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September 9, 1998  HOME | NEWS | SPECIALS

Where Hope Resides

Archana Masih visits the leprosy centre run by the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta.

Prosthetics room Photographs: Jewella C Miranda

For twenty-five-year-old Mariappan, it was a dream come true. He had cleared the interview for a mason's job in Saudi Arabia and would be flying out in a couple of months. All he needed now was to go through that mandatory medical examination, and he could leave Madras for at least two years.

Then suddenly everything went wrong. Instead of boarding a flight to that promised land, Mariappan was on his way to a leprosy centre run by the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta. The medical report showed that he had leprosy and set Mariappan's life on a different course all together.

It has been five years since. Now, almost recovered from his illness, Mariappan has come to terms with his lost dreams. "I am happier here than I could be at any other place. I don't even want to return to Madras," he says in his workshop at the Titagarh Leprosy Centre. The brothers at the centre sent him for a year long training in prosthetics and Mariappan is now one of the leading technicians at their in-house workshop.

"Thirty people have been able to walk with artificial limbs that we have made here in the past few years. Believe me, there couldn't be a better joy than that," he says melting fibreglass into a mould.

Mariappan is just one of the 475 patients at the centre. "We have tried to make our patients independent. They look after themselves and earn a minimum of Rs 20 a day," says Brother Eugene, in-charge of the centre which also runs a parallel rehabilitation workshop.

Run by 11 priests -- the male wing --of the Missionaries of Charity, the leprosy centre was started by Mother Teresa in 1958. Aware that some lepers lived in Titagarh -- a Calcutta suburb, Mother Teresa distributed bandages and medicines under a tree before setting up a clinic there. Situated on either sides of a railway track, it is now the biggest leprosarium run by the order.

"Initially, people in the area used to throw stones at the brothers working here, but as the years passed they have grown to support us," informs Brother Eugene. Originally from Orissa, the friendly brother has been with the order since 1975 and takes time off his schedule every Thursday to show the centre to visiting friends, tourists and journalists.

Today he has already a bunch of Japanese tourists, two camera crews and two Italian sisters from an order in Turin waiting for him. Then there are Sister Emmanuella from Dumka in Bihar and Sister Bella from neighbouring Shantinagar -- both from the MoC -- waiting to take some essentials from the Titagarh workshop. Bed sheets, wash clothes, shirts, those blue and white Missionaries-of-Charity-saris made by the inmates at the centre.

Canteen "The saris that sisters wear -- we weave them. The Missionaries of Charity all over the world wear saris woven by Titagarh patients," says Kamlesh from Darbhanga in Bihar. Six years ago his brother left him here, he learnt how to handle the loom and now weaves both saris and bedsheets. "I have some infection in my feet but otherwise I feel okay. I have even been to meet my family twice," he adds.

Patients receive medication every morning and evening at the clinic. Most patients dress their own wounds or are helped by in-house assistance, and visiting doctors call thrice a week. Incapacitated patients who cannot handle looms and other tools are encouraged to work in the garden. "The point is to keep them occupied because leprosy strikes both physically and mentally," says Brother Eugene pointing to the huge sunflowers at the edge of the vegetable garden.

Workers at the centre reveal that coupled with the illness, leprosy patients suffer from extreme mental trauma. Social ostracism and economic uncertainty often makes them suicidal, and many lose their mirth and remain trapped in perpetual depression. "What is most distressing is to see children who have lost their smiles to leprosy," says Sister Emanuella.

But both patients and brothers at the centre take heart from the recovery made by many. Even when sensation is lost in the hands, attempts are made to restore the shape of the fingers through physiotherapy and plastic surgery. The centre also has an operation theatre for eye operations and other surgeries. "Except heart operations, we can do all other surgeries here," a proud Brother Eugene tells Sister Juliana from Turin.

Physiotherapist and volunteer Tapan Nag who comes in for three hours every day, brushes away any worries of contracting the disease by exposing himself to infected patients. His reason is simple: "This is my service to Mother."

A loom in the centre Among its blooming sunflowers, the Gandhiji Prem Niwas Leprosy Centre also has its share of sad stories. Janaki and Maya -- two young daughters of a patient -- travel four stations from Belgarhia to Titagarh every week to see their ailing father in ward number 2. The disease has incapacitated him and has forced the girls to take on the responsibility of a home their father cannot support anymore. "We stitch shopping bags and sell them to a small factory. They give us 40 paise per bag," says Janaki who had to leave her studies three years ago.

The eight bags that they stitch brings them a slender Rs 3.20 daily, but the girls are not distressed. "At least we have a roof, my brother in Bombay sends some money occasionally and who knows we might get the Rs 3,000 compensation that papa's factory owes us," she adds with a smile.

Many patients feel the centre has given them an alternate means of livelihood, without which life would be reduced to perpetual penury. At the rehabilitation programme, inmates begin by learning to weave bandages and graduate to making bed sheets and saris. Some serve as cooks in the canteen where a meal of rice, dal and vegetable is sold for Rs 2. While others as carpenters, cobblers and gardeners. "My husband died three years back. He was an ambulance driver but here I am able earn Rs 22 everyday which is good enough for my eight-year-old son and me," says Namita who winds threads on spools.

The priests reveal that rehabilitated patients hardly ever return to the outside world. Social stigma and psychological insecurity prevents them from obtaining jobs and starting a new life. One reason why the wards and family quarters -- where around a hundred rehabilitated families live -- is occupied beyond capacity. Some wards are so overcrowded that four patients have to share two beds. "There is a leprosy patient in our home in Dumka, but we have not found a place for him here as yet," regrets Sister Emanuella.

Brother Eugene says the centre needs a minimum of 20 brothers for the smooth functioning of the home. "Leprosy is the main apostolic for the brother of our order," he says, adding that the brothers of the Missionaries of Charity run 44 homes in India and 16 abroad.

Women in workshop Meanwhile, the group of Japanese tourists waiting to buy some cloth is restless from their hour-long wait. Brother Eugene rushes to his office across the railway tracks to meet them. One of the patients -- now a watchman near the tracks -- gives the 'no-approaching-train' signal as brother and some not-so-able-patients crossed over to the other side.

"I have no toes and some fingers. Yet I am doing some work, what if it is only cautioning patients against an approaching train," smiles P Ghosh, an inmate for the past ten years. If only Mr Ghosh knew that making 200-odd patients cross those busy tracks every day for so many days is no easy job.

Mother Teresa, The Legecy