Tag Archives: inspiration

We Will Miss You Ma

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

Calcutta Kids in Kathmandu

As one of 21 recipients of the 2009 South Asia Region Development Marketplace Awards to “Innovate for Nutrition” Calcutta Kids was invited to participate in a World Bank sponsored conference titled “Knowledge Sharing Forum on Infant and Young Child Nutrition” which took place in Kathmandu Nepal on June 12th and 13th. I went with our director, Noah to represent Calcutta Kids.

Along with representatives from the other 20 award winning organizations, the forum was attended by nearly two hundred representatives from governments, international NGO’s, and civil society organizations working to alleviate the horrific nutrition indicators which plague South Asia. The forum was also attended by journalists from throughout South Asia with the idea that in order for the public to care about nutrition, media information must be accurate and urgent.

The conference was jointly organized by the World Bank, UNICEF, SAFANSI, and presentations were made by representatives from all those organizations as well as those from organizations such as FAO, CARE, DFID, and the Micronutrient Initiative. It was interesting and fun to meet some of the world famous nutritionists and development workers whose work we regularly use and are inspired by at Calcutta Kids.

While nothing particularly new to those of us committed to improving nutrition, some of the important and shocking truths which we were reminded about and which should be shared whenever possible were:

  • Julie McLaughlin, Sector Manager for Health, Nutrition and Population in the South Asian region of the World Bank informed us that the latest estimates show that over 336 million people in South Asia are facing chronic hunger.
  • It was also discussed that the South Asian region, has the highest prevalence of malnutrition in the world and the child malnutrition in the region is estimated at 46 percent. It is worse than in Sub-Saharan Africa where the corresponding figure is 26 percent.
  • Melanie Galvin, Regional Director of MI, reminded us that that entrepreneurship cannot be possible without healthy population. If the population is deficient of vitamin A and iodine for example, how they can move forward for entrepreneurship?

Noah and I found two of the presentations particularly exciting.

The first by Tina Sanghvi, the Bangladesh senior country director of Alive and Thrive said, “The crisis (of malnourishment) is here and the solution is in our hands”. She continued by saying that the knowledge gap is the main reason of high rates of malnutrition in South Asian countries. Another point she highlighted was that many mothers have no idea that a malnourished mother can also breast feed properly and that is a serious problem. Tina also shared some terrific TV commercials on health messages that Alive and Thrive has created and now show regularly on Bangladeshi television channels. Calcutta Kids was able to get copies of some of these high quality commercials and we plan on using them with our beneficiaries.

The second was by Leslie Elder, Senior Nutrition Speci alist at the World Bank who gave a fantastic presentation on responsible and effective ways to scale up programs. When Calcutta Kids is ready to scales up its programs, the framework that Leslie shared with us will certainly be an invaluable resource. Leslie’s presentation can be found here.

For those of you who might be interested, you can see all the presentations given at the forum by visiting here.

It was a fantastic experience to participate in the forum and to be surrounded by so many people who deeply care about the very same issues we care about at Calcutta Kids. -Sumana Ghosh

Swarathma Brings in the Monsoon

I pegged Swarathma as a small time band from a mile away. It was presumptive, sure, naïve even, but it didn’t occur to me that anyone else would play for an NGO in the dusty heat of a slum for free. Little did I know how wrong I was.

When Noah divulged the details to me, I found out that the band is actually something of an Indian phenomenon. Their first album won them Best Band, Best Album, and Song of the Year at India’s most prestigious annual rock awards show. They were on the iconic TV series The Dewarists. They have toured Australia, Britian, and Morocco. And now they were playing for Calcutta Kids.

Back in the old days, for every paid gig they played one for free. They’ve since run out of enough time to keep up the one to one ratio, but when they can they still try to play for those who would not see them otherwise. Thanks to their bassist and spokesman Jishnu’s old friendship with Evangeline, the final concert on the tour to mark the launch of their second album would be in Fakir Bagan.

Weaving around piles of sand and through patches of the road lost in mud, Evangeline and I eventually led their van to Howrah and the impromptu stage that had been miraculously constructed for them. I think the band was almost so impressed as we were, and the juxtaposition of big-band electronics and crumbling-wall school grounds was immensely pleasing.

I picked out a spot in the sea of rickety plastic chairs that bulged at the edges of the colorful canopy above it, and the band sound checked as the crowd filtered in. Chandan and Kalyan lugged some wooden benches out from the school to augment the periphery as it became clear that spectators would outnumber chairs. When all was said and done, a floor of women and children—often balanced on laps or sitting together two to a chair—gazed up at the first bandstand of their lives.

Just before the band went backstage to change into performance attire, their lead singer arrived. No one was going to disappoint the crowd by admitting that he had been missing—the doctors had to knock him out cold at the hospital the night before to put a dislocated shoulder back in—and the band assured us that they could play without him. But after we left him at the hotel and told him to lie low, he just couldn’t. So with a piece of cloth to support his arm (to everyone’s amazement, he even replaced that with a guitar strap when the concert began, strumming away as though nothing had happened), he made it just in time. Security—a graying old man with a stoop and a hard stick—almost wouldn’t let him in. He didn’t have a ticket, after all.

When the band took the stage and plunged into their first song, it seemed to me that an almost tangible incredulousness emanated from the audience. The end of the first number and no more than a sparse acknowledgement of applause underlined the pristine newness of the occasion: the crowd did not know how to react simply because they had never reacted to such a thing before.

Slowly but surely, though, the audience grew less self-conscious and more absorbed by the music. Jishnu has a way of connecting with the floor before him, and in between songs he lightheartedly instructed the crowd in performance manners—when to clap, when to cheer—and introduced the songs that followed, explaining their significance and meaning. On the second song there was little cooperation when he tried to stimulate a clap, but when he motioned for the mothers to lift up their babies in front of them with the chorus of the fourth, there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation. He even seamlessly promoted Calcutta Kids’ new and critical mantra: “A child gaining weight cannot be very sick. A child not gaining weight cannot be very well.”

As the concert went on, the clouds around us darkened, rumbling closer. Just as the mood was reaching unabashed exuberance, the thunder clapped above us and the rain began to fall. At first, no one seemed to know what to do. As soon as it became clear that an inundation was in store, however, the crowd lurched into motion, fleeing either home or into the schoolhouse next door. The band and their helpers scurried to protect the equipment from the blowing rain.

Perhaps unexpectedly to the westerners among us, the deluge did not bring with it a downhearted regret that the concert had been called off before its due course. Instead, the cooling blessing of storm and rain stimulated the same energetic exuberance that had radiated up moments before at Swarathma. As we huddled inside to wait out the downpour, we figured that nature could have given us fifteen more minutes of music. But we agreed that no one could have planned so powerful a coda to the slum’s first concert.—Evan Mullen

A Message for the Community

I was recently asked, “If the population Calcutta Kids serves were to remember only one of the messages you give, what would it be?” Without any hesitation, I replied with a wonderful message I had just learned: “A child gaining weight cannot be very sick. A child not gaining weight cannot be very well.”

This is a message that Charles Janeway, Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School told his students.

This simple, yet profound statement embodies the work of Calcutta Kids; it provides convincing verbal ammunition against many of the daily battles we fight against long-held superstitions, misinformation, and a general lack of understanding regarding the importance of good nutrition during the first 1000 days.

Explaining the science behind the cognitive and physical developments that occur in the first 1000 days of life depending on nutritional status is nearly impossible for an uneducated mother to understand. Counseling, behavioral change communication, growth monitoring and promotion, and access to healthcare — indeed everything we do at Calcutta Kids — does lead to reaching the objective of good nutrition within the window of opportunity. But the programs and the activities are not enough. In our efforts to get people to care about nutrition, I believe we are underutilizing our greatest resource — the women themselves with whom we work — the true movers and shakers. If these women truly grasp what we are trying to achieve for their children and why they will figure out ways to help others understand the problem; they will take the challenge personally and seriously; and they will ensure that they themselves are well looked-after during pregnancy and will ensure that their children get the nourishment they need at the right time.

There is simply no question that every mother wants what is best for her child. But in order to assure that she provides what is best to her children, she needs to understand and really believe that proper nutrition will make a difference.

We have translated Janeway’s message into Hindi and are promoting it as a sort of mantra for Calcutta Kids. Before long I hope that every pregnant woman and mother we work with will know the mantra — but more importantly will grasp its meaning.

Jab bache ka ho sahi vikas…

To hain ye sehat ka agaaz…

Jo bacha na ho mota Zindagi bhar hain woh rota…

(A child gaining weight cannot be very sick. A child not gaining weight cannot be very well.)

– Noah Levinson

Momentum in Calcutta

Dear Friends of Calcutta Kids,

I’m hardly an unbiased observer, but one can’t help but be impressed with the extraordinary sense of momentum, the sheer energy that’s now being generated by the program. One feels this not only among the community health workers who are simply not allowing any pregnant woman or young child to fall through the cracks, not only among the data analysis team members systematically tracking progress and effectiveness of each of the program components, but also among the beneficiaries themselves: the young mothers exhibiting such pride when they observe their children’s weight gain, the new parents beaming when they that all their efforts have paid off and their newborn is born healthy and with adequate birthweight.

That’s pretty qualitative. There has been a quantum leap in the systematic gathering of monitoring data during the past year – and there will be lots to share in the months ahead. Here’s an example which I find pretty dramatic: The data analysis team has been comparing the effects of the Calcutta Kids program with those reported in the National Family Health Survey for urban slums more generally in this state. While one third of the infants in the slums of West Bengal are born low birthweight (less than 2.5 kg or 5.5 pounds), the Calcutta Kids program has been able to cut this figure nearly in half – to 17%. The program also has been able to reduce severe malnutrition in young children by 25% below the state average, a significant improvement in an area still ridden by such environmental hardship. You should have seen the proud smiles on the faces of the community health workers when those findings were announced!

Another example of this “culture of curiosity” has been an analysis of families with kids who are severely malnourished. What are the characteristics of these households? What do these families have in common, and how are they unique? This information will be invaluable as Calcutta Kids seeks to eliminate severe malnutrition (which places the child at such risk and has irreversible consequences) from these slums. There is even a plan to examine the pathogens present in these children – work being initiated with the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases.

And another observation: It’s been clear to the Calcutta Kids for some time that the problems of malnutrition and of low birthweight in India –much worse than in Africa despite India’s rapid economic growth – are symptoms of the lower status of women. Calcutta Kids has been relentless in addressing this problem, working both to empower women in these slums, and to celebrate the female child while actively involvinghusbands and mothers-in-law in the process. And one can begin to feel the change. Women work together more closely. They speak out more confidently. And it seems to me that they’re holding their heads a little higher.

You’ll be pleased to know that as of this month, 850 families in the slum are covered by Calcutta Kids’ low cost health insurance (costing less than $2 per person per year). Calcutta Kids is looking for new and creative ways to increase both enrollment and renewals so that the tragic pattern – so frequent in these slums – of families forced into severe debt when serious illness strikes, can become a thing of the past. The insurance program received lots of timely advice from Susan Richardson, former vice president of United States Liability Insurance Group, a Berkshire Hathaway company who spent 6 weeks with the insurance team.

And, finally, the very impressive Calcutta Kids Diarrhea Treatment Center (DTC) is ready to begin operations. In addition to the Center’s life-saving efforts, the documentation of effects through pre-post surveys will offer considerable insight into the cost-effectiveness of this approach for India’s slums.(You should see the new DTC doctor. She’s a house on fire!)

And this work is not going unnoticed. During my time in Kolkata we had visits both from development agencies and from public health experts like Jon Rohde, former director of UNICEF in India and Dilip Mahalanobis, credited with the discovery of Oral Rehydration Solution. All have been curious, as I have been, to fully understand what’s behind the remarkable success being achieved here.

At the beginning of February, the primary public health institution in the state awarded Noah their Founders’ Day Award in recognition of these accomplishments. Noah, in typically humble fashion, passed on the honors to the rest of his team.


Jim Levinson, Vice President

(From February 2, 2011)

The Story of Irshad

Irshad with his mother

In 2002, Irshad, was 10 years old living in the slum with his parents and siblings in a tiny dwelling. Irshad was a child-laborer who worked 9 hours a day making locks for metal trunks. His daily wage was 10 rupees (roughly 20 cents). Each week he would collect his money, give 55 rupees to his father, and keep 5 rupees for himself.

After one such week, he decided to use those 5 rupees to rent a bicycle for a few hours. He had never ridden a bicycle before, but having spent so many hours watching other children, he was sure he would get the hang of it quickly. For a while he rode around the slum with enormous joy and pride and sense of accomplishment. But his joy was short-lived. While riding past a woman frying Indian sweets, he lost control of the bicycle and fell on the frying pan of burning oil.

Irshad was rushed to the government hospital where he was diagnosed with 60 percent burns, which began at the base of his neck and ended half way down his right thigh. He was injected with numerous painkillers, but after 3 days in the hospital little had been done to heal the burns. His cries of anguish were incessant, while, day-by-day, Irshad grew weaker. His older sister then came from the village and decided that her brother should die at home in peace surrounded by his family, rather than in this hospital with people in every bed, every inch of floor space used, blood stained sheets, doctors who had become numb to the pain which surrounded them, and dead bodies which lay covered until staff from the morgue made their evening rounds.

Noah was having lunch with his dear friend and teacher, Lucy-didi when a message came to her house with the news that Irshad was dying in his home. Lucy-didi and Noah rushed to the house where they found Irshad lying naked on the cold dirt floor of his family’s dwelling with his head resting on his father’s lap. The burns were inflamed and infected; he was in excruciating pain. Within minutes they had put together a makeshift stretcher and together with his father, carried this dying child through the slum to a private clinic operated by a friend.

Noah with Irshad (right) and Kalyan in January 2012

It took hours for the nurses to clean and dress his burns and infections. While this was taking place, Lucy-didi and Noah each held onto Irshad’s hands and Lucy-didi sang songs to him throughout the day and evening. Each day Lucy-didi and Noah went to visit Irshad, and day by day their young friend became stronger and stronger. After three months of hospitalization, Irshad was strong enough to leave the hospital. His scars were deep, both physically and emotionally, but his youthful strength had returned, an inspiration to all of us.

Shortly thereafter, Noah was called to Irshad’s house and told that Irshad had a gift for him. Noah arrived at his house and found that Irshad had borrowed a tape player and was putting on his favorite Hindi film-song. The boy then began dancing passionately, and continued for 10 minutes, perspiration dripping from his forehead and his chest, but delirious with joy. Noah felt like the dance was just for him; he speaks of it as the most beautiful thing he has ever seen.

Irshad later had minor surgery which allowed him to walk with greater ease and he visits regularly with his Calcutta Kids friends. His hope is to be a doctor like the doctors who saved his life.

Noah and Irshad remain very close. When Noah was married in January 2012, Irshad was one of his groomsmen.