few have families who bring them food and leave it at the edge of the compound for them to pick up. Others have no one but us."
Choking dust billowed into the back of the truck as it trundled toward the edge of the city. Out the back I watched people, bicycles and carts loaded with produce and merchandise, flowing in our wake. We jolted past whitewashed walls of one and two story buildings, packed tightly against the edge of the street. Many were decorated with dark saucer-sized polka dots with a handprint in the center. When I saw two of the sacred Brahma cows ambling down the dusty street snatching the rare blade of grass, I realized that the polka dots were drying fuel, patties of cow dung and straw.
I turned back to the sister in charge with a question and stopped mid-sentence. She and the three novitiates were fingering their rosaries with downcast eyes. Their hushed prayers were just audible above the din. After several repetitions I could just make out "....and the fruit of THY womb Jesus..."
Finally, we stopped under the ancient branches of an enormous tree and climbed down from the truck. The sister pointed out the leper colony to me. The dirt of the street flowed toward a mud-brick wall. Through a gap in the wall I could see restless shadows and behind them, make-do shelters shaded by the canopies of more trees.
The driver and some men who had appeared when we arrived set up folding tables to make a counter and unloaded the truck. The sister gave me my instructions in the same rehearsed manner as before. "You will give out the oil. Use this scoop and give each person one measure into their bowls. You will not touch them, and you are in no danger." Why did she think I would touch them? The previous day, at the US Information Services library, I had read that the leprosy bacillus is closely related to tuberculosis and is only transmitted after prolonged contact with an infected person, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. No touching.
In the shadows of the wall opening, more dark figures gathered. What did I know of lepers, these poorest of the poor? At the Calcutta hostel, the clerk had told me to ignore the grotesque mendicants who clustered outside the entrance, but they had followed me with watery eyes and made mewling entreaties, one palm outstretched, the other hand lightly touching the wrist, if there was another hand. The deformities of these lepers were so shocking I didn't know what to do. Their begging frightened me, yet I had money and sometimes I did give them small coins. How could anyone just ignore them?
The shadowy figures shuffled forward, wrapped in tattered pieces of grimy cloth that covered their heads and bodies. They formed a quiet line, and the sister spoke to them first. She asked a few questions and they moved to one of the novitiates who measured flour into one of their containers. I scooped the yellow oil out of the ten-gallon can with a large tin cup and poured it into each bowl or pot held out to me. Hands that held the bowls were missing joints and whole fingers. I was astonished at their condition. Many were much more disabled than the street beggars. I dipped the oil trying not to stare or wince. A drape slipped from a face, revealing a white eye and an oozing sore on the cheek. The bare feet lacked toes. Sometimes the feet themselves were missing. Crude crutches were marginally helpful when the hands couldn't grip. Bodies moved stiffly as in pain. They were not asking for pity or begging like the lepers outside the hostel. My reserve crumbled as I began to see them as people, coping as best they could.
I looked up to see a wrinkled couple in threadbare wraps, silently waiting their turn. His hands had a few fingers and he clutched a little metal tea pot against his chest. His eyes were clouded and his head rocked, as if seeking a light he would never find. Her arms ended at her wrists and most of one foot was gone. In the middle of her face was the hole where her nose had once been, and she did her best to hide her face from me by catching her sari with her right arm stub to cover herself. She hooked the stump of her left arm into his elbow to guide him through the line as he gently steadied her steps.
They moved toward me. I couldn't help but imagine being in their place. I, who prided myself on my independence and self-sufficiency, could I ask for help? Would anyone respond? If someone did, could I accept what I was offered?
When the couple reached me, she maneuvered him so I could pour the measure of oil into his empty pot. Her visible eye flickered in my direction for only a moment before they turned to regain the shelter of the compound. As their hunched backs disappeared into the shadows, I paused. Something important had just happened. They seemed to have something powerful between them. What was it?
In an hour, the oil and flour were finished and the empty oil tins and flour sacks had been distributed for re-use as roofing or bedding. The men were packing up the tables, and the sister came to me and said, "Now you will come with us. We are going to minister to one who is dying. She was very weak last time we were here, and I am surprised that she is still alive. Her daughter is taking care of her."
We entered that mysterious compound and I followed the four fluttering saris between the mud and wattle houses. The sister and the novitiates greeted every one in Hindi. In the pauses, the sister gave me the footnotes on their lives, a cool delivery without pity.
"This one's son works in a factory. We will see him tomorrow. This one used to be an accountant before the medicine was available. This one is from a very wealthy family who abandoned her when she became ill. Medicine was withheld from this small one by his family who wanted him to beg for them." She pursed her lips and wobbled her head with disapproval as she placed her hand lightly on the little head. The people we met crossed hands on their chests, heads bowed obsequiously, and replied softly to her quiet inquiries. In the greetings and the way the people treated each other, I felt their caring and their community.
I slowed to look in a doorway. I could make out a stick, maybe a crutch, and a pile of rags on the bare dirt. That was all. When I looked up, I was alone. Where did they go? I panicked for a moment, isolated, unable to communicate with the people who moved aside for my passage. Would these people turn against me? Nothing I had seen so far implied that would happen, but old messages from deep inside me suggested it was possible. Why wouldn't they want what I had? I became acutely aware of my skirt, blouse and sandals. Nothing fancy. I'd been traveling in them for months, but they were still cleaner and of stronger fabric than the thin drapes they wore. Wouldn't they assume I had some money with me, money they could use for food, medicine, a sturdy roof? As my mind raced into dark spaces, the people I actually encountered shyly covered themselves and melted into the shadows of their crude shelters.
I realized how arrogant I was to assume they would take what I had if they could, that they might even covet something I had, or that I was more than just a stranger passing through.
I hurried to the next junction and spotted the little group of religious women as they entered another small doorway. I joined the other witnesses at the door. The nun and three novitiates filled the dim room, murmuring prayers. I could barely see a still figure on a thin reed mat. Another woman squatted next to her. I felt like an intruder and pulled away from the doorway.
Soon, the sister came out, followed by the others. "Her time is near. God's will be done," she whispered, her hands in prayer.
During the days that followed, the clinic set up outside factories in which the people with earlier stages of leprosy worked. We doled out vitamin pills and the medicine that would hold the disease in check. The work was easier for me emotionally. The people had the illness but looked normal and were still able to work. My memories of the first day seemed unbelievable. Had we really been there, among people so horribly deformed and so incredibly poor? And why did the image of that couple keep coming back?
Today, the image of the couple coming for oil is still vivid in my mind and I ask myself why that is so. I was young and inexperienced in relationships. Dependence was an anathema, both being dependent on someone and having someone depend on me, and I had not yet experienced the interdependence of a close relationship.
The two Indians lived in wretched poverty with crippling infirmities, yet I saw tenderness between them that I couldn’t name. They gave what they had willingly and with respect and received what was offered with dignity. I saw something profound in people whom I expected to pity.
Of course, I had no way of knowing their actual relationship, but what I learned is no less real and it was a lesson I needed to learn at that moment: we are all people working with what we have and doing the best we can.
The reader will note that the Mother Superior and her order were unidentified, though anyone familiar with Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity will have recognized her. When I met her, Mother Teresa was not a public figure and it was not until years later that I realized that she was the woman who had interviewed me. What I discovered in having others read earlier drafts of this piece in which she is named, people brought to their reading their own curiosity and questions about Mother Teresa the public figure, most of which I am unable to answer. My recollections are as they were in the piece, those of a young person relating to an older woman in an unfamiliar culture, both of the church and the country. Her later rise to notoriety is secondary to the piece I wanted to write and I chose to stay with the story line I experienced.