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Updated: January 19, 2010 02:08 IST

An unusual friendship

Navin B. Chawla
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Mother Teresa invariably prefixed
PTI Mother Teresa invariably prefixed "my friend" before she took Jyoti Basu's name.

Asked what he, a Communist and atheist, could possibly have in common with Mother Teresa for whom God was everything, Jyoti Basu said with a smile: “We both share a love for the poor.”

The Hindu requested Navin B. Chawla, Chief Election Commissioner of India and Mother Teresa’s biographer, to share his insights into the remarkable friendship between Jyoti Basu and the founder of the Missionaries of Charity:

During the course of writing a biography on Mother Teresa, I asked Chief Minister Jyoti Basu what he, a Communist and atheist, could possibly have in common with Mother Teresa for whom God was everything. With a smile that reached his eyes, he said: “We both share a love for the poor.” For her part, Mother Teresa invariably prefixed the words “My friend” before she took his name.

From the legendary Chief Minister of West Bengal, Dr. B.C. Roy, who first recognised her work, to the equally legendary Jyoti Basu who was always available to her when she needed him, Mother Teresa’s work in the city that was beloved of her, could not have been possible to the extent it was without their understanding and their support. It is not that the Missionaries of Charity did not spread their wings to almost 600 centres in 123 countries around the world. It is that Kolkata was her epicentre, the city she identified as her home.

On one occasion when Mother Teresa was visiting Delhi, she fell ill and had to be admitted to a city hospital. For a week that she was there, I was at her bedside and also became her link to the besieged hospital switchboard; there were no mobile phones in those days. With unfailing regularity, Jyoti Basu rang each day to enquire after her health. When I once told him that she repetitively said to me, “Let me go back to Kolkata, I will be all right there,” he laughed understandingly.

On another occasion, when she was admitted to the Woodlands Nursing Home in Kolkata, I saw him enter without fuss, meet Doctor Bardhan and the Sisters, make an enquiry and quietly leave. One of Mother Teresa’s senior-most companions, Sister Gertrude, said to me: “He does not miss a single day.”

In turn, whenever he was unwell, she would visit him in the nursing home or at his house, say a prayer and leave. The good wishes of the one and the prayers of the other complemented each other both in sickness and in health.

On one of my visits to Kolkata, Mother Teresa asked me whether I had been to Tengra. She explained that the Chief Minister had asked her to take charge of about 400 women inmates of the Kolkata jail, many of whom had been undertrials for long years; others were mentally ill. In her practical way, she asked him for some land. He gave her about 11 acres in Tengra, near the leather tanneries.

When I visited it, she had already created a haven of peace and tranquillity. Just four of her Sisters had taken charge. The women were finally at peace. Tengra was a visible demonstration that both spoke the same language.

In July of 1997, when I was a mere Joint Secretary in the government, I sought an appointment with the then Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister; I do not know what made me do it. I told him that Mother Teresa was very sick and did not have much time left to live. Having nursed her once in Delhi, I had also become distantly acquainted with the halls of power that called with unfailing regularity seeking a health bulletin.

I knew that many of these callers would come to her funeral, and there could be a protocol nightmare. I added that no matter where she passed away, the Sisters would bring her to Kolkata for her burial there. “Leave it with me,” he said adding that he would need to be in touch with Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, as he would need to look into all the arrangements.

She died about two months later on September 5 that year. I was told later that Jyoti Basu had been alerted some weeks earlier. When my family and I attended the memorial service and the funeral in Kolkata, everything went off like clock work.

Later on, my batchmate and friend S.N. Menon, Secretary to the Chief Minister, told me of the correspondence and work that began at the West Bengal end. During the first part of the actual ceremony, where religious rites were also being administered, Jyoti Basu chose not to be present. Like a good communist, he entered at exactly the moment when these ended, and the civic part of the ceremony began. But I saw his imprint in every last detail.

And when at the very last, the Missionaries of Charity Sisters asked for special permission to bury Mother Teresa at Motherhouse, her headquarters at Acharya Jagdish Chandra Bose Road, that permission too he accorded.

He gave his friend Mother Teresa a befitting farewell.

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