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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXV, No. 4
Christmastide 2010

No Crib for a Bed
Christmas in Kolkata

by Verity Worthington

“At Christmas we see Jesus as a little babe, helpless and poor. And He came to love and be loved. How can we love Jesus in the world today? By loving Him in my husband, my wife, my children, my brothers, my sisters, my parents, my neighbors, and the poor. Let us gather around the poor crib in Bethlehem and make a strong resolution that we will love Jesus in all those we meet every day.” — Mother Teresa

The United Kingdom spent £20 billion on Christmas in 2009, £1.6 billion of which was spent on food. Brits consumed an astonishing 10 million turkeys, 25 million Christmas puddings, 250 million pints of beer, and 35 million bottles of wine. All this in a time of economic downfall!

The contrast between the original Christmas story and western consumerist Christmas has never been greater. We are so used to seeing the Nativity through pre-school productions and tinsel that we can easily forget the harsh reality — a young, poor couple forced to make a long arduous journey by an oppressive government. Mary was forced to give birth in the crudest of surroundings; there was no room for them; they were strangers, outsiders, insignificant.

In 2008 the theological think-tank Theos undertook a survey, asking 1000 members of the general public where Jesus was born, who told Mary she would give birth to a son, who was Jesus’ cousin, and where the Holy Family went to escape from Herod when Jesus was a small child. Only 12% could answer all four questions correctly — although 73%, thank goodness, knew Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

Several local councils in England have renamed Christmas “The Winter Festival” in order to be inclusive and not offend anyone. A survey of 5500 Christmas cards at the popular High Street chain stores found only 67 depicting the Nativity scene. BBC’s children’s television program Newsround concluded that only 44% of 7-11 year-olds considered Christmas a celebration of Jesus’ birth. Who can blame them, with the media seemingly intent on secularizing December 25?

This Christmas, as in several past years, I will be volunteering in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, with the Missionaries of Charity — the order founded by Mother Teresa. Nowhere comes closer to that first Christmas than the slums and streets of Kolkata. There are many Holy Families, shunned by the world, living on dirty pavements amongst street dogs, garbage, and rats.

On first impression, one is shocked at the conditions — new volunteers regularly arrive at registration in tears, unable to comprehend the poverty. After a while stepping over sleeping families on the streets becomes “normal” — everything is relative, and the not-so-generic poor need rice and rupees far more than sympathy. They live their whole lives in the public eye; babies are born on the streets and wrapped in swaddling clothes — not so different from a stable.

Volunteering at Christmas is a poignant experience. Mother Teresa was keen for people to experience serving the poorest of the poor: “Discover the other through direct contact. Go to Kalighat and learn your lessons, not out of a book, but in the rough and tumble of life, among real people, in a setting you will never forget”.

Thousands of volunteers make the journey every year from all corners of the globe. There are no qualifications required; you don’t even have to write in advance; you simply turn up with your passport at the appointed time (3:00 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday at Shishu Bhavan, 78 AJC Bose Road), and the sister in charge of volunteers (Sister Mercy-Maria) will allocate an apostolate and give you a miraculous medal.


There are several centers in Kolkata open to volunteers. Kalighat — the home for the dying and destitute, is the most well known, and too often the need for beds in the home far exceeds the supply. Here volunteers are busied with laundry and washing dishes, feeding patients, helping to exercise and comfort them. Kalighat is often referred to as “Mother’s first love”.

Kalighat is smaller than I first expected, nestled in the corner of the bustling Kali Temple complex — an old hostel for Hindu pilgrims in the south of the city, donated to the society in 1952. The house is split into two sections — male and female — with 50 numbered beds on each side.

There is a mortuary and washing area in the middle; always a hive of activity with sisters and volunteers. The washing is hung on the roof — transported upstairs in wicker baskets (balanced on your head if you’re feeling native) by a chain of volunteers.

There are many interesting conversations to be had over the laundry in Kalighat. Over the years I’ve met so many interesting people, all in Kolkata with different reasons, different stories, different journeys. Some come for a day, others for a year. No one can fail to be touched by it.

Tea break is somewhere around 10:00 am, when everyone decamps to the roof for much-needed chai (spiced Indian tea) and protein biscuits. The view from the roof is mesmerizing; you watch goats being herded against their will into the temple for sacrifice, flower-sellers threading marigold garlands as offerings, families begging from the pilgrims, tourists eager to see Kalighat as much as they are the temple.

After tea break it is lunchtime for the patients, many of whom need assistance eating. At first it was difficult, feeding someone with my hands, as is the Indian custom; yet somehow this primal act is always an act of love. I was humbled at the way patients routinely thanked volunteers for changing their sheets, for dressing their wounds, or just sitting and holding a hand. There may be language barriers, but the universal language of humanity takes over. As Mother Teresa said:

Nobody in the home for the dying in Kalighat has died depressed, in despair, unwanted, unfed or unloved. That is why I think this is the treasure house of Calcutta. We try and give them whatever they want — according to what is written in the book, be it Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist, or Catholic, or Protestant, or any other society. The religious societies collect their own dead and provide them cremation or burial according to their religious rites. Some ask for Ganges water, some for holy water, for a word or a prayer. Some just ask for an apple or a pomegranate or a cigarette. Others want somebody to sit by them.

Prem Dan

Prem Dan — meaning “house of love” — is situated next to Park Circus station, in the midst of the Tiljaha slum. Volunteers arrive on the crammed 202 bus from Motherhouse, which hurtles along Park Street at breakneck speed — not for the faint hearted! Prem Dan is one of the larger centers the Missionaries of Charity run in Kolkata — it was once a factory and old warehouses provide spacious wards filled with rows of beds.

People are admitted to Prem Dan for many reasons; all are without family, and would otherwise be on the streets. Some have tuberculosis, others are suffering from malnutrition, open wounds, or are simply unable to look after themselves alone with old age.

Volunteers at Prem Dan usually begin their day with an intensive laundry process (I remember only too well carrying metal buckets up 58 steps — yes, I counted — in the blazing heat, to be hung on the roof!), followed by making beds, spending time with patients, assisting Sister where necessary, and serving lunch.

No two days are the same, and working with the Missionaries of Charity means multi-tasking is essential! Several volunteer friends were taught Bengali by the patients at Prem Dan — such a beautiful exchange, and true friendships developed between people who were otherwise so far removed from each other.

Shishu Bhavan and Daya Dan

Shishu Bhavan and Daya Dan are both orphanages that welcome volunteers to help teach, exercise and entertain the children. Shishu Bhavan is a large center, with separate wards for disabled, malnourished and healthy children, plus newborn babies given up or found on the doorstep. There is an adoption office, and a school, and a park for the children to play in, as well as a dispensary, and food distribution every morning.

Depending on the length of your stay and your experience, you may be allocated to help teach or help with physiotherapy. With so many children, there is always a lot to do!

Daya Dan is located in Nimtala, a bus and auto-rickshaw ride from the Motherhouse. Daya Dan is a center for disabled children, and a popular center for volunteers, because unlike Shishu Bhavan, which is for female volunteers only, both men and women can work there. If you’re staying for a longer period, the sister in charge will often allocate you a child to teach on a daily basis. Daya Dan is a colorful and lively house, and always puts on a fantastic Christmas play!

Another center in Kolkata, in the Tangra section, is Shanti Dan (“house of peace”), a center for mentally ill women. Volunteers here are encouraged to assist the women with their daily tasks, and there is time to paint nails and interact in a more relaxed setting. It is also possible to help teach at the Gandhi School in the afternoons, and there is a dispensary offering dressings at Sealdah station if you’re going to be staying for a few months and have nursing experience.

“Why do people come to India?”

The volunteer day is not just about work; no one arrives in Kolkata to wring some laundry and wash wounds.

“Why do people come to India?” Mother Teresa’s answer:

Because they believe that in India we have a lot of spirituality and this they want to find. Among them are many who come to our house and work with us in the Home for the Dying. Many of them are completely lost; it is very important that they are guided, that they are led. Why are people going round in circles, just to see the scenery? There is not much point in that — but there is something more; people are really hungry for God. Travel is one way of showing their hunger.

Volunteers are welcome to join the sisters in their prayer life. I would attempt to make morning-prayer every day at 5:00 a.m.; enjoying the silence before the hustle and bustle of the day begins. The sisters recite the daily Office, and have meditation before Mass at 6:00 a.m. The chapel at the Motherhouse is a large, plain room on the first floor — with windows spilling out onto the busy AJC Bose Road — often the priest has to pause for a noisy tram to grind its way along the tracks outside.

After Mass volunteers congregate in the volunteer hall, where they are served a breakfast of chai (coffee on feast days!), bananas and bread. There is much chatter (sometimes too much, according to the sisters!) and excitement, as volunteers mingle before going to work. At 7:30 a.m. Sister Mercy-Maria and Sister Margaret ring the bell for prayer. We recite the Physicians Prayer:

Dear Lord, I kneel before you, since every perfect gift must come from You, I pray give skill to my hands, clear vision to my mind, kindness and meekness to my heart. Give me singleness of purpose, strength to lift up a part of the burden of suffering of my fellow men, and a true realization of the privilege that is mine. Take from my heart all guile and worldliness, that with the simple faith of a child, I may rely on you.

This is followed by a Hail Mary, and a simple song “We have our hope in Jesus, we have our hope in Jesus, that all things will be well, that all things will be well, that all things will be well in the Lord.”

After this we sing goodbye to volunteers who are leaving, and any announcements are given. New volunteers are asked to stay behind to be issued with day passes. Somewhere before 8:00 a.m. the door is opened, and volunteers leave the Motherhouse for work.

The community of volunteers is remarkably close knit; inevitable when most live in very close proximity in dormitories on backpacker avenue, otherwise known as Sudder Street. It is in these hostels and roadside eateries, with names such as Blue Sky Cafe, Tirupathi and Khalsa, where volunteers gather at lunchtime or in the evenings and share their experiences. I’ve met so many people, from all over the world — all drawn at some point to volunteer in Kolkata.

Morning shift runs from 8:00 a.m.-noon, and afternoon shift from 3:00-5:00 p.m. It’s your choice if you work one or both, although if there are lots of volunteers sometimes you don’t have a choice at all. At 6:00 p.m. there is evening prayer at the Motherhouse, followed by an hour of exposition. Volunteers are welcome to sit in the chapel in silence and pray, or write in a journal. It’s a very therapeutic way to end the day — to reflect on the encounters, the experiences, the emotions.

Kolkata is a very demanding city — it is crowded and polluted and chaotic — just walking down the street can be impossible, and most volunteers are fast asleep by 9:00 p.m.! The climate is harsh, whether it be the surprisingly chilly January mornings, the brutal humidity and heat of the summer, or the lashing rain of the monsoon — it is always uncomfortable, and so much more so for the poor on the streets.

Thursday is volunteers’ day off — and a day of prayer/reflection for the sisters. Once a month volunteers take a trip to Titagarh on a Thursday — a leprosy center located 45 minutes outside of the city. Titagarh is now run by the Missionary of Charity brothers, and provides treatment/care for sufferers of leprosy. The patients work at the center, and many are engaged in gardening, farming, and weaving — most notably the sisters’ blue and white sarees — all produced in sheds at Titagarh. It’s a humbling experience, seeing the effects of this terrible disease, and seeing the smiles on the faces, the pride in their work.

There is also a discussion one Thursday a month, led by Father Lawrence Abello, a Jesuit priest originally from Canada, who was a spiritual advisor to Mother Teresa, and eager to engage volunteers in discussion of ethics and theology.

On a Sunday afternoon there is also the opportunity for sharing, with groups run by sisters in different languages. The English-speaking group is led by Sister Michael — a British doctor who had been in Ethiopia prior to Kolkata — a woman with much insight and compassion. These interactions give the opportunity to ask questions and share any uncertainties/troubles. Once a month there is also a “volunteer day” — usually held at one of the centers — where volunteers put on a play, have Mass together, and share a meal. Occasionally we would go on an outing; for example there is a pilgrimage site to Our Lady of Bandel, three hours outside the city.

Since Mother Teresa’s death in 1997, the Motherhouse has become a popular destination on the tourist trail. Her tomb is situated on the ground floor of the Motherhouse, and is open daily for visitors. There are benches beside the tomb where people sit and pray, and the tomb is lovingly tended to by Sister Martina, who is responsible for decorating the white marble with flowers every morning.

Each day there is a different message, laid out beautifully in golden marigolds. There is a box for prayer intentions on the tomb, which are offered for Mass on Friday afternoons held at the tomb, with a blessing of Mother’s relics afterwards. The tomb site is never empty, the poor from the streets come to pay their respects and plead to Mother for help, sisters on their way in/out of the Motherhouse say a quick prayer, and tourists take photos. In death as in life, Mother Teresa is swarmed by people — from rich to poor.

Visitors can also see Mother Teresa’s bedroom, where she worked, and where she died on September 5, 1997. The room has been left as it was on the day of her death — it contains a simple metal bed, a desk, a cabinet, and a crucifix and crown of thorns, which she looked at before she died. Although only a small room, it is very atmospheric, and evocative of the simple, poor life Mother Teresa led.

Downstairs there is a museum/exhibition room with information boards, relics, and books depicting scenes from Mother’s early life in Albania, to her voyage to India with Loreto, and her call-within-a-call to found the Missionaries of Charity. The visitors’ book in the exhibition shows how far and wide people come to see the final resting place of a woman many already regard as a saint.

The posthumous publication of Mother Teresa’s writings in the book Come Be My Light, with its revelation that Mother herself felt detached from God, has drawn further interest. People admire her steadfast faith and devotion, despite her silent suffering.

Christmastime is extra special in Motherhouse. Although the daily routine continues as normal, there is much excitement. Plays are rehearsed at both the orphanages, and amongst the volunteers‚ who perform a drama in Motherhouse in front of all the sisters on Christmas Eve before midnight Mass. Benefactors and donors bring presents for the children, and food for the patients. It is a joy to see this generous love in action. As Mother Teresa noted:

The children in our homes in Calcutta were given an early Christmas treat one year by an international airline which gave them a free one-hour ride. I wish you could have seen the excitement of these 150 children, looking so neat in matching shirts and caps that had been donated for the occasion. How wonderful that our handicapped and malnourished and abandoned children, who would otherwise never have experienced the joy of flying, were given the chance.

Traditionally one would spend Christmas at home with family — yet Christmas in Kolkata means being part of the biggest family, and there is little time to be homesick; in fact, there is little time to sleep! Christmas 2008 was particularly busy for me. I was painting the scenery for the volunteers’ Christmas play, finished only hours before the play was due to start. After the performance we enjoyed a beautiful Mass, followed by much singing and celebration.

From there — already the middle of the night — a few of us went to Shishu Bhavan to help with the cooking of food for the big distribution on Christmas morning. There was perhaps one hour of sleep before morning prayer! Tired as we were, we were all eager to help with the distribution; thousands of people massed outside the orphanage, all waiting for a plate of cooked rice/dahl/chicken, and a gift of clothes and rice. The children from the orphanage had made a crib, which stood in the courtyard, Christmas carols being sung around it. Volunteers stood in a line and passed plates of rice as a factory assembly line. We stood there for hours, yet no one complained — it was the most rewarding way to spend a Christmas morning.

I had to keep reminding myself it was the 21st century, and people were queuing on Christmas day for the essentials — for the things most people take for granted. I watched the faces of these people as they received their food; so grateful, so hungry. Never did Mother Teresa’s words seem more true: “If sometimes people have had to die of starvation, it is not because God did not care for them, but because you and I were not instruments of love in the hands of God to give them bread, because we did not recognize Him, when once more the hungry Christ came in distressing disguise”.

That Christmas I sent an e-mail home:

Kolkata is a special place. There is a chilly cold in the air at the moment, and as I walk to work past bodies wrapped in sheets on the pavement — I realize how close to that first nativity we are here. When we tend to the dying in Kalighat — when we give out blankets as we were this morning — this is Christmas —not fairy lights and tinsel. I find myself seeing the Holy Family on every pavement in this city — poor, needy and vulnerable; whole families surviving in this cold weather, on a patch of dirty pavement — one day to the next, one year to the next. They aren’t busy preparing the turkey or wrapping last-minute presents. They haven’t sent any Christmas cards this year, or decorated a tree. These babies know nothing of Santa Claus, they don’t have a stocking to hang at the end of their bed — yet they have something many people with all of those things will lack this Christmas. Perhaps it sounds cliché, but Mother Teresa was right, here people share —huddle under the same blanket; they share the little food they have with their neighbors. There is no room at the inn for them either — they live in the cold, rejected by the world — and they do so with humility. I was reminded this morning, as we gave out blankets and rice, of the queues around the world in shopping malls at this time of year. People waited so long for these essential items, which they received with such gratitude. It is a lesson to us all.

And yet Mother Teresa’s message was not only for the materially poor: “you will find Calcutta all over the world if you have the eyes to see, the streets of Calcutta lead to everyman’s door”. The statistics quoted at the beginning of this article show a far greater poverty in the West.

Verity Worthington has a degree in Archaeology & Anthropology from the University of Cambridge and is currently training to be a nurse at King’s College London. She has written on education and women’s issues in student and national press. Verity has volunteered with the Missionaries of Charity for the past 10 years and considers Kolkata to be home. Her essay “Silent Voices” appeared in the Michaelmas 2010 issue of Voices.

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