The Nobel laureate’s biographer in his annual tribute on her birth anniversary notes that there was no difference between her precepts and her practice.
Mother Teresa, with whom I had 23 years of association, was a multi-dimensional figure, both simple and complex at the same time. Her attention to whomsoever was with her at any point in time — whether poor or rich, disabled, leprosy afflicted or destitute — was complete. Yet she also simultaneously ran a huge multinational organisation that had taken roots in 123 countries by the time she died in 1997. This included leprosy stations in Asia and Africa; hospices for AIDS patients in North America, orphanages, homes for the elderly destitute, feeding stations and soup kitchens everywhere; Shishu Bhavans for orphans and abandoned children in most cities, drug de-addiction centres and home-visiting to comfort the sick, elderly and abandoned in the West; all these were achieved with a fair amount of precision and regularity by the Sisters and Brothers of her Order. Absent from this structure was the army of administrators and officials that we associate with global enterprises.
When Mother Teresa was alive, I had expressed concern to her whether the organisation she had built from scratch had not overly grown and which would be difficult to sustain after she passed on. I had seen several other organisations begin to wither away soon after their charismatic founders became either physically debilitated or died. Why would this Order be any different, I asked. The first time I posed this question to her, she merely smiled and pointed her fingers heavenwards. The second time I asked, she set my question aside with a smile saying “let me go first.” On my persistence some weeks later, she finally answered, “You have been to so many of our ‘homes’ (branches) in India and abroad. Everywhere the Sisters wear the same saris, eat the same kind of food, do the same work, but Mother Teresa is not everywhere, yet the work goes on.” Then she added, “As long as we remain committed to the poorest of the poor and don’t end up serving the rich, the work will prosper.”
Present statistics reveal 758 ‘homes’ all over the world, of which 244 are in India and 514 are overseas. They have a presence in 134 countries. The total strength of their nuns is 4,912. The number of men (Brothers of the Order) is 367 who work in India and 20 other countries besides. Quite clearly, the presence of the Order globally has not diminished. The apprehensions I voiced to Mother Teresa in her lifetime continue to be laid to rest.
There were so many things that Mother Teresa would say or explain to me in her simple unaffected way during my association with her, that have become more meaningful to me as time goes by. My relationship with her grew into trust and confidence in the way that a guru-shishya relationship develops, often deepening with increased understanding. In the beginning when Mother Teresa spoke to me, or spoke in public, it seemed to me that she spoke everyday truths, and they seemed much too simple. My mind accepted them largely because of the respect in which I held her — a respect intensified because there was no difference between her words and her deeds, between her precepts and her practice and the fact that she could understand the poor because she was poor herself. But over the years, the deeper meaning of her words in their spiritual sense gradually began to be applied by me in my day-to-day life, and began to affect my inner being.
Soon after 1992, when my biography on Mother Teresa was published, I visualised using the book royalty that I was beginning to receive for social causes. I felt instinctively that a book that was selling in her name should not enable me to keep all the income to myself. I posed my dilemma directly to her. She suggested that I must at the very least keep aside some amount for my daughter’s education. She herself had encouraged my elder daughter to study overseas, and indeed herself provided a reference to a university in the U.K. The rest I could devote to charity if I wished to. That crystallised in my mind into establishing an NGO that could work with the marginalised, the disabled and especially the leprosy-affected, who had a special place in Mother Teresa’s scheme of things. One day, even as such an institution was but a thought in my mind, I had asked her with what numbers I should begin. She said simply, “Don’t get lost in numbers. Begin humbly. Begin with one or two. Even if the ocean is less by one drop, it is still worth being.”
Mother Teresa’s work — indeed the continuing work of the Sisters and Brothers of the Missionaries of Charity — became possible because she saw in each person she ministered to a manifestation of her God. So, whether it was taking care of an abandoned infant on a Kolkata street, or a homeless destitute sleeping on a cold wintry night in a cardboard box under London’s Waterloo Bridge, or the poor and hungry standing in silent queues in a Vatican square, awaiting their only hot meal from Mother Teresa’s ashram adjoining the grand papal audience chamber, all this could become possible only out of her deepest conviction that she was ministering to her God. Otherwise, as she often told me, “You can look after a few loved ones at the most, it is not possible for you to help everybody. Our work becomes possible because to me and my Sisters, they are all God.” And so the work that I witnessed over long years; dressing the ulcerated hands of leprosy patients in Titagarh, or the comforting of those dying at Kalighat, or simply reaching out to one’s neighbour, became not merely possible, it was often joyful. It also helps to explain the ease with which the Sisters of her Order smile.
For the Mother and her Sisters, comforting one individual was more important than “getting lost in numbers.” Meanwhile, the leprosy-affected in India had a very special place in her heart. I have often visited Titagarh outside Kolkata where the Sisters run an institution which is a small township of the leprosy-affected. For years they have been provided medication so that there is no active disease left. But having faced the stigma for so long, they live apart from ‘normal’ people. The Sisters keep them busy. All the saris that the Missionaries of Charity Sisters wear are woven on their looms.
In my second meeting with Mother Teresa in 1975, the subject on her mind that morning was leprosy. She had come to request the Lt. Governor of Delhi, whose secretary I was at that time, for some land in the heart of the leprosy colonies of Delhi so that she could build a hospital and dormitories and, more importantly, engage them in activities so that they did not have to beg for a living. My association with that colony — and with their healthy children — has remained during these 32 years, more than half my life. Some of those children, many now parents themselves, whom I had assisted to get employment in different areas of government or in private jobs, have amply demonstrated what a single nun’s vision can do to transform their lives by simply bringing them health, opportunity and dignity.
“I am unworthy” was her reaction when she was named the recipient of the ultimate accolade, the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1979. She sent word to the organisers that she should accept the award “in the name of the poor.” Many people had earlier been disappointed by some of the awardees, for not all were doves of peace. There were many who believed that it was Mother Teresa who had, with her acceptance, enhanced the stature of the award.
At the ceremony in Oslo, the then Chairman of the Nobel Committee, John Sannes, summed up her work with these words: “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.”
(Navin Chawla, Election Commissioner of India, and a former IAS Officer, is the author of Mother Teresa: The Authorised Biography.)