As the crowd started dispersing, Mother Teresa with her slight, petite frame and strong determined expression came up to me, held out her hand and shook mine with a soft, firm handshake. She looked at me and said, ‘Thank you, dear.’
Unique in so many ways, the year gone by has offered us a mixed platter; some of it bitter and unpalatable and some of it sweet and memorable. It offered us opportunities to ponder, reminisce, relive memories, pause in daily routine to catch a breath; connect with many special people who had faded into the fog of “exigencies of service” and most of all, an opportunity to catch up with oneself. During a part of this process of rediscovering myself, my heart and mind went back fifty-one years in vivid recollection of what has been, the most unforgettable moment of my life.
In 1969, I was an Intermediate student of Loreto College, Lucknow. One day, Sister Cyril our headmistress, announced that the Sisters of Charity were to start a home, “Prem Niwas”, at Lucknow. They were looking for volunteers to help the sisters to teach and play with the children of a “bustee” (slum) while they taught the women to stitch.
I was one of the six who volunteered. Twice a week, I saved my boiled egg from breakfast, and fruit from lunch (normally a banana) and holding them aloft, perched myself on the rear seat of a day-scholar’s bicycle. We rode about four kilometers from the college to the location of Prem Niwas.
The nuns accepted our modest gifts with utmost respect as if they made up a feast. There were only two inmates to begin with – a very old man who was nothing but skin and bones, whom the nuns had picked up from a street so that he could die in dignity. The second was a baby girl whose head seemed too big for her frail frame. I remember vividly that she was dressed in a bright red frock the day I saw her. She was so small that I was scared to hold her. The sisters kept the home spotlessly clean, and I recall how peaceful it was.
From there, we used to accompany the nuns to the bustee in Charbagh area. We walked and wheeled the bicycles along the approximately three kilometer stretch (distances meant nothing to us then) because the nuns couldn’t ride bicycles. In the bustee, we played games with the children, taught them rhymes and how to keep their hair, nails and clothes clean. This went on for about six months during which time we organized a Sports Day for the children and even brought them to our college grounds on Sundays.
One day we were told that Mother Teresa herself would be coming to Lucknow for the formal inauguration of Prem Niwas by the Governor of UP. There was so much excitement! We, the Loreto students were to sing a bhajan. We chose the song, “Tu Pyaar Ka Sagar Hai,” and I was selected to address the audience and give an account of the work we had done.
The day dawned bright and clear. Dressed in spotless white with my hair pulled back tightly in a long braid, I told the august gathering about the evolution of Prem Niwas and our minor role. The dignitaries including the Governor made speeches and thus Prem Niwas was inaugurated.
As the crowd started dispersing, Mother Teresa with her slight, petite frame and strong determined expression came up to me, held out her hand and shook mine with a soft, firm handshake. She looked at me and said, “Thank you, dear.”
SHE thanked me! The irony of it. She would never know how much that moment has meant to me. She taught me the meaning of love and taught me how to give without counting the cost. She showed me the way. In a sense my life’s route was chartered that day. She will never know how much I need to thank her. With that handshake, I feel truly blessed. But, of course, she does know.
In college I was very involved in the activities of our Social Service League. A milestone was the trip to Shantinagar, a village in Eastern UP where we went to paint the school playground and carry books and stationary for the students, accompanied by Sister Cyril. When the train dropped us off at a wayside deserted station, we rode in a trolley pulled by a tractor to cover the rest of the journey to our destination! Amid much laughter we had a most enjoyable ride and trip overall, but I think such interactions with village folk at an early age gave me the confidence to be comfortable with all strata of society; something that has held me in good stead always. I helped to run a dispensary for the college staff, where we gave them basic cures for headaches, coughs and stomach aches. Our “dhoban” (washerwoman) was either a hypochondriac or was very fond of us because she landed up every day for a tablet for her headache. We started giving her Vitamin C and she swore she felt better!
Almost straight after graduation, I got married to a cavalry officer. Army was Home to me as my father was in the army and I knew the ethos and was happy in that environment. Importantly, I was very sensitive to the challenges of soldiers’ families and the concept for Welfare. Even as a junior officer’s wife in our regiment, I enjoyed interacting with the ladies some of whom were in ‘‘ghunghat” (veil) those days. Pulled out of the cocoon of their villages they were hurled into an alien environment and their husbands were too busy with their duties to spend much time with them. It is then that we put them at ease, introduced them to each other even though they may have spoken different languages, oriented them to their new surroundings, helped with their medical issues, coaching their children and worked on adult literacy as many had not studied beyond class 4 or 5. I was always overzealous where welfare was concerned. I would attend the meetings with a child each on either hip in Jodhpur as my children are a year apart. Children were allowed, so I just took them as they were too young for school and I didn’t want to miss the meetings. They chewed on the chalk for the blackboard and jalebis and pakoras and I let them chill. I speak here in the past tense, because almost five decades later, things have changed. Wives of soldiers are better empowered with education, skills training and confidence. All this based on our collective baby steps then.
The next huge spurt in my ‘Being What I Could Be’ came when my husband took over the command of his regiment. The welfare of his men and their families was top priority for him, so I walked in step with him and became a part of his Command Team. Being in close communication, I made it my business to be there in “sukh”( joy ) and “dukh”(sorrow) for each family. I visited every new mother the day her baby was born with a modest gift. I am delighted this practice of giving a gift is being followed even now, but that was less important. Besides giving encouragement to the family, the visit was also an attempt to check on the facilities that were being provided to them. As a consequence of such visits, we made contributions to the Family Ward and hospital when we perceived a need even if it was buckets or a water cooler.
With the passage of time and my husband’s command commitments encompassing more people, my energies became focused on what more one could do. My mantra became, “When in a position to make a difference, just do it.” Health was a primary concern. While men in uniform are given annual medical checks, there was no such provision for the women. Unconcerned about their health, women suffered from anemia, underweight, stomach issues and a host of problems without making an attempt to get treated. Many were shy to go to a doctor, especially a male. An attempt to address these problems needed planned efforts and my welfare meetings moved from drawing room sofas to dining tables with quarterly goals and monthly plans, problems to be discussed not glossed over and monitoring for impact. The more I communicated with the families, the more ideas emerged as one got a better understanding of problems.
At one station I realized we had 27 special children and they had no place to go to. Our own nurseries had refused them admission as they disrupted classes. Then started a conversation with a clinical psychologist who met the children and their parents, sensitized all of us in station about how we should treat them. I had a dream of taking these children to a regular school in a classroom equipped for special needs and made it come true. The children were to come to school with the other station children, dressed in the same uniform and after attending the same assembly, go into their sheltered space with special educators. This was a most gratifying journey and I was able to replicate it in a second station too, where there was no special school.
At a posting in an insurgency area, there were sometimes casualties. It was most upsetting and disturbing. More often than not, they were young unmarried boys. I decided I would write a personal letter to the mother/wife of each, irrespective of what went through official channels. This was the most difficult thing I have ever done; to tell a mother she had lost her brave son even when the country was not at war. Blessings of the Almighty give one courage and inspiration.
When the Army mobilizes, suddenly all the men move out and the cantonment is left with only women and children, supported by a bare skeletal administrative staff. This happened to me when my husband was commanding a division. Overnight, I the mother hen, felt a huge responsibility on my shoulders. The men left for what could have been the “real thing”. Some women began’ losing it’, one refused to eat; there was depression all around. I galvanised a whole series of ways to get the women together through art, cooking and craft classes, celebrating Christmas, New Year, Lohri together at different levels. I was everywhere with my finger on the pulse. The idea was to keep everyone engaged. I joined classes too and actually did (most of it) a glass painting and a copper foil picture. We danced, we sang, came closer together in the face of collective challenge; smiling in public. I sat outside the Operation Theatre when one of the CO’s wives was being operated to be with her, as her husband couldn’t come back for it.
The hours and days I had spent visiting veterans’ families and soldiers’ families in hospital had been worth the effort. The day my husband retired after forty years of service, I felt so gratified. The ladies who were too shy to lift their veils even from us, the officers’ wives were now conducting craft and cookery classes, organizing fashion shows and anchoring programmes on the internal TV Channel I had started in Chandimandir. I was grateful for the opportunity to have contributed my few drops towards this sea of transformation over thirty five years.
The Blessed Touch was still with me, I believe. It could have been only Providence that connected me to the Max Group which was looking to start their corporate Foundation to benefit the underprivileged. (To be honest, living in Army Cantonments, I hadn’t even heard of Max then) Over a half hour meeting with the Chairman it was decided that I would come on board on my husband’s retirement and start the Max India Foundation. Wow! This next phase of my life has been incredible. Building it from scratch, I was CEO for almost twelve years, touching the lives of over three million people directly on the healthcare platform. I was full of energy and supported with trust and faith from the Max Group, there seemed no boundaries for what we could do and did. I am forever grateful for this opportunity to make myself useful and remain connected even today as a Trustee.
You taught me to give without counting the cost. You have always been there.
Mohini Daljeet Singh is former President Regional AWWA Western Command, Founder CEO of Max India Foundation and is presently a Trustee with the Foundation.