James Stevens: A Former Businessman Saves Thousands of Children from Leprosy
« James Stevens came to India in 1968. He once had a prosperous business, selling shirts and ties, but he sold everything and gave up his comfortable existence in England to devote his life to saving children otherwise doomed to total destitution. The home he had founded on the outskirts of Calcutta was called "Udayan," a Hindi word meaning "Resurrection." In twelve years, the Englishman, who studied theology to become a reverand, had wrested more than a thousand children suffering from leprosy from poverty and death in the slums of Calcutta.
Our visitor's cheerfulness and florid complexion were a facade that masked the crisis he was going through: he was on the verge of closing his refuge and sending the one hundred and fifty children it harbored back to their misery. He had exhausted all his personal resources and had been unable to find financial support to maintain his work. A small island of hope in the depths of hell was about to disappear.
James Stevens had performed his first rescue operation with an old van on loan from Mother Teresa, on July 21, 1969, the same day three men landed on the moon. He had driven into the Pilkhana slum near the great Howrah station. The leper colony was confined to the farthest reaches of the neighborhood, and initial contact was difficult. The Englishman knew only a few words of Bengali and Hindi. He had to use sign language to persuade the parents to entrust their children to him so that he could treat, feed and clothe them, and teach them to read and write.
"I shall never forget that first day," he told us. "The parents looked at me suspiciously, as if I wanted to steal their children and take them away to be slaves in some foreign country. The resistance put up by men and women who had nothing, was heart-rending."
That first evening Stevens took home nine boys and two little girls aged four and ten. Six of them already had the stigmata of the terrible disease. He sat them down in a circle on the floor of the living room and gave them a meal. He had cooked some rice, lentils and a little fish himself. The children surveyed this feast with stupefaction. They had never seen plates so full. The Englishman sat on the ground amongst them and began to eat.
Winning over these escapees from hell was difficult. It was worst at night. The frightened little creatures at first refused to drop off and when at last sleep did overtake them, it was only to plunge them into horrible nightmares. Their screams of horror were intermingled with fragmented sentences, suggesting the terrifying visions that haunted their dreams. There were tigers, evil spirits and bhuts, ghosts. James used to go from one to the next, sponging their sweating foreheads. Remembering he had been a tenor in an amateur opera group, he sang them melodies from Rigoletto and La Traviata, and songs from his native Yorkshire; eventually the children settled down.
With the passage of the days, life became more ordered. Soon the home had some thirty boarders. Chand, an eleven year-old boy found on the docks, was suffering from tuberculosis of the ganglia and got around on a board on wheels. A few months of vitamin intensive food and rigorous medical care produced a spectacular improvement. The leprosy was checked, the tuberculosis stopped. Children who weighed half the normal weight for their age when they arrived were restored to balanced growth. Chand was able to walk again, first with crutches, then without any help. Another child had open heart surgery. James gave his blood for the transfusions. These victories soon manifested themselves in one very revealing sign: the children in the Resurrection home had started to laugh again.
When my wife and I met Stevens in 1981, his own funds had been exhausted and the charitable organizations that had sent him some help had committed themselves elsewhere. Tirelessly, James sought other financial support, but to no avail. He had to borrow money at extortionate rates just to feed his children.
James Stevens told us that the life expectancy in the Calcutta slums was under forty. Nine out of ten people had less than one rupee a day, about three US cents, with which to boil a little rice. The inhabitants of the slum were nearly all peasants who had been driven from their land by one or other of the climatic scourges - droughts, cyclones or flooding - so frequent in that part of the world. To me the place was an antechamber to hell.
James admitted to us that he was going to have to close the home and send the boys back to the horror of their hovels. Devastated by the news of the impending closure of "Resurrection," my wife Dominique took out of her bag the bundle of dollars we had brought with us.
"This initial donation will enable you to pay off your debts" I said, and before really thinking, I added: "We will fight to see that you never have to close the Resurrection home."
That commitment was to change our lives.
* * *
On our return to France, I founded an association, Action Aid for Lepers' Children of Calcutta, the initial aim of which was to provide financial support for the work of that unknown Englishman. To publicize its existence, I told the story of the "Resurrection home" in the magazine la Vie. At the end of my article I appealed to readers:
"If one thousand of us were to send every year about fifty dollars--the price of a good meal in a restaurant--together we could save a hundred and fifty children from the misery of their slums."
A few days later, our building superintendent rang the doorbell.
"The postman has just dumped five mailbags in the lobby," she announced." They're all for you. What should I do with them?"
We carried them up to our fourth floor walk-up apartment. We called friends and relatives to the rescue to help us go through a flood of envelopes that brought words of encouragement almost always accompanied by a check or postal order.
The association I had just formed suddenly found itself supported by nearly three thousand donors whose address cards soon filled several shoe boxes. All I had to do then was send our friend James the telegram of a lifetime: "Resurrection home saved. You can even take fifty more children. We're coming." »