Man- Eating 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).

A Volunteer performing minor first aid in
Calcutta's slums

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 sights.

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.

Bye now.

Click here to view images from Calcutta

Other articles in the series:

Volunteering for Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity to serve the Poorest
of the Poor in Calcutta, India Part 1, 16 October 2000
Volunteering in Calcutta, India Part 3, For the Benefit of all My Brothers & Sisters Who Survive by Begging, 31 October 2000
Volunteering in Calcutta India, Part 4 World Poverty and the Final Solution,
10 November 2000

If 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.

Volunteers helping with the washing up in Kalighat

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© One World One People, 24 January 2002
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