The Children of Calcutta


As seen in Pegasus Pages (June 2013).

By Shree Ganguly

In the 1990s, over 55 million children were born in India. If those 55 million children survived, today it is likely that over 50% of them would be living in poverty. Everyday it amazes me that there was a one in two chance that I could be on a very different side of that statistic and although I haven’t lived in India for many years, it was one of the reasons for why I was very keen to revisit my birthplace and to try to make some kind of a positive impact.

Statistics like that aren’t uncommon. How many times have you seen something similar flash in front of your eyes or ring over black and white montages? They’ve become an integral part of television.

Having been born in the middle of the chaotic city of Calcutta (or Kolkata as it’s now known), it is not as though I’m ignorant of the rampant poverty, nor am I in denial of it. Certainly, when I stepped out of the airport this February, I momentarily glimpsed a very different world, but those thoughts soon disappear as you let the excitement of the city soak in.

Calcutta, and indeed the entire state of West Bengal (which is just slightly larger than Scotland), has a variety of wonders to offer: from the majestic architecture of colonial times (Calcutta was the original capital of British India) such as the beautiful Victoria Memorial –patterned after the Taj Mahal for Queen Victoria, to the peaceful Dakshineswar Kali Temple basking on the edge of the banks of the Ganges. It’s not only a city that attracts thousands of tourists but it is also one making impressive strides in the corporate world as India’s economy races ahead.

However, amidst this diverse, growing city, one doesn’t have to look very far to find a rather different story. In fact, in Calcutta, the story of ‘riches’ and ‘rags’ are often severely juxtaposed. It was particularly striking that within 15 minutes of leaving my aunt’s home in the leafy Park Street area, I was suddenly in an altogether unfamiliar environment teeming with poverty as I prepared for my first day of volunteering.

I was one of the first new volunteers to arrive at the gates of Shishu Bhavan, a children’s home run by the Missionaries of Charity. Outside, a few women, draped in thin saris were sitting on the floor and begging and although their voices could barely be heard amongst the screech of the traffic, somehow, it was eerily quiet. Having arrived early, I was one of the first in the courtyard adorned by sculptures and paintings of the charities’ founder – Mother Teresa. It wasn’t long before I found myself amongst a very large and rather varied group waiting to be briefed and I quickly realised I was definitely the youngest there. This was rather intimidating as I wondered if I’d be completely out of my depth, yet I realised, from looking around, that people from all across the globe, from Korea to the US, were congregated there.

Volunteers of all ages had travelled thousands of miles into an unfamiliar city where they didn’t speak even speak the language, so in many ways I wasn’t the only one who was nervous about the upcoming experience. The sisters certainly made everyone feel more at ease, explaining the daily schedule at the Missionaries of Charity. Everyone had a choice as to where they’d like to volunteer as the sisters ran a large range of houses – each dedicated to different groups of people in need; whether it be adults who suffered from leprosy or children who were in desperate need of an education.

I decided to truly challenge myself by choosing to work at Shishu Bhavan itself as I’d previously never worked with very young children. However, by the next morning, in all honesty, I was wondering if I’d made a rather grievous mistake. At eight o’ clock, I was suddenly surrounded by rows and rows of cribs and beds of children, ranging from infants who were a few months old, to teenagers, only a few years younger than me. I learned that most of the children were either abandoned or orphaned and the particular ward to which I was assigned specialised in children who suffered from a range of disabilities. Having done some work experience at a hospital as well as volunteering weekly here in Cheltenham at Leonard Cheshire, a home for disabled adults, I do enjoy caring for others and I am very much at ease with all sorts of people, yet I was worried I wouldn’t be able to effectively communicate with these children or fulfil their needs.

Thus, I was very grateful for the carers who worked at the ward. They  guided me through the first day and I cannot thank them enough for what the work they do. Although the volunteers certainly impact the lives of these children, it is the carers and the sisters who work tirelessly throughout the day and behind the scenes – making the entire operation run seamlessly. Whereas I was exhausted by lunchtime, every carer seemed to have an abundance of energy even when the volunteers were dismissed at the end of the day at 6pm.

Although somewhat apprehensive, I was immediately drawn to the younger children and it was hard to accept that these adorable girls and boys had been abandoned. I was particularly drawn to an especially beautiful baby boy named Sahan, whom I learned had been abandoned at Shishu Bhavan by his mother only two days before I’d arrived. I knew in most cases that it wouldn’t have been the parents’ choice because from what little I’d gleaned from life outside the gates of Shishu Bhavan, anyone could see that raising a family would be extremely difficult for any person living on the breadline, especially if your child required constant care and attention which you couldn’t provide as earning a living is imperative.

Being relatively unqualified and a new volunteer, I had relatively simple day-to-day tasks yet I was in completely unfamiliar territory and it took many attempts before I could somewhat successfully change a diaper (and I’m pretty sure that even those attempts were corrected by the older volunteers behind my back). My work consisted of getting the children ready in the morning before helping them say their daily prayers; this was followed by the song circle – where every child, volunteer, carer and sister in the ward gathered to sing simple hymns and songs to ensure every morning had a bright and cheerful start. It echoed the same feelings of peace felt through Prayers every morning, here at College, and I did enjoy this time as it was one of the very few times during the day when the whole community was gathered. After this, the day got extremely busy. We had to ensure that every child had had any medication required. This was followed by feeding the children their meals throughout the day. The older children sometimes had to have physiotherapy or attend a specialist school run by volunteers which helped them overcome learning disabilities, or volunteers simply had to play and care for the children and give them the constant attention they require.

Signs of neglect and malnutrition were immediately apparent to someone as untrained as me even in the first few days. Many of the youngest children were extremely quiet and disengaged, having been deprived of key bonding moments with their mother at the beginning of their lives, and studies have shown this can not only affect the child early in life but is often seen in children later in life as well. However, Shishu Bhavan tries to reverse any of these effects as much as they can, hence why a large part of my day consisted of simply engaging with the children.

Rather shy, in the initial part of my week there I was reluctant to unnecessarily probe the extremely busy sisters to ask them more about the ward and the children living there. I was especially interested in the ages of the very youngest there as I was primarily spending most of my time with them, especially two little girls: Mamata and Moushumi. I remember trying to work their ages out at home, questioning my family about the different stages of growth and the different ages at which children began to talk, walk or simply manage to hold their head up by themselves.

I remember working out by their stages of development, or lack thereof, as they could barely sit up unaided, that these girls were no more than a few months old, bearing in mind they probably hadn’t developed as much as other children due to malnutrition as well suffering from cerebral palsy. What had escaped my notice initially were the brief portfolios for each child and I remember the shock the next day when I discovered that they weren’t two or three months old as I had guessed but were severely underdeveloped 3 and 4 year olds. Also, the oldest child wasn’t ten or eleven as I had guessed but she was almost exactly a year younger than me. That alone was an incredibly harrowing experience and something I found quite difficult to process when I went home. I remember going home that day and being particularly emotional, not entirely sure if I’d return the next day.

Nevertheless, I was glad I did and that I spent the maximum amount of time I could in Shishu Bhavan in the short week I had. I met some incredibly dedicated people, from the volunteer paediatrician, the women who spent their retirement helping these disadvantaged children, or the gap year students who’d helped me get acclimatised to the environment. Even more incredible were the children who had survived against all odds and were unbelievably strong to be able to do so. A particular highlight for everyone was the day an eight-year-old girl from the ward was successfully adopted and was leaving Shishu Bhavan for good. The carers were especially emotional, as they’d raised her from an incredibly young age but also because the disabled ward of Shishu Bhavan rarely sees the children there being adopted.

It was certainly a day I don’t think I’ll forget and it did make me more hopeful for Sahan, Mamata, Moushumi, and all the other children there. Whilst I probably haven’t made a huge impact on their lives, they certainly have on mine. This is why I would recommend this experience to everyone; it is very humbling and does allow you to get a very different perspective on life. Furthermore, the Missionaries of Charity cater for so many different people that you can choose to help a range of people in need or dedicate your time to one particular house as I did.

They also appreciate that Calcutta can be a strange and scary city at times, so they are very helpful in helping people, especially students, to choose affordable accommodation and travel arrangements. However, they also ensure that volunteers can also explore the capital city of Calcutta and indeed its state, West Bengal which can offer many beautiful sites from the exquisite Darjeeling tea gardens nestled in the Himalayas to the north or the Sundarbans National Park, situated in the south on the Ganges Delta which is a reserve for the majestic Royal Bengal tigers, as well being an UNESCO biosphere reserve.

I suppose in many ways this brief snapshot provides something of a glimpse into the diversity and range of India as a country and the little taste I’ve had of it. It will inevitably continue to change and grow but it also important to remember those people who may run the risk of being forgotten amongst the excitement of this vibrant country.

For more information about the Missionaries of Charity, please visit:

Image: Carl Parkes on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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