FIVE YEARS AGO, three books turned Ip Pui's life upside down, hurtling her into a stark new world.
The paperbacks compelled the Hong Kong woman to uproot from her comfortable two-bedroom flat in Sai Kung and job as a journalist at the Oriental Weekly newspaper and relocate to Calcutta, a place she now calls home.
Today, Ip slogs six days a week in Calcutta's Nirmal Hriday (Pure Heart) refuge for the dying and destitute run by the Missionaries of Charity (MOC) order founded by Catholic nun Mother Teresa.
She tends lovingly to diseased and terminally ill, including beggars and prostitutes, picked up from the streets by MOC nuns so that they can at least die with dignity at the centre, close to Calcutta's holiest religious shrine - the Kali Temple.
Since her arrival in early 1999, the thirty-something's duties have included cleaning, administering medicine, dressing wounds, and feeding, bathing and massaging those who've fallen through the cracks of Indian society.
The ever-smiling and energetic Hong Kong woman is conspicuous among fellow volunteers from the US, Europe, South Africa, Japan and South Korea. She is the lone Chinese among the scores of overseas volunteers who flock from all parts of the world to help the nuns in 19 Calcutta facilities, which include orphanages for handicapped children and shelters for lepers, Aids patients and the mentally disabled and disturbed.
Moreover, her five-and-a-half years make her a veritable veteran compared with the other foreign helpers who mostly return home after a stint of two to four weeks. 'Ms Ip is God's gift to Nirmal Hriday,' says Sister Georgina, the sister-in-charge, wrapping a loving arm around her. 'Other volunteers come and go, but she's here forever.'
Ip speaks fluent Bengali, eats vegetarian Bengali food, is learning Bharatnatyam classical dance and has an Indian boyfriend. She has clearly established roots in the teeming West Bengal capital. But Hong Kong still tugs at her heart - and palate.
'I am not ashamed to admit that I still miss Hong Kong's soyabean milk and soyabean products such as tofu, besides some friends and my favourite nephews and nieces,' she says during our interview at the Calcutta Cricket and Football Club.
'And, of course, the natural beauty of places like Peng Chau and Lamma Island, which are so green and relaxing,' she adds, eyeing the two centuries-old club's sprawling grounds in the heart of India's most populous city.
Mother Teresa, who died in 1997 at the age of 87, was popularly known as the 'Saint of the Gutters' for her extraordinary love and dedication to the poor, homeless and sick. The charitable Catholic order she founded in 1949, and which was approved by the Vatican shortly after, now runs more than 710 homes in 100 countries.
Initially, there were very few helpers, but following Mother Teresa's Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, people began making a beeline for Calcutta from all over the world.
Ip says three books drew her to Calcutta, and changed her life. 'I felt Calcutta was crying out for me after reading Navin Chawla's book, Mother Teresa, and Dominique Lapierre's City of Joy, a moving story of grinding poverty and deprivation set in Calcutta's slums.'
And another best-seller, The Prophecies of Nostradamus, by the 16th-century apocalyptic prophet, did the rest. 'After reading Nostradamus, I thought Armageddon was around the corner and the world would come to an end in 1999,' she says.
'Thinking I had no time to waste, I rushed to Calcutta like a mad woman. I quit my job at the Oriental Weekly and gave away my pets - six dogs and four cats. When I left Hong Kong, I told my family I would not return. I really thought the world would come to an end.'
Ip's parents, migrants from Guangdong, died before she was 14. Her truck driver father was killed in a traffic accident and her mother, who worked in a garment factory, took her own life shortly after, leaving Ip, her three sisters and a brother orphans.
They were taken into the social welfare system. A British expat sponsored her brother's education in England, and he is now a high-ranking police officer in Hong Kong. The rest of her siblings are now happily married with children.
After gaining a master's degree in archaeology from Jinan University in Guangdong ('I watched Indiana Jones and wanted to become an archaeologist'), she landed her first job in 1990 as a scriptwriter at ATV before joining Oriental Weekly two years later. Although she made trips to western Europe, the US, Africa and South America with friends, she was never drawn to India, even after her twin sister spent a week in Shishu Bhavan, the MOC home for handicapped orphans in Calcutta, soon after Mother Teresa's death.
But after her literary epiphany, she couldn't stay away.
Ip initially found Calcutta's poverty hard to take and recalls weeping alone in her room. But she says the acceptance by the dying and destitute of their condition made her more philosophical.
'I saw how nuns went about their work with joy and confidence. I became more spiritual and less preoccupied with the death and disease around me.
'The years in Calcutta have been an incredibly purifying and strengthening experience. There is not a single moment when I am not happy here. The patients feed my ego. They make me feel I am useful and important.
'Nothing can be more romantic than caring for the dying - singing to them, serving them a nice hot meal before they die, cleaning them before they meet their maker,' Ip says.
She says Indians are generally much warmer and more spiritual than Hongkongers. 'They care for others. Hong Kong people are too busy to care for others - they are obsessed with money and material things.
'There is no religion left in Hong Kong or China. Indians, too, are selfish and vicious, but they draw a line somewhere because there is a God above them. But the Chinese cross all limits because they have no fears at all. They are not scared of God.'
Ip spends about 10,000 rupees (HK$1,700) each month to live in Calcutta from her savings and contributions from her siblings.
She has no plans to get married or have children. 'Giving birth to a child is such an un-green thing to do. A new child uses up so many natural resources that it's silly and environmentally unsound to have babies. Besides, how can I devote myself to one man or one family when there are so many with no one to care for them?'
Ip says she has no plans to leave Calcutta, although she has been back to Hong Kong eight times since 1999 to renew her tourist visa. 'I have no parents or family in Hong Kong to take care of, and I have no professional goals to achieve. So, I will work in Calcutta indefinitely,' she says.