On 9th August 2012, Mrs. Shwasti Chaudhuri, a founding board member of Calcutta Kids Trust, passed away. An unsung hero in almost every road she travelled, Mrs. Chaudhuri played a key background role in the establishment and ongoing success of Calcutta Kids. I wish to use this week’s blog to write about this extraordinary woman and the impact she had on my life.
In 2002, during a 9 month stay in Kolkata, I was introduced to Santanu and Shwasti Chaudhuri by dear friends of Calcutta Kids, Charlie and Cordie Puttkammer. Santanu was a retired business man and a former board member of Shaw Wallace; Shwasti had a small handmade paper factory and managed their beautiful home—one of the last standing British bungalows on Ballygunge Circular Road.
The Chaudhuris and I became enamored with each other. They were very supportive of the work I was then doing with the Ashalayam Mobile Health Clinic, but they realized quickly that the road I was headed down – non-stop work with the neediest kids in the slums – was a dangerous one—one that might very well lead to burnout. The Chaudhuris, worldly people who knew how hard life in Kolkata could be for foreigners, had seen others push too hard and then give up in desperation. And they made it their mission not to let this happen. They ‘adopted’ me and on a weekly basis would invite me to join them for dinner at one of the old British clubs of Kolkata—the Bengal Club, the Calcutta Club, the Saturday Club, or their home which is almost as big and fancy as a dinner club.
Noah and “Ma” distributing sweaters to destitute children in the winter of 2004 in honor of Fred Rogers.
The generosity showered upon me by the Chaudhuris was overwhelming, and along with marvelous conversations and delicious food and the best soufflé I’d ever tasted, I was introduced to and welcomed into a new Kolkata—a Kolkata far different than that of Mother Teresa’s work and the street children with whom I worked every day. If it was possible to fall deeper in love with Kolkata than I already had, it happened through the Chaudhuris.
My relationship with the Chaudhuris became that of a surrogate son. I soon began calling Mr. Chaudhuri “Baba” and Mrs. Chaudhuri, “Ma”. In 2003, when I returned to Kolkata for another long period of time, Ma and Baba invited me to live with them, and I continued to live there whenever I was in Kolkata until 2008.
While living with the Chaudhuris, Ma and I would regularly have long conversations. Ma would listen to me talk about my successes and failures working with the poor of Kolkata; she would listen to my frustrations; she would give guidance, but more often, she would just listen or re-direct my thinking if I was badly off the mark. Ma never told me what to do unless I specifically asked. She told me that the only way I was going to survive in Kolkata is if I made mistakes and learned from them. Ma was a great listener and someone I could always bounce ideas off.
When I was sick from dysentery or viral fever, Ma nursed me. When the Chaudhuris son Kaushik returned from America to live with them (I had been staying in Kaushik’s bedroom) Ma gave me her room so that I could stay close to the family; when I was far away from home and I lost two grandparents in just one month, Ma dried my tears. My own dear mother, Louise, was very close to Ma and they often holidayed together in the hills.
In 2005 when Calcutta Kids opened an office in Kolkata, Ma and Baba formed the Calcutta Kids Trust with an initial sizable donation. Ma and Baba were supportive of the Trust, but in a hands-off way. They knew that Calcutta Kids was my baby and they gave it and me the freedom we needed to grow. They often warned about potential problems; they often gave their opinions on ideas I would have, but they let me guide the Trust with their support. Board meetings were always held at their home and Ma would make sure that the trustees were well fed with singharas, an array of sandesh, pakoras and Darjeeling tea.
It’s because of Ma and Baba that I was able to survive as long as I have in Kolkata; it’s because of their love and support and friendship; it’s because they welcomed me into their home; it’s because they gave me the comfort I needed to juxtapose with my troubling days; it’s because they protected me while allowing me to make the mistakes which would eventually make Calcutta Kids what it is today.
In many ways, my life is what it is today because of Ma and Baba. Without Ma and Baba I certainly wouldn’t have survived this long in Kolkata and Calcutta Kids would likely not exist. And without my being in Kolkata, I never would have met Evangeline—my life partner.
This photo was taken at Noah and Evangeline’s wedding in India on January 14th 2012. Evangeline is sitting on Baba’s lap, and Noah is standing between his mother Louise, and his Ma, Shwasti.
Even after moving out of their home, I remained a son of the house. Ma and I spoke on the phone nearly every day. And oh how I will miss that daily phone call. But even more than the phone calls I will miss the one-on-one conversations we had over tea lounging on the bed; I’ll miss Ma’s infectious smile; and I’ll miss her scolding me for chewing on toothpicks and pulling hairs from my head when I am anxious.
Before Ma died, she told her family that I was like a son to her. The Chaudhuri family gave me the honor of carrying Ma’s body from the house to the hearse, and they asked me to participate in the Hindu rituals which a son performs for his mother. I’m deeply grateful to the family for giving me that honor.
Calcutta Kids will be forever in debt to Ma for all her love and support and to honor Ma’s life, we will continue to provide the best possible care to the pregnant women and children of Fakir Bagan.–Noah Levinson