Bengali Tigers and Slum Children: Volunteering
for Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, Calcutta Part 2
By Paul Sinclair (One World One People) 23/10/00
G'Day Champions, how are we all? I have just finished another
gloriously, magnificent week in which we raised the flag of
Calcutta to see who saluted and I for one did. What a place,
what people and what a time! I am learning so much about life
— good and bad (even bad things can be turned into
positive lessons if you set about putting them right and demonstrate
a good example).
performing minor first aid in
Today I found a woman (20 to 30 years of
age) lying on one of the platforms at the station. She looked like
she could have been a part of an African Famine. She resembled a skeleton
with skin on it and she was lying in her own excrement and covered
in flies. She was barely alive, so we cleaned her up, changed her
clothes and took her to Kalighat (Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying
and Destitute) by Taxi. We always have to change their clothes and
lay newspaper on the seat of the taxis or the Taxi Drivers won't
allow us to put them in their cars.
When I let her know we were taking her to a hospital, she put all
her energy into giving me a smile. That smile I will never forget;
it was highly contagious. When I went to Kalighat to work this afternoon,
as I always do, she was still alive. So far, so good. This week we
have found two dead bodies at the station and one other Kalighat candidate
who has unfortunately just passed and left a small baby behind. The
poor people have a habit of jumping on any old train and getting off,
either wherever they feel like or wherever they are thrown off. So,
every day you never know what you will be facing.
One of the wonderful things we have to look forward to, is seeing
the many new friends we have made at the station. There is one retarded
guy who lives at the end of Platform One. He always comes with me.
He has nothing and can't speak, yet whenever we arrive a huge smile
comes to his face and there it remains. Once we gave him some food
and he went and gave it to an old blind man. We have also seen him
giving coins to very poor people and he always gives all he has.
Some of my other new friends are some street children that live at
the train station. They all call me 'Uncle' and they carry our medical
bags for us and help us find patients. They have nothing, but they
look after each other. They are forever injuring themselves because
they play on the trains. When this happens they rarely come forward
themselves and let me know, because they know that I will clean their
injuries with Betadine, which stings. So when they know one of them
has an injury, the other children will push him or her forward and
point to it. They crave affection because I think they have never
had anyone do anything but yell at them, chase them and beat them.
So, we hold their hands and play games with them.
I have also just spent three days working under a bridge, where a
lot of destitute people seek shelter and also in a neighbouring slum,
tending to all manner of injuries and sicknesses. The people either
don't wash properly or they wash in the nearby river —
that Calcutta uses as a huge toilet and as an industrial waste
dump. So, the area is a cesspit for all sorts of diseases. All their
wounds tend to get infected and fester. I have seen some fairly gruesome
sights. Also, I'm forever finding mentally ill people who get injuries
but don't know how to look after themselves or seek medical attention.
For instance, we had one man, who we had to take to Kalighat, to have
enough maggots removed from a severe leg wound, to fill a small lunch
box. We rarely get Kalighat Candidates from the slums because most
of the people live in families and they nurse their own family members.
I have only had to take one young boy from the slums to the hospital.
He was very sick with Malaria. The people just can't afford any sort
of medicine and the conditions they live in are so poor and unsanitary.
The most common cases I come across, are Malaria and Tuberculosis.
I have even treated a few lepers. Despite all this, the people are
always so happy and so friendly. In case any of you are wondering,
I was not previously a person with a strong stomach for this sort
of work. The sight of blood would cause me to get all queasy and run
a mile. It's amazing, but a little bit of effort and determination
can overcome most fears. I was also lucky that on my first day in
the slums, we were quickly surrounded by so many people requiring
first aid, that we had no choice but to get stuck in and do it. I
have now become completely de-sensitised to even the most horrific
The poor people are so wonderful! The other day I was with a couple
of friends, one of which was an Aussie mate of mine who has been working
here for nearly a year and has learnt to speak Bengali. I treated
a man for a minor wound, but afterwards he insisted that we accompany
him to his home for some Chi (sweet tea) and a short rest. So we climbed
over the railings of a pedestrian bypass, walked over a tin roof and
climbed down a metal ladder to a tiny shack next to a railway line
(home to a family of five). He wanted to cook us some rice and curry
but we told him we were all full, so before we could stop him, he
sent one of his family members off with some money and they soon returned
with three bowls of sweet curd (yoghurt) and bananas for us. After
we had eaten all of it, he told us that he felt like a poor host because
we had only eaten curd and bananas. These people have next to nothing
but what they have, they are only too willing to give.
Yesterday we hired a bus and took all the children from the slum to
the zoo. We had no trouble filling the bus with 112 children and some
parents. Some of their parents even climbed onto the roof for the
ride. I thought I might have to learn some interesting Bengali like:
'Please don't put your hands in the lions' cage!' 'Please come out
from under that elephant!' and 'Please don't throw rocks at the rhino!'
It wasn't necessary though, because they were fairly well behaved.
Since they don't have televisions and books most of them were seeing
the animals for the first time. We overheard one of the parents pointing
to an African Lion and explaining to his son that it was a Bengali
Tiger and that if they were not quiet it might get angry, get out
of its cage and eat them. It was a wonderful day but we were all exhausted
at the end of it. It has also taught me the importance of small families
and family planning.
Anyway champions, that's all for this week.
Other articles in the series:
you are interested in volunteering in Calcutta or other homes run
by Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity please visit their official
website for volunteers.
Further information can be found in 'The
Lonely Planet Guide to India'
chapter on Kolkata.
helping with the washing up in Kalighat