The Calcutta Metro to Kalighat, Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying


        The three Jewish boys liked to visit the strange man in the furnace room. Not only did he have the power to control this fiery beast, he also stored in its lair many objects of great interest - all kinds of tools, boxes of pens and nibs, chalks, coils of wire, string, and best of all, crisp, new rubber bands.

        The disturbing things however were the illustrations which he handed out to them at the end of each visit. These contained forbidden images, and they dared not take them home for fear of severe punishment.


         Descending from the chaos of cars, carts, and conveyances into the Calcutta's underground railway leads you gently into an unexpected oasis of cleanliness and efficiency. Without raising an eyebrow, the cashier accepted a number of the tram conductor's disintegrating bank notes in exchange for our tickets, and we ambled on to the uncrowded platform, where an overhead indicator displayed the imminent arrival of the next train, final destination Tollygunge. Sure enough, on the exact minute, a cool wind fleeing in front of the speeding carriages tugged at our clothes, and the deep rumbling sound grew steadily, then climaxed as the train burst from the tunnel in a blur of faces and glass. Here was the Metro, each train of eight carriages capable of carrying over 2,500 commuters at speeds up to 55 kmph underneath the hectic hubbub of the city streets. Opened in 1984, it proudly took place as India's first underground. Clean, cool, comfortable, convenient and punctual - not adjectives you normally associate with India, prompting one journalist to report, in a kind of reverse rhetoric, that the Calcutta Metro makes the London Tube look like something from the "Third World"

        On board, a recorded message from a lady with a pleasant voice advised us in Bengali, Hindi and English that the doors were about to close, named the next station, and obligingly specified which side of the train would open to the platform at that destination. Familiar station names they were - like Rabindra Sadan, Bhawanipur, and Jatindas Park- which I had heard so many times before during my time as a volunteer commuting to and from Kalighat.

        The whirring from an overhead ventilator combined with the noise of the wheels on the track precluded any serious conversation, and Jack sat opposite me contemplatively staring at the floor, doubtless thinking about the unfortunate man we were going to see. Several stations passed by, each one preceded and succeeded by informative taped announcements. The recorded voice finally announced, liltingly

        "Next station is Kalighat, platform is on the right hand side"

        Jack shouldered his bag in anticipation, then looked across at me and returned my smile. We emerged from the earth with a handful of other passengers, and stepped carefully over the convergence of tram rails adjacent to the station, then crossed the road to a fanfare of car horns. It was a short walk from here to Mother's home for dying destitutes. Its official name is Nirmal Hriday, which means "Pure Heart" but few people ever refer to it as anything else but 'Kalighat' Of all Mother's numerous other centres in Calcutta, it is probably the best-known, although from the outside it is almost indistinguishable from any of the anonymous surrounding buildings. The best known landmark for tourists is the Kali Hindu Temple, located close by.

         By now we had gathered a football team size of street urchins on the way from the station, and eventually we all joined hands, giving Jack and I centre stage in a long laughing string of childhood, who were noisily rejoicing in the discovery that Jack spoke their language almost as well as they did themselves.

        One of the boys carried a small weapon, which Jack teasingly asked him to surrender. The lad smilingly handed it over, and we stopped in mid street as Jack prepared some ammunition, and loaded it amidst shouts of enthusiasm. Looking for a target, he decided on a street sign, took careful aim, and fired. The missile hit the plaque dead centre amongst loud applause, which had onlookers turning heads and smiling. 

        "So, where did you learn to shoot like that" I asked through my own laughter.

        Jack grinned.      

        "Actually I learned to be a sharpshooter at school - and it started in the boiler room. You see, my Jewish pals and I used to visit the janitor who looked after the stationery stocks, and the big furnace. He tried hard to convert us by giving us holy-looking pictures from the New Testament, which of course for us were absolutely taboo - but we pretended to accept the pamphlets, as we were interested in his stock of thick rubber bands which we either begged, or nicked when his back was turned, as they could be made into great little finger weapons like that one" 

        "So what did you do with the literature?" I asked.

        Jack smiled at the memory.

        "The poor man would have had kittens had he known, as I believe he was very genuine, sincere and devout. Thing was though, that the religious texts and pictures he gave us were printed on a kind of semi-glossy paper which folded up nice and tight, and made excellent missile material - much superior to the soft stuff from our school jotters. Coupled with his strong new rubber bands, it put us at a huge advantage in friendly wars with rival classes. People of course never unfolded our paper pellets, so nobody, far less the janitor, had any idea that images of Christ, the Saints and the Virgin Mary were regularly flying at high speed through the playground in school battles!" 

        He chuckled.

        "I suppose you could say we had God on our side"  

         The boys fell away knowingly as we approached the small darkened entrance to Kalighat, fearing perhaps the stern look and sharp tongue of the head Sister, who runs the home with no time for nonsense. A familiar whiff, a combination of carbolic competing unsuccessfully with other unpleasant odours, wafted out to meet our nostrils. The doorway leads you straight in to the men's section, where daylight struggles to illuminate the interior, and it takes a few seconds to adjust to the gloom from the glare of a sun-splashed street. Your eyes make out parallel rows of pallets on different levels extending back on each side of the room, with human forms resting on them. Some resemble survivors of the Holocaust, with skeletal limbs, emaciated bodies, and skull-like faces, the sands of their time down to a thin and faltering trickle. Others look stronger, and wave slowly from bony hands atop forearms propped against their mattress. A few are well enough to sit or stand, and audacious enough to beg for a 'bidi' cigarette from any soft-hearted volunteer or visitor who comes within whispered earshot.

        Adjacent to the entrance on the right as you enter, a raised platform serves as an administrative, supervisory and operational centre, as well a storage place for various drugs and potions. From here, a small passage leads through to the adjoining women's section and a stairway leads up to the roof, which is used mainly as a laundry drying area. Amongst the rows of patients, sneaker-shod western volunteers wearing grubby green aprons form an unlikely backdrop, ferrying, carrying, supporting, feeding and administering. The newest fresh-faced recruits all broadcast the same intense and anxious look, like someone taking their first driving test, as they struggle to cope with the primitive conditions and scarcity of supplies in a situation born of so much need. As Jack had mentioned, medical care comes second to devotion and prayer here, and on a practical basis also, no funds are wasted on an excess of essentials. During my period as a volunteer, crockery and utensils were washed with ashes and coconut husks, soap for bathing patients was locked up, and permission had to be sought to access it. Other activities entailed an equally Spartan approach, allowing the operation to run with very little expense, despite the huge donations which were received. Leftovers donated from the staff canteens of large local companies supplemented the food cooked on site.

        Not all destitutes will die in Nrimal Hriday, and some will be well enough to return to the harsh life of the pavements or the rubbish tips where they have lived for most of their lives. The remainder, when their last day comes, will be wrapped in a sheet and laid out in the small storeroom adjacent to the kitchen, awaiting disposal and burial or cremation by whatever charitable organisation corresponds to their religion.

        As a volunteer, you learn that the patients closest to the door are mainly those who are the most seriously ill, and as we entered I noticed Jack's eyes searching amongst the prostrate figures nearest to us. Recognising Jack instantly, one of the sisters dropped the papers she was holding and moved gracefully towards us. Close up, her chestnut brown face, framed in the blue and white of her robe, radiated a rare beauty. When Jack asked after his patient, her smile faded, and her eyes softened.

         "Oh he's gone poor man, he died yesterday afternoon" she said quietly.

         Jack stood silently for a moment, nodding his head almost imperceptibly.

         "I knew he didn't have long" he said finally, with unblinking eyes.

         I had wanted to chat to some of the volunteers, but Jack had obviously no desire to stay. We said goodbye to the sister, who walked us courteously to the door. Back outside, the sun, the traffic and everyday life seemed quite unreal. However. the broad grins in the upturned faces of our small admirers - who were patiently awaiting our exodus - rapidly diverted our thoughts, and several sets of sticky brown fingers competed to hold our hands. We set off, but did not return to the underground station immediately, as I had another idea, and, I thought, an ideal place to continue our philosophical discussions.


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