When the penny drops

Updated: 31 August, 2020 08:00 IST | Fiona Fernandez | Mumbai

Caring for others, especially those not in our sight doesn't come naturally to most of us caught in the rat race of life. But thankfully, messengers emerge to give us a shake-up

Fiona FernandezFor any Christian, myself included, whose growing up days were incomplete without attending Sunday mass, one tenet that formed part of sermons and scripture, was about caring for the needy. The verse that stuck with me can be found in Philippians 2:4– "Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others."

As a family, too, that belief was practised in a quiet, dignified manner. The underlying essence was that it was important to think about the less-privileged and reach out whenever possible. Yet, somehow for a teenager, there were times when it all seemed a tad contrived; questions always cropped up at the dinner table – what do we mean by sharing? Who decides how much? How much time does one need to invest in it, and so on. There were no correct answers and as I realised, it could certainly not be quantified. Recently, when the world observed Mother Teresa's birth anniversary, I was reminded of an important episode in this context.

When a research-based job led me to frequent visits to Calcutta (now Kolkata), I was curious about the work done by Mother Teresa. I found a willing guide in a family friend who agreed to take me to The Mother's House on AJC Bose Road. A nondescript signboard was the only indicator to lead us to the one-time abode of a world-famous personality. As we stepped in, we noticed a stream of visitors, Indians and foreigners, all who had come to pay their respects at her tomb. Around the room, the walls showcased chapters and milestones in her life, from her childhood till her last breath. Despite the sea of activity, a sense of calm enveloped the air. A few blocks away, is Nirmal Shishu Bhavan, one of the earliest orphanages that the mother had set up. We decided to head there as well since it was within walking distance. And, that is where the penny dropped for me.

Inside, was the darkest, most disturbing room that I had ever stepped into. Rows of beds were filled with abandoned children: some were disabled; others were seriously ill or with mental conditions. The nuns of her order were busy, sleeves rolled up as they engaged in feeding, cleaning or nursing these residents. Assisting them were volunteers, mostly young non-Indians. I got talking with Pierre, while he was taking a water break. "I study art in Paris. This is my summer break. I wanted to make a small difference to someone's life," he said, nonchalantly, in his broken English, as his words, hit me, slowly but surely. I felt like the tiniest person, with the tiniest heart in the universe. The continuous wails in the background that had filled the large room felt like white noise.

'This place calms me'

Around me were dozens of volunteers like him, Pierre shared, as he explained about his purpose at the orphanage, his calling. "We come here from different parts of the world to do "seva". I like it here. It calms me from all the mad rush for money, fame and materialistic goals." I was stunned by how he had beautifully broken down the meaning of sharing that I sought to understand for so many years. "You're from India; you must come here often, no?" he asked. I did the slow Indian head-nod because words failed me. Here were people from far-off corners of the world, who gave up their summer breaks and comfortable lives to help the poorest of the poor. It wasn't some UNICEF plea for relief that had brought him here, but a heartfelt, honest urge to help others. He didn't need a sermon, or Biblical advice to drive home the thought. It was a self-realisation that made him cross the miles and to work here, selflessly, and with no expectations. "I will come here again," he told me before rushing back to give one of the nuns a helping hand with a crippled young boy.

I had found the answers to all my questions. And since that day, I have been able to take that road ever so naturally. For me, it took that visit to see this clearly, and I'm pretty sure that moment is just around the corner for every one of us, who is still seeking to find those answers, when it comes to seva. Because the writing is never on the wall, as I discovered. It is most likely that a messenger will get us there. Wouldn't it be great if each of us finds ours?

mid-day's Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city's sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana
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First Published: 31 August, 2020 07:05 IST

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