The Holy Ground of Kalighat
Entering Kalighat is akin to entering a city church--or, for that matter,
The Missionaries of Charity's chapel at Mother House in the center of
Calcutta. You are stunned into stillness, into a sudden awareness of your
jerky breath, your distracted mind. The silence shrouds you until you are
aware that it is not silence, not really: there is the rustle of
supplicants, rosary beads rattle, bowed heads breathe. So, in Kalighat,
after your jangled spirit laps up apparent silence, you hear soft
sounds--low moaning, a tubercular cough, patients tossing in pain and
Still, Kalighat felt like holy ground. I often sensed the presence of
God in the dimness and hush of that place. Bhogobaan ekane acche, Mother
Teresa whispered in Bengali as she goes from bed to bed: God is here. Her
creased face looked sad and sweet. This is Bhogobaan ki badi, God's house,
the sisters tell new arrivals, believing that Kalighat is sanctified in its
very stones by the thousands who have died peaceful deaths there. Perhaps
the light created this aura. The light spilled from high windows through a
filigreed lattice, spilled into the dim room with a stippled radiance that
made working there epiphanic, an annunciation.
Perhaps Kalighat had that sense of being holy ground because it was an
ancient Hindu pilgrimage site. I wondered whether the devotion of
generations of Hindus, no less than Catholics, had hallowed the ground.
Surely, I reasoned, all kinds of God-hunger are acceptable to Christ who
chose as his symbols bread and wine, who offered his flesh to eat, his
blood to drink. Perhaps what happens in a pilgrimage spot is not that God
descends to earth in a shower of radiance and the earth ever after exudes
his fragrance. Perhaps it is we who make spots of earth sacred when we
bring our weary spirits, our thwarted hopes, the whole human freight of
grief, and pray--our eyes grown wide and trusting; our being, a
concentrated yearning. Perhaps that yearning--which is a glimpse of better
things--makes that spot sacred and lingers in the earth and air and water
so that future pilgrims say, "God is here."
On our way to work, we frequently picked people off the pavements
where they lay and transported them to Kalighat to die, in Mother Teresa's
phrase, "within sight of a kind face." For these people who are kicked
aside, cursed and ignored, Kalighat is an inexplicable miracle, a
last-minute respite, a stepping into grace. In her speeches, Mother loves
to quote the dying man she brought to Kalighat from the streets of
Calcutta--"All my life I have lived like a dog, but now I die like an
angel"--which was, perhaps, just what he said, or, perhaps, a composite of
Kalighat consists of two L-shaped wards, accommodating about sixty men
and women, rows of low cots, snuggled even into every cranny. In a
place like Kalighat, perspective is everything. My parents, on their
monthly visits, grumbled that it was a grim place, daunting and
unpleasant--and so it is until its strange charm, its eerie radiance, works
on you. I loved Kalighat for its tiny miracles. An old, almost bald woman
with a wicked, shriveled face occupied a bed in a corner. Everyone avoided
her: she was nasty. When she could sit up, she'd curse all within earshot.
She spat gobs of yellow phlegm all over the floor, perversely ignoring her
spittoon. Once, as I tried to feed her, she lost her temper and slapped me,
sending my glasses flying across the ward.
Dealing with her was not a pleasure. So the other patients had often
eaten their dinners and fallen asleep while she hadn't been brought her
tray of gruel and boiled vegetables. One evening, chiding myself for my
fastidiousness, I braced myself and took her tray to her. As I approached,
she smiled, and her face briefly became numinous. It glowed. No one had
ever seen her smile. I hugged the memory to myself as a shaft of grace, a
cryptic divine sign--though perhaps it was a trick of the light.
But I remembered Gerard Manley Hopkins, my favorite poet:
...Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
Most patients in Kalighat, too old or weak to walk, crept around the
ward or to the bathroom while squatting on their haunches, slowly moving
one tired leg after the other. The actual work dispelled any vestigial
illusions of the glamor of being a "Flit on, cheering angel" Florence
Nightingale of light and mercy. It was "hands-on," occasionally repellent.
I often forced myself through the chores by sheer will-power. I reminded
myself that I had decided to imitate Christ, and to be a saint in the
tradition of Francis of Assisi, Damien, Schweitzer, and Dooley as I fought
nausea and changed sheets fouled by the "rice water" stools of cholera
patients, the blood and mucus filled feces of those with dysentery.
Why do you do it? Monica, an intense, curly-headed West German
volunteer, an atheist, asked. No one assigned me this chore. No, I chose. I
was then struck by the paradigm of Christ, "who, though he was rich, yet he
became poor." Born amid a stable's dung, as literally as we cleaned feces;
homeless during his ministry; dying naked on the cross. Come follow me.
"One must go down, as low down as possible to find God," I reasoned with an
eighteen-year-old's intensity. And what did I equate "God" with? Joy.
"Oh the mind, mind has mountains." The romance of the spiritual life,
its Pilgrim's Progress through internal hills and valleys, shed a gleam on
everyday chores--washing clothes or windows, or scrubbing the stainless
steel plates left pyramided on the courtyard floor after the patients'