Chai with Auntie

April 7, 2007

We first met the stern “Auntie” on our second day as volunteers at Mother Teresa’s, when the ritual of a mid-morning break for chai and biscuits was established. We were in the middle of tending a gruesome amputation-worthy wound in ways that are too unlovely to even describe here, when we were anxiously summoned by a resident. We hurriedly passed along a half-Hindi-half-English explanation that we couldn’t possibly come now, but thank you so much. Our lack of attendance was not well-received that day and our subsequent tardiness the following was greeted with icy silence. The assertion that important medically-necessary work couldn’t be interrupted was ignored — even when we had it perfectly translated in Hindi. It took us several days to understand that Auntie had been given the task of extending this hospitality to us and our seeming indifference to the chai ritual was an overt insult.

Once we succumbed to this mid-morning break, we began enjoying the brief but civilized rest. An English butter cookie was just the thing to help keep our levels energy up, and taking some minutes away from the tireless residents helped recharge us to return into the fray. Unfortunately, the chai was too sweet and too rich for my tastes and allowances for this were apparently not in the cards. My polite refusals were ignored, my cup was filled to the brim daily, no matter how often I covered it with my palm, and if I didn’t finish every drop, the stern Auntie scowled and gestured impatiently at the waste. Thankfully, Allyson enjoyed the taste, so we developed subtle distractions and delicate slights of hand to switch her empty cup with my own.

Towards the end of the first week, we tried to ease the awkward silence of tea-time with Auntie by lamely attempting light-weight Hindi conversation, while she struggled to call forth single staccato English nouns or adjectives in response. By the following week, she seemed to warm some to us, though it was probably due more to our new-found punctuality and empty teacups, than our company. Still, it was a start.

Then one Tuesday afternoon, she reappeared and took me to an outside bench to tell me her story. It took some time to understand the tale, but I eventually learned that she had been taken in as a 3 year old orphan by Mother Teresa herself and sent to one of the satellite Houses. Forty-odd years later, Mother had visited this very Delhi House where Auntie was now working and remembered the greying grandmother as one of the thousands of toddlers she had saved. Tears betrayed Auntie as she recounted cooking a simple curry dish that Mother subsequently ate, and her usually stoic face crumpled as she recalled how the tiny nun had kissed her right hand on her final visit. She held it before me as though I would be able to see the spot, glowing, and whimpered in broken English that Teresa was the only mother she had ever known. The imposing woman beside me, an orphan once more. I took a risk and asked with reverence if I might touch the hand that Mother Teresa had kissed. There was a too-long pause while Auntie studied my eyes with an almost intimidating concentration, and then she offered me the hand. That day, we became friends.



  1. Kara, somehow you always seem to know what to say to people – or not say in some cases. It’s obvious that your beautiful soul shines through and defeats the barriers of language and culture to reach the hearts of people around you.

    Happy Easter!

  2. Gayle is so right. Auntie needed you to recognize the power of that kiss, that hand; that was the most important moment of her life and you honored that. If only we could all give others that kind of true presence when we interact with them. You are one amazing lady! 🙂

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