Student's passage to India

Baltimore native Shireen Shantosham (C '00) thought it would be a good idea to return to her parents' homeland of India so she could learn about the culture and language. She ended up learning a good deal more, thanks to a brief encounter with Mother Teresa, whose recent death was mourned around the world.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Shantosham spent her junior year in high school in India as part of a study-abroad program for U.S. and Canadian students. While touring the country, her class visited the Missionaries of Charity hospice in Calcutta. That brief visit inspired her to spend her summer in Calcutta, working with Mother Teresa and the order.

Doing so offered her a chance to learn about a world she would never see in the United States and to test herself at the same time. "I really wanted to work with a different type of poverty than you see in America," she said, "and I wanted to do something in which I could be completely on my own."

So, at age 16, with no friends or family to call on and no knowledge of the local language, she settled in for three weeks of caring for some of Calcutta's most destitute, in a hospice for sick women.

"The people you see on the television commercials -- the ones who have nothing to eat, who are just skin and bones, walking skeletons -- those are the people we were caring for," she said.

"There was this one woman we took in named 'Balu,'" she said. "The nuns gave her this name" -- which means "bear" in Bengali -- "because they had found her somewhere in the woods. Because she was old, blind, sort of deaf and crippled and couldn't take care of herself, [someone in her village] had just left her there. She would just go crazy every time you touched her or held her, because she couldn't see and she was scared."

Like the other women in the hospice, Balu's family had given up on her. "If a woman ends up there, it's usually because they've lost touch with their families, or their families have gone" and abandoned them, she said. "There's a very strong family structure in India, and usually, families will take care of their own."

The women were cared for under conditions that Americans would consider primitive. The hospice had no running water, so women were bathed from buckets, latrines were swept out by hand, and clothes were tossed in vats of boiling water to sterilize them, beaten against rocks and dried on lines strung on the roof of the hospice.

"The [chores] don't sound very hard, but in India, it was much more of a challenge" because of the lack of plumbing, she said.

As she had hoped, Shantoshan learned plenty about the differences between poverty in India and poverty in the United States during her stint with Mother Teresa's order.

For starters, India lacks the "safety net" of services found in the United States. "Here, if you are poor, there are some support systems," she said. "We do have our homeless on the streets, but we do have a lot of shelters -- much more than they have in India."

But Shantoshan feels that Mother Teresa was on to something when she said that poverty in the West is worse than in India. "Here, you have a sort of spiritual poverty," she said, "while there, there are more family structures, and people are more religious."

Originally published on January 28, 1998