Updated: January 14, 2022 8:30:29 am
I was far away from Delhi when news trickled in that the government had not renewed FCRA permission to the Missionaries of Charity, the organisation that Mother Teresa founded in 1950. It was the year that our Constitution was promulgated and she was amongst the first foreigners to become an Indian citizen.
Associated with Mother Teresa for the last 23 years of her life, and with the MC sisters for over four decades, the refusal of FCRA permission came to me as a surprise, but I believed it was the result, as is often the case, of accounting errors, which would be corrected. And so it happened.
The sisters were able to explain the discrepancies to the concerned authorities and permission was renewed.
2022 awakened to the 25th year of Mother Teresa’s passing away, in her beloved Kolkata. For me, it was also an occasion to recount a little of my association with her. We know where she started, a lone presence on Kolkata’s streets with no money, no helper and no companion. By the time she passed away, she had created, one small step at a time, the presence of her Order in 123 countries. Together, with her band of 4,000 sisters and brothers, theirs would remain a unique brand of faith and compassion, reaching out to alleviate destitution, loneliness, hunger and disease, bringing hope and relief to millions of the abandoned, homeless, dying and leprosy outcasts, irrespective of their country, faith, or denomination.
Although she remained fiercely Catholic, her brand of religion was not exclusive. Convinced that each person she ministered to was Christ in suffering, she reached out to people of all faiths. Hers was not the 19th-century brand of imperial evangelism. Unlike most in the Church, she understood the environment in which she lived and worked. In the course of writing my biography, I once asked Jyoti Basu, that indomitable chief minister of West Bengal, what he, as a Communist and atheist, could possibly have in common with Mother Teresa, for whom God was everything. With a smile, he replied, “We both share a love for the poor.”
With such a long association and so many memories, I can at best present a few vignettes of an arduous yet joyful life that was ordained for her. I vividly recall my first visit with her to a huge leprosy settlement, not far from Kolkata. It was a very moving experience to see her surrounded by hundreds of inmates, many with no arms or legs, all reaching out to hug or touch her. “Ma”, as they called her, had made them feel needed by giving them the important task of weaving the saris that are worn by the MC sisters worldwide.
During her visits to Delhi, where she had “homes”, I would help steer her through our labyrinthine bureaucracy. Over time, I became familiar with the work of the MC. The Shishu Bhawans were crammed with abandoned infants, dressed in cheerful clothes, stitched by the sisters or volunteers; the “house” at Majnu Ka Tila for abandoned elderly destitute persons; the home for disabled children in South Delhi, many suffering from Down Syndrome and cared for in their cots.
It was here that my daughters and I first met Kusum, then a child of six. Two things struck me at once. The first was that she could not stand, and the second was her infectious smile. Whenever I visited, this little girl always greeted me with a smile. As she could only crawl, the sisters, helpers and volunteers fed her, bathed her, dressed her in fresh clothes every day, and carried her to the toilet every time she needed to go. They changed her clothes each time she soiled them.
Painstakingly, she learnt to say “hello” to me and one day, to my delight, added “uncle” to complete the little sentence. Kusum was found begging on a street. On the afternoon the sisters found her, it was pouring. The drenched child had a wracking cough. Unable to find a parent or guardian, they customarily reported the matter to the local police. After her condition stabilised in a nearby hospital, they brought her to their “ashram” to join about 60 children with physical and mental problems. Doctors had opined that her legs and arms had been broken, perhaps deliberately. When I once asked her who had done this to her, she burst into tears. It was the only time she cried. For the rest of the time, Kusum’s smile would invariably reach her eyes. When she died at the age of 18, the sisters cremated her body at the nearby cremation ground.
When I asked Mother Teresa how she and her mission could care for hundreds of thousands of destitute persons, and what made this possible, she explained to me simply but meaningfully. “You can, at best, look after a few loved ones in your family. My sisters and I can look after everyone, because for us they are all God”. So, the leprosy-affected man chained by his brothers in a hut, the infant left under a truck and saved just in time from prowling dogs, the woman dumped on a rubbish heap by her own son and left to die because he had now secured her property, were manifestations of her God in suffering.
Perhaps the most succinct summing up of Mother Teresa’s life and work was made by the chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, John Sannes. In his speech at the Nobel prize ceremony in Oslo in 1979, he said: “The hallmark of her work has been respect for the individual and the individual’s worth and dignity. The loneliest and the most wretched, the dying destitute, the abandoned lepers have all been received by her and her sisters with warm compassion, devoid of condescension, based on her reverence for Christ in man… This is the life of Mother Teresa and her sisters — a life of strict poverty and long days and nights of toil, a life that affords little room for other joys but the most precious.”
This column first appeared in the print edition on January 14, 2022 under the title ‘In service of man and God’. The writer is former Chief Election Commissioner of India
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