November 2012: Story of my mission in India, by Jean-Baptiste Planson

Everything begins November 15th, 2012 when the door of the plane opens and when, still not knowing where I set foot, I discover a landscape rather polluted, wet... and very hot.

One week previously, I was in training with the Foreign Missions of Paris. All this looks to me already very far and the adventure begins with a little apprehension and I cannot refrain from wondering into what I once more launch myself.

What contrasts with Paris where it is very cold! I feel strongly the heat and the heaviness of the air. At the bottom of the boarding staircase , I take for the first time an Indian transport: blocked doors, broken ventilator, fleas on the carpet and organization let us say very Indian to collect the passengers. Crossed the moment to get back our luggage as well as the endless passage to the customs and... here I am at last arrived!

I go towards the exit, trying to imagine what would look like Bapi, Raja and brother Francis-Mary with whom I am going to live this mission. I do not have any difficuty to recognize them. The father wear his robe and all of them have a big and frank smile. It is the very warm smile which makes me at once feel most comfortable.

Raja and Bapi give me a magnificent garland of flowers. Having greeted them on the Indian, "Namaskar", we leave looking for a taxi where Bapi and Raja negotiates us a good price. As much as I remember myself, it was not an easy task with the presence of two "whites"!

I load my bag directly on the spare wheel. in the safe of this taxi which looks like an old Simca, Then I had a long discussion with Brother Francis-Mary about the progress of my mission. It is necessary for me to store a lot of informations because he has to go back to France in a few days. The taxi brushed passers-by, rickshaws and other cars by some centimeters without ever touching them, I get out of it with strong frights. They add to my very first visions of India.

Arrived at the airport, a dead dog on the pavement. Farther, a woman climbing on a heap of garbage with a face of a big thinness. Very strong smells, shanty towns where children were runing nudes among the garbage. Only poverty.

The route quickly passes, I feel very comfortable with the Brother but the fatigue of the journey really begins to be felt. I come down from the taxi, in front of this world which is utterly strange to me and I feel then a mixture of fascination and concern. What am I doing here?

After taking a continental breakfast with Brother Francis-Mary to polish up the progress of my mission, my work here in Calcutta, he suggests me resting to catch up my sleep and erase the fatigue of the time difference.

Installed on an improvised mattress as thick as a quilt, in the chapel, I try with difficulty to fall asleep. Indeed, all these images since my arrival at the airport, this new world, occupies my mind. What am I going to discover? How is it outside? Who are Raja and Bapi? How is the slum?

For the lunch as for that of the evening, is served to me the dish to which I would be entitled every day afterward. At the beginning, I found it rather good but after a month, it was rather difficult to support. It was some insipid rice accompanied by a curry sauce supposed to give some taste to it … All in all, at the end of my mission, I had lost not less than 5 kg.

The following morning, brother Francis-Mary takes me to the slum to present me to the families.

My representation of the slum makes that I expect to meet people living in dehumanizing conditions, among the garbage, very dirty and with unbearable smells. I am well surprised when we cross the bridge; the smells are not so strong in definitive. We take the first row of house on the right of the road. There, live families from Bengladesh which children shout "bandhu bandhu" ("friend friend" in Bengali) to the Father. They are naked for the greater part but relatively clean.

There are also the adults, who to my big surprise are well-dressed and very clean; all smile to us. It is their smile which marks me most. All these people live among the garbage, in tinkered huts, among the flies, the rats and other vermins, they possess nothing but they smile to me. Not of a simple smile of politeness nor a smile to say hello, but of a wide frank smile which comes from the heart. These people have nothing, they are happy and they communicate it. Moreover, the little which they have, they shares it: some tea, a coffee, even a meal (that, gracefully, I manage to avoid). The children surround me and rapidely I was introduced to all the families...

The following days are a little bit difficult in the slum, I am after all a stranger. I have to find my place.

At the beginning, without being rejected, they do not reserve me the best of the welcome. Children try even to make my pockets, unsuccessfully. But gradually, by returning every morning, to go towards them and their smile, to give them care, they adopt me.

During this mission I look after coughs, after problems of stomach, muscular pains, purulentes otitis, sometimes impressive wounds, from the cut to the abscess, burns, ulcers, problems of skin of all kinds. They entrust me their wounds confidently.

The third biggest joy, it is to see that our efforts day after day are paying: these people are gradually cured, even children burned at the 3rd degree as time goes along find back an almost normal skin.

Naturally, the mission is not always easy, sometimes we are fast assailed by people who ask for care, surrounded with about twenty people who hit you on the shoulder shouting of "beta bandhu, beta bandhu" ("I have pain my friend, I have pain..."). We are sometimes literally assailed in spite of the two teams which we form with Julien, another French volunteer who joined me one week later, Bapi and Raja. How to answer all these demands?

There are also those who try to have medicines while they do not need it, probably to resell them. They could be aggressive. And then all the misery that is the drug, the maltraitance of the children, the alcohol, the prostitution…

We have to keep a good physical shape not to catch the diseases which are lying about in the bidonville and to sleep enough, by making indispensable siestas early in the afternoon.

My European's health was tested severely. I had a temperature, a persevering cough and I also strongly fell ill by consuming inadvertently some polluted water. It was a hard test! I was nailed in the bed during a week with symptoms very impressive: swollen stomach, sensation to be frozen while I was burning, loss of sensibility of lower limbs, vomits (would it be the Typhoid?)… Fortunately that the Brother and Julien were there! In a week I was cured and even more distrusted the water than before. My recovery is rather supernatural and I am anxious to thank the Brother and the sisters who prayed for me.

Gradually along my mission, I improve in the care and in the approach of the persons (I already had some notions and experiences of the care because practising the scouting, I am a holder of AFP; PSC1).

I learn some Bengali rudiments, indispensable to have a minimum of contact with the inhabitants after whom I look in the slum. I discover the price of the life in India, the Indian culture, the local mentalities.

Also, I benefit thanks to Daniel, a friend of the association, of the discovery of Calcutta. The organized visits, but also his knowledge of the history and the Indian culture brought me enormously.

I discover the variety of the mission. We have, with Julien, a big autonomy. Brother Francis-Mary grants us all his trust which makes the mission even more interesting . We manage the accounts, the health centers, sometimes we have to take some persons to the hospital and organize programs. They are these last two points which I am going to develop.

The first time when I went to the hospital, it was to bring Didi Ma, a grandmother who lived on the platform 9B. I went there repeatedly with Bapi. If hospitals are free it does not necessarily mean that people of the slum go there by themself… It reigns a chaos in the organization, a lack of information for directions; doctors who do not inform the patients and especially a big filth… In certain rooms, They are on the ground bloody compresses, pockets of urines, food and more … I was happy not to have to go there to get treated.

The event which we organized which most marked me was the day of Christmas … Before leaving I imagined that the Christmas celebration would be a difficult time far from my family and from my close relations. I very fast realized on the 24 that my place was over there among the poor people. We went with Brother Francis-Mary to look for children, mainly the smallest, as well as some older one for Christmas. I remember myself of their smiles and their joy at the idea of going out for a little of the slum and their everyday life. We went to sisters who provided us with the school (the pupils were then on holidays), I carried two children doubtless the youngest on the hip and held the hand of an other one. Arrived on the spot we prayed with the Brother who spoke to us about Christmas and about the child Jesus: we all recited a prayer. Then, we made some games (in particular the game of the hat) which was a big success. Finally, we shared a snack and, disguised as Santa Claus, I distributed the presents which we had prepared with Bapi previously. It was small prizes: clothes, combs, toothbrushes, small cars…

Here are the main enjoyments of my mission, I could extend over many other things, there is so much to say. But there are so many things that cannot be describe… There is however a very particular event on which I wanted to end which marked me a lot, it was exactly December 12th, 2012, a wonderful day.

We left, with Julien and brother Francis-Mary, early by the train to go 40 km to the north of Calcutta. We then took a bus to end on feet on a dirt track in a rural village. I have never appreciated so much the peace, it changed me from Calcutta, I remember having made this remark to myself. Our hearing was not any more affected by all the noises of horn, cars and shouts of every kind. There was no unpleasant smell, we breathed completely. That smelt of wet earth because it had rain, we heard birds, there were also cows, goats, trees, full of trees and of rice fields as far as the eye can see.

Then we arrived at a big gate where we are welcomed. We are accompanied in a big property with houses in earth and thatch roofs. It is magnificent, there are ponds, rice fields, coconut palms, some goats, cotton, beans…

Finally, we arrive on an island, kind of big ground surrounded with a ditch, we cross a bridge then a gate where we can read this inscription who stayed with me "Island of Peace". Past this door, we are fast surrounded with a whole world; children, adults, a deaf and mute moans by pulling me by the arm, handicapped, tuberculous people, among them a child whose body and face seem tortured by the aftereffects of a too difficult childhood, shouts to me " money, money " while stretching his hand toward me, " money money!! ". He has scratches on the neck that it seems to have imposed himself, trauma of another life … Some people can look terrible at first sight, only very fast we notice something completely different: all smile to us of this big and wide smile of happiness, a smile full of warmth and penetrating love; all live here, it is a big family, The untouchable rejected of all is appreciated and loved, he helps the handicapped person to get up, the tuberculous takes care of the crazy child, the child taken away from the hands of a gang helps the deaf and mute... it is magnificent!

At this moment comes out of one of these small houses a radiant person, an old man with white hair and blue eyes, a walking stick to the hand and a big smile. He comes to meet us, it is Brother Gaston, Gaston Grand Jean, one of the heroes of the City of the Joy, friend of Dominique Lapierre. He invites us to take tea, some children accompany us and he speaks to us.

Brother Gaston chose to dedicate his life to the poor and the abandoned. He chose to disappear rather than to expose himself to get closer to these people whom nobody sees in India, about which nobody wants to hear (here, misfortune to a pregnant woman who sees a handicapped person or a madman, her son will become like him!).

Rather than to found one of these big anonymous centres where we "accommodate" all these people in big buildings in reinforced concrete, he set up this big family. He welcomes all the abandoned of this society where each helps and accompanies the other one in a magnificent setting, the one of God: the nature. He gives them all his love.

We go out, he accompanies us and tells us about this place. It is only created since eight years , he had created many others, and nevertheless here everything seems outside time, we would believe that it exists since around ten years while it was at first only a marshy ground. We discover that there are more than 200 persons here. He stands firm in spite of his age, facing all the difficulties and the persons who go against his association. He speaks to us with a big simplicity, about a lot of love, laughs with the children and shares everything with his community.

I remember having gone out open-mouthed from this place, it was magnificent. Quite as the mission in Calcutta, there is no bigger love than to give all that we have.

These few lines on my mission are very reducing, once again there is so much thing to tell but many things cannot be related, it is necessary to live them. As said Mother Teresa: " Come and see ". 


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