Sister Nivedita: Calcutta’s Angel of Mercy

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    It takes a special kind of human being to ignore the most powerful instinct we have – the survival instinct – and march into a war they know might kill them, only so that others can live. Every doctor, healthcare worker and caregiver on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic is committed to making this ultimate sacrifice. Many have already lost their lives and many more will in the weeks to come.

    Not only are they constantly exposing themselves to the risk of infection, but these selfless healthcare workers are also voluntarily distancing themselves from their loved ones to avoid the risk of transmitting the highly contagious novel coronavirus. A heart-wrenching video doing the rounds on social media shows a caregiver entering her home after work and her baby boy rushing to meet her. But the mother rebukes her child, asking him to stay away from her. The child stops dead in his tracks, confused, and the mother breaks down in tears. Doctors and healthcare workers in India, and all over the world, are finding themselves in impossible situations but somehow finding the strength to do the best they can to heal the sick.

    An Old Enemy Returns

    The COVID-19 pandemic is nothing but the return of an old arch enemy, and this is not the first time that doctors, nurses and other caregivers have laid down their lives for the greater good. Even a cursory glance at history will show that nothing has taken more human lives than bacteria, viruses and other parasites. Probably because they are less ‘dramatic’, their devastatingly fatal effects make less of an impression than, say, the casualties of war or even natural disasters. Think about it, malaria, which has a cure, still kills almost half a million people annually.

    In the ancient and medieval eras, owing to lack of proper healthcare systems and advanced medical technologies, diseases often took lives on a scale that boggles the mind today. The Plague of Justinian, which appeared in the 6th century CE, wiped out almost half of Europe’s population then, by killing 50 million people. The plague reappeared as Black Death in the 14th century CE, and took the lives of nearly 200 million people in Europe.

    The other great slayer was smallpox. Even though a vaccine had been available since the late 18th century, smallpox remained a killer disease until the early 20th century, with high fatality rates. Another pandemic that killed almost 100 million people and infected almost one-third of the world’s population surfaced only a hundred years ago, in 1918. Dubbed the Spanish Flu, it was a form of influenza that ended up taking more lives than the number of people who died in World War I. HIV, which still has no vaccine, is another pandemic that remains omnipresent, and has already claimed more than 32 million lives.

    Angel of Mercy

    But shining like beacons through the hopelessness during pandemics are people who have put compassion first, to develop vaccines, halt the spread of deadly diseases and treat the sick. One such inspiring story is that of Sister Nivedita (1867 – 1911), a dedicated caregiver during the plague outbreak in Calcutta in 1899. Not unlike the legendary Florence Nightingale, Margaret Elizabeth Noble, later known as Sister Nivedita, lovingly cared for the sick and destitute in Calcutta, driven only by a desire to serve the poor. It was a selfless act she carried out without any help from the then British government.

    A Scots-Irish teacher and social worker in the UK, Sister Nivedita met Indian social reformer Swami Vivekananda in London and, inspired by his teachings on Vedanta, followed him to Calcutta in January 1898, to become a disciple of his. Vivekananda, after initiating her to Brahmacharya (a life of celibacy), gave her the name ‘Nivedita’, which means ‘one who is dedicated to God’.

    In November 1898, Sister Nivedita opened a girls’ school in Calcutta, and went from home to home, urging parents to send their girls to her school to get an education. At the time, she wrote to a friend, a Mrs Coulston in England, saying, “There is endless work. Only to live here is in itself work.”

    In March 1899, the bubonic plague, which had already devastated Bombay, broke out in Calcutta. Sister Nivedita was then living at Bosepara Lane, in Baghbazar in Calcutta. One night, she heard a loud wailing from a nearby hovel. She rushed over to see what the matter was and found that a child in the house had just died. Sister Nivedita put the dead baby in her lap and remained silently seated, a gesture that strangely seemed to give great comfort to the grieving family.

    As the plague started taking more lives, a committee was set up by the Ramakrishna Mission (RKM), with Sister Nivedita as its secretary, and RKM swamis as supervisors and members of the relief mission. The relief work and other services provided by this committee to the people of Calcutta remain a memorable chapter in the study of the city’s history.

    Led by Sister Nivedita, the group of swamis took up work according to the expertise of each member. Swami Sadananda, who excelled in organisational tasks, was responsible for cleaning up the bastis around Baghbazar and Shyambazar localities. Sister Nivedita, as a coordinator, started making appeals for financial aid through the newspapers.

    Along with Swami Sadananda, she also started delivering lectures on the plague at different social gatherings and also on the streets. She stressed on the need for cleanliness, and precautions needed to avoid catching this disease. She also inspired many young boys to take part in the relief mission through her speech titled The Plague And The Duty of Students.

    In this speech delivered at Classic Theatre in Beadon Street, Sister Nivedita asked, “How many of you will volunteer to come forward and help in the labour of cleansing huts and bustees? In such matters, we all stand and fall together, and the man who abandons his brother is taken by despair himself. The cause of the poor is the cause of all today – let us assert it by practical action.” After the lecture ended, many students came forward and enrolled as volunteers in ‘plague service’.

    The RKM also published a ‘Plague Manifesto’, which urged people to replace fear with action, and take precautionary and preventive steps to keep the disease at bay. The manifesto encouraged people to stay strong, band together to fight the disease and fortify themselves to resist illness. It also threw the public a lifeline by saying that the RKM would help anyone in need.

    The RKM’s relief work under Sister Nivedita’s strict supervision was highly organised. Daily, she distributed handbills that listed precautionary and preventive measures to fight the bubonic plague, to the common people. On one occasion, while distributing handbills, she noticed that the streets were filthy, and with no volunteers that day, she herself cleaned the roads. Seeing her doing the job of a sweeper, the young men in the locality came out with brooms and pitched in.

    Sister Nivedita’s service during the plague was described by Dr Radha Gobinda Kar, a well-known doctor at the time. In his writings, Dr Kar said that one afternoon, when he returned home from his practice, he found a European lady waiting in his house near the door. It was Sister Nivedita, and she had come for information about a plague-stricken child that Dr Kar had visited in a basti at Baghbazar.

    After hearing that the child was in dire straits, she immediately visited the basti and despite warnings from the doctor took the child into her lap. The child’s mother had already died of the plague, owing to which the baby lacked adequate care, so Sister Nivedita moved into this hovel to nurse the child.

    As she maintained a constant vigil over the child, knowing he wouldn’t survive and ignoring the very real risk of infection, she also set about white-washing the walls herself. After two days, the child died in her lap, and just before dying, called her “Ma-Ma”, believing her to be his own mother. Sister Nivedita recorded incidents like this during the plague relief mission in her book Studies From An Eastern Home.

    Sister Nivedita was a beacon of mercy for Calcutta’s poor, who suffered the greatest losses during the bubonic plague pandemic. It is the stories of great humanitarians like her that preserve our faith in humanity and inspire us to work together to overcome calamities – exactly like one the world is currently facing.


    Monidipa Bose Dey is an educational consultant and columnist on history and travel based subjects.

    Lessons from the Bubonic Plague of 1896

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