30th January happens to be the death anniversary of two great personalities, who were very different from each other and yet had so much in common –Mahatma Gandhi and Mary Ward. One was a devout Hindu who spread the doctrines of truth and ahimsa and helped India to gain freedom from British subjugation. The other was Mary Ward, a Catholic 'woman beyond compare' of England, who worked for the rights of women. 300 years of tumultuous history separated them. One rightly earned the title of 'The Mahatma' and laid the foundations of a free India; while the other was the foundress of the Loreto Order, who had proclaimed 400 years ago that 'women in time to come will do much'. Both gave up their lives fighting for integrity, justice, peace and freedom.
This year the Loreto Family at Lucknow commemorated this special day in a very special manner. The bright sunny Saturday morning of 30th January saw the gates of Loreto Convent thrown open to its 'not so privileged' special guests, from the slums of Haidar Canal, Pipraghat and Sadar. More than 100 women, and as many children, accepted the school's invitation and thronged the Assembly Hall for a meaningful interaction.
The programme began with a short prayer service wherein the students sang a beautiful bhajan (hymn) exhorting everyone not to divide human beings on the basis of caste and social status. This was followed by an interesting power point presentation on 'General Hygiene and Sanitation' by Dr Jyotsna Agarwal of CSM Medical University. She stressed the importance of 'head to toe' cleanliness, with special emphasis on washing hands, keeping finger/toe nails small and clean, not spitting in public places and keeping the surroundings unlittered. The audience (which included the school children also) were asked to prefer 'roti' (chapaati) over 'dabal roti' ( bread) and home cooked food over potato chips and chocolates, and to shun tobacco.
A free dental and general medical check up was done by a team of doctors. Most of the women folk were found to be anaemic and suffering from calcium deficiency related diseases, mainly due to poor nutrition and frequent child bearing. A majority of them consumed tobacco and gutkha. Dr Mohit Seth advised them to chew tulsi leaves instead of tobacco. He also asked them to use neem sticks (daatun) to clean their teeth in place of the expensive tooth pastes. Vitamin/calcium tablets and other medicines were also distributed.
The guests were then treated to a simple feast of 'aloo poori' with the kids enjoying an additional treat of a bottle each of 'flavoured milk'. Each head of the family was also gifted some food grains and clothes in paper bags.
Many of these underprivileged women showed a keen desire to get their children admitted in 'Jagriti', a parallel school being run in the college premises. They were either not happy with the schools where their wards were studying, or were unable to educate them due to abject poverty. Most of the womenfolk had the same pathetic story to narrate --- a drunkard husband, many mouths to feed and no wherewithal to supplement the family income. Some of them wanted to join the Tailoring and Embroidery classes being run in the college premises with a view to empower the economically disabled women. They have now been asked to visit Loreto once again next week; to get the admission formalities completed for their children, and for themselves, in order to look forward to a brighter future.
This is but a small step in the direction of cherishing the most deprived of God's people and to enable them to take their place in society with dignity among others. This was the vision of Mary Ward and also of Mahatma Gandhi who rightly believed that 'Happiness consists not in what you can get, but in what you can give'.
Shobha Shukla - CNS
(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS), has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP, and teaches Physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. Email: [email protected], website: www.citizen-news.org)