It could have been in the late fifties or the early sixties — my first visit to the Leprosy Sanatorium at Nooranad in Kerala. I do not remember who took me there, my school or my grandmother. I remember the huge banana plants there and their equally huge crop. What I remember even more vividly was my visit to the dressing room at the hospital.
I saw a leprosy patient, who was called by the derogatory term “leper” those days, on the dressing table. He had lost all his fingers and toes and in place of them he had festering wounds. The stench was overpowering for a child like me. Yet, what I saw was unbelievable. Two white nuns in white habits were dressing the wounds.
They were doing it happily while I was in a state of shock. That was the first time I ever saw a Catholic nun. I was told that they were foreigners and had come to India to serve the needy here. I was too young to know that they saw in the patient a wounded Christ and it was his wounds that they tried to heal.
Later, I came across a nun, named Mary John Koothattukulam alias Sister Beninja, while I was at school. I had to study a poem written by her. It was titled Farewell. The poet depicted the feelings of a girl who left her parents, brothers, sisters and friends to pursue a vocation, full of challenges. I enjoyed reciting the poem loudly. It was a beautiful, evocative poem written in simple Malayalam.
Many decades later, I visited a Catholic establishment at Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh run by a group of nuns from Kerala. They took care of children abandoned by their parents often on the roadsides or in front of the nunnery. The children should consider themselves lucky as they had not been devoured by the stray dogs and jackals.
It was 10 o’clock when we reached there. As I had some other engagements, I thought of finishing the visit to the centre by talking to the nuns there. They were busy cleaning the children who were all physically and intellectually challenged.
Many of them had defecated in the bed and the hall was stinking horribly. The sisters told me to come in the afternoon for I might not be able to withstand the stench.
I pretended that I was a journalist who would not be deterred by such stench. Let me admit, my bravery disappeared into thin air and I accepted the sisters’ suggestion to come again in the afternoon and exited the place.
I knew that those children would not live long — the head of one baby was as large as a basketball and it was growing bigger. I wondered how the nuns could attend to their needs on a 24x7 basis.
In the afternoon, when I returned to the centre, it had a different look. The nuns wore their habit and had a pleasant face. The children were all dressed well. Many wore sanitary napkins. I shook hands with all those who could extend their hands to me or patted them on their shoulders.
They all had their lunch and were in a state of bliss. So were the nuns who were happier because their superior from Kerala had come on a visit. When I asked them how they could do this work when I could not stand the stench even for five minutes, they said that they did not see it as work at all. They found joy in serving the little creations of God.
In a journalistic career spanning four and a half decades, I had many occasions to be stunned by the unbelievable work done by the nuns. My wife and I had once visited the St. Joseph’s Hospital and mission compound at Baramulla in Jammu and Kashmir.
The mission compound was found so attractive by the Pakistani tribes who invaded India that they halted there for a whole day looting and raping even a nun. Even as they indulged in their orgies, the Indian Army was landing in Srinagar and getting ready to drive them out.
Had they not fallen for the charms of white female flesh, they could have reached Srinagar and captured it as the Maharaja’s soldiers had all bolted from the scene. Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel made good use of the unholy episode to create public opinion in the West against the first Pakistani attempt to capture the Valley by force.
My purpose was to meet a sister who was a gynaecologist. It was impossible to meet her at the clinic as women in various stages of pregnancy were swarming the area. I spent the time talking to some women who were waiting for their turn.
That is when I realised that the sister was like a Demi-God for them. Every married Muslim woman at Baramulla had a secret desire. She wanted to deliver under the sister’s care. There were thousands of boys and girls in the district who were brought into the world with her helping hand.
Sometimes, they visited her not to consult her but to show her how grown up their children were. They would not come empty-handed. They would bring the choicest apples and dry fruits for which the Valley is famous.
Over a cup of tea and snacks brought from Kerala, the sister told me how satisfying her work at Baramulla was. She never felt threatened by either the infiltrators or the home-grown terrorists. In fact, she did not care to know much about politics and foreign policy.
What motivated her was the joy she found on the face of a woman when her just-born baby was shown to her. In an instant, she forgot the excruciating pain she had while delivering the same baby. For once I realised what a wonderful service she was providing.
The gynaecologist was a product of St.John’s Medical College, Bengaluru. I was a critic of the reservation policy followed by the college where 50 per cent seats were reserved for the religious. Years later, I visited the principal of the medical college.
There was at his office a huge map of India which had several bulbs. When the bulbs were switched on, they would highlight the names of some remote places in the country where doctors like the sister I met at Baramulla served. The doctors whom St. John’s produces under the reservation category serve in remote areas where, generally speaking, doctors refuse to serve.
We ourselves run a 22-bed hospital in the Mewat area in Haryana. It is located about 35 kms from Gurgaon where the landscape resembles that of an American city. After great effort, we found a doctor — a retired Army doctor — ready to join.
Since he did not turn up on the day he was supposed to join, I called him. He told me that he wanted a job in Delhi, not outside. In that case, I wanted to ask him why he wasted my time and energy. Instead, I told him, “Ok. Thank you!”
In the course of my journalistic journeys I have visited several establishments run by the nuns and everywhere I was struck by their dedication and sincerity. While on a tour of Kandhamal, I was told about the return of a sister belonging to the Missionaries of Charity from Baghdad in Iraq. She had served in the war-torn Iraqi capital for a few years. There, the sisters took care of babies till they attained the age of three. They were orphaned by the war.
On holidays, the Iraqis would visit the sisters’ home with their families. They came with biscuits, fruits, bread, clothes, soaps, brushes etc. They were never in short supply and the sisters did not have to stir out of their home to procure any essential item. Many of them were Muslims and they had only gratitude to express.
Now, recall how the Indian government reacted when an alleged, isolated incident of sale of a baby in Jharkhand hit the headlines in the Press. Minister Maneka Gandhi ordered an audit of all such centres run by Saint Teresa’s sisters. The media were full of vituperative outbursts as if the sisters were criminals in blue-bordered saris. There were few to defend them.
The nuns are not social workers. It is a misnomer to consider them as such. They are first and foremost the ones who have dedicated their life to serve the needy wherever they are. They take the inspiration from the Biblical verse, “I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me”.
It does not matter to them whether they are recognised or despised as long as they are sure that they are doing a service to the needy.
I still recall the two nuns who could barely walk. I met them in the parlour of a very powerful Cardinal in Rome. They had a small towel in their hands and they were cleaning the furniture. I was told that they were from the Philippines. I had a little chat with them. They were happy to know that I was from India. They did not want to sit idle and wanted to do some service even in their old age.
My most unforgettable incident was at an orphanage run by the sisters in Odisha. I made the mistake of picking up a child and showing love to him without consulting the sister. All of a sudden, every child came forward raising his or her hands. All of them wanted me to take them.
I obliged a few only to realise that it was impossible to satisfy all. A sister who was smiling at my predicament came to my rescue and took me away from there. Their faces continued to haunt me for several days. Such children can be looked after only by those who consider themselves Godly-ordained to do so. Not by a hate-filled social worker or a salary-conscious government employee.
One of the greatest moments of my life was when I covered the inauguration of Mother Teresa’s centre at Bhopal in the seventies. When I expressed a desire to interview her, she readily obliged me. I was at that time a critic of her, though this was two decades before Christopher Hitchens called her a “lying, thieving Albanian dwarf” and produced his book The Missionary Position without a single citation.
She not only answered my questions but even requested me to join lunch with her. I was later told that she seldom ate in public. She preferred to eat in the company of her sisters. Catholic nuns are not the only ones with whom I got associated.
While I was at Chandigarh, the Brahmakumaris would visit my house year after year on Raksha Bandan. They would come with some sweets and some literature. They have their headquarters at Mount Abu where they have one of the best gardens in the world. They have enough human resources to tend to the plants and keep them healthy at all times.
The church to which I belong, the Mar Thoma Church (St. Thomas Church) had its own nuns. Once I visited their centre at Sehora in Madhya Pradesh. They had been doing a lot of educational and health-related work, especially when the sister of Alexander Mar Thoma, who was a medical doctor, served in the area.
The sisters invited me, some priests, a doctor and a young lady advocate to a Kerala-style non-vegetarian lunch. With every death, the sisters’ group has been dwindling in number and before long they would become part of the glorious history of the church.
Innumerable are the individual nuns whom I came across and whom I respect. But few can beat the 10 nuns whom I came across in Jo Piazza’s best-selling book “If Nuns Ruled the World: Ten Sisters on a Mission”.
“In an age of villainy, war and inequality, it makes sense that we need superheroes,” writes Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times. “And after trying Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, we may have found the best superheroes yet: Nuns.”
The veteran reporter Jo Piazza overthrows the popular perception of nuns as killjoy schoolmarms, instead revealing them as the most vigorous catalysts of change in an otherwise repressive society. I would really be happy if nuns really ruled the world!(Published on 13th August 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 33)