World is celebrating the sainthood of Mother Teresa. This is in recognition of her love, compassion and service to the ‘lesser children of God’, regardless of caste, creed, community, nationality or race thereby enriching India’s ancient culture of ‘dharma’ (right way of living) and ‘vasudeva kudumbam’ (universal family). Conversion has never been part of her agenda.
Mother’s formal association with Chandigarh began with this letter addressed to me, the then Deputy Commissioner-cum-Estate Officer with the hope of ‘doing something beautiful’. The hope was not belied and therein lays a tale.
The problem of destitute, unwed mothers, orphans, mentally challenged and abandoned children stared at me when I took over as Deputy Commissioner, Chandigarh, in mid-1974. Those afflicted by these tragedies lacked everything that makes a decent and dignified life. Loving care besides physical support only could take care of these unfortunate ones. Despite best intentions, State ‘welfare’ apparatus, as structured in India, was just incapable of understanding and handling this intensely human and humane issue.
My visits to the slums of Chandigarh euphemistically called ‘labour colonies’ revealed the misery in which the poor lived which contrasted sharply with the clean living and comfort of most citizens. Diseases were common. Government efforts and schemes were only touching their body, not their soul. Distressed as it was by their deplorable state of affairs, I had been receiving regular reports of abandoned children born to unwed mothers causing consternation to the authorities of the Government Hospital and the PGI. Some of the children were physically as well as mentally challenged. There were reports also of dying destitutes in the corridor of the PGI. Added to this was the leper menace, very unusual for a city like Chandigarh.
Chandigarh has no parallel in India. The city was almost everything anyone can think of. It is the City Beautiful, the city of the future, a town planner’s paradise. It is a city of picturesque graces – a tourist attraction. It is a city described by no less a person than Jawaharlal Nehru as “Symbolic of the freedom of India unfettered by the tradition of the past……. an expression of the nation’s faith in the future.” The city had the distinction of having excellent medical and education facilities. With its vast vistas and wide avenues it is virtually a dream come true. It was indeed a privilege to live in a city with such openness and facilities one could ask for. The city of Chandigarh could rightly be proud of its manifold achievements.
But in the midst of it all, the city has been yearning for something missing. Something without which no city or society can be complete. It was for a ‘soul’ that would give meaning and content to the very existence of the city. Numerous people and organisations had set out in their efforts to identify and organise activities which they thought would put the ‘soul’ in to the city. Some sought to achieve it through theatre, some others through art, yet others through music. Each had its place and they filled the void in their own way.
My search was different and it concerned the ‘lesser children of God’ who should have some dignity in their despair with the better-of sections of society playing a part in providing it. This search led us to Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity in distant Kolkata. Initial feelers sent by way of exploratory letters brought the response that Mother, accustomed to the poverty-stricken and dirty slums of Kolkata and elsewhere in the world, was not keen on Chandigarh, perceived as affluent and beautiful.
Nevertheless we decided to persist and succeeded in persuading Mother to visit Chandigarh towards the end of 1975. We took her around the slums of the city and explained to her that Chandigarh and its surrounding areas had large number of suffering poor. We impressed upon the Mother that poverty and squalor in the city in the midst of apparent affluence resulted in sharp disparity. We pleaded that the poorest of the poor in this part of the country also needed the soothing and tender touch of love and compassion.
Once the Mother was convinced, things moved fast. In May 1976 she sent a band of nuns under Sister Joya to work among the poor and wretched in the slums of the city. The St. John Ambulance Association, of which I was the president, hired a house in Sector 34 to temporarily accommodate the Sisters and the Home.
Within a year of commencing work the Sisters made such an impact as to motivate the Chandigarh Administration to find a permanent place for them. It was then the Mother formulated her first project and wrote to the Administration for allotment of land. Phase-I would have a ‘Home’ for the dying destitutes, mentally/physically challenged children, abandoned/unwanted infants and rescue abode for women in despair. The land requirement was because the building has to be only single-floor. We soon located a plot of around two acres in Sector 23 and allotted the same at a nominal annual lease. It was the core objectives of the Missionaries of Charity that prompted the Administration in doing this:
“The society and all its branches, throughout India and outside India, work and serve the poorest of the poor, irrespective of all castes and creed, nationality, race or place-giving the individual person whole-hearted and free service. The poorest of the poor are the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the homeless, the ignorant, the captives, the crippled, the leprosy sufferers, the unloved, the alcoholics, the dying and the sick destitutes, the abandoned, the outcastes, all those who are a burden to human society, who have lost all hope and faith in life.”
For this noble deed, credit must go to TN Chaturvedi, former Chief Commissioner, MS Chahal, former Finance Secretary and Aditya Prakash, former Chief Architect.
On October 3, 1977, Mother came to Chandigarh and laid the foundation stone of the “Home”, Shanti Dan that was to cost Rs 4 lakh. In 1980, through a Chandigarh Atlas project sponsored by Bharat Petroleum, we raised Rs 1.5 lakh. Mother, in the meantime, had received the Nobel Peace Prize and had become a world celebrity. She had issued an appeal not to offer any cash donations to her society. Yet, when we made the request she promptly responded and sometime in mid-1980, came all the way from Kolkata to accept our felicitations, prayers and the small donation.
Shanti Dan has indeed become a ‘soul’ to the city of Chandigarh. This is evidenced from the kind of people’s participation in providing for the upkeep and feeding of all the inmates. Worthy of note is the gesture of local hoteliers and restaurateurs supplying fresh food specially cooked for the inmates on a daily basis. It is a new experiment in voluntary effort and people’s participation in helping the poor, disadvantaged and the needy. Through this citizens of Chandigarh are finding an expression of their own inner need for sharing and giving which in essence is the “soul” that the City has been searching for. Because, as the wise one said, ‘it is in giving that we receive’.
There has been a saint in our midst. Shanti Dan represents the ‘something beautiful’ that she promised. It is ‘a drop of love’, which is the elixir that makes life human and humane. And little drops make the mighty ocean!
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