"One of the miracles that occurred over the years," Mother Teresa once told me, "is that no one is allowed to die on streets; someone, somewhere brings the person to us." A biographer's tribute on her 96th birth anniversary.
RECENTLY, I made a private visit to Kolkata to re-visit a few of Mother Teresa's `homes,' meaning Missionaries of Charity institutions. It was also an opportunity for me to meet the Sisters I know well as also to see how the organisation Mother Teresa founded in 1950 was doing nine years after her passing. At Motherhouse, their headquarters on AJC Bose Road, I found a brand new block recessed within the compound, to better accommodate the growing number of nuns. Sister Lynn took me through a small museum, which was a new addition. On display were a number of objects testifying to the simplicity of Mother Teresa's life. There were a number of her own notes written in her strong writing.
I looked for the Nobel Peace Prize, the Bharat Ratna, and the Padma Shri citations; the Order of Merit given by the Queen of England as her personal prerogative; the Magsaysay Award; the Templeton Prize. None of her hundreds of awards was on display. I understood why. None of them ever mattered to the recipient, who believed that she herself was nothing, merely a pencil in the hands of the Lord. My eye was attracted to the sari Mother Teresa had last worn, neatly darned in several places. I knew that this sari and indeed all the saris worn by the Sisters of the Order were invariably woven by leprosy patients on their handlooms in the `home' at Titagarh on the outskirts of Kolkata. Also on display were Mother Teresa's sandals, roughly stitched and repaired, a testimony to her enduring frugality.
On the subject of her frugality, I had once teasingly said to her that she switched off lights faster then anyone could switch them on! Her face became serious. She replied that when a little child could give her one rupee saved by his not eating any sugar for three days, in conscience she could not waste "sacrifice" money on unnecessary expenditure. I never referred to her frugality again. I completed my visit to Motherhouse with a visit to her little room where she died on September 5, 1997. I had seen her room only once before, but now visitors could observe it behind a grill. It contained an iron cot with a thin mattress, a plain writing desk, a cupboard, a chair, a `meeting' table with two stools.
Nothing matched; it was obviously the room of a person who knew no comfort. On one side of her bed hung a picture of Jesus Jesus not at peace but dying in agony, wearing a crown of thorns, blood trickling down his head.
In her last few days as she lay in pain, caused by her years of continuous toil in picking up the dead or rescuing the dying or the abandoned in streets all over the world, she constantly turned to this picture asking her God again and again whether she too had not suffered enough, and when would He call her to Him. Sister Nirmala and her other companions had realised that the time had come and there was nothing a hospital could now do. Although a doctor was present and the weeping Sisters themselves were nursing her, it was a priest who was called to administer the final rites.
In July 1997, she had unexpectedly passed through Delhi on her way back to Kolkata. As few people knew of her arrival, I was able to spend a few private hours with her. She wrote me a note which is my most prized possession. That evening, I took her to the airport. Her back hurt continuously; she could now move only in a wheelchair. I was able to provide her some little comfort and arranged for her to be taken up to the aircraft in the lift used to carry provisions. With each jerk she winced with pain. But reaching the aircraft, she waved me a final goodbye. It was to be my last meeting with her.
I was then serving in the Union Home Ministry. A few days after she left, I went across to the room of a colleague. I asked him what procedures would be set into motion when Mother Teresa passed away. He replied that while she was indeed the recipient of the Bharat Ratna, there was no special ceremonial even for those who had been conferred India's highest civilian honour. For some reason inexplicable to me even now, I sought an appointment with the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, T.R. Satish Chandran. He met me the very next afternoon. Knowing how busy he was, I was brief. In a few minutes I told him that Mother Teresa would not now live long. She was seriously ill and beyond the reach of any hospital. Moreover, in my perception her life's work was done.
Sister Nirmala had been elected as her successor, and Mother Teresa had introduced her to the Vatican, the Missionaries of Charity being a congregation directly under papal jurisdiction. I also told him that when I looked after her for about a week four years ago, when she had fallen seriously ill while visiting Delhi, there was concern expressed from chancellories the world over from Rashtrapati Bhavan and the PMO to the Vatican and the White House; from her friend Jyoti Basu to most of Europe's royal families. Such being the case, I informed the Principal Secretary that we must expect many dignitaries to fly in.
Mr. Satish Chandran asked me whether the burial would be in Kolkata. I replied in the affirmative because Kolkata was the city she identified herself with, a city very beloved of her. Knowing this, the Sisters would want her to be buried nowhere else, even if she were to die elsewhere. The Principal Secretary nodded and said "Leave it with me," adding that he would have to get in touch with Chief Minister Jyoti Basu. From then on I was unaware of what went on between the PMO and the West Bengal Government. But anyone who watched the funeral ceremonies personally or on television would testify that far from there being confusion, every last detail had been meticulously planned and executed in the intervening weeks before her death. Perhaps Mother Teresa, who herself remained so humble throughout, would have been embarrassed to see the turnout of the world's great and good to pay their final respects.
Some years earlier, had Mother Teresa been allowed by her Sisters to step down from the post of Superior General as she had wanted, I had the feeling she would have liked to spend her last few years at the institution the Sisters called her `first love', the Home for the Dying at Kalighat.
When I visited Kalighat on my recent tour, everything seemed unchanged except, of course, there were other indigent poor on the cots, and other volunteers tending them. Every cot in the men's and women's section was occupied; there was the same hushed air of stillness inside, so that the sounds of traffic outside seemed exaggerated. This was the quiet of the hospice where some would die, some would recover and go back to their work, and perhaps return another time when they were exhausted or ill. Some of them were not ill in any hospital sense. Some were rickshaw-pullers and labourers too old or tired to work any more. Most of them had no family to claim them. Over the years, my elder daughter Rukmini and I had sat besides many of these cots and we would hear of their heartaches and their pain.
In the 1950s, before public hospitals came up, before medicine became cheaper and more accessible, before NGOs chipped in to help, the homeless poor invariably died on the streets. "One of the miracles that occurred over the years," Mother Teresa once told me, "is that no one is allowed to die on streets; someone, somewhere brings the person to us." Over the years, the meticulously maintained registers at Kalighat told me that many more people recovered than died; and if they died their bodies continued to be buried or cremated according to their known faiths.
It was to Kalighat that Mother Teresa came often. One evening she sat by the cot of an ex-governess who lay dying of cancer, body wracked with pain. In her prime the lady had been employed by a rich family, and she would often take her wards to the grand hotels of the city for tea. Now in the evening of her life, she had composed a prayer to all the Gods in the pantheon, and included Mother Teresa in the litany. As she slipped into delirium for her final journey, she may have been aware that as she invoked the name of Mother Teresa, it was Mother Teresa herself who sat by her bedside holding her hand and saying a final prayer.
(Navin Chawla, an Election Commissioner of India and a former IAS officer, is the author of Mother Teresa, a biography first published in 1992 and available in 14 languages round the world.)