A Spanish lady, possibly in her mid-20s, smiled as she walked into a souvenir shop in Kolkata’s AJC Bose Road. She looked around, glanced at a few items displayed, and as she mulled things over, asked for a bottle of water. As the shopkeeper fetched a bottle from the freezer, she walked across and lifted a stack of cards. All of them had quotes by Mother Teresa on them.
Her smile broadened. Lifting her head, she looked further around. After all, she was in the city’s only Mother Teresa souvenir shop, and she wouldn’t such keepsakes elsewhere.
But then, for a moment she thought, she was in the Missionaries of Charity, located a few steps away from the shop. She’s not the only one to get confused. For the regular visitors at the Missionaries of Charity, the non-profit established by Mother Teresa, it has become a habit to visit the small souvenir shop run by a smiling, bespectacled Muslim man just short of 60, Nurul Islam.
As the world and Kolkata gear up for the canonization ceremony on September 4, 2016, when Mother Teresa will be declared as a saint after nearly two decades of her demise, little matters in terms of that recognition in this part of the world. In Kolkata, for some, she is still a goddess living on in the work she started. That Mother Teresa will now become Saint Teresa of Kolkata won’t change much in their devotion or recognition of the legacy she has left behind.
Islam, who has owned the shop for at least three decades, ventured into this business by chance. A coincidence he thinks is fortunate that ensures him Mother’s and God’s blessing always. During the 1990s, Islam tells IndianExpress.com, his was an electronics shop. One day, very soon after Mother Teresa’s death in 1997, a woman walked into his shop looking for a “rosary”, the holy string of prayer beads for the Catholics.
Being a Muslim, Islam had no idea at the time about what a rosary was. He couldn’t help the customer, but was intrigued enough to enquire about it later. Over the next few days, he enquired from his friends about the importance of a rosary, and soon discovered a retail shop from where he could buy few rosaries and sell it at his shop.
That was just the beginning.
As his sale of rosaries increased, he tried to stock up more. However, the retail shop denied him saying he could not sell these commercially. “But I was not convinced. And after being denied here, I started looking for other options,” Islam says. But then, he realised, there was no other way he could buy or sell them. In his determination, Islam admits that he brought threads of Rudraksh, used by the Hindus and rearranged them to make rosaries himself.
Soon, the supply couldn’t meet the growing demand. Working for hours in the shop during the day and making rosaries by night started taking a toll on him. So, Islam taught a few boys in his locality how to make rosaries. However, after few such endeavours, he got in touch with Father Nazareth, of St Mary’s Church in Kolkata’s Ripon Street, who helped him expand his business. It was with Father’s help that he got in touch with manufactures and distributors from southern India. He says, “It’s by the grace of God and Mother, how it all started.”
What began as a small side business, has now become the focal point of Islam’s life. Owing to his proximity to Mother House and his growing popularity as someone who sold rosaries, people would ask for various keepsakes of the Mother, which gave him the idea of incorporating Mother Teresa’s photos in his work — a move that defined his future path. Over the years, he made the transition to a Mother’s souvenir shop. Today, he is rosary specialist – designing them and customising them to meet the varied demands.
His shop now offers various designs of rosaries, one of the most popular being the ones with a tiny picture of Mother Teresa. From statues and portraits to T-shirts and pens, you can find every customized item on Mother Teresa — bracelets, lockets and fridge magnets being the most popular ones. Bookmarks, prayer cards and pocket calendars are also among the most sold products. “I bet no one has so many varieties of products on Mother in the world. I bet even sisters in the congregation do not have them. They often come here to my shop to see what’s there,” the mustachioed man proudly claims.
Recalling his personal memories about Mother, he says, “I mostly remember her walking down the streets on winter nights. She walked down these lanes looking after the poor sleeping by the roads, offering blankets and woolens to the needy.”
The street in central Kolkata, where the Mother House and the various other buildings of the Missionaries of Charity are located, is a Muslim-dominated locality. Interestingly, the locality also has many of the city’s old and reputed Christian missionary schools and a few churches. Islam reminisces about an incident when a van of the congregation, carrying patients, dashed along a few parked cars. The small accident that did not injure anyone, but, however, irked the locals and a furious mob tried to destroy the van.
“Hearing the commotion, Mother stepped out. It’s strange how people stopped at her sight. Her short height was inversely proportionate to the amount of respect she received.”
Being a Muslim man selling religious symbols of Christians, it hasn’t been all easy for Islam. He says how a few local men once vandalised his shop, accusing him of “siding with the Christians”. “When the incident happened, I knew I had angered the people of my community, but I did not protest or lodge any complain. I always believe that everything happens for a reason and something good would come out of it,” says Islam, with an equanimity that shows the influence Mother Teresa’s legacy has had on him, even if indirectly. Such is the Mother’s power.
Having realised the source of their anger, he figured why discriminate, and started keeping items for Muslims too. “I used to just bring prayer items for the Muslims and put it up on display at a higher price tag. I knew no one would buy them, but knew it would calm the furore against me. Soon I also thought what wrong did the Hindus do, so later brought in idols of Hindu gods too.” One shelf in his shop is an excellent example of unity in diversity. One would find tiny models of the Holy Cross, a tiny mosque and a Ganesh idol juxtaposed and cramped together. The cynic may comment on the God business, but if it’s about maintaining peace, then there is little fault in it.
The fridge that is used for water and cold drinks, flaunts various magnets with pictures of Mother Teresa, Goddess Durga and the hand-pulled rickshaw – only found in Kolkata — to Jesus Christ and even the Howrah Bridge all arranged, adjacent to each other.
Asked if he’s excited about the canonization, Islam responds, “We don’t need a special day, a special recognition to believe she was a saint. For us she was our mother, who selflessly cared for all. This canonization could mean something to many, but for me she was and will always be a saint.”
He says the canonization has definitely increased the footfall in the locality. He does not expect too much profit in the next couple of days, but agrees that have expanded his specialised collection and stock of things. From wristwatches with Mother’s pictures to books on her life and teachings, Islam has stocked up everything — even offering special discounts on some products.
Dressed in a plain white shirt and trousers, Islam says it’s not just the foreigners who step into his shop to purchase Mother Teresa souvenir, but the locals are equally enthusiastic. He has extensive interactions with his customers, and has even picked up a couple of languages thanks to them. A self-taught man in Spanish and few other foreign languages he says, “I teach them Bengali and in return learn a few words. Over the years, I have been talking in broken and wrong Spanish, but now I can converse well.”
Our conversation is interrupted as a lady in her mid-40s walks into the shop asking for a pendant with Mother’s face engraved on it. Islam walks down the counter to fetch a few varieties from his collection. Smiling the lady selects a silver pendant. She gently, and with great affection, moves her fingers on Mother’s engraved face. “My mother has been ill for some time now and has been urging me every day to get one such pendant. She used to visit Mother Teresa’s tomb on her birthday every year, but last few years have not been able to given to her ailing health. She will be happy to finally get this,” says the woman, wistfully.
As the satisfied customer leaves, Islam smiles, knowing exactly what he had just done and what the pendant meant to the lady. Every day Islam offers such token of happiness to people coming from across the world. While Mother Teresa lives on in people’s hearts through her work, Islam helps Saint Teresa live on in their homes and lives — as an image of love, faith and compassion.