First day in Calcutta
On this Monday 4 January, 6 AM, the feeling to be in an unusual environment almost disturbing wakes me up with a jerk, where am I? Although still sleepy, my questioning is of a short duration. This ceaseless horning coming from the street, gutturals and noisy voices, this strong spicy smells, climbing from the lower storeys, no doubt, at last I am in Calcutta.
The event of my arrival comes back rapidly to my mind, the landing five hours earlier at the airport of Calcutta, the warm welcome of Brother Francis-Mary, accompanied by Raja, a child of the railway station, the fast trip in car driving me from the airport to the Brothers of Seva Kendra, where I will lodge during my stay...
This travel opposed on two occasions, I was waiting for it since three years. I was waiting for it ardently and with enthusiasm, but also with worry, assailed by many questions, to which prayer could not bring any answer :
Will I have enough of moral and physical resources to face that extreme misery that Brother Francis-Mary described to me many times?
Will I have the strength to go in front of the children without roots and roofs, wandering on the platforms of Sealdah railway station in quest of few rupees and little food, of families living in middle of garbage, outside the society, abandoned by all, of sick people that we find sometimes dying on the roadside.
Shall I be able bring them minimum of comfort?
Often selfish and fearful before the human misery, shall I not be rather a cumbersome load for Francis-Mary PC and his Brothers full of care and Love for the poorest among the poor with whom they have chosen to live?
“What are you going to do there” were saying my acquaintances, “Are there not enough poor around you?” Interrogation taken back by a small voice in me, which I had difficulty to shut.
Now on the spot, my anxiety is increasing, with few remedies and bandages which I could bring, I could feel myself feeble, empty-hand, and almost ridiculous to face immense misery.
Just the time to have a rapid wash, have a fast Indian-style breakfast and Brother Francis-Mary knocks at my door. “We are going to meet all whom he calls his friends, his children.
In spite of the distance (about 4 km), the chaotic streets, the swarming and noisy traffic of the vehicles and means of transportation of all sorts, the bus trip driving us to the Sealdah railway station is of short duration; it crosses some particularly poor districts and plunges me directly in the fervent atmosphere of Calcutta who appears already to me like a picturesque city charming and astounding.
Bewildered by this first contact, (the descent from the bus is acrobatic, the crossing of the road is precarious)- I hang on however to the steps of Brother Francis-Mary who despite the colourful and animated crowd surrounding us, goes of a fast speed towards the impressive and colourful façade of Sealdah railway station.
Already some young children or teenagers detach from this multitude, abandoning for a moment their work (they carry sometimes heavy loads); they rush toward us; Brother Francis-Mary squeezes them against his heart, kiss them,«very good boy!»; then they exchange a few words in Bengali followed up by the presentations : «Michel from France». The eyes which observe me, sometime sick are always shining, joyful, full of life; these children snuggle up without hesitation against me, seeking a caress, an embrace, a kiss.
I am conquered by these faces a little bit teasing, inhaling the joy of living but in search of LOVE and which without a moment's hesitation show me a total trust. Thanks to Brother Francis-Mary I am adopted! It is my first meeting with the children of the railway station, it will stay in my memory for ever.
On the esplanade of the station, families settled down on the floor, sheltering at night under vehicles of the army parking there permanently. Two days before a baby had been born; the father presents him to brother Francis-Mary who embraces him: this child is very beautiful, half-nude in spite of the morning freshness, he flounders and does not cry.
The Muslim slum is at twenty minutes walk. For about 1 Km, heaps of garbage pile up along a canal particularly unhealthy and smelly. The 250 or 300 families that it shelters are in a complete misery; without any help: men, women, children are fully dependant on this environment which is their home, provide them with their meagre earning and sometime their food. Outside the society, they are born, live and die ignored from all. These conditions of pitiful hygiene entails grave diseases, very important children mortality, very short life expectancy.
Facing such misery, Pilgrims of Charity find its reason of being
by bringing help, care, comfort and mostly Love.
After having followed platform N° 9, crossed track and shunting points, we reached the destination. Our advance is slow; we leave the road to walk between heaps of garbage. We are invited to penetrate in narrow dens, people assemble; men, women, children rush to inform us of their health problems, to ask the help of Brother Francis-Mary and his team.
In spite of their misery, their poverty, their disease, these poor people show a great vitality, there is with them no sign of despair, the glances turned towards us reflect the trust, are filled with respect and gratitude, are marked by dignity and even for most of them of some gaiety.
At the approach of platforms, the children and the adults, who call out to us are more and more numerous; all approach us with the same warmth " Francis! Shishou Bandhou! (The friend of Jesus!)
All, seeking the same testimony of Love, having received it all show the same gratitude (my vitamins, says Brother Francis-Mary).
The morning ends; while reaching platform N° 9 Brother Francis-Mary shows me an ice cream vendor: «It is there our meeting point for daily visit to the Muslim slum; we will go this afternoon.»
The two faces of the God of Love: The child of the Muslim slum of Sealdah
He must be 5 or 6 years old, since our arrival at the entrance of the slum, he is one of the first to come and meet us; completely naked despite the morning cool, little exuberent, the face marked with certain gravity, of certain sadeness; he stands out in the middle of the children who surround him.
The senario is always the same; without a word, he approaches; draws my attention by hanging on to my pants and by indicating his ear were lobe was pierced to received one ear ring; the complete lack of hygiene provoked an infection requiring the application of a disinfectant and an antibiotic cream; impassive, he let himself be treated...
Once the treatment finished, he stays there, waiting obliviously for someting else. In front of my interrogation, its look makes a pleading and raising his small arms towards me he murmurs "Kiss!". It is, I imagine, the only English word which he knows because around him only the Bengali is spoken.
Moved, I take and kiss tenderly that so beautiful and feeble face; like all the children he cuddles a moment against me.
Having received what he was looking for, he goes away radiant. Then…removing quickly the cream he just received, he close up to the young Franciscan, who came to work for several months with Brother Francis-Mary: "Br Showri", and puts himself in search of a new testimony of Love.
He follows us like that all the way.
The two faces of the God of Love: The stranger and the good Samaritan
Time is getting on and the visit of the slum comes to an end. Suddenly children run up: addressing in Bengalese to Ashley, our interpreter, they explain vehemently that not very far, a man is going to die. We follow them. Having climbed the elevation which goes along the road, we reach the bridge stepping over the channel situated in border of the slum.
Spread along the railing, covered with a squalid blanket we guess a body; the pedestrians who pass near ignore it or throw a furtive glance, the smell which it gives off is nauseous.
Without hesitation Brother Francis-Mary approaches, lifts the blanket; discovers a man totally naked, of extreme thinness who moans, a cloud of flies escape from the body covered with wounds and filth; worms having eaten away at lower part of legs digging cavities. As the good Samaritan, Brother Francis-Mary comforts him, cleans him, gives him to drink and eat; the treatment finished, he covered him with his coat.
The passers-by, before that unusual spectacle of such act of charity, have assembled in a big circle, most of them keep handkerchiefs on the nose.
A moment, unable to act, to bring the least help, I am paralysed; like all those around us.
However, my eyes misted by tears cannot get away from this man. Fascinated by this bruised body, I am called up by the need of Love which emanates from the extreme weakness of his face, It is the face of Christ that I contemplate and who calls me to the charity, I only see Him, I hear only Him, all the environment which put me off disappeared; I can only answer this call. although my gestures are awkward and little effective.
The next day, thanks to the influence of Brother Francis-Mary, the man is admitted to the hospital of State of Calcutta. His weakness is extreme, he feeds with difficulty, to avoid the infection, the amputation of both legs is envisaged.
Two days later, God makes him the grace of calling him back near him.
I neither know his name, nor his nationality but his remembrance will remain immortal in my heart.
My stay reaches its end
As one goes along the meetings my fears disappeared; I try hard to participate as far as possible to distribute care. I feel immense happiness when these children, these persons accept my testimonies of affection, and when in turn, they show me their friendship, recognising me as one of themselves. A bond of sympathy, of Love was established, I am happy. Receiving much more than I can give, I found near them the peace of my soul and one of the key of true happiness.