11-16-11 Walking to Nirmal Hriday. This morning after an early peek at Facebook, hand-and-foot-washing personal clothing, negotiating kitchen-stove-heated water for a pour-bath, monitoring opening and shutting of adjoining bathroom, kitchen, and bedroom doors and windows for privacy while dressing, I walk a few blocks to Nirmal Hriday ("Sacred Heart," one of Mother Theresa’s ) to schedule meeting with a young resident I’d coaxed into taking her studies somewhat seriously, during last year’s trip.
Around a muddy corner from our deteriorating street, the roads are flat concrete, barely more than two cars wide, concrete extensions, packed dirt, aimless weeds or varieties of debris for about a meter on either side. Concrete dust and sand from construction encroach here, motorcycles park there, and small groups of people stand talking here and there on the sides of the road; walking, cycling, motoring traffic passes, weaving in and out as needed. Modest homes, a few two to five story apartment buildings, and a few business offices occupy almost all the space inside theirshoulder-high compound walls…all concrete.
I walk to the right, facing traffic, cross carefully in front of a small, old bakery, whose new blue sign proclaims Cake Land. Cake Bakery. in bright red and yellow colors. The interior is open to the street, shiny counters and boxes displaying cakes, cookies, and pastries which seem to exhale an aroma of artificial cherry flavoring out onto the street, where several clutches of young men lingering near motorcycles ponder their purchases.
I cover my head with a chunni (traditional long shoulder/head shawl) more for the late morning sun than their looks. I reason that I must’ve become a familiar, seasonal sight after so many years of wintering in the neighborhood. Past the aging yellow walls of Guruviah Chetty High School, I look forth and back, and cross the street again, up a small entry ramp and through the tall but open, brown painted gates of Nirmal Hriday.
This particular Sacred Heart convent cares for retarded and handicapped girl children and indigent old people, while some of the sisters regularly survey the town in search of people in dire need.
Inside, to my surprise, instead of the usual serene, shady, open compound that is usually occupied by only a few residents and sisters at a time, today there is an almost gala atmosphere. I greet Sister Felicitas at the door of the simple reception room door in the center of the two story main building.
Clad in the order's traditional blue-bordered, white saree over a long sleeved white blouse which bunches sideways at the narrow-collared neck, she greets me with a bright smile, gestures, and calls out, “Come in, come in,” as she hurriedly gives a chair to a young Indian woman at the door, asking her to sit outside, and me to sit inside the plain room, furnished with a table, a handful of chairs, two calendars, and a few posters and religious wall symbols.
Unwilling to avail of the class or religious differentiation her invitation and instruction may imply, I linger at the door to view the scene outside, and interview the other woman. Sister Felicitas, meanwhile, bustles around to locate a children’s school notebook in which she finds and verifies handwritten details with the woman about today’s serving plans. A young mother with a red bottu on her forehead, she tells me she is from a nearby village and is here to serve a meal to the residents.
Serving a meal or treat to ‘the poor’ is a common practice for a number of significant occasions, especially among Hindus. This time, the meal will be prepared on site. The young woman tells me she does this twice every two years for her sons’ birthdays (or does she say twice a year, on each of their birthdays – our mutual language skills are not up to the clarification). The boys are small, maybe four or five years of age; one of them presses against his mother, urging her to come over and let him play in a little playground just behind them, as Sister F. has suggested.
Meanwhile, fifty or sixty women are ranged in groups of four or five, some sitting on the ground, others clustered around Ramesh, a young man resident, who notes their information in another small, cardboard-covered notebook. Sister Felicitas does not speak Telugu (in which I am becoming fairly conversant), but enthusiastically answers my questions in her own version of English, words tumbling over one another in a chaotic manner, almost as comical as it is confusing.
I understand that the Sisters gather information about who is out of work, widowed, and/or otherwise unable to survive without help, and inform these people when food is to be available on such and such a date (today it is godum, wheat flour, good for Indian chapattis), during their daily rounds in the town. Some of the sisters are dispensing the flour in a room across the compound, from which women emerge, one every few minutes, carrying perhaps two gallons of flour in an 8 gallon sack. In a far corner of the compound quite a few articles of rumpled clothing are laid out, evidently distribution as well.
Sister Felicitas is clearest when she tells me that Ramesh is unable to walk without a walker, “that is why his people have left him here. But he is very good, he helps us a lot.” A former school teacher, one of his responsibilities is to tutor my charge.
As for my erstwhile student, whose section of the convent takes an early lunch, today is not an option. I am told by Sister that I cannot come tomorrow: the sisters with whom I should talk first are going to another town, not the day after: it will be a day of prayer after morning chores, so please to come on Friday. Or, start next Monday. Ten o’clock, because she’ll be at lunch at 11. And so we agree, smiling and nodding and repeating the details to each other to be sure we both have got it: Friday. Saturday. Or Monday. Okay. Sister Felicitas points to dates on the calendar, the numbers arranged from top to bottom. Good. Goodbye then. Thank you. Thank you. Good bye.I exchange smiles and waves with Ramesh as I crunch across the finely-crushed-gray-rock compound to the gate…and will describe the walk home another day. OK. Good bye. Thank you. Okay. Thank you.