1999-2001 (In the words of Noah Levinson, Co-Founder of Calcutta Kids)
When it became time for me to apply to colleges in 1999, I remember looking over my transcript and thinking that I would have a hard time respecting any institution that would accept me. So I decided to take a post-graduate year at Northfield Mount Hermon in Western Mass. While there, I met Sohrab, an Iranian Muslim student who told me about his experiences working at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying Destitutes in Calcutta. I was moved by Sohrab’s accounts of the poorest of the poor, and the grace he seemed to experience in sharing with others the last days of their lives. I decided that my next trip would be to Calcutta. When I told him, he said, “If you’re going, then I’m going also”.
Calcutta is one crazy city. Upon his return from Calcutta, Mark Twain said, “I’m glad I went, and I’m glad I never have to go back”. A representative from an international NGO said, “We have not seen human degradation on a comparable scale in any other city in the world. This is a matter of one of the greatest urban concentrations in existence rapidly approaching the point of breakdown in terms of its economy, housing, sanitation, transport, and the essential amenities of life.” Calcutta: once the British capital of India, once the second capital of the entire British empire, still considered the intellectual capital of India, a city with stunning architecture, the city that gave us Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray, the city which Amartya Sen and Ravi Shankar call home.
In Calcutta, one doesn’t have to search for poverty; poverty reigns, and yet somehow…somehow people are always smiling. Calcutta is the most magical place I have ever been, and what makes it so magical is that it is so human.
Sohrab and I went to work in Nirmal Hridoy which, in Bengali, means Pure Heart… Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying Destitutes. The setting is an elegant old building adjacent to the Kali Temple—one of India’s most sacred sites. Nirmal Hridoy, over time, seems to radiate its own aura of peace and tranquility. Yet, entering it the first time, I was exposed to a shocking reality– reminiscent of one of the horrific scenes from Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Before me were 100 men and women, most of them nothing more than skeletons with a thin layer of flesh covering their bones. They had nothing in the way of physical possessions, but, as quickly became apparent, what they craved most was the love which Mother Teresa and her workers were there to give. Sohrab and I spent nearly 6 weeks at Nirmal Hridoy and I was blessed with the opportunity to be with other human beings as they made their journeys from life into death. Never before had I felt so close to God. Never before had I felt I was experiencing the face of God.
As some of you who knew me as a first year college student can attest, my return to the U.S. was difficult. After 6 weeks in Calcutta, my body was here, but my heart and my soul were still in India. I had found a place which resonated deeply with me on a spiritual level, and it was difficult not to be there.
During that first year of college I did more reading about Mother Teresa and the work of the Missionaries of Charity. I was angered by the criticisms I read and was sure that Christopher Hitchens and others had simply missed the point about Mother Teresa’s vision and mission. Her work was based solely on love and her greatest fear was to come before God and be introduced to those whom she had not treated with enough love. She never claimed to run a hospital, she never claimed to rehabilitate…what she did was to give love to those who had none; she gave dignity to the dying. That seemed more than enough for me.
During my second summer with Mother Teresa’s order, however, when I saw Sudip, a young man of my own age lying on one of those cots at Nirmal Hridoy, my understandings suddenly changed. Recognizing Sudip, took my breath away.
Sudip was a beggar on the other side of the Ganges River. Every Sunday, street children from that side of the river were invited to the headquarters of a local organization to receive a meal, have a clean place to bathe, and get bandages for their sores and cuts – all of this plus an afternoon of games and songs. I had gone one day the previous summer to volunteer with this program and was put in charge of distributing bandages and dressing wounds. On that day there were over 150 children, many of whom needed medical attention. For over 3 hours I dressed small wounds and distributed medicines. But after seeing fewer than half of the children, we’d run out of supplies, and the remaining children were told to come back the following week.
Sudip was one of the kids still in line when the medicine and bandages ran out. I remember watching him and feeling particularly bad about his unattended injury. He had bumped his forehead against the head of a rusty nail just days before and urgently needed treatment. Now, a year later, here was Sudip, dying of that head injury and lying on a cot at the Home for Dying Destitutes. I was with Sudip constantly until the following day when he died in my arms.
Love actually hadn’t been enough.
In a city with more than 12 million people, it was difficult to consider it mere happenstance that Sudip and I had met again…this to me was a message telling me that I needed to do more.
While walking to and from Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying Destitutes, Sohrab and I were always struck by the children who filled the streets with their energy. We found it life affirming despite, or perhaps because of, their desperate straits. We befriended a number of these children and would stop from time to time to play cards with them, share a meal, or have them teach us Bengali slang. It became clear from our conversations that for most of these children, health care was simply non-existent. These kids became the “more” that we needed to do. The idea was simple in conception yet fiendishly difficult to bring to fruition. We wanted to establish a mobile health clinic which would drive around the poorest slums in and around Calcutta, providing medical treatment to street children in need.
Sohrab and I returned to the states and sent out fund raising letters to every person we knew, asking these persons to pass along our request. Understandably, the idea was met with a considerable amount of skepticism-even some cynicism. While admitting that such concerns might very well be legitimate, the spiritual and emotional pull was strong enough to allow us to move ahead in spite of them. In fact, enough people humored me about the outlandish idea that within two months we were financially equipped to initiate the project.