It was one of those rare New India tales that made you feel warm and fuzzy. “Mother Teresa of Sumanahalli”, a sparkly moped-driving nun from Newcastle who had worked with leprosy patients for the past 29 years in Bangalore, was suddenly notified that her visa had expired and she would have to leave the country in a week. Sister Jean (born Jacqueline) McEwan’s story presumably reached the Union home minister, perusing the newspapers as he sipped his estate branded robusta.
So as McEwan, 63, sat on the steps of the house she had lived in for the past three decades, her bags loaded in the airport pickup, her farewells said, forcing herself like any good Christian to block out the feeling of devastation and focus on the fact that she would be reunited with her sisters in England, the phone rang informing her that P. Chidambaram had extended her visa.
At home: Jacqueline McEwan changed her name to Jean after she came to Bangalore. Photo Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Now she’s everyone’s hero. Mine too. I’m addicted to stories of little women who quietly go about making big changes.
When I call her, the mini celebrity answers the phone guardedly. “Earlier, when I saw an unknown number I would think, advertisers. Now when I see an unknown number I pray, let it be advertisers,” laughs the nun whose conversation is peppered equally with British phrases like “out in the sticks” and Kannada descriptors such as galata (disturbance).
McEwan came to Bangalore in the days when Kamaraj Road was a river of flame trees and no autorickshaw driver would agree to take her home to the Banaswadi boondocks. Now she’s on the city’s buzzing outskirts, after a flyover, left from two petrol pumps, just in the lane with a “very large construction” and a demolished public toilet “but you can still see the tiling”, camped in the same blue house with the dark blue trimming. The TVS moped she’s been riding since 2000 is parked in the compound. It’s her fourth vehicle if you count the 50cc bicycle that didn’t need a licence.
These days though she takes the moped out only on short rides because, as she says, she’s too old to be knocked over by a bigger vehicle (she’s had five accidents so far). “If there’s a hole in the road too, I’ll get off and push it,” she says.
I ask if she feels safe. After all, Australian Graham Staines too worked with leprosy patients for over 30 years in Orissa before he and his two sons, Philip and Timothy, were burned alive by Hindu fanatics in 1999 as they slept in their station wagon. “Personally, I’ve never had a problem, but you’re always aware it’s there,” she says referring to the tension from some quarters. “If something happens to a Christian missionary, it’s a tiny little article hidden in the inside pages,” she says. In January this year, the Supreme Court upheld the high court’s decision to dismiss the death penalty for Staines murder accused Dara Singh.
The trained nurse encounters only the stray aggressive comment also because she usually travels with the Sumanahalli Society ambulance to dispense medicines and dress leprosy wounds from three community halls in Bangalore. When she got the visa notice, the organization was in a panic because McEwan’s the one who remembers not just the names but also the medical histories (for example, which patients suffer from diabetes and hypertension) of all the people she’s ever treated.
For most of us, leprosy is a disease of the past, alive only at the occasional traffic light, but McEwan believes that if India doesn’t work hard to eradicate it, in 15 years the country could “have a shock”. Officially India says it has eliminated leprosy, but new cases continue to be detected every year.
McEwan’s an expert on all the “work” that her patients do at traffic lights. She knows which abscess-ridden beggars work where, at what times and on which days in Bangalore. “Begging is hard work. They have to stand at the traffic light in the hot sun, go back in and out as the light changes, walk kilometres on their ulcers,” she says, adding that nowadays, most of her patients want to educate their children and ensure they have a better life.
McEwan could spend days dipping into her sackful of sad India stories (gangs, alcoholism, destitution, drugs), and some happy ones (an enduring Hindu-Muslim friendship). Over the years, her midwifery training has come handy too, when she was called upon to deliver two babies. Working with leprosy patients has taught her the importance of feeling pain. Clearly, the nun from Newcastle is more invested in India than most of us.
I ask if news of this latest episode had reached her family back home and she laughs: “Well it was in the BBC, Telegraph and Guardian so they’re probably looking at it and saying ‘Can that be our Jackie?’”
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