Nirmal Hriday

A good twenty years of two months each. Lazy summers vacations in sweaty heat and heady crowded streets. Of traffic jams, winding processions, hand-rickshaw ride in narrow lanes, petrified that the puller will let go and the cart will topple backward under the weight of my plump aunt. Afternoons of tender coconut water after a matinee show and evenings gulping down gol guppas and dum aloos near the lake and the joy of getting caught in the downpour of the monsoon.


Calcutta has been all this and more for me. When I was younger, I hated going there but once there, did not want to come back either. Later – I stayed away for a long time but after my last two visits, I realized why. I had never understood the city. Now I think I have a hang of it though if asked what, I would not know where to start and what to say. Let’s just say that it has a mind of its own and rarely does it agree with those who are not born into it.


I did what I had wanted to do; I visited the Belur Math (oh, why can’t anyone take pictures here? Howrah Bridge I can still tackle but here?), Dakhineshwar (got scolded by and elderly lady for taking photographs of the devotees) and the flower market under the Howrah Bridge. It was amusing, seeing the foreigners wide eyed at the colors that lay before them! I picked up four garlands for an amount that I would have paid for one at Dakhineshwar.


Nirmal-HridayKumhar Tuli was not in the list but I headed for the place nevertheless; it is not often that one gets to see potters making statues of gods and goddesses. I was glad I did. Have you ever watched the face of someone who creates something out of a lump of clay, especially if it is a beautiful statue of Lord Krishna? What did you see? Concentration? Yes. Critical faces? Yes. What else? Sheer affection and love! That’s what got me – the love with which each one works on his statue.



Year after year, I had promised myself that I would go and look up the place that Mother Teresa so lovingly built – Nirmal Hriday; the Home for the Destitute and Dying. Finally I made it but unfortunately, long after Mother had gone. Yet, she lives on – I realized this the moment I stepped in.


The board read – 105 patients; 55 men and 50 women. I stepped in and was accosted by a bulky lady. “No photos???, she said, eyeing the cameras suspiciously. Off course not, I assured her and she let me pass. Rows and rows of beds with as many people on them in various state of rest. There is a hum in the air – the rustle of starched habits of the Sisters, of the ceiling fans older than most of the ones lying underneath it – making feeble attempts to blow away the damp heat and the occasional flies. Workers, volunteers go about doing their chores with quite dignity.


I have always believed that I am a strong person with my heart in the right place. Now and here, it crumples. The courage to walk up to these men – all of them dying, abandons me and I quickly take refuge under the conversation with the head sister. She smiles kindly at me, as if she knows what is troubling me and asks me if I would like to go to the roof – it has a wonderful view from there, she tells me. I grab at the opportunity and run up.


The roof is covered with dresses for those admitted here; line after line of them. Someone washes these – hundreds of these, daily. Right next to the staircase, there is a board with instructions printed on them and most of them have to do with how to deal with the patients. One cautions against communicable diseases and stresses the need to wear gloves. One instructs the volunteers to clean the toilets on a regular basis so that those who cannot walk – can crawl into a neat and clean toilet; practical instructions, devoid of any mushy sentiments.


I finally go down and smother my guilt by making a donation. Sister blesses me profusely and the guilt comes right back. As I walk out, two foreigners descend from a taxi and ask for a stretcher. From the back seat, they gently lower an old beggar and he is rushed into Nirmal Hriday. I hold myself back, fiddling with my camera. Finally, I focus and start shooting. Somewhere inside, someone must have changed the chart. 106. 56 males and 50 females.