People of Intrigue: Premila

Today I launch a personal project that has been brewing over the last year called “People of Intrigue.” It will likely span the rest of my life, but first, I wanted to give you a little backstory as to how it began. Almost 8 years ago, when I started creating blogs to accompany my portrait collections, I had no idea how important they would become to my clients. Then to my surprise, I learned that many people followed the blog with no other connection to the business. Getting to know the person behind the portrait has developed a following for my work which happened quite accidentally.

When I started creating blogs, I was told I should write 2 or 3 generic lines about each portrait collection.  This was a problem because I was seeing so much more about the people before my lens than could be contained in 3 generic phrases.  I’m a storyteller and my desire has always been for my portraits to speak the story of a person’s life.  I believe that at our core, every one of us wants to be known and loved.  While creating for my clients, I continually see what makes them tick, what fuels their journey, what crushes them, what energizes them, what drains them, what inspires them…that’s what I want to record.

So, recently I got to thinking about the stories of intrigue that may never be recorded in life.  Future generations would be robbed of the inspiration, the beauty and the joy from knowing the journey of another person. Recording stories is not new to me; 20 years ago my master’s thesis was a compilation of oral histories I gathered from across the 20th century. So I began to consider a personal project. My plan was and is to offer a 15 minute studio portrait sitting with (2) complimentary 8×10 fine art prints, to people I select, who intrigue me. The People of Intrigue will share their story and portrait time with me. They always have the option to expand the portrait time and purchase additional product if they desire…but that is not the intention of this project. What is most important to me is that the story is recorded alongside a beautiful portrait.  Some stories will be long, others short.  Some heart breaking, some inspiring.  All will share an element of intrigue. Thus, People of Intrigue was born.

Most of these People of Intrigue projects will be created in studio and be more traditional portraits; however, our first one breaks that mold a bit.  I met Premila through her daughter, Kavita, who was joining a Cooks Club I host.  Kavita mentioned that her mom would be in town from India and asked if she could join us to help teach traditional Indian fare.

Kavita said, “I know this may sound a little strange because I’m her daughter, but my mom is a really special person.  She and my dad pioneered a unique ministry in India for many years, also including working closely with Mother Theresa, and today she still carries on that work even after Mother Theresa and my father have passed.”

I was intrigued (but had not yet shared my People of Intrigue project with anyone).  Premila and Kavita created a feast for us as we shared life over a meal at Cooks Club. At our request, Premila shared some of her story of working with the neediest in India. I was enthralled, invited her back to dinner and requested she share more of her story with my family.  What I found was a woman who grabbed the hand of whoever she was speaking with, looked them directly in the eye and made sure they knew they were heard as she engaged them.

I invited Premila to be my first People of Intrigue, along with her daughter and granddaughter. So sit back with your coffee or wine and enjoy meeting this fascinating woman who is shaping eternity in ways that makes the heart of God smile!

At 16 Premila had an encounter with God, changing all her priorities in life.  She felt her life mission was to share the love of God with everyone and Bible college seemed the most natural course to do that.  However, since it was more crucial to support her mother and sister, she went to secretarial school instead and then later worked with George Verwer, the founder of Operation Mobilization.

About this time Premila met Vijayan, a young man who was working with Youth For Christ.  He had experienced his own encounter with God and felt the only way he could give back what God had given him was to go to Bible college.  At their meeting, it was clear the two didn’t hit it off. These two opinionated, vibrant personalities clashed from the get go. Premila thought Vijayan was arrogant. Vijayan was not secretive about the fact that he never wanted to get married, which did not stop people from constantly trying to set them up.  “Great eagles fly alone. I must die to myself to do God’s will,” he regularly said.

Yet, one day, Premila and Vijayan came to the realization that God would use them together more mightily than separate. They felt the Lord was moving them towards marriage, so they took that leap of faith. They married and began growing their family while seeking out the Lord’s will for their life.

They prayed over where the Lord would use them most mightily in this life. They asked God where they were go to.  They felt the Lord calling them where no one else wanted to go, Calcutta.  So from 1968-71 Premila and Vijayan made Calcutta their home base for ministry.  Vijayan realized that very few people outside the Christian community in Calcutta were likely to ever come to church or attend rallies, so he was convinced he had to take the Gospel to them and asked the Lord how he should do that with his family.

He resigned from YFC and everyone thought he were crazy to leave the stability of his job with 3 1/2 year old twin daughters and his wife Premila, who was expecting again. Premila smiled as she recounted, “trusting God was never a problem for Vijayan.  He knew God charged him with caring for those who felt abandoned, but he didn’t know what this would look like. So he did the only thing he knew how to do in this dilemma. He prayed.”

Vijayan looked around Calcutta and was at a loss of how to meet the overwhelming need that surrounded him.  In India, there was no treatment for psychological disorders, no counseling services, and no drug/alcohol addiction centers. After much prayer he felt compelled to put the following ad in the paper, ‘Are you in distress? Come to my home (complete with the address).”

The next morning, Premila recounted she woke to find 60 people on her front lawn. She and Vijayan were shocked.  He sat at his desk and listened to the people that Premila ushered in all day and all night.  While Vijayan listened, Pramila served them tea. Vijayan would listen and at times he would step away, cry and then come back to them hear the burdens that needed a listening ear.

Pramila admitted she was no good at this when they started. She didn’t love the people who descended on her home daily with so much need.  At times the meager possessions they had were stolen.  There was often great risk to Vijayan.  Yet, Premila watched in awe as Vijayan loved with a seemingly endless supply of compassion and kindness.  He would listen.  That listening gave a feeling of importance to the child of God who sat before him.  Vijayan drank out of the same cups as the rich and poor who crossed his door.  This, was unheard of in a culture very much ruled by the customs and taboos of the caste system.  In Vijayan’s eyes, there were no untouchables; all were loved equally by a God who hears the cries of the oppressed.

Premila credit Vijayan with helping her to learn to love the strangers who crossed their paths daily.  She would say something as simple as, “Vijayan the milkman is here to talk with you.”  And he would reply, “Premila, the milkman has a name,” always wanting people to be valued above any societal markings.  This was the first step in Premila beginning to develop a heart for the people God would bring to her door.

Very quickly, Vijayan realized that the same psychiatric issues of addiction, depression and marital strife existed in the poor and rich alike.  He also realized that across the board, there was no one to help. Fairly early on, he and Premila knew they needed to divide the work load.  They referred the poorest of the poor to Mother Theresa and she referred the addicts to them.

Vijayan saw rampant drug addiction and yet addiction was not being addressed or treated at all in India.  He began to study with a psychiatrist and traveled around the world to find the best methods of treatment.  He would take the addicts to detox at mental institutions or hospitals and these places shared one thing in common; they were all hell on earth.

Vijayan saw that addicts responded to discipline and affection and he wanted the people he was helping to be able to receive treatment at their home. Providing this kind of care would be daunting to most, but Pramila and Vijayan knew this was the work God was laying at their feet and knew He would be faithful to provide what was necessary. They never did fundraising or made requests for money. They prayed each step of the way and stayed loyal to the task at hand, with full confidence the God they served would supply all their needs.

Vijayan simply could not turn anyone in need away. He took in people seeking refuge, very often risking his own life. Despite the tumultuous political climate, Vijayan never checked party affiliations at the door when someone sought refuge. Even in the late 70’s, when India was in a state of emergency, which meant he could be sent to jail, if a political refugee was found in his home.

At one point the Central Bureau of Investigation, CBI, interrogated Vijayan. They charged him with being a part of a plan with the opposition. People began resigning from their organization, so as not to be connected to where trouble was brewing that would likely result in prison. Even Vijayan told all their friends, “Don’t call us, I don’t want to get you wrapped up in this.”

One of the political refugees Vijayan helped would later go on to become the Defense Minister and in this position of great power he loudly proclaimed that it was Vijayan who saved his life.

Though Premila and Vijayan never actively fund raised, God worked through people to fund their ministry efforts year after year. During the 1960s-70’s a wildly popular singer in the UK, Cliff, offered to do a concert to support their efforts. He was inspired by their work and knew he could be a part. The concert could not be announced until 2 days prior to the event because his popularity was so great.

People partnered with Premila and Vijayan because they saw two selfless Christians who lived out their Gospel.  They lived it out when it was at great cost to them, without counting the cost. Premila joked that wherever Vijayan went, he found the trouble and then set to work to bring healing. One day he was at the train station to pick Premila up and broke up a group who was beating up a man. Then while he caught his breath, he noticed a group of run away children all eating together.  All except for one, that is.  He asked, ‘Why doesn’t this one eat?’ They said, ‘He didn’t bring anything in, so he doesn’t eat today.’

Vijayan wondered what he could do for these homeless children who were living at the train station. He saw the large numbers of abandoned children who congregated, often with older kids who would become a rag tag sort of family to them. Often times, drugs were the salve to their troubled lives and it was not uncommon to find 8 year olds who were drug addicted.  Very quickly, Vijayan realized a child addict could not be treated in the same manner as an adult.

He found a run down house where he could offer these children shelter and meals. However, he knew it would be no easy task to get the children to come to the shelter. To meet their needs and build trust, he and Premila would take meals to the train station for these children. They realized quickly that many of the children had been severely abused and were wary of adults. After months of taking food to the children, they joyfully watched as many progressed to coming to the home, which had no doors, so they were free to come and go as they pleased.

Premila and Vijayan’s heart ached for the promise of youth that seemed to be squashed out time and time again by the brutalities and despair of poverty. One day a group of kids were playing outside Vijayan’s office, which they did regularly. He went out and asked them ‘what do you want in life?’ They said, “to go to school.”

So he brought them together at 2:00 daily and hired a woman who needed a job to be their teacher. There were so many kids who were never given an opportunity for an education and this was the beginning of changing that. Just the fact that Vijayan had asked a group of street kids what they wanted in life was unheard of. Crazily enough, they met resistance in offering education to the children who lived on the street.  This did not deter them.

As their work with these homeless children grew, Premila confessed she prayed, “Lord, I don’t love these kids like You want me to and I know you need me to, God. Give me love for them.”   The Lord went on to birth a fierce love and devotion for these children and their struggling mothers. Premila would go talk with those who had mothers and learned story after story of heartbreak.  Many of these moms had become prostitutes to be able to feed their children. Most often their homes were one room so the children would have to lay down under the bed while they served clients. Premila sought places for the children to be where they’d be safeguarded from this while their mothers were working.

Premila knew the only way to end this cycle was education. She and Vijayan found themselves offering schooling to 150 children just three and a half years later after they hired the first teacher! They kept running out of space as demand continued to grow for education for the street children. Then they were met with devastating news – the building they were using was being condemned.  They had no were else to go and no one would give them a place because they were helping street people. They found the government unresponsive to their requests year after year, but held onto the faith that God, who hears the cry of the oppressed, would help them.

Finally, the widow of a a physician who wanted her house to be used for a good cause, put it on the market. Vijayan and Premila sent letters to friends, “we found a house, please pray for us” and within 3 months they had the funding to purchase the home from the widow.

Today, 43 years after the Lord placed a call on Premila’s life, she is still serving the needs of the addicted and the forgotten children of Calcutta. Throughout her story telling she attributes her life of servitude to the inspiration of God and the encouragement of Vijayan who passed away a few years ago.

Premila is passionate in wanting people to understand that addiction is a disease that requires at least 9 months treatment in a rehab facility to give the person a chance at life. She’s watched for years as children who once received services from her Calcutta Samaritan’s organization, return to serve the ministry that believed in them and gave them hope. She’s seen addicts set free.  She’s seen child addicts have their childhood returned to them. She’s seen ex-convicts go on to be mighty servants in a ministry that has been fueled by constant prayer, persistence, devotion and selflessness.

The time I spent with Premila was indeed an honor and a blessing to me. She is a warrior of our faith, clothed in gentle kindness. She looks earnestly into the eyes of each person who crosses her path, letting them know they are her priority in that moment. Her humility is absolutely astounding in every respect. She is creating a legacy that will only fully be appreciated on the other side of eternity. Her daughter, Kavita, worries about her mother constantly because each day she spends everything she has to be of service to the people of Calcutta.  She wants her mom to slow down and rest; Premila laughs at this notion.  “Too much to do to stop now”.  For this reason, we honor Premila as our first Person of Intrigue.

*PS The day of the shoot, last October, I shared the surprise that we would be going outside to take advantage of a miracle–our wildflower meadow had come back in bloom!  I had never seen that happen in October! Kavita said, “Oh I’ve never met anyone who loves flowers as much as my mom.  She could stay out here all day!”  I now realize, the Lord was at work for this to be a blessing to his angel on earth!


  1. Anne Haroun says:

    I have the privilege of knowing Premila and her family. In every encounter, she has made me feel special and that my concerns are important, never lecturing or making me feel petty even in light of all of the more serious situations she has observed and personally encountered. Your article is beautiful and I’m so blessed to read more in depth the life of this absolutely beautiful saint.

    • Sara Butler says:

      Beautifully said Anne and so true! Indeed,everyone who links arms with Premila through this life is blessed! 😉

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