Mother Teresas Loving Hands in the Home for the Dying
The following passages are taken from the book, “Teresa of Calcutta,” written by a journalist Franca Zambonini and translated by Jordan Aumann, OP and published in 1993.
A whiff of strong disinfectant catches at the throat as soon as the door of Nirmal Hriday is opened. It is the Home for the Dying in the Kalighat section of Calcutta. Kali is the black goddess of the Hindus and the ancient and venerated temple in her honor is situated in this quarter of the city. The word ghat signifies the place of cremation. In fact, the funeral pyres are but a short distance away, on the banks of the river. In the morning the fumes of cremation hover over the city and mingle with the perfume of the flower wreaths placed at the foot of the goddess by the pilgrims. But for the moment the odor of disinfectant dominates everything.
A Missionary of Charity peeps through the door and I give her the letter of introduction from Sister Michael Joseph, the superior of the Motherhouse. The Missionary reads it and then bids me enter. She is very young and efficient. “Put your things here,” she says. I put my purse on a little stand and when I turn around the Sister has disappeared.
A sign on the wall reads: “Welcome to the Home for the Dying, the first love of Mother Teresa.” The silence and dim light are like that in the water of a deep pool. A milky light filters through an arabesque grill and gradually one’s eyes become adjusted. Then I see. The patients are lying on iron cots arranged in two rows on raised pavement, and there is an aisle down the middle at a slightly lower level.
A male volunteer with a red beard is dunking a small piece of bread in milk and placing it in the toothless mouth of a patient. A Missionary Brother is moving the cot of a patient who is nothing but skin and bones beneath the bed sheet. A Sister squats on the pavement as she dresses wounds, holding a pair of tweezers in which there is a piece of cotton soaked in red disinfectant.
All this is done quietly and gently; the atmosphere is somewhat melancholy. Unimaginable misfortunes have brought human beings here to die, their skin taut over their bones, their mouths open and gasping for air, the cords of their necks stretched tight, their cheeks sunken. The dying are sacred to all religions, but here they can pass through the gate to eternity comforted by loving hands and blessed by the rites of their religion. A few drops of water from the Ganges River are placed in the mouth of the Hindus; a verse from the Koran is read to the Muslims; the Christians are anointed with holy oil. For those who belong to no religion, the face of a Missionary of Charity bends over them to give witness to the love of God for all his creatures.
Mother Teresa has frequently described the first time that she rescued from the street a dying woman whose body had been gnawed at by rats and bitten by ants. She hoisted the woman on her shoulders and carried her to the nearest hospital, but the attendants refused to accept her. Mother Teresa stood her ground, immovable, at the entrance to the hospital. She would not leave until the woman was admitted. Then and there she decided that human beings have the right to die with dignity even in the hell of Calcutta. She went to the Commissioner of Health and asked that he give her a place where a person could die with dignity. All she wanted was a place; she and her Sisters would take care of the rest. The Commissioner was Doctor Ahmed, and when Mother Teresa requested anything, it was impossible to refuse. He offered her a semi-abandoned building near the temple of the goddess Kali. At one time it had been used as a darmashalah, a lodging for pilgrims to the temple.
In his book Tristes Tropiques, Claude Levi-Strauss describes the building as it was before Mother Teresa transformed it into the Home for the Dying: “It resembled a covered marketplace. It was a lengthy building made of cement and divided into two sections, one for men and the other for women. On either side of the length of the building there were two raised cement platforms, destined for beds…. When the pilgrims awoke in the morning and went to the temple to pray for a cure, the floors were washed clean with strong jets of water and prepared for the next group of pilgrims. Never, except in concentration camps, were human beings treated so much like meat in a slaughter-house.”
It was in 1952 that Mother Teresa accepted the building offered by Doctor Ahmed and took possession of the darmashalah at the temple of Kali. The long-abandoned building was cleansed of its filth by a squad of Sisters, and Mother Teresa named it Nirmal Hriday, which in Bengali means Immaculate Heart, so named because the day of its inauguration, August 22, was at that time the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
* * * *
One does not feel any anxiety or fear when visiting the Home for the Dying, but one would prefer not to be there or at least to walk around on tiptoe. To me it seems almost pitiless to stand there and watch someone die. I go in search of the Sister who has let me in and I find her bent over a cot, holding up her right arm to give a blood transfusion. She looks at me, twisting her head to one side; she cannot straighten up because of the short tube connected to the container of blood. I ask her: “What should I do?”
My question must have seemed badly timed. She lowers her head once more and with her free arm she makes a circular motion. I understand her to mean: “Look around. There is plenty to do.” I panic for a moment, and then on the wall in front of me I see a crucifix with broken legs. A printed sign says: “Let my hands heal thy broken body.”
Lord, I would like to heal your broken body. With all my heart I would like to do so. But to do it, I would have to bathe that trembling human body, feed that drooling mouth, touch that forehead bathed in the sweat of death’s agony. I have nothing to do with this antechamber of death; I only asked permission to visit this place.
The fans cool the perspiring patients and diffuse the odor of disinfectant. The Sister pays no attention to me, nor do the volunteers who are busy with their tasks. I hasten to get my purse and I grasp it tightly to re-assume my proper role. I am here as a journalist and not as a volunteer. After all, I am not Sally.
* * * *
I met Sally this morning at Mass at the Motherhouse on Lower Circle Road. Anybody can attend Mass there; the address and the schedule are actually printed on the city map of Calcutta, together with information about museums and places of interest to tourists. The Sikh taxi driver, who took me there from the hotel while it was still dark, wrapped his turban around his head and prepared to catch up on his sleep while he waited for me. I rang the bell at the front gate and followed the silent procession that was ascending the stairs to the chapel on the second floor. Boys and girls and a middle-aged couple, all foreigners, left their shoes at the door and entered the chapel in their stocking feet. They then genuflected on the matting near the long line of Missionaries of Charity.
Mother Teresa is squatting on the floor in her accustomed place near the door. She remains absorbed in prayer throughout the entire Mass, her hands clasped together and resting on her chest. The long, narrow chapel is illumined by ten light bulbs, and as the light of day enters through the large windows little by little, Mother now and then reaches up to the switch on the wall and extinguishes a few of the lights. By the end of the Mass she has extinguished them all, because by then the bright sunshine has invaded the chapel. Though immersed in conversation with God, Mother Teresa does not neglect the little tasks of daily life.
At the end of the Mass we gather in the corridor and Mother Teresa greets me immediately. Then, with solicitude and a touch of affable irony, she says: “It was an early rising for you, wasn’t it? Go down and have some tea.” She then hurries over to the young American couple who were on their honeymoon and wanted her blessing.
The Sisters were already in the courtyard. They had put their saris in soapy water before Mass and now they were washing them. Each barefooted Sister, with sleeves rolled up above the elbow, was bent over her own pail. All the Missionaries of Charity throughout the whole world perform that same task every morning. Each Sister has two saris, and I remembered the saying of the Venetian Count who carried only two shirts in his luggage: “Una adosso; una nel fosso” (One on my back and one in the wash).
Cups of tea were ready and waiting in the parlor above the courtyard. Each cup was different from the others and some of them were chipped. The tea was black and hot, without sugar, milk or lemon, English style. “It settles the empty stomach,” says a girl standing next to me. It is Sally, a high school teacher from Ireland. Each year she spends her vacation in Calcutta and works in the Home for the Dying. This time she has been able to spend six months in India. I asked her if she had spent all that time in Calcutta. “Not spent but profited,” she corrected me. She is a bit sad because next week she must return to Ireland.
“Come to Kalighat,” she urged. “Today will be a quiet day because we finished the cleaning yesterday. Ask permission from Sister Michael Joseph.”
* * * *
Down on Lower Circle Road the noise of the traffic has not disturbed the sleep of the Sikh taxi driver. I had to shake him to wake him up, and his eyes were still heavy with sleep when he dropped me off at Kalighat in front of the temple of the goddess Kali.
The temple stands in the center of a block of buildings and is surmounted with spires fashioned in the Bengali style. The area around Kalighat is a gathering place for pilgrims and it bustles with the usual morning activities. Goats browse in the piles of refuse; crows are perched on the tops of the vendors’ shops, which are no bigger than large boxes; children are playing hop-scotch, jumping with joined feet inside squares that have been marked on the ground with chalk.
No sooner do I get out of the taxi than I am besieged by vendors of garlands of hibiscus and little statues of the goddess Kali; by women selling packets of leaves wrapped around a slice of cucumber; by beggars who show me their wounds or the stump of a limb and beg for alms; by teenagers who know a smattering of English and offer themselves as tourist guides. The pressure of the insistent crowd takes one’s breath away.
With the help of the taxi driver, who is fortified by his title as a Sikh and his tall stature, I succeed in making my way through the crowd. But it is not yet eight o’clock, and a sign on the door of the Home for the Dying requests that the bell not be rung before nine o’clock. That gives me time to look around.
In the center of the courtyard of the temple I see the huge statue, surrounded by the pilgrims who are jostling one another in order to touch it. The face of the goddess is painted black, a red tongue protrudes from her mouth, a third eye is implanted in her forehead, and she has four arms. One hand holds a dagger, another holds up a severed bloody head, and the remaining two hands are raised in benediction over the faithful. Around the neck there is a necklace of snakes and another one of skulls.
A dignified gentleman, wearing the white robe of a Brahmin, approaches me. He greets me politely and asks if he can help me with an explanation.
“My name is Manih Chatterjii. I am a priest of this temple, which is the most ancient in Calcutta and is the heart of Hinduism. Kali is the Great Mother, the goddess of power, of creation, of destruction and of conservation. She destroys evil and preserves life. We also call her Durga, which means ‘inaccessible.’ We celebrate her feast, Kali pujah, between October 10 and 20. Every Hindu is obliged to make a pilgrimage to this shrine at least once in a lifetime.
“Calcutta owes its name to the goddess Kali: Kali-kuta means the place of Kali. One must enter the temple with an empty stomach and after having bathed. Look at the large crowd that is already here at this morning hour. But you, memsahib, cannot enter now because I presume you have already had breakfast and have not gone through the ritual bathing. Return tomorrow, fasting, and you can perform the ablutions in the pool behind the temple.
“After your visit you can partake of fedda, our sweets made of condensed milk, flour and sugar. You can also get some of the religious prints decorated with orange-colored symbols, the same that Kali has. Married women paint them on their foreheads to signify: Long life with my husband. You may also offer Kali a wreath of hibiscus; red is the color used to destroy the evil devils. But you must not smell the perfume of the flowers; that fragrance is reserved for the goddess.
“Come, and I shall show you our kitchens, where each day we prepare 500 cakes for the poor. Yes, I know; you are a Christian. We are friends of the Christians. We have good neighborly relations with Mother Teresa, who works in this same building. Good-bye until tomorrow.”
* * * *
By this time it is nine o’clock, so I knock at the door of Nirmal Hriday, am mistaken for a volunteer and feel embarrassed. I wander through the section reserved for women. They are lying motionless on their cots and are being cared for by the Sisters wearing the sari, the Missionary Brothers in blue shirts, and the volunteers dressed in checkered green aprons. I ask for Sally, the teacher from Ireland, who should have arrived by now. “She was here a moment ago,” says a volunteer who is on her knees, mopping the floor with a rag. From behind a curtain comes the sound of conversation, but so low that it is little more than a whisper. I pull the curtain aside and there is Sally. With a soapy sponge she is washing the body of an old lady who is as thin as a featherless bird, with shoulder blades protruding like wings. Sally bathes the woman as gently and delicately as a mother bathes her newborn infant, all the while speaking to her in English, to which the woman responds in Hindu. How they are able to understand each other, I don’t know, nor can I imagine what they can possibly be saying to each other. Mother Teresa once wrote: “At Nirmal Hriday no one dies depressed, despairing, neglected, without food or without love. That is why I think that this is the most precious house in Calcutta. We give the poor what they ask, according to their religion. Some ask for water from the Ganges River; still others for a word or a prayer. Some ask only for an apple, a piece of bread or a cigarette. Yet others want only someone near them. We help them to make their peace with God. We live now so that they can die and return to their true homeland, as it is written in the book, whether it be the book of the Hindus, the Muslims, the Buddhists, the Catholics, the Protestants or those of any other religion.”
* * * *
The chapel in the Home for the Dying is under the roof, and from there one can see the pilgrims to the goddess Kali assembled in the inner courtyard. The hubbub of the milling crowd rises up to the terraced roof, together with the sultry air from the courtyard. The chapel welcomes me as a cool and quiet refuge. To the right of the altar hangs a crucifix, and above it are the words: “I thirst.”
You thirst, 0 Lord, and I have not given you anything to drink… [1-8]