‘My family thought I was mad,” James Stevens laughs.
In 1968, he left England for India.
Now he is founder and chairman of Udayan, a home near Kolkata for the children of leprosy sufferers.
In his office, dressed in a white kurta, he seems completely at home. But 49 years ago his life was very different.
“I was living in my own little flat, in a nice little English village,” he says. “I was living a pretty lovely life, really. I had everything I wanted.”
But he was struck by an article in a Reader’s Digest about volunteering overseas.
He remembers sitting down and thinking, “There are lots of people elsewhere that don’t have the advantages you have. So I applied. I thought, well why not?”
Stevens’ two-year posting was in Kolkata, running a lunch program for children in slum schools.
“By the end, we were giving meals to 10,000 children a day.”
He was due to return to England in 1970, but he was asked to start a program for children that no one else was working with, and decided to stay on.
“I went to a number of people, including Mother Teresa, who I knew very well, and we decided on the children of leprosy patients.”
He describes how even though the children are healthy, they are ‘tainted’ by their association with leprosy and can’t enter mainstream society.
They lack access to medical care, education, even food and shelter.
“I’ve said it so many times,” he says emphatically, “the stigma attached to the disease is worse than the disease itself.”
On May 25, 1970, he founded Udayan. The first 11 children came from a slum called Pilkhanna, which was later made famous by Dominique Lapierre’s novel City of Joy.
“I borrowed a rickety box-wagon van from Mother Teresa and brought them from Pilkhanna to where I had rented a big house.”
The children lived there year round and had all their needs taken care of.
Over the next few years, Udayan flourished and Stevens settled into India.
In 1972, he married into an Indian family.
His son was born five years later and he decided to stay permanently.
Stevens pauses for a moment, as his assistant hands him a cheque to sign, then continues his story.
By 1980, Udayan had moved to a new property, which had 100 children in its care. Then it lost its funding.
At that point, Stevens remembers, they had almost nothing. He couldn’t pay the staff, he was contemplating closing and sending the children home.
“We really were in terrible straits.”
Then he met Lapierre.
The author was looking for a place in India to donate some money, and Mother Teresa had told him to “go see Brother James.”
Stevens and Lapierre met and toured Udayan.
“Coming here, seeing the children changed his life,” Stevens reflects. It also changed the lives of many children, as Lapierre gave Udayan the money it needed to stay open.
Royalties from City of Joy continue to cover Udayan’s maintenance costs today.
It has grown into a home for 270 children.
During its 37 years, more than 1,000 children have benefited.
Stevens is semi-retired now, but he still comes to Udayan three or four days to handle the administrative work. And in his spare time he plans to write his autobiography.
“I’ll save the in-between bits for my book,” he says, as he recounts his story. “I hope to start it in the summer holidays.”
Emily Tredger is a Whitehorse resident currently working in India.