An enduring legacy

Print edition : September 20, 1997

I FIRST met Mother Teresa in 1975, when I was Secretary to the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi. She had written to the Lieutenant Governor, asking him to inaugurate a home for the elderly disabled. The letter itself, typically of Mother, was on a very ordinary piece of paper, written in her own strong hand. I had heard a lot about Mother Teresa, and, curious to meet her, I went along with the Lieutenant Governor to the inauguration of that home.

What I saw took me completely by surprise. We had gone in the Lieutenant Governor's enormous limousine escorted by an outrider. I felt immediately ashamed of opulence in the face of the humility of the Sisters and the poverty of the elderly who lived in the home. Mother Teresa herself I found riveting. She was much smaller than I had thought, her back, even then, bent by age, her hands gnarled and her feet twisted by years of work in the streets and slums. Although her sari was sparkling white, I noticed it was darned in several places. She was perhaps a little better fed than those at the home, but was otherwise as poor as those she served. Despite the years of hardship, her eyes still twinkled with a gentle, joyful humour. It was not a morning for prepared speeches; she spoke of loving, caring and sharing. Her message was simple enough, yet I do not think there was an eye that morning that was not moist with tears.

A letter from Mother Teresa acknowledging receipt of a cheque from Frontline in October 1993. The money, which was the remuneration for an article written by Mr. Navin Chawla for Frontline's Cover Story on Mother Teresa (issue dated September 24, 1993), was sent to the Missionaries of Charity on Mr. Chawla's request.

Perhaps the memory of that morning would have been erased, as so many other special moments are, in the passage of time. But two weeks later, there was a knock on my door, and there was Mother Teresa! It took a few minutes to recover my equilibrium. She explained her mission, which was to obtain land for leprosy patients, so she could build a home for them. "I will find the medical care, and I will find whatever is needed to rehabilitate them," she said, "all you have to give me is the space." She asked for five acres of land. When we met the Lieutenant Governor a few minutes later, he, too, asked her how much land she needed. She looked at me with a mischievous smile, and promptly doubled her estimate. She had obviously sensed that she had touched the Lieutenant Governor deeply. She came away with 11 acres! Here was somebody who was not just pious, but also delightfully practical, and, as I soon discovered, she was an excellent administrator.

OVER the years, my relationship with Mother Teresa strengthened. It started in small ways, with meeting her at the airport or seeing her off. She had an old-fashioned desire to be at the airport very early, so we would often have time to talk. Slowly, I found I was helping out with many small tasks she needed handled, tasks that I, being a bureaucrat, could deal with relative ease. An electricity bill here, a municipal problem there, trees to be planted, something the Sisters needed. Over the twenty-two years we knew each other, there were always some things to be done. She would then ask me to accompany her to her meetings, be they with the Prime Minister, Ambassadors, or officials. She would then leave me to follow up on these meetings.

Mother Teresa never allowed her access to the powerful to divert her attention from her work. I remember a very prestigious award she was given at Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi by the Prime Minister. It was a very large trophy, so large that three people were needed just to hold it up. She found she had to leave the function halfway to catch the Calcutta flight. On the way to the airport, she suddenly remembered the trophy, and asked if I would collect it. "Mother," I laughed, "where on earth will you put it? There's no room for it in your little parlour in Calcutta." "Keep it?" she asked astonished, "I'm not going to keep it, but I'm sure the organisers won't mind if I sell it. It will help me buy medicines for our leprosy patients."

She was frugal to the last. While I was writing her biography, I used to complain sometimes about the dim bulb she had outside her office, which made taking notes very difficult. She rebuked me gently. "The money I receive is sacrifice money. It is from the little child who didn't eat sugar for three days so he could give me a rupee; from the beggar who emptied his day's earnings in my hands." The large donations and bequests were gratefully acknowledged and immediately ploughed into the work; it was the giving "until it hurts" that she remembered.

I believe what drew people to Mother Teresa was something deeper than her undoubted charisma. She appealed to something very basic in us all, the desire to reach out to goodness. Even those who did not agree with her on specific issues were nonetheless drawn to her as a person. Take family planning, for example. Mother believed that contraception and abortion were wrong. In all the years that we have known each other, this was the only subject on which we never agreed. As a modern Indian who was also involved in family planning as the State's Health Secretary, I believe contraception and birth control to be vital. She said she fought abortion with adoption. I argued that her Shishu Bhavans were bursting at the seams. Yet I know that she never refused a child. Though I may not have believed her in her theory of natural family planning, I could hardly refute her actions, for while I did nothing, she did everything.

FOR a person who was passionate about her faith, Mother Teresa was at once remarkably tolerant of those who did not believe. Like many others, I was brought up without any strong religious schooling and with little commitment to organised religion. Mother Teresa never nudged me towards her faith in all the many years we knew each other. "Have you learned to pray yet," was all she would ask. I once confronted her about the allegations that she converted people to her own faith. Her answer was concise. "Of course, I convert you," she replied, "I convert you to become a better Hindu, or a better Muslim, or a better Protestant. Once you have found God it is up to you to do with Him as you wish." I do know that no child who was to be adopted by a Hindu family was ever baptised. The bodies of those who died at Kalighat who were not known to be Christian, Muslim or Parsi were invariably cremated. While she saw the manifestation of Christ in all those she served - the abandoned Christ, the suffering Christ, the dying Christ - she transcended her religion in reaching out to people of all faiths and the faithless besides.

This belief also made it possible for her to face the many extraordinarily vituperative allegations against her without rancour or anger. She was accused, for instance, of not setting up a first-class hospital with the funds at her disposal. Now, Mother founded an Order, which, unlike other orders, had taken a special fourth vow - of serving only the poorest of the poor. This then was its raison d'etre. She stood for those who fell by the wayside. In Calcutta, the police and the municipality were specifically enjoined to bring only those people to the Home for the Dying whom every hospital had rejected. Hospitals naturally prefer to give a bed to lives they can save rather than to people who had no hope at all of surviving. It was all very well for doctors from London to write articles in learned journals about lives that could have been saved in hospital. Yet if Mother Teresa had set up a hospital in Calcutta, it would have tied down 200 of her Sisters, and taken them away from their essential work on the streets for those who fell by the wayside.

WHEN the end came, Mother Teresa lay in her home, surrounded by those she loved, in her beloved Calcutta.

What is the core of our inheritance from Mother Teresa? I once asked her what her contribution to the world had been. She replied that there was no answer to this question. "This is consecrated work," she said. "We are called upon not to be successful, but to be faithful." She lived for her God. At the time of her death, her agenda was complete. As long as the Order she founded continues to work for the poorest of the poor, Mother Teresa's legacy will endure.

As told to Praveen Swami in New Delhi.

(Navin Chawla, a senior IAS officer, is Mother Teresa's biographer.)

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