It has been four months since I wrote my article on the cyclone that devastated Bengal last May. I have now completed two years of intense mission in Bengal, rich with happy encounters, amazing discoveries, hard work, fruitful interrogations, unexpected difficulties, intertwined with pain and joy that filled up my time. These two years have overflowed with intensity as if they counted double or triple. It seems that I have been living here for five or six years.
The Covid-19 crisis that has affected India just as many other countries has only increased this impression. This crisis that has been ongoing since the end of March has revealed, or is rather combined with, a more profound number of crises. Political, social, economical and perhaps even spiritual, as noted by an historian and writer in the columns of the anglophone newspaper of Calcutta, the Telegraph, a few months ago. India is going through dark hours.
The darkest hour
We are currently going through a humanitarian crisis that began with millions of domestic migrants leaving cities by any means, travelling thousand miles to go back to their villages, often on foot and sometimes at the cost of their lives. This crisis has become invisible in the press, but it is still there and affects foremost the poorest. It is estimated that two hundred million people will fall into poverty again. We are also going through an economical crisis with a contraction of the economy of 24% during the last trimestre, a deeper fall than in any other country. Some think that India could even lose its symbolic place of 5th largets global economy! It is a crisis of democracy. It is a crisis of the federalism with serious disagreements between the central State and the federal state, as for example during the peak of the coronavirus crisis. For many observers it is the worst crisis since Independance seventy years ago.
The virus of fear
Life seems to return to its usual course again, and experts announce improvements based upon statistics. But in HSP, the sudden stop of our schools, the closing down of some of our rehabilitation homes for deprived and disabled children, the stopping of transport and therefore the absence of many staff has been very difficult to manage. This situation has revealed in one another the best and the worst. From a feeling of total control and security, marked in our modern world by the promethean quest of dominating everything, we brutally fell in complete uncertainty, even regarding how long this crisis would last. Ignoring our human condition has thrown us into fear, spreading at the rythym of continual cycle of negative news, invading all the media space. Fear reduces us to slavish obedience, distorts our capacity for judgment and causes us to withdraw into ourselves.
At HSP too, fear invaded us. As soon as the initial astonishment was over, we had to reassure some of us, confort the others. The same advice has been given : taking in news in order to encourage each other, but not listening to the news on repeat. And above all, we rapidly started to organise emergency aid for the poorest. Starting in a very "artisanal" manner, we prepared aid packs to help the most vulnerable families. From a few dozen, it quickly evolved to several hundreds and then a few thousands. In total, since April, we have distributed three thousand aid packs and hundred of plastic tarpaulins in order to help those affected by the cyclone. Despite being used to longer term projects, our teams have supported this emergency necessitating organisation and planning, the visiting of family, the evaluation of needs, the feedback of information to donors, the organisation of logistics despite the fact that many activities have stopped, and then distribution in a rather tense social context where there was the risk of rioting and police being unavailable.
Without known we have been applying the "talisman of Gandhi", the spiritual heritage he left in his notes not very long before his death. Maybe it applies as well in the case of fear…
I am going to give you a talisman. Whenener you are in doubt or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the steps you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj (the freedom) for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?
Those notes are amongst the last he left not very long before his murder in 1948. He summarised his thinking in the expression "antyodaya by the sarvodaya", a kind of integral ecology before its time. It means that a society will become prosperous and happy only when it will look after the most deprived. This implies that the human being aspires to an integral development ; physicial, moral, spiritual. Those notions, that seemed to be inherited from the Hindu tradition, of the Vedas, the Upanishad, the Baghavat Gita, are maybe the most universal, and the Mahatma says to have gotten them directly from the book Unto this last by John Ruskin. Refusing the abstract idea of the homo oeconomicus, who only acts out of material interest, they affirm that real happiness has something to do wih moral law, divine law, and that the Human can not be cut off from its spiritual aspirations. They remind us that we must look for the face of our brother within the poor and the unhappy first.
Thousand of slums in Calcutta
The aid packs were distributed mainly in the slums. I have had the chance to be able to go many times with the teams. After the distribution, guided in the maze of metal and plastic shacks, we could visit families, listen to their needs, offer some help. I heard that Calcutta and its surroundings has more than three thousand slums. Apart from the Coat Depot, in which we have been operating for a long time, I did not know where they were. I have been able to discover this hidden world of poverty. In Calcutta, a third of the population lives in slums, in Hora it is twice that many. These are several million of people who live in overpopulated places, without any occupation rights, intimacy, in dwellings made of discarded/recycled material, with a difficult access to drinking water and basic sanitation.
In those numerous slums, we visit families and with joy, I meet the faces of children from their homes. We are happy to see each other again. I discover at the same time the misery in which they live, and I mourn this situation that has forced them to leave our homes. The rainy season being advanced, we often have our feet in the water without really being able to see what is in it. In the midst of this desolation, the smile of children illuminates everything, in an indescribable manner. It is like a thanksgiving for the effort we make to come to them. The winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics, Abhijit Banerjee, a Bengali from Calcutta, explains that "help is more efficient when it is provided in the respect of the person". It is indeed what we try to do in HSP by considering those poor with lots of hope.
Since June, we have been in the slum of Baltikuri in the North of Howrah. Here an entire line of shacks has been built by the railway track. Children play a meter away from the passing trains, with the risk of being hit by them one day or another. When we arrive for the visit, the rails have become a big clothes dryer for the inhabitants and a playground for the children. It has been almost two and half months since the train last came through. We see some children from our centres again. They have forgotten their basic english, the "good mornings", and have obviously not opened a textbook or a writing book since the start of the lockdown. We take some of their news and also ask those of the surrounding families.
In Ankur Hati, that I visited in July, we saw again some children from our Homes, and especially some adolescentes that are in Baxarah. They are busy working to patiently stick small sequins and other sparkles on fabric. A two meter line of gluing is paid three roupies. You have read correctly. Several hours of patient work, that damages the eyes, in order to earn less than four euro cents; And several days to complete one piece of fabric that will make at the best, a few dozen roupies. Fabric merchants find in slums an available and cheap workforce, used to feed a profitable business.
Managing HSP in the days of Covid-19
The sudden departure of the children of our Howrah centres left to all of us a strong impression of dismay, of uselesness. To be honest, it has been heartbreaking to see our centres silent, emptied from the laughter of those children, the noise of their games, their chatter and their shouts. Not very long after, we got the feeling that the cyclone swept away the little hope remaining to only leave desolation. At the same time, the absence of many members of the staff, the abdication due to fear or remoteness, has increased the pressure of the work and the weight of responsibilities. We have had to deal with the health risk for our teams, and in particular in the health department, continue the distribution of aid kits for emergency, with almost 30 tons of food distributed between April and August, look for funds, contribute to the social audit and the operational diagnosis of our association by KPMG, maintain dialogue with teams disrupted by absences and the lack of work, addressing salaries problems, but also helping the spiritual life of Christians around us, deprived from mass at their parishes. In fact, all these efforts in order to sustain the most in need have been beneficial both morally and spiritually, and by giving, we also received lots of gratitude.
Welcoming the pathway
Deprived from a resting place, with the impossibility of travelling, this time has been a time of trial. At the same time, it has also been a privileged time to give grace to what I was given to live. "God has given, God has taken back, blessed be the name of the Lord" (Jb I,). This obvious reality, often so difficult to accept, has appeared even more true to me during these days. Maybe I should yet add that God, after having taken back, has given again in abundance. Thirty for one, sixty for one, a hundred for one. Getting close to the second aniversary of the start of my arrival in mission, enjoying a blessed restful time in Jalpaiguri and meeting again an overflowing centre of joyful children, I give grace for those months and to two such enriching years.
Living in a small community at EON has also been a grace. In the centre emptied of its children, with the idle didi and dada, we had more time to get to know each other, to enjoy our meals together, to speak to each other ; thanks in particular to my improving Bengali language. At the start, it has not been easy to offer them to eat our meals together. The Bengalis eat very quickly, without speaking. The convivial moment comes possibly after, when the plate is empty… In fact we have spent very good moments and have shared a lot of laughter. We also took time to cook, to learn to make samosas or jilipi.
I admired the way Indians make the chulha, an clay oven that you can carry around or that is embedded on the ground, and that allows cooking with wood. There was also this difficult week we went through after the cyclone without water, nor electricity, and that lead to more intimate discussions. At the flickering light of the kerosene lamps, didis spoke about the life of their villages, the vigils entertained by traditional songs. Children spoke about elephants and tigers met in the jungle around their homes. Indian peoples are very conscious of the difficulty of their life, and make of it an occasion to joke, "Here you have to be constantly on your guard. On the road, you must watch where you put your feet, because the holes and the obstacles change from one day to the other because of the torrential rains. At the same time, you must be careful to not be hit by a car, a motorbike, a bicycle or even a cow, whilst also avoiding snakes, mud…". In a word, constant vigilance!
This vigilance does not stop at home. A few weeks ago, when entering the big common room to join an evening prayer that had already started, I could feel one of the kittens of our centre brushing my feet. As I mechanically turned my look behind me, I saw instead of a cat an enormous 1.50 metre snake that slid happily over my foot. We chased it but it stretched itself like a spring and disappeared very quickly into the water drains. I can today count all the animals that entered my room : rats, mongooses, bats, XXL sized cockroaches, armies of ants, butterflies, giant spiders, termites, occasionnely cats and dogs, monkeys, lizards, giant venimous caterpillars, toads. As a spiritual son of Saint Francis, I must admit that I sometimes struggle with some brothers and sisters of the Creation, notably cockroaches when they arrive by dozens ! And for a few days following the encounter with a snake, I would turn on the light before entering my oratory in the morning to see where I put my feet… As said by a didi, the mosquito net around our beds is not only for mosquitos !
The hindu sign of the cross
Speaking of mosquitos reminds me of an anecdote with the children. One day as I am talking with the girls from Ekprantanagar, Ashima, 10 years old, hit my foot accidentally. She therefore with her right hand, does a little sign on her forehead and mouth alternatively and quickly. I ask a caregiver to explain to me the significance of this gesture that I would like to call the "hindu sign of the cross". The adepts do the same sign when they drive past a temple whilst travelling in a bus, or when they are bringing gifts. It shows the respect you give to the divinity which is in each person, each living being, the same that is honoured in temples under various forms. So when you bump into someone, you actually ask for forgiveness to the divinity that has been hit within them. I ask them with a hint of mischief if they do the same when they crush a mosquito or a cockroach. Cinta laughts and answer me that the divinity is mainly present in the persons… For some Hindus, the breath, the atman, that is within us is part of the brahman, the Universal, the divine Being.
The long learning of bengali
Deprived from my courses at the American Institute of Indian Studies, I have organised classes every morning with Cintamoni, who is responsible for the centre of EPN. As an adivasi, her native language is oraon, but she has a degree in Hindi and masters perfectly the Bengali language. She allowed me to keep on making progress. As this language is the most eastern language of the indo-european languages we sometimes encounter common roots. It widely draws into Sanskrit, sometimes Persian and more and more frequently… English. One of its biggest difficulty is the almost 300 signs that compose its writing. There are 18 signs per vowel, since each vowel also possess a diacritic notation, that can be placed before, after or under the consonant. There are 29 consonants. There are a few difficulties, notably four different "t" letters, and four different "d" letters, aspired or not, dental or retroflex –pronounced on the palate. One must really learn to recognise those sounds if one wants to differentiate for example, the numbers 7 and 60, shat and shat, or storm and fever, jhor and jor. And finally, there are 250 signs to write the combinations of consonants, or of consonants with vowels. Some very similar signs can transcribe very different sounds. The pronounced "d" in the depth of the throat, palatial, is written ড. But if one adds sort of a comma, it becomes a "u" : উ. If instead of that, one puts a dot under it, it becomes a rolled "r": ড়. As for the combinations it is even more complicated ! Today, I managed to read relatively correctly the Gospel and the prayers during mass. For the homily, I often simplify the vocabulary by using shadhubhasha, an erudite form of Bengali from Sanskrit, in order to use the more simple cholitbhasha. I am able to keep a conversation, and I learn many words every day. I am also taking the risk of doing some school tutoring in mathematics. It is not enough to know the maths vocabulary : "plus", "minus", "multiplied" and "divided". : one must also learn the bengali numbers : ১, ২, ৩, ৪, ৫, ৬ ,৭, ৮, ৯, ০, in particular number 4 that is written “৪” and number 7 written “৭”.
With this language there is an entire culture that I am patiently assimilating. For example there is the universe of family that has a central position. There are no less than fourty-eight terms to name all of its members, with remarkable precision. Therefore, according to the sibling’s rank : the older brother is dada, and the little brother is bhai, the oldest sister is didi and the little sister is bon. Whether its members belong to the father or the mother side. The grand-father and the grandmother on the fathers’s side are named thakurda and thakurma. On the mother’s side it is dadamoshai and didima. It gets then more complicated if you want to name the uncle on the fathers’s side, whether he is the father’s young brother, kaka, of the oldest brother, jetha. One can also name the husband of the oldest sister on the mum’s side, dadababu, or the wife of the little brother of the father’s side, kakima. I will stop here… In Raghabpur, as I was only just starting to learn Bengali, the priest who was accompaning me advised me to call all women mashi, and all men dada, to make things more simple for me.
Violence and resignation
I also discover this culture in the concrete aspect of my work, of my encounters, of daily life. During the cyclone, the municipality took several days to restore the electrical power. The latter would come back district by district. We witnessed an authentic battle for electricity. Each wanted to charge their phone ! At EPN, we had gotten the power back not since very long, when we saw around fifteen men walking by our main gate, seriously angry, coming from one side of the road, and several minutes later, another group coming from the other side. And so on for the entire afternoon. Each group was unplugging the cables of the opposite district in order to reestablish electricity in their own district. The situation was tense, and it was better to not set foot outside. On another day, I had an appointment to the ophtalmologist for an intense pain in my ear. He explored my ear thoroughly, with a metal stem covered with cotton. Despite all of my good-will, I am crying out in pain. He starts again two more times, without much more care. I firmly ask him to stop. He therefore yells at me to immediately leave his practice. Finally things get better thanks to the didi who is coming with me… Later she tells me : sorry father, it is the cultural shock with India… ! Strangeness of this country all imbued with spirituality, populated with praying people, that all of a sudden lets out outbursts of violence.
On another side, a form of resignation is also found in this society, like an abandon when faced with the difficulties. Indians often give up and do not act. It is sometimes difficult to keep calm when it happens every day. My spiritual director, a European, confided that he too would lose his natural composure in front of this abdication, after more than fifty years spent in India. It reassured me… There is a sort if fatality in Hinduism. From where comes this resignation, very different from the Christian resignation which is –or should be- a form of courage.
Beyond those difficulties, I find in the Bengali culture a rather interesting echo with the Italian culture, not to my displease… I really have wondered if it was just a fruit of my imagination. In fact, many expatriated Europeans make that observation. The Bengalis really distinguish themselves from their neighbours. There are particulary jovial, they have the sense of hospitality, a delicate cuisine, a very fine culture -music, literature, cinema, poetry… - , they have the taste of what is beautiful, they are very chatty, they like to dress up elegantly… In a word, many common grounds ! This coincidence, or rather this "clin Dieu" (wink of God), lead me to admire to which details the Providence of the Lord lowers itself for us…
The mass for a handful of Christians
My pastoral ministry has grown a bit bigger since lockdown. I continued saying mass in Bengali on Sundays for our little community. The suppression of masses for several weeks, then the authorisation given to celebrate it with ten participants, have pushed a few local Christians to come and find me. I therefore added a mass in English for some children of the district on Thursdays, and a mass in Bengali on Saturday night for their parents. The sisters of Mother Teresa also asked me for their Sunday mass. The community Daya Dan, meaning litterally "gift of Mercy", looks after severely disabled children. The joy has been to find again a large living community, with a dozen of sisters, dozen of didi, and around thirty children. The superior, Sr
Joan of Ark, is German and we shared a lot on the cultural shock of living in Bengal and of working for the poorest. She notably told me what I thought had disappered here. The dispensary they run had to close, but the poorest still keep coming, and notably people whose wounds are infested with worms and who no one wants to care for. Some of them have maggots in their mouth. During the night, the sensation of the swarmming maggots prevents them from sleeping. A man had almost lost his feet, and only his bones were visible. The flesh cleaned by the sisters, with great abnegation since the stench was unbearable, then reveals a miracle of nature and of creation. The flesh once cleaned grows back ! After a few days, the man has found himself with almost proper feet again.
The return of children in the centres
Whilst the first children were coming back to our homes, to their and the staff’s great joy, I was
going to Jalpaiguri at the end of August in order to find some necessary rest. I had to quarantine too for fourteen days, quickly gone by, to visit again with lots of joy our communities of North Bengal. Led directly into my bedroom, I discovered the walls covered with magnificent drawings made by the children. Each day, the children huddled under my window, asking me on which day I would finally come down… To ease their waiting from my window, I would play them a guitar song from time to time.
A time of grace in Jalpaiguri
After two weeks, I can enjoy being reunited, eight long months having gone by since my last visit.
I get to know Mithu, a parrot rescued by the children to which they taught words of Bengali and English ! It is their happiness to feed and talk to him. Florence, a volunteer, arrived before the lockdown, gives a precious helping hand to this big centre filled with around sixty children. Around fourty of them suffer from orthopedic problems, and another twenty children mainly of motor difficulties or mental disabling. My joy is to respond to the sollicitations of three of them, who can not stand up and walk without help. With training and perseverance they will one day be able to walk alone. The bright smile that lights their faces announces their desire and their willingness to succed. What is passing of life, love, through those little hands holding firmly mine, is really indescribable.
I have made the most of those fifteen days in the centres organising the activities of the children. We must try to light up their daily lives, after twelve months spent far from their families, and without any school for five months. With the smallest ones we have drawn and coloured a world map in Bengali. Each team of three children was in charge of a continent. They have patiently outlined and written the name of some countries, of the seas, the oceans, the continents, coloured the animals and the entire map. For those who have a mobility impairment, it has been done with great pride. The eldest ones have participated to two theatre workshops. They have been able to overcome a little bit of their shyness and the talent of some has revealed itself. This innovation has sparked lots of enthusiasm.
So I am already on my way back to Howrah, having promised to come back before the end of the year. In October, the authorities might give their green light for the children to see their families again. It will be in the best case fifteen days of holidays. Facing this uncertainty, the service of others, of the smallest ones, really seems to be the best remedy to create joy where there was fear.