When one superstar dies within a few days of another, it’s inevitable that one will receive more media attention than the other. Ten years ago this week two very famous ladies passed away–one a princess, the other a nun.
The media coverage of the passing away of Mother Teresa of Calcutta was huge, but it would have been bigger had not the press already been on a feast frenzy following the sudden shock of the Princess of Wales’s fatal car crash. Teresa’s death was dwarfed by Diana’s.
Time puts things in perspective, especially a centenary, and now with tears dried, we find this week, not the pretty face of Diana on the front cover of Time magazine, but the unusually morose face of Mother Teresa.
Why so? And why the morosity on the mien usually creased in smiles? It seems that a new book out this week, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday), has published private letters by the would-be saint revealing that she spent almost the last fifty years of her life in spiritual darkness, doubting the existence of heaven and of God. Holy Moly! The Mystic, St John is know for having his ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, but a ‘Dark half-century seems the be pushing things a bit. Poor Teresa.
In 1979, in my late twenties, I traveled overland from London to Calcutta to work as a volunteer for the organization founded by Mother Teresa, the Missionaries of Charity. I worked with the brothers of the order in their premises called Nabo Jibon in the area of Howrah. I stayed for a few months, and whilst there lost the last vestiges of any faith I had in the Catholic Church.
Below are some extracts from an account I wrote about my stay:
Mother Teresa has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize! “For work undertaken in the struggle to overcome poverty and distress, which also constitute a threat to peace.” Being told of the honor, she is said to have replied, “I am unworthy.” Everybody here is delighted because it means more people will be made aware of her work and worth.
The brothers are given a special holiday outing to go and congratulate her. Leaving Father Vinander and a couple of the seniors behind to guard the fort, so to speak, we others bundle into the back of an old ambulance and motor over to the Mother House in Lower Circular Road, merrily caroling corny old favorites such as “He’s got the Whole World in his Hands”, “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” and “My Bonny Lies over the Ocean” as we go.
On arrival, we find that some Western journalists are interviewing Mother Teresa so we have to wait for a while in the courtyard. The door of her office is open, and we can see her white and blue draped figure sitting at the desk inside. The sari catches the light and glows in the gloom.
A Sister bends over to whisper that the brothers have arrived. The interview is put on hold and she comes out.
She looks small and light enough to lift with one hand and put in your pocket. The wrinkled face is creased even more by her grin as she namastes to acknowledge the brothers congratulatory song, eyes twinkling in delight. After a few friendly words in Hindi, she returns to the reporters in the dark room.
Although she was only with us for a couple of minutes, and neither looked at nor addressed me personally, I still feel strangely elated to have been in her presence. After all – she’s the reason I’ve come all this way.
We rise at dawn, and after splashing our faces with cold water to startle away sleep, shuffle along to the chapel for hymns and prayers as the rising sun slowly tints the white walls pink.
Breakfast is at half past six: curried chickpeas with crumbly white bread and sweet milky tea in plastic beakers. Then it’s time for the morning’s work. Everybody has his allotted tasks. Mine have become quite routine now, so I can list them in order.
We come downstairs barefoot and put on rubber flip-flops and the white aprons which hang on hooks in the hall. Some brothers wear surgical masks over their mouths and noses, but I abandoned mine after a couple of days, finding it cumbersome and of little use–it doesn’t keep the smell out! John doesn’t use one either, and we share the first task together – collecting the plastic bedpans and bottles that have been used during the night. Sometimes the contents have overflowed onto the floor. After quickly wiping up the worst of the mess, we empty the containers into the squat toilet holes in the dark narrow lavatory off the main ward, scrub them out by hand with brushes and disinfectant, and then take them outside to dry in rows in the sunshine.
After that we start on the bogs themselves, seven in a row, in cubicles without doors. Aim has often been inaccurate, and excreta of the most variable shape and consistency have to be swept into the bowls before washing and scrubbing can be done in earnest. It’s a wretched gagging chore, but someone has to do it, and John and I have agreed that as volunteers we should spare the more hard-working full-time brothers. After scouring the floor and bowls with powder and sluicing them down, it’s best to go outside and sweep the contents along the narrow open channel that leads to the septic tank at the other end of the garden, because if you don’t it can get clogged up and spill over onto the verandah.
The next job is to wash the patients. This is done in the damp dark room next to the latrines. They come in groups of three or four, and after hanging their lunghis on pegs, stand naked and soap down their usually emaciated bodies while we soak them with the hose, or douse them with buckets of cold water. We have to carry the old and crippled ones there and back; they crouch on the floor for their ablutions. Some men can’t reach their backs or feet, and need a hand, but most manage okay, and wash themselves with as little self-consciousness as kittens, making do with the coarse soap as shampoo without complaint.
They put up with everything, no matter how inadequate. After washing, for instance, some want a shave, but aren’t trusted to do it themselves. I’ve been delegated as barber for those who wish to be clean-chinned, but the only razor is an old blunt Permatic. I apologize as the blade nicks their skin, leaving little smears of blood in the soap, but they take it all in stoical silence, or continue gossiping with their neighbors as though they haven’t felt a thing.
I’m also on lunghi-duty, which means handing out fresh ones to the patients when necessary. Is ‘patients’the right word for them? Although this isn’t a proper hospital, they are pretty patient, so I’ll call them that. Brother Zachary, the stern one in charge of morning work has berated me a couple of times for giving clean lunghis too often. He says that they dirty them on purpose, and that I should distribute no more than one fresh lunghi per patient per week; otherwise it puts too much pressure on the laundry squad. But the patients usually win me over, plaintively pointing out the damp stains and streaks they’ve made, and after a quick look around to check that Brother Zachary is not in sight, I slip them a clean one.
Thursday is washing day. Great cauldrons are lugged into the courtyard and filled with water which is brought to a boil over little bonfires of firewood. Then the dirty lunghis are dumped in and boiled, stirred around with long sticks for a time before being hauled out and hung up on the lines to dry.
Most of the patients here are beyond medical help–limbless, crippled, mad, paralyzed, or in the last stages of T.B. It’s simply a place for them to die with a little more dignity than they would on the streets. The very name of the place–The Institute for Sick and Dying Destitutes–doesn’t exactly inspire hope.
I saw a man die on my first day. He staggers out naked from the washroom onto the verandah where I’m sweeping, his thin ebony-skinned body still dripping with water, and crumples down onto the concrete, wide sunken eyes staring silently up at the sky, white teeth exposed in a rigid grin. It’s obvious that he’s a goner–even Brother Zachary has to stand powerlessly by and watch as the face and body relax as life departs.
It looks so easy and simple for him to die, his soul seems to slip out of the glazed eyes and escape into the sky above, free at last from a miserable pain-racked existence. I am surprised at my sang-froid as I help to carry the corpse to the little outhouse in the garden to await burial. It’s not like a person any more–more like an abandoned chrysalis.
Another task that I reluctantly perform on request is ear cleaning. A piece of cotton wool is wrapped round the head of a match and then poked into the orifice of the ear, twirled around and extricated with the accreted brown wax. The patient sits there patiently while I carry out the business with great trepidation, occasionally eliciting a pained wince if I push too far. Sometimes to my relief, the victim gets fed up of my inept fumbling and takes the instrument from me to finish the job himself.
All kinds of other chores are going on around me–dressing of wounds, injections, medical consultations–but I’m quite happy with the menial tasks, culminating in the evacuation from the wards of all patients and beds, and the sluicing down of the floors with water and disinfectant which is swept out through the open doorways with hand brushes to the accompaniment of Indian pop music blaring from the radio on the wall.
A gecko lives behind the crucifix above the altar. It comes out during morning prayers, roused by the rhythmic chanting of the brothers, and leisurely roams the walls, breakfasting with quick flicking tongue on the dozing bloated mosquitoes. He never fails to make his matinee appearance and has become my secret focus during the droned service. Inwardly I cheer each time he makes a sticky strike and devours his prize. The buzzing victim has more likely than not supped on the blood of several of the brothers the previous night. The lizard has become my revenging Christ-creature, delivering a deft Doomsday to our enemies.
Do any of the others watch his stealthy process around the dawn-lit walls? Probably not. It would be embarrassing to ask–the question proving that my mind is not focused as it should be on the Mass–this automatic, soulless Mass–a sleep-walked ritual, invocation and response, learned parrot-fashion by the boys, many of whom don’t even know the meaning of the words they mouth in their sleepy sing-song way. And it’s six o’clock in the morning, for Christ’s sake!
What am I doing here? On my knees in the chapel of a sick-house in Calcutta, watching a prowling reptile gorge itself on mozzies instead of tanking up on holiness for the day. I am a misfit–and daily becoming increasingly aware of the fact.
The ‘burnt’ man lies on a plastic covered mattress on the garden verandah. His skin is black and peeling away, revealing pink spongy tissue beneath; his eyelids look as though they are about to fall off. Occasionally I’ve helped to turn him, as it’s considered bad for him to lie continually in the same position, but his skin comes away on our fingertips like that of an overripe fig, and patches stick to the plastic and remain there. He is unconscious, but rambles deliriously. Apparently his condition is a reaction to drugs he was prescribed at a hospital. He turned out to be allergic to them and there’s no antidote.
A flurry of activity in the courtyard yesterday as the iron gates open to let in a rickshaw carrying a brother and a thin, grubby child with hair so long and matted that it’s difficult to distinguish whether it’s a boy or a girl–but it’s the former of course, females not admitted to this institute. I wonder what his problem might be as I watch the tragic little creature lifted down and carried into the building.
I discover the answer to my question the next morning when I am given the task of standing him naked against the garden wall and shoving a suppository up his festering venereal-infected anus.
He was discovered at Howrah Station, that haven for runaway children, who, if they have the misfortune to be pretty, are sexually abused by the male vagrants that also make their home there. The damage looks serious, and I have little hope that the antibiotic glycerin torpedo I insert into his poor abused bum will repair it. He winces only slightly as it goes in, accustomed to worse at the mercy of the tramps.
I’m getting to know the patients. One is the spitting image of the dog-man I saw that night at the golden Temple in Amritsar. The same joined brows over the glaring, glittering eyes; the same slavering grin, revealing huge canine teeth; only this guy is completely naked. He doesn’t understand clothes and will not wear them, preferring to roam around on his hands and knees, occasionally barking. He’s harmless, but like all dogs can be obstinate if he doesn’t want to do something. Fortunately, he doesn’t mind water; I’ve hosed him down a few times and he seems to quite enjoy it.
Another man I have to wash has a huge pair of testicles which hang down to his knees, almost the size of basketballs, completely dwarfing his penis. I suppose it’s a kind of elephantiasis. He’s off his rocker, smiling slyly as I sluice him down, muttering continually in Hindi. I don’t understand what he’s saying, but it seems to be mostly about the salacious exploits of Queen Victoria, for her name recurs again and again, accompanied by leering winks.
One pathetic creature with darting panic-stricken eyes, sniveling under the hose, keeps his hand in a tightly clenched fist. I manage to get him to open it while wrapping him in a fresh lunghi, and discover a crumpled five-rupee note.
“These people are thieves!” he moans. “I am a Brahman! I should not be here among such low-life!”
It seems pride can come after, as well as before, a fall.
The daily treatment of the bedridden beggar next to the washroom consists of unplugging and replugging a deep cavity under his left buttock with a wad of cotton wool soaked in iodine. It seems pointless–there’s no infection or bleeding, the healing completed long ago, the wound has become nothing more than a cavern of flesh. He submits to it cheerfully, lying on his front, bum exposed, while puffing away on a bidi – the dirt-cheap little brown cigars popular among the poor.
They are not popular, however, with Brother Z, who disapproves of the patients smoking. But I’ve discovered a supply in the storeroom and smuggle them out for the addicts whenever Brother Zachary isn’t around.
Another task I consider unnecessary, perhaps even harmful, is the daily change of dressing I have to perform on the arm of a very wizened old gentleman. Several large wounds surround his right elbow, revealing the raw subcutaneous tissue. My task is to anoint these areas with a salve and cover them with a fresh bandage, but I’m convinced that the wounds are merely being reopened every day by the unwrapping of the bandage. The ointment, initially necessary as protection against infection, now merely acts as a clog, and in my opinion the elbow should be left uncovered for the skin to heal in the open air. But I’m not a doctor. But then, neither are any of the brothers.
None of them have had any proper medical training, and the materials they have to work with are no way up to scratch. Like the Permatic razors I use for shaving, needles for injections are re-used over and again, making them blunt and far from sanitary. The medicines are just a jumble of pills and potions sent by various do-gooding charities; the limp, lumpy mattresses are cast-offs from the American Army. It’s somehow not right–especially when you consider the opulent wealth of the Vatican, a smidgen of which could work real miracles–not only here, but in places like this all around the world.
If there’s time, I help with the queue of naked men and boys being treated for scabies. Many of them aren’t inmates, but come off the streets to have their infected areas daubed with a white lotion. The scabies spreads everywhere in swelling hillocks or scabby volcanoes, on their arms, legs, torsos and genitals, but the lotion seems to be effective, as I’ve noticed an improvement in some the ones I’ve swabbed more than once.
The burnt man has mercifully died. I watch from the balcony as a furious group of relatives and friends arrive to collect the body during a blackout. The light cast by their flaming torches dances on the walls of the compound. They shout curses and shake their fists at the Institute. I’m reminded of the scene in Frankenstein where the villagers storm the castle with the intention of destroying the monster. It seems they blame the brothers for the death. What did they expect? A miracle?
A French doctor visits about once a fortnight to examine and treat the most seriously ill patients, recommending their removal for amputations or emergency operations in proper hospitals where necessary.
He arrives without announcement, and is always gratefully received by the brothers, who hold him in great respect and act on his suggestions without question. Here and gone within an hour, he’s a model of practicality and efficiency, exact and precise in action and diagnosis. Aged about forty, with black, close-cropped hair, a well-trimmed beard and Spaniel eyes, I’ve yet to see him smile. Although he couldn’t be described as morose, you can’t imagine him laughing. Hilarity is not on his timetable. He wears a long, brown, collarless shirt over baggy cotton trousers, visits the other hostels run by the sisters and clinics for the poor, lives alone in a single room in a slum tenement, and speaks fluent Hindi. I am in awe of him.
Before retiring for the night at nine, we have a get-together in the chapel. First, there is a period of silence where we meditate on and examine all the days’events, the emotions we’ve been through, self-assessing where we have succeeded or failed, then mentally wash away all influences so we can sleep untroubled and wake prepared to face the evils of another day.
Brother Zachary delivers a curtain lecture before we retire. Last night he told the tale of a young man arrested for thieving, about to be carted off for a long period in jail. As a last request, he asks to be allowed to embrace his weeping mother. Permission is granted. He pulls her tenderly to him, puts his lips to her face – then savagely bites off her nose and spits it out, proclaiming as they haul him away that she is responsible for his downfall, having poisoned his life by bringing him up to be a thief, and richly deserves the punishment he has meted out. Pleasant dreams!
A letter arrives out of the blue from my father, wondering if I have any regrets, along with a cheque. Money! It’s disgusting how grateful I am.
On my Thursday off I go into Calcutta and turn the cheque into cash. After browsing through a bookstore I come away with The Complete Works of Shakespeare.
Heading back to the Institute, while passing in front of an expensive hotel frequented by Westerners, a furtive little guy loitering on the pavement outside calls out in a low voice:
“Heroin! Cocaine! Acid! Hash! Grass!”
I halt in my tracks and walk back.
“Did you say grass?”
“We have much grander fare. Our opium is excellent; and as for … ”
“The grass will be fine. I’d like some, please.”
He beckons, and I follow him, wondering if I’m doing the right thing. I can afford it now–but what about the decision I’d made to forswear the pleasures of the world–the booze, the fags, and the pot? But grass is different, I argue to myself. It’s a natural growing herb. It’s even considered holy by Rastafarians! I miss it.
We enter a tiny shoe shop, and after accepting tea from the owner and sampling a couple of joints of the famous Calcutta grass, I float out with two small filled brown envelopes. Quality stuff it is, and I’m glad to have bought it, no problem at all. The only problem is where to hide it at the Institute?
Found the ideal hiding-place–on the dormitory bookshelf, between the pages of my copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass! A private joke, but the envelopes fit without undue suspicious bulging, and nobody here is likely to dip into Uncle Walt except me.
And now while everyone else takes his hour-long siesta after lunch, I am where no one can find me – at the very zenith of the building, the straw-strewn concrete top of the water tank on the roof, reached only by a rickety bamboo ladder. While they snooze I squat up here, take out a filter cigarette and roll it between my fingers to empty it of tobacco, which I scatter among the straw. I fill the empty sheath with the finely chopped dusty-green grass from the envelope, press it down with a matchstick to make sure it’s firmly filled, twist the paper at the end, give it a shake, then light up and blast off.
The sky is a huge powder-blue dome. From my eyrie I look down on the neighboring Christian cemetery where a few ambling cows act as slow but effective lawn mowers. Tombstones protrude from the grassy mounds like the fingernails of buried giants. A trio of coconut palms towers in the center, their glistening emerald leaves refuge to a murder of cursing crows who occasionally swoop down to carry away scabby bandages from the dump in the corner of the Institute garden.
My spirits soar with the smoke. The cries of the street-sellers, laced with the ringing of bicycle bells become a litany. A great compassion for the world wells up inside me, the impermanence and fragility of life and the epic scale of time past and to come fills my eyes with tears. I hold down the last sacred lungful, carefully extinguish the joint, and then open my Shakespeare.
Sleeping arrangements for the brothers are strange. We Western volunteers, protected by mosquito nets, sleep on mattresses with pretty patchwork quilts to cover us, stitched and donated by charitable American ladies. And although many of the patients downstairs don’t have beds to lie on, they all have mattresses–if you could give that name to those lumpy thin sacks. But the brothers, the cheerful hardworking young Indian lads, have nothing. After the last prayer meeting of the night, they take themselves off with a blanket to find a place on the floor, on a table in the refectory, or up on the open terrace roof under the stars.
There’s a three-year probation period before they make the decision whether to take the vows and become a fully-fledged brother. It seems a hard life, but perhaps to them it isn’t, for many are from poor rural villages, and here at least they’re assured of three good meals a day, and work among friendly companions of their own age and faith.
The little boy with the clap is better! It’s been a few weeks since I gave him the suppository, and I hadn’t seen him since, but today I notice him playing chase with the other boys in the front compound, hair cropped, and weight gained, laughing, shouting, bouncing, and nimble on his feet. A complete contrast to the trembling emaciated wraith that arrived. Sad to think that now he’s recovered he’ll soon be released and probably end up back at the station, where the cycle of rape and disease will begin all over again.
This morning there’s a funeral for a recently deceased patient who had been a Catholic. It may have been the one I saw laid out in the corridor the other day, or the stiff old naked body that John and I lugged to the charnel house a couple of mornings ago. I don’t know what they do with the others, but this being a Christian corpse, he is considered worthy of burial in a plywood coffin, which I help a group of brothers to carry. We follow Father Vinander out of the iron gates and a couple of hundred yards up bustling Belilious Road to the green calm of the Christian Cemetery, where we place the coffin in a freshly dug grave. Father V gives a brief eulogy, and the soil is spaded back into the hole.
We emerge from the cemetery to the sound of cymbals, flute and drums and an excited crowd lining the road. Confused at first, we soon realize that it is not our funeral party that is the centre of all this attention, but a group of tall dark women in bright saris and garish make-up who play the instruments, singing, dancing and whirling down the dusty street to the wide-eyed admiration of the onlookers.
I notice that apart from their height, the hands and feet of the women seem larger than the average female’s, their faces bigger, and faint stubble on their jaws is visible through the pancake.
The Institute cook, who has been along for the funeral, nudges me, and pantomimes two large breasts on his chest and a penis between his legs which he abruptly chops off.
“Man-woman! Woman-man!” he exclaims, eyebrow roguishly cocked, but without contempt.
They are Hijras – a sect of crossdressing transvestite eunuchs, devotees of the fertility goddess Bahuchara, whose dancing performances bring blessings to new born babies. They are regarded as ‘neither man nor woman’, but they dress like women and affect exaggerated female mannerisms.
The rusty gates of the Institute open to us brothers and we enter its portals of purity, while the Hijras, accompanied by their loud, insistent music and much attention sweep down the street on their frantic, sacred gay way.
Towards lunchtime I notice a group of brothers and patients gathered by a window in the corner, sighing and cooing in admiration. I go to see what’s happening. The center of attention is a beautiful little boy with a beaming smile, two or three years old, prattling away in the arms of his mother, another woman by their side. The child is a ray of sunshine in the dingy, miserable ward, and I find myself smiling, until I notice one of his thumbs, wrapped in an old encrusted bandage. I learn that several weeks ago his thumbnail had been smashed in a slamming door; his mother had bound it up; but now she thought it time for the dressing to be removed, and because it had dried so hard, she had decided to bring the boy here to have it taken off.
“And off it will come!” cries Brother Zachary as he unpicks the imbedded knot and begins to unwind the cocoon. The frightened child glances at his mother in alarm and starts to squirm, but she holds him tight. As the bandage jerkingly unpeels, his whimper rises to a cry, to a wail, to a scream, while from all sides soothing voices try vainly to placate him. It’s too much for me. I have to get away, and I flee to the roof with my grass, my only anodyne.
The Catholic graveyard has been transformed. The graves I look down on from my sentinel are now a scatter of luminous lozenges. Tomorrow being All Souls Day, relatives and friends have come and painted the mounds of hardened earth in glorious colors–pink, turquoise, lime, and sherbet yellow.
Planted candles flicker on them, surrounded by garlands of red and orange blossoms. Each tomb looks like a birthday cake that could be sliced into and devoured. A drowsy cow meanders among them, pausing to crop here and there. My heart rejoices at the sight. This is beauty. This is poetry–no doubt accentuated by the heady, aromatic smoke of my joint that has banished the cares of the day. If only for a short while, I have found peace.
I’ve stopped going to morning prayers. Forcing myself to crawl out of bed at six to dress and kneel on a hard floor among a lot of droning sleepyheads is not preferable to lying in cozy torpor, game for another dream or two. John told me that morning prayers weren’t compulsory for volunteers when I first arrived, but of course I was keen then to be part of the team, to learn the ropes and be obedient and unobtrusive. Now I’ve decided to be more honest with myself. If I don’t have to get up before the sun and murmur scripted lines on bended knees, then I choose not to. By staying in bed I’m at least not guilty of hypocrisy – a sin I am becoming more convinced is one of the deadliest. John occasionally sleeps in too, but more often he will troop to chapel with heavy eyelids to ‘keep up appearances’. I don’t any more. I put in my appearance at breakfast.
Work in the wards this morning is suddenly interrupted by Brother Zachary who summons brothers to assemble before a little glass case which I’d never noticed before on the wall in the hall. It contains a statue of the Virgin Mary. Brother Zachary lights a candle and places it on a shelf underneath, the brothers sing a hymn, make the sign of the cross, and then we all go back to work.
Did Jesus really mean for his mother to be venerated as a virgin goddess, or for a statue of his pain-racked body, discreetly loin-clothed for decency’s sake, to be worshiped above an altar after his death?
It seems no religion is guiltless of some form of idolatry. What would Buddha have thought about the millions of graven images supposed to represent him? The Jews have their Wailing Wall in Jerusalem to bang their heads against, and the Moslems their Kaaba in Mecca which they whirl around – a pagan fetish long before Allah was invented.
Religion is handed down from generation to generation–an inheritance accepted unquestioningly as a treasure. The rituals are learned and followed and the brain is laundered. And it would take a very brave or foolhardy soul to stand up and admit doubt – without knowing there were others who felt the same.
Mother Teresa has accepted the invitation to come to the Institute for a thanksgiving party to congratulate her on winning the Nobel Peace Prize – and she’s coming next week! Rapturous applause greeted the announcement in the chapel after Mass. Since then there’s been such scrubbing and cleaning and painting; brothers rehearsing songs, poems and speeches; great cauldrons of water are boiling lunghis so that the bewildered patients will be spick and span on the day.
Even the volunteers have been persuaded to contribute something to the program. Gunter suggested Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence and we practice it each night before bedtime, but have difficulty harmonizing, and are beginning to think that the song might be too gloomy for such a festive occasion.
One supposed improvement in honor of the Mother Teresa’s impending visit is also a big mistake. The quilts that the brothers use for kneeling on in the chapel have been discarded, and instead the floor has been fitted with a garish purple nylon carpet, decorated with yellow flowers. Not only is it an assault on the eye, it’s also injurious to the body. A burning sensation develops after a few minutes of kneeling on its tough grooved ridges, and when you stand up there are painful red welts on your knees that take a while to disappear, and then it’s time to repeat the process with another Mass or prayers. The whole floor has been turned into a permanent penance!
Mother Teresa’s Thanksgiving Day.
The building is spruce and ship-shape and the inmates likewise by the time the two ambulances lurch up Belilious Road and turn in through the open gates. The street outside is buzzing with excitement, all the locals out to watch her arrive. Most of the brothers have formed a welcoming committee down in the courtyard, and I have a good view from the first floor balcony.
A group of young sisters in their blue and white saris alight from the back of the first ambulance; then the doors of the second open and out steps Mother Teresa to a burst of general applause. The crowd spills in from the street and surges around her to get a closer look; the little woman is in danger of being swamped. There is much bowing and salaaming; some even throw themselves on the ground and try to kiss her feet. Laughing, she shoos them firmly away as she proceeds to the verandah, tiny but tough, radiant with energy and good humor.
The excited chatter echoes in the stairwell as they ascend on their way to the chapel where a Thanksgiving Mass is the first item on the program.
I decide to get there ahead of them and see Mother Teresa from close up–living saint, the woman who has brought me half-way across the world to India. I slip into the empty chapel and station myself just inside the doorway, my heart pounding. The purple nylon carpet glares threateningly.
The babble gets louder as the crowd approaches, and then stops just outside the door. Many in the entourage are Hindu well-wishers who’ve tagged along from the street, and although they revere Mother Teresa for her kindness and charity to the poor of their country, her religion is taboo for them, the chapel is shrine to an alien god.
They stand back and she enters first, alone.
I am struck again by the smallness of her stature – not even up to my shoulder. Putting my palms together in the namaste salute, I bow and smile.
Her head lurches back a fraction; our eyes meet for a moment–and in hers I find, instead of the care, kindness and compassion for which she is famous, a look of startled surprise, indignation and dislike.
It’s over in an instant. She passes on into the chapel, kneels on the horrid carpet, clasps her hands in prayer and gazes passionately at the crucifix over the altar, her concentration undisturbed by the entry of the brothers and the visiting Christian dignitaries who proceed to fill the room to overflowing. Hurt and confused by the look we shared, I decide to go and have a joint on the roof. I hope that the gecko doesn’t disgrace the Institute by making an impromptu appearance during the service.
On my way upstairs I notice a sack of puffed rice in the annex kitchen and toss a few handfuls down into the garden. The astonished crows swoop like vultures from their sentinels along the wall and gobble it all up quickly. Treats for everyone on Mother’s Day – God’s winged creatures no exception!
I’ve decided to leave. The truth is that I’m just not suited to this place–and vice-versa. Everything is steeped in a religion that I no longer believe in, that I find false and wrong, and I don’t think I can hack it.
As I roll up I wonder how to interpret the look Mother Teresa gave me. Maybe she was just surprised not to be first into the chapel, or maybe she had seen into my soul and recognized me for the heretic that I am–perhaps even a satanic enemy in their midst – but the hurt fades like the smoke which drifts from the spliff up into the infinite sky. Each lungful fills me with benevolence and forgiveness.
I come down later to join the party on the lower roof. Plastic cups of black, green and orange-hued soft drinks and plates of gooey Indian sweetmeats are going around. Mother Teresa, seated on a raised dais like a goddess, listens politely to the poems, speeches and songs in her honor. Brothers and sisters stand or sit cross-legged on the floor around her.
Much to our relief, John, Gunter and I aren’t called upon to perform The Sound of Silence, due to lack of time.
A few bemused patients have wandered upstairs to see what’s going on, including the wolf-man, who crawls about on all fours, sniffing suspiciously. ‘Queen Victoria’is there too, his inflated scrotum mercifully concealed by a clean lunghi as he roams around, scowling and muttering to himself.
‘The Big Baby’- a lanky scarecrow with huge eyes and ears is in paroxysms of delight at the festivities, his bald head lopsided with an ecstatic grin, hands clasped and twisted in rapture.
And suddenly it’s all over, Mother Teresa leaning out of the window and waving a vigorous farewell as her ambulance noses its way out of the compound through a cheering multitude of fans, like a pop idol at the height of her fame, a superstar saint of our time
I leave without saying goodbye. Farewells are never fun, especially if you’re the one who’s leaving. Despite my protests, John and Gunter insist on coming along to see me off.
Going down a staircase at Howrah Station we come across a thin young boy lying unconscious, commuters stepping unconcernedly over him. Gunter says they’ll check him out after they’ve seen me onto the train. But the whole station is a whirlpool of poverty and degradation, a treadmill of dirt and monotonous squalor – penniless new arrivals quickly adopted and initiated into the rites by the gangs of scrawny prowling boys, pawns themselves of the older tramps who squat smoking and bargaining over their latest swag; And yet. Amidst it all, smiles and chatter and laughter abound; bright posters for films with their favorite stars cheer up the walls; hot sweet tea is always available, along with cigarettes and lots of company. You can even die in company, and nobody holds it against you.
If I’d known at the time that Mother Teresa was having such dark doubts about the existence of heaven and God, I’d have invited her up to my eyrie to share a spliff. That might have sorted her out. A few years ago I read about a nun on a Greek island who was arrested for growing cannabis in the garden outside her cell. In her defense she claimed that smoking pot helped her prayers and brought her closer to God. Right on, sister! That’s my kind of saint.
MICHAEL DICKINSON, whose artwork graces the covers of Dime’s Worth of Difference, Serpents in the Garden and Grand Theft Pentagon, lives in Istanbul. He can be contacted via his website http://yabanji.tripod.com/ or at: firstname.lastname@example.org