Opinion » Open Page

Updated: August 26, 2012 00:15 IST

The refuge of the wretched and the abandoned

Navin Chawla
Comment (4)   ·   print   ·   T  T  
Wherever she went, it was to her beloved Calcutta that Mother Teresa longed to return. File Photo
Wherever she went, it was to her beloved Calcutta that Mother Teresa longed to return. File Photo

The most succinct summing up of Mother Teresa’s life and work remains, in my view, by the Chairman of the Nobel Committee Prof. 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 ... In her eyes, the person who, in the accepted sense, is the recipient, is also the giver and the one who gives the most, Giving — giving something of oneself — is what confers real joy, and the person who is allowed to give is the one who receives the most precious gift ... 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.”

After the Award ceremony, typically, she refused the traditional banquet and instead asked the organisers to give her the money thus saved to feed ‘her poor’. People were so moved by this simple gesture that even little children contributed their pocket money. In the process, she collected almost twice the Prize money. Clearly Mother Teresa was by now recognised as the world’s foremost conscience keeper.

This was a far cry from her early days. For almost 20 years, from 1929 to 1948, she remained an ordinary Loreto nun, teaching geography and catechism. Then on her famous train ride to Darjeeling in 1946, she received a Vision, an order as it were, that she was to leave the security and happiness of the Convent, and step into Calcutta’s streets and slums to begin the ‘real work’. In those days it was inconceivable for a simple nun, albeit by now the Principal of St. Mary’s school to leave her convent, and that too with her vows intact. It seemed absurd to even try to secure permission. Yet, in one of those many miracles that marked her life, her voice reached the Vatican itself. Two years of prayers and persistence paid off when the Vatican gave her the permission to try.

The next two years were those of great hardship. Imagine the Kolkata of 1948. The city which had not yet recovered from the Great Bengal Famine of 1941-42, when almost four million died and millions were rendered homeless. This was closely followed by the trauma of Partition which saw a million refugees additionally crowding every inch of space. Into this horror of deprivation stepped a small figure wearing a sari that cost a rupee, similar to those worn by the municipal sweepresses.

She had no companion, no helper and no money to speak of. She had so far lived a secure life in the Convent and knew nothing of a large city’s dangers. Although a voice in her cajoled her to return to the security of her convent, she instead stepped into the very slum that she used to see from her classroom window.

She picked up a stick and started to write the Bengali alphabet on the ground. Soon a few curious children gathered, and a few more the next day. People recognised goodness when they saw it, someone donated a chair, then a blackboard and chalk. A few teachers began to volunteer their services, and soon her first school became a reality. Then, seeing so many sick around her, she began to beg for medicines from chemists, and was able to set up a tiny clinic.

She walked miles each day till her body ached. She encountered humiliation. More than once she was to tell me that for us human beings the greatest fear is the fear of humiliation. In those early days of deprivation, she learned the lessons of being rejected, but also the generosity of spirit and goodness. She came to know that the very poor could more easily share their meagre bowls of rice than the rich, who were often reluctant to share at all.

Within a few months, some of her Loreto pupils came out to join her Order, the Missionaries of Charity. Soon her little band of Sisters grew to 12. Now they began to be noticed, as they walked in pairs in their trademark white saris with blue borders. One of her earliest supporters was Dr. B.C. Roy, the legendary Chief Minister of West Bengal. In later years, the equally legendary Jyoti Basu lent her his shoulder. In the course of writing my biography of Mother Teresa, I asked him what he, a Communist and atheist, could possibly have in common with Mother Teresa, for whom God was everything. He replied: “We both share a love for the poor.”

By the time Mother Teresa died in 1997, she had set up arguably the world’s largest humanitarian programme outside of a Government. She established a presence in 123 countries, creating hundreds of feeding centres, medical clinics, leprosy stations, AIDS hospices, primary schools, Shishu Bhawans for abandoned infants and shelters for the elderly destitute that benefited millions.

Nor were all these in the poorer parts of the world. She opened hundreds of shelters in Europe, America and Australia for drug addicts, alcoholics and the destitute. She called the loneliness of Europe’s large cities the “leprosy of the West”. I visited her homes for those dying of AIDS in the United States, and met with elderly cast-offs in her centres in Europe.

I walked with her Sisters on a cold and wintry night under London’s Waterloo Bridge, providing hot soup to people whose only home was a cardboard box the size of a coffin. I spent time in the soup kitchen in the Vatican, which she had persuaded Pope John Paul II to carve out near his grand Audience Chamber by persuading him that Rome’s poor deserved at least one hot meal a day. Later, she would joke that her poor were the only people who could enter St. Peter’s without a ticket!

But wherever she went in the world, visiting her ashrams, and however much she pushed herself in spite of her growing pain, it was to her beloved Kolkata that she would long to return. Ultimately, it was in her little room in Motherhouse that she died, and lies buried in a simple grave in Motherhouse itself, which bears the epitaph. “Love one another as I have loved you.”

(Navin Chawla is a former Chief Election Commissioner of India and biographer of Mother Teresa. Today he commemorates Mother Teresa’s 102nd birth anniversary.)

More In: Open Page | Opinion

Thank you for revisiting Mother Teresa, it always warms my heart to read about her.She was love simplified.Just do it, go out there and do what you can for a fellow human being in need.This is what I saw in everything she did.If only each one of us did something to really make a difference in the life of one person, how changed the world would be.I read the article about her by Kushwant Singh in the "Illustrated weekly of India" so many years ago.One of my most treasured possessions is her hand written letter prayerfully acknowledging my twenty rupee pocket money contribution to her.In 1996 I was fortunate to see her in person at the mother house, this little diminutive nun who made such a difference in the world. She did what she believed was right according to her belief in "Love one another"

from:  Bina Dara
Posted on: Aug 27, 2012 at 21:24 IST

Thank you sir for giving us an article as pure as your decision in writing the biography of the Great Mother.My heart wondered at the simplicity of hers and now I strongly believe rather confirm that God exists in humans itself.God is you when spirit is noble and aim is for social-welfare.Mother Teresa needs to be more honoured and respected for her excellent works in the rear-entered field of human service.

from:  R.sri Rohith
Posted on: Aug 27, 2012 at 10:25 IST

Response for the above comment: We Indians have this kind of inappreciable nature and we are always busy in search of negative
things. Because of this we are not identifying that we are losing our
own value. Try to appreciate what she has done for our nation. Because
of this kind of thinking and negative, inappreciable attitude we are
still a "developing" nation even after we got independence for over 65

from:  D. Alekya
Posted on: Aug 26, 2012 at 19:15 IST

"Mother" Teresa, the proselytizing nun from Albania did everything to disempower women. Only when women have control over childbearing, abortion rights and over their household a country can prosper. Teresa did everything to deny that women of Kolkata slums. Christopher Hitchens has done detailed research and written his book : The Missionary Position and given many interviews [google and Youtube] . I wish The Hindu will publish the other side of her story.

from:  P.N.Shreeniwas
Posted on: Aug 26, 2012 at 10:07 IST
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Editor’s Note

Editor’s Note: Submissions on the Open Page are the extended comments of readers and in no way do they reflect the views of The Hindu.... »



Recent Article in Open Page

Madras and Munro: tales behind the statue

With stirrups or not, this early 19th-century rider had truly earned his tripes as an administrator »