The Missionaries of Charity
I’d like to dedicate my first post talking about my experience at the Mother Teresa Home of the Dying in Kolkata, India called Nirmal Hriday. Nirmal Hriday translates to Pure Heart in Bangla. The Home is directed under the Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa herself. Many posts have describe the gratifying experiences of volunteering at the Home and go into great detail with one’s personal experiences, so I wanted to take a different approach. Since I could speak the mother tongue Bangla, I had the opportunity to get to know the occupants' stories. Their stories were excruciatingly devastating but outline some of the toughest flaws in humanity we still battle today. Most of the occupants there have been abandoned, left on the streets, and salvaged by the Sisters that run the Missionaries of Charity. In order to keep their voices alive even after I’ve left to return to the US, I kept a diary so I can vividly describe what they’ve told me without relying heavily on my capricious memory. To respect their privacy, I have changed their names.
During my first day at Nirmal Hriday, I was welcomed by a boy in his late teens who lived at the Home. His left cheek was bandaged, and he told my aunt and me that he had first stage oral cancer. His friends and family did not know that he was at the Home, and the hotel where he previously worked easily replaced him after he was forced to leave in order to have surgery on his cheek. When he returned, the hotel would not take him back. In an area where poverty levels are high, finding employment among the destitute becomes even more competitive. With a prominent facial blemish, this boy found himself unemployed and homeless. The only place that welcomed him was the Home.
Another woman, Gita, shows me the pages in her coloring book. Her eyes glisten as she proudly reveals her work. For most of us, coloring within the lines of a picture is an ordinary feat but for Gita it was a special milestone. Gita’s dominant right arm is broken and nonfunctional. As a result of this injury, she could rotate her arm in a full circle. Gita wasn’t a native of Kolkata, but she learned the language well enough for us to communicate. She recalled to me the events of her injury that occurred three years ago. She was working in someone’s home as a maid wearing a sari, a traditional piece of cloth traditionally typically worn by South Asian women. There was a child that lived in the house she worked who tugged on the loose end of her sari and she fell dislocating her shoulder. She couldn’t afford proper medical care so she has been living with a dislocated arm for three years. The doctors told her that her arm is incurable. Can you imagine living with a shattered arm with nothing to alleviate the pain? I constantly told her that she was the bravest person I knew; always smiling beautifully despite being in so much physical and emotional pain.
Gita originally ran away from home and lived with an older woman in Kolkata whom she considered a mother figure. When that woman died, she was left on the streets. Five pimps chased after her trying to entice her towards prostitution by offering her 1000-2000 rupees ($16-$32). She refused saying that she wouldn’t succumb even if they raised their offers. They began to chase her, and she ran from them. She hid under a bridge, underneath a car where one of the sisters from the Missionaries of Charity found her and brought her to the safe haven at Nirmal Hriday.
There was a woman who could not speak, only undecipherable sounds could be heard from her mouth as she tried to speak. Even though there were no words coming from her mouth, I could sense that she was wailing in pain as she squeezed my hand. From Gita, I learned that her kids are in Shishu Bhavan; the orphanage affiliated with the Missionaries of Charity. She still wears her marriage bangles but Gita informed me that her husband died many years ago. Gita also told me that day that she had cried the night before and couldn’t sleep. I told her crying is a good thing because it helps release all the anguish inside of you. I didn’t know how to console her because even the worst moments in my life seemed like a walk in a rose garden compared to hers.
I became really emotional my last day volunteering at Nirmal Hriday. Gita and the others told me not to cry because it was making them emotional but I could not help the tears from streaming down my face. I knew that this would be the last time I saw them. From my last visit to Nirmal Hriday, I had not seen a single familiar face when I came back this time around. The patients had either passed away or found occupancy somewhere else. I worried for Gita who said she would be there until October; thereafter she would have to find employment and find a place to stay. Every day, I still wonder where Gita and the others are and hope that wherever they are, they remain safe.
The Other Volunteers
On my last day working there, I also met a girl named Marissa from Spain. Marissa introduced me to a twenty year old girl named Kali whose husband burned her and abandoned her, taking their two kids with him. She suffers facial burns including a major deformity around the jaw area. There is blood that leaks from her mouth because the wound hasn’t all healed. Due to the injury, she has difficulty speaking and eating. Moreover, she remembers everything that happened so caution was given to the volunteers not to bring up the sensitive subject. Marissa was so affectionate with her telling her that she loved Kali and kissed and hugged her consistently. There was a language barrier between them but communication wasn't barred.
Marissa has been volunteering at the Missionaries of Charity for three weeks. She stays somewhere nearby for 200 rupees a day and 20 rupees for food. She says she isn’t rich but the cost is affordable so that she can go by. This is the second time she’s volunteering at the Missionaries of Charity. She told me that things aren’t going so well for her and she came here to find some peace. I told her that things will get better because there is something special about this place. I realized with my own personal experience and being there the second time, you don’t leave empty handed. Whether it be intangible or tangible, Mother Teresa’s spirit of giving is still alive.
What the Home did for me.
The past few months have been terrible for me. I had lost my paternal grandfather suddenly and a month and a half later, my maternal grandmother passed away from cancer. I experienced a cascade of failures and nothing was going as I planned. When I arrived at the Home, I felt a sense of inner peace that I didn’t feel anywhere else. Despite the death and sickness looming, I felt a sense of tranquility at the Home and it rejuvenated me.
After the first visit, I decided that every time I visited India, I would volunteer at the Nirmal Hriday. In retrospect, I see that the reason I was so eager to go back and volunteer was because I began to understand my life’s purpose: servicing the sick. Volunteers at the Home came from all walks of life but we all shared one thing in common: to open our hearts to those that haven't been fortunate toreceive a basic human necessity: affection. I see the volunteers as warriors who’ve set out on a mission to un-neglect the neglected.
I volunteered to help people not expecting anything in return; but I got so much more in return than what I gave. When I met the other volunteers, it felt that our energies had resonated into one and as bizarre as it sounds, I felt at that moment, I was exactly where I was supposed to be; as if our almost our paths were meant to cross. I have done my best to convey my experiences in this first blog but even language fails to truly express the emotions I felt at the Home. I am forever grateful to the Home for putting me into perspective; for allowing me to understand the value of true compassion. If I would have to call something a magical place, this would be it. It helped me rediscover the purest sense of myself. So friends, find the place where you can illuminate your inner peace because what you may find is an energy so divine. -SBD
If you took the time to read to the very end, then you believe that social injustices needs to be acknowledged and awareness needs to meet initiative.
If you want more information on the Missionaries of Charity and how you can contribute, please visit