IN CALCUTTA MOTHER TERESA LEFT BEHIND, MANY TOIL AGAINST HEAVY ODDS
Watertown Daily Times (NY)
September 11, 1997
Author: New York Times
While sweepers swept and dignitaries inspected the broad avenues where the Indian army will escort Mother Teresa's body to her grave on Saturday, Dr. Sushinet Raichoudhury, poised on a rough stool in a makeshift clinic miles away, was focusing Tuesday on the rasping chest and bloated stomach of 3-year-old Salim Pyada.
"It's another upper respiratory tract infection," Dr. Raichoudhury said, as Salim's anxious mother, Soburjan Bibi, crouched on the muddy floor in her worn sari, reaching up now and then to wipe the nose of her wailing son. Next to him on the examination bench, a listless, bone-thin boy and his frightened mother watched another doctor try to read an X-ray in a shed with no lights.
All over the poorest neighborhoods of Calcutta on this day - and every day, year in and year out - countless medical professionals and lay volunteers whose names will never be famous defy dispiriting odds to care for those in a metropolitan area of nearly 14 million people who have no recourse but to beg for help.
In shop-front herbal dispensaries, under tarpaulins whipped by rain and wind, in cramped, stifling rooms off narrow alleys where orphans are clothed and fed, Calcutta looks like a town where a lot of people with very little money try to relieve the sufferings of others.
"Like Hollywood makes the star, Calcutta makes the social worker," said a man with a minuscule unnamed foundation that dispenses small mercies like free glasses and notebooks for schoolchildren.
The death of Mother Teresa at 87 on Friday has for a brief moment turned the spotlight on Calcutta and its poverty, the backdrop against which the humble ethnic Albanian nun rose to international prominence.
But Mother Teresa was never alone in her work; hers was just the best known and most widely supported of charities, enjoying the recognition and celebrity status that others never had and cannot hope to acquire any time soon.
The Calcutta charities beyond the range of floodlights grow from individual instinct and private initiatives, and they are not always welcomed by ward politicians, who drive small relief organizations out of neighborhoods to prevent them from becoming centers of self-help and self-awareness.
Neighborhood humanitarians, most of whom do not want to be quoted or identified, say that better health and a little knowledge threaten entrenched political bosses whose corruption has helped create the squalor and deprivation all around.
Mother Teresa has been an inspiration to many in the city, and her 1979 Nobel Prize apparently drew more middle-class Calcuttans into volunteer work in the slums and among the homeless. But under the surface there is often a hint of resentment that her international fame has given her order, the Missionaries of Charity, political immunity - not to mention enough money to run an empire of good works in scores of countries.
There are also gentle disagreements about the avowedly Christian aims of the Missionaries in a country with a Hindu majority, and about the European-born founder's proclivity for accepting social conditions and alleviating them rather than trying to change the social environment in which most Calcuttans live.
Many small-scale foundations in Calcutta are committed, for example, to family planning - which Mother Teresa largely opposed - because they see the tragedy of malnourished, unwanted children every day. The prevalence of abandoned babies speaks of real desperation, said Cheryl Markson, an American who helps run the International Mission of Hope Society in the Calcutta docklands.
"Our whole focus here is abandoned babies," said Ms. Markson, who is also director of the Friends of Children of Various Nations in Denver. "The babies brought to us are premature or of low birth weight. Our philosophy is to serve those children by stabilizing their health, then looking to adoptions. Since adoption is new in India, many of our babies are not wanted. Our problem children find homes abroad."
About 70 percent of the babies given refuge by the International Mission of Hope go to the United States. Indian couples want healthier children - and usually, though no longer inevitably, only boys. Babies brought to the mission's three-story center may weigh 2 or 3 pounds or less, and can be held in a nurse's cupped hands.
At the strictly secular mission, nannies called massis - aunties in Bengali - cuddle the babies and talk to them constantly to give them comfort. Most children abandoned on the city streets will never know their parents or their roots.
"A lot of their mothers are uneducated," Ms. Markson said. "There is no sex education here. The women are terrified to leave behind any information we could use to trace them."
In India, she added, unwed mothers are an embarrassment and a disgrace to the family and there is no hope in the foreseeable future of helping them keep their babies. Single motherhood is all but unknown.
"Those in the West who oppose foreign adoptions have no comprehension of the social mores of this country," she said. In virtually all foreign adoption cases, the mission is supported by the Calcutta courts, which, like American courts, inherited a British justice system and can act expeditiously to move babies abroad after Indian couples have had a 30-day period to choose and the infant's health is judged satisfactory.
On the banks of the Hooghly River and in the nearby slums of North Calcutta, Dr. Jack Preger, 67, an Irish farmer who studied medicine to devote his life to the poor of South Asia, takes medical care to the neighborhoods through Calcutta Rescue, which also runs a cramped school to provide at least four years of primary education to children who would otherwise miss a vital start toward a productive life.
The staff of Calcutta Rescue are all Indians, like Dr. Raichoudhury. They get help from volunteer European health professionals like Stefanie Selhorst, a Belgian nurse, who was dispensing medicine Tuesday to hundreds of mothers who had brought children from all over the city to a free pediatric and maternal health clinic set up at the edge of Tala Park.
So far, the clinic has escaped trouble from politicians of the two most powerful parties locally, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress Party. Other Calcutta rescue clinics have been hounded out or harassed until they closed. A restive voting population all over India reflects grass-roots resentment of interfering politicians who have ceased to deliver services.
"This city has 80 hospitals," said a volunteer who directed a reporter to the open-air clinic and introduced the Indian doctors. "Why do these government hospitals not think of doing this? We say, Let the politicians take a rest for one year. Only one year, and you will see what India can do!"
Copyright (c) 1997 Watertown Daily