Edition 6 Part 1, July 2012
Welcome to our 6th edition of Bekind Update. This edition will cover the experiences of Brian Flanagan (Founder Director) and other volunteers while in India in November/December 2011 and March/April 2012. Please feel free to share this edition with friends and family.
Sometimes we think life in Ireland is hard and for some it is. By and large most of us live a charmed life even if we don’t always appreciate it. We enjoy our national past time, stoked by our media moaning about the recession, our government or pay or conditions or whatever, a lot of unnecessary complaining goes on daily on the radio, TV, online and in our homes and places of work.
Some years ago during my career in the motor industry, our distributor, Nissan Ireland, wanted to ensure they had dealer principals who were well trained to deal with the demands of running our respective dealerships in a professional and profitable manner. Nothing wrong with that and management training courses can be very beneficial if content and delivery are of a high standard.
One such company, Century Management in Dublin, headed up by the late John Butler, who tragically past away from a reaction to a bee sting last year, educated us in many areas of business.
I recall one method used to encourage participants to be attentive, especially after lunch when concentration was waning, John would ask us all to stand up, then jump up and down several times shouting aloud the words “I feel great!” and guess what? It always worked, particularly if you were enthusiastic.
As my children grew and on the occasional grey and dreary morning when school didn’t really appeal, we would hold hands in the hall at home, jump up and down and shout out “WE FEEL GREAT!” It always made us laugh and neighbours never knew our secret as to why we were seemingly such happy morning people.
My son Ricky and I landed in Calcutta International Airport. Unfortunately for us four other flights also arrived, with Muslim worshipers returning from their week-long pilgrimage, the Hajj. Chaos would be a polite way to describe the baggage reclaim area and, as usual, the handlers were not in any hurry!
Hajj - The purpose is to fulfil the duty Allah has commanded all to fulfil. The Hajj or pilgrimage is the fifth principle, or pillar of Islam, and is undertaken to commemorate Ibrahim and his family, who founded Makkah (Mecca). If Muslims have the halal money, and are competent to make the journey, they must make the pilgrimage to Mecca. The money cannot be haraam. Meaning it can't be gained through immoral means, such as lottery, stripping, bar-tending, etc.
Where would I be without the selfless help of my dear Indian friend Anil who came to our rescue when we could not gain entrance to our accommodation due to the delays in the airport? Anil and his beautiful wife Sharda gave us refuge in their home welcoming us at 3am. They gave us the grandparents’ bed, fortunately they were away in Delhi at that time, and we drifted off to sleep allowing the chaotic scenes of the airport, where throngs of white-bearded, flowing-robed pilgrim passengers had fought and squabbled over their multiple identical looking belongings on the carousel of life.
One core reason for our visit to India was to finalise a goal in procuring a property for the Bekind Boys’ Home. From my earliest experiences of Calcutta in 2005 as a volunteer the sheer scale of the poverty and homelessness planted a seed in me to do something practical for the many poor children living on the streets. I wanted to open a home.
Seven years later, that nurtured seed has been turned into a reality. A call from Maureen Forest, founder of the Hope Foundation, requesting us to view a property in East Calcutta was to lead to successful negotiations with the landlord on that Friday Nov 25th 2011. My task on returning to Ireland would be to get the “enlarged” budget passed for this project.
In the two weeks that followed, Ricky and I experienced the highs and lows of volunteer work in our travels around West Bengal. Ricky was to get to meet Ananda, a boy he and his girlfriend, Leah, sponsor in Hope Boys’ Home. We met many of the children Bekind supports in several projects and shared some lovely moments in the lives of the tots to the teens.
The two and a half hour bus journey, which took four and a half hours due to a political rally and road works, brought us to a place named Noorpur. There is where the Missionaries of Charity brothers care for over one hundred and thirty physically and mentally challenged boys and men. Arriving late evening we were delighted, let alone relieved, to exit the bus as the driver was somewhat frustrated with the delays and did his best to make up time on the last few miles of the “hair-raising” journey. Early next morning we went to help the brothers with the morning chores of washing, dressing, feeding etc.
The first thing to shock the senses was the smell, not the usual odours found with dawn incontinence but a smell of decay. We came across a novice brother named Joseph who was attending to a teen of about fifteen years of age.
Brother asked us for help in washing the boy and lifting him back to bed. The sight that befell us will never be erased, for the poor lad, whose name was Andarra, was in such a condition it was hard not to wretch, as a foul odour emanated from this poor boy.
Destitute and homeless, it appeared that Andarra had roamed the streets of Calcutta for several years. Unwanted and shunned, this boy with his mental and physical disabilities, lived from day to day, scavenging what he could to survive. He became weaker over time and suffered from infections as he lay alone on the streets.
Now this pitiful, shivering wretch was in the care of the Brothers, his body covered in sores. Open wounds from pressure points that we would associate with bedsores in older people. Never in my life have I seen someone in so much pain and suffering. A low, repetitive moan was all that came from a face twisted and etched in agony.
I wanted to hold him in my arms but there was no place to hold him, such was the extent of his wounds, where the flesh had literally rotted away. He was the living-dead. Stroking his hair was as much as one could do as his stare cut deep into my heart.
With help from Hope Hospital, we sent a water mattress a day later to help ease his suffering, for we knew his time was near. Andarra passed away on Christmas week.
The return bus journey to Calcutta was just as “hair-raising”, with smoke filling the bus from oil burning on the exhaust system, causing concern as panicking passengers tried to exit for fear of fire! The driver, as if possessed by some fiendish devil, kept the worn pedal to the metal. Ricky has never forgiven me.
Next to Kurseong in the Himalayas and ten hours on the overnight train bringing us to Siliguri. Then on by car for three hours to visit the Edmund Rice Free School (ERFS) Bekind supports along with some of the families in that region. We were accompanied by our friend, Mukhtar Ali, a young man we have had the pleasure of supporting through college. Knowing the plight of one the students in ERFS, who was suffering from kidney failure, Mukhtar had kindly offered to escort the girl for medical treatment if needed.
Br. James Joseph, a Rajastani Irish Christian brother who founded the ERFS for poor girls in that area some ten years ago, had been in regular contact with me as we tried to arrange treatment for the twenty-one year old girl Bindiya. To visit Bindiya we first made the journey by jeep, as far as possible, then a couple of hours on foot to get to the tiny remote village where she lived with her family. Her father produces local liquor and evidently is not averse to sampling his own brew…regularly!
It is only when you take a journey like this you realise what these girls have to endure to actually get to school, taking over three hours each way in often wet and damp conditions.
After taking very ill over Christmas and having breathing difficulties, Bindiya had to be carried in relays by family and villager friends one night through the dark and rain to get her hospitalised in Darjeeling.
I urged James Joseph to transport her to Calcutta for treatment and he arranged flights for her and her sister who would be a donor if tests proved a positive match for kidney transplant.
Hope Foundation Kolkata pulled out all the stops and arranged dialysis treatment, secured a surgeon to perform the operation and cared for the two sisters for several weeks. I spoke regularly to the girls, calling them from Dublin in January and February offering encouragement and asking them to keep their spirits up.
When news came through by email from Samiran, the manager in Hope Hospital that tests had shown Bindiya had damage to her heart and was unable to have the operation, we were all so disappointed. She would return to her village and as I write I am coping with yesterday’s text dated March 27th 2012 from Bindiya’s sister sent to James Joseph, which read:
“Bad news for 4you brother Bindhya is dead. May she rest in peace. Sandhya.”
I’m aboard the Shatabdi express train from Howrah to Ranchi, sitting in air-conditioned comfort and looking out at the changing landscape; the rivers…the flow of life, the fields…the seeds of life, the beasts…the burdens of life, the huts and houses…the shelters of life, the workers in the stone quarries…the toils of life, the children bathing in the ponds…the innocence of life.
Ricky and I had been to Ranchi in December last to visit Missionaries of Charity brother, Peter. Peter has worked for years caring for the poor and oppressed in Korea, in South America and in his home country of India, encouraging slum children to go to school and supporting needy families as much as possible. Bekind has another gem in Peter, as no money goes to waste and he uses it to maximum effect. As mentioned in previous correspondence, it was during my first visit there in 2009 that I met Kabir, a child who had lost his right leg in a train accident. I vowed to return a year later and with the help of my eldest son, Shane, we took the boy to Calcutta, where Hope arranged for prosthesis to be fitted.
Now in 2012, the boy has grown and needs a new prosthesis. I collected him and we travelled back to Kolkata via the city of Asansol, where Br James Joseph has been relocated from Kurseong with its cool climate and fresh pure air to teach in an enormous school in this industrial smouldering city.
St Vincent’s school is adjacent to St Patrick’s. (3,300 pupils). St. Vincent's Technical School was started in 1877 on the grounds that the school now stands in. The land was purchased from the railways with the intention of producing trained mechanical and electrical artisan staff to bridge the talent shortage in the railways.
St. Patrick’s, founded in 1891 is one of the nineteen Christian Brothers Schools in India. St. Patrick’s School was built in 1877 as a scholasticate for Belgian Jesuits. It was abandoned by them because of the severe Asansol climate. It was taken over by Christian Brothers in 1890 and opened as St. Patrick’s Boarding of Anglo- Indian and European Boys.The Christian brothers have worked for over a century in St. Patrick’s School and many of their stalwarts are buried in the School Cemetery.
Ex-pupils are to be found around the world as well as all over India. Present pupils keep up the great traditions of the years gone by and continue to strive for excellence.
Young Kabir was delighted to spend the night there, having the luxury of his own room complete with en suite, a marked difference to the dorm he normally shares with scores of other boys in Kishor Nagar, where he attends a Jesuit-run school for 800 children, who are mostly orphaned.
Next morning, removing his false leg, Kabir and I took advantage of the schools outdoor swimming pool. With one hand on my shoulder Kabir hopped his way to the pool assuring me he could swim. With his limited English and my even more limited Hindi I was hoping nothing was lost in translation! No worries, as he swam like a fish and gave me a run for my money, as we dived our way into another day in incredible India.
We will publish Part 2 of this edition shortly, so stay tuned. If you would like to read previous editions, you can find them here.