Friday, April 18, 2008

Prem Daan, Mumbai

At first glance, I think it’s Mother Theresa, in her white and blue tea-towel ensemble, but it’s not. It’s Sister Maria. She runs the Missionaries of Charity establishment, here in Airoli, in North Mumbai. There’s been a collection, at the office, and we’ve brought bags of rice and lentils, and soap, and books. There’s the Social Committee, the driver and his mate (he gets out and bangs the back of the van, when we need to reverse), two porters, to carry the boxes, and me, pasty-faced hanger-on. We all make the tour.
The house is called Prem Daan, the Gift of Love, home to nearly two hundred women and children, from the very elderly and infirm, to the very young. Able-bodied residents help care for those with physical or mental handicaps, in need of constant nursing. What they have in common, is that they’re all unwanted, abandoned, on the very fringes of society.
In the long, low room, tubular-framed cots stand in rows. In each cot, a child lies curled. When children can’t speak, the language barrier loses its importance, so I bend to say hello, anyway. I think this child may be four or five, but she could be twice that, since she’s lying down, and her limbs aren’t straight. It’s difficult to tell. I stroke her cheek. She nuzzles her face into my palm. Her hands are cramped into right-angles, but someone’s taken the time to paint her fingernails red. Each child responds to the gentlest of touches, flowers turning to the sun. It’s like watering a row of seedlings in a greenhouse. It troubles me, giving each one such perfunctory attention. It’s a wrench, moving along to the next cot.
At the end of the dim room (power cuts a daily trial – no light, no ceiling fans), ten children sit at a plastic table, drumming their hands in a welcome tattoo. The small ones put their hands out, to be picked up. The older ones wind their arms round your waist, or lock their fingers in yours, or investigate your watch. They love the office ID tags on yoyo strings. I think we should have jettisoned the rice and moong beans, and just brought a box of ID tags, instead, for them to spool in and out all day. The nursing sisters are very loving, ruffling hair or patting heads en passant, but there are so many of these children, and each sister has just the one pair of hands.
Under the shady terrace, round the bright courtyard, women sit on benches, or in chairs, or on the floor itself. They call greetings, and wave, or put their hands together, smiling, nodding. The narrow beds in the dormitories are less than six inches apart. None of these ladies speaks English, but they reach for my hand, to shake, or stroke. I get unreasonable mileage out of “Namaste!”
Just outside the doorway to the compound, women and children sit on the hard earth, queuing, waiting. Sister Maria tells us that what spare food they have at Prem Daan, at the end of the day, is given away to the street children and their families. “Next day, God will provide.” She smiles, and nods at the boxes of provisions we have brought in the company van. She makes a scrupulous note in her log book. Always, in her diary, she says, there’s something good on the horizon – people book to come for wedding anniversaries or birthdays, bringing a special feast to share their day with the residents, a real act of benevolence. “And how,” she says to me, “are you coping with the heat?” Being a bit hot shouldn’t appear on the radar, given the scale of things here, but she asks, so I tell her, air-conditioning makes it worse. She agrees.
She asks if we would like to see the Chapel, so we slip off our shoes, and follow her. Rows of chairs face the altar, with its embroidered cloth and fresh flowers. On the walls, the Stations of the Cross. She slips into a seat, amid the tidy piles of hymnbooks, and forgets about her visitors for a while.
Sister Maria has seen the world, having served in Vietnam, in Ethiopia, in South America. She joined the Mother House in Calcutta at the age of 24, when she became “espoused to Jesus” – so it’s just coming up to their Golden Wedding anniversary. Sister Maria’s 74. This isn’t a job you retire from. Now, she’s here, at Prem Daan, in the northern suburbs of Mumbai. Pragmatic, tough as nails, she’s possibly the most serene person I’ve ever met.