The otherwise dull eyes of septuagenarian Shefali Roy sparkled with excitement and her face filled up with joy as she went on to narrate how sisters from the Missionaries of Charity across the world would be donning the iconic white and blue saree during the canonization ceremony of Mother Teresa at Vatican on September 4.
These sarees are, however, no ordinary ones. They are not found in the market no matter what price one offers for them. These sarees are woven and stitched by leprosy patients at a home in a dingy lane at Titagarh in North 24-Parganas.
Titagarh is about 20 km from Kolkata and is a part of the area along the Hooghly river that developed into an industrial in the 19th century.
Roy is one of the senior-most and oldest members of that home - the Gandhiji Prem Nivas. It is a home for leprosy patients run by the Missionaries of Charity. After being detected with leprosy more than 40 years ago, she was forced to leave her home in Cooch Behar. She had since then taken refuge in the Niwas along with her daughter like many others.
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“You could hardly imagine our feelings when we used to see Mother wearing a saree which had been weaved and stitched by us. Society ostracized us for the disease but the sarees which we make are worn by sisters of the charity the world over. The Mother also wore it till her last breath. Now the sisters wear them,” she said sitting in a room, the walls of which are adorned with pictures of the Mother and Pope Francis.
The Gandhiji Prem Nivas was established in 1979 when sisters of the Missionaries of Charity used to come to Titagarh to organise a medical camp under a tree to treat leprosy patients. Later, it was upgraded and a makeshift hut was built with just a few inmates.
Now it is a full-fledged home the foundation of which was laid in the early 90’s by then chief minister Jyoti Basu.
Work starts at this welfare home at 8 am every day. More than 400 men and women – all leprosy patients – work round the year to produce around 4,000 hand-woven sarees. These are then directly sent to the Missionaries of Charity’s headquarters in Kolkata from where they are supplied to the sisters across the world. There are more than 5,500 sisters working in more than 130 countries now.
“In fact, all the sisters, including Sister Mary Prema Pierick, who is the Superior General of the Missionaries of Charity, would also wear the same sarees that have been woven by the leprosy patients of the Nivas when they attend the canonisation ceremony at Vatican on September 4,” said Brother Marinus, who is in charge of the Titagarh home.
Sunday would be a big day for the inmates and workers of the leper home. They are preparing to celebrate it in their own small way with evening prayers and probably a small supper, if funds permit. Even though it would be a Sunday and a holiday for the workers who stay in adjacent leper colonies, the authorities of the home are planning to set up a giant screen to project the canonisation process from the television and show it to the workers.
But while just three days remain for the world to witness the canonisation process of Mother, the saree weavers don’t really understand the complexity and gravity of the ceremony.
“We are not sure what exactly canonisation is. We just know that it is something very important and that Mother would be honoured,” said 65-year-old Arati Roy, one of the inmates of the colony.