A few weeks ago I visited one of Mother Teresa's Sisters who was admitted for surgery in the PGI hospital in Chandigarh. Haryana Chief Secretary Urvashi Gulati and the Principal Secretary to the Governor accompanied me that morning to Sister Ann Vinita's bedside. Attending to her in the hospital were two companion Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity. In the course of conversation, one of them said that she was really happy to meet me. She went on to explain that as a young woman in Kerala, she had admired Mother Teresa's work, but it was when she chanced to read my biography of Mother Teresa that she decided to join the Order. That a young Catholic woman should have read a book written by one, who while he was unmistakably close to Mother Teresa yet did not share her faith, stunned me into silence. It made me reflect on a number of issues related and unrelated: of the strength of secular values; and of true compassion knowing no religious, ethnic, caste or geographical boundaries, and indeed being able to transcend altogether the formal contours of religious practice.
Mother Teresa understood her environment acutely. She was no evangelist in the 19th century mould. She remained true to her religion till her last breath, but chose not to impose it on others. Never once during my 23-year-long association with her did she ever suggest that her religion was the only path, or that it was in any way superior. Yet she often reminded those around her of the power of prayer. If I occasionally remarked on some initiative she had taken as a “good idea,” she would reply with a teasing smile that if I learned to pray I would get a few good ideas too! She often urged those who came to her that they must be good Hindus or Muslims or Christians or Sikhs, and in that process must learn to “find God.”
It was indicative of her success that she understood that in an overwhelmingly non-Christian India, her path had to be a unique one. So while she never deviated from her faith, she reached out to millions of her special constituency: the poorest of the poor, the leprosy sufferers, abandoned children or the hungry and dying, recognising their faces to be the face of her God. Their religious persuasion, or even its absence, hardly concerned her. In her ability to have found the middle path in an environment that could have easily become hostile, lay her genius. I once asked the legendary Chief Minster of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, what he an atheist and a Communist could possibly have in common with a Catholic nun for whom God was everything. With a smile, he replied: “We share a love for the poor.” India revered her and gave her abundantly of its honours, including the Bharat Ratna. On August 26, 2010, a five- rupee coin was released to commemorate her birth centenary.
Over the years I witnessed many incidents that I called “co-incidences” and which others might well call “miracles.” One day in the 1980s at Mother House in Kolkata, a rare medicine was needed to save the life of a child. In those days it was not manufactured in India. When hope was almost lost, and as the Sisters prayed, a carton of assorted leftover medicines was donated by an unknown benefactor. Right on top was the very drug that was needed. The child's life was saved.
On another occasion, Mother Teresa arrived in Delhi from abroad. I was at the airport to receive her. Her flight was late. As she got off, anxiety was writ over her face. “You must get me on the flight to Calcutta. There is a dying child here; I am carrying a new medicine.” I told Mother that was impossible. Her flight had been late, and the last Calcutta-bound Indian Airlines flight was boarding. Mother Teresa's own luggage was also yet to come. But as word spread at the airport, the seemingly impossible happened. The first few items of luggage on the conveyer belt happened to be her cardboard cartons (she never owned a suitcase!). Someone informed air traffic control of Mother Teresa's efforts. The pilot happened to be a Calcutta man. Suddenly I was asked if I could drive Mother Teresa in my car to the tarmac — and she caught her flight. I rang her the next morning. The child had been administered the medicine on her arrival, and was now out of danger. “It is a first-class miracle,” said Mother Teresa.
Far from once not believing in miracles, I am now in little doubt that Mother Teresa's life itself was a miracle. Witness the facts: as a child of 14 in her native Albania, her imagination was stirred by the stories she heard from the Jesuit Fathers of their work in distant Bengal; at 18, still a teenager, her mind was made up. She took leave of her own beloved mother and joined the Loreto Order of teaching nuns, her only means in the year 1928 of reaching India. It was an age when missionaries seldom returned home, and she was embarking on a life in a world of which she knew nothing. She was sent to Darjeeling for training. She learned to speak Bengali fluently. After almost 20 happy years as a teaching nun, she audaciously sought (and finally received) permission from the Vatican to become the first nun in the history of the Church to step outside convent walls, not as a lay person, but as a nun with her vows intact, to start a mission of her own. She had no helper, no companion, and no money to speak of. Imagine the Calcutta of 1948, overflowing with refugees after Partition, homelessness, poverty and disease everywhere. She wore no recognisable nun's habit; instead a sari, akin to that worn by municipal sweepresses, that cost one rupee. This is where she started her life's arduous mission.
We know where she left off. By the time she passed away in 1997, she had created her presence in 123 countries. She ran a multinational run by 5,000 nuns of her Order, without the help of government grants or Church assistance. She had been awarded every conceivable prize of distinction. She was as warmly received in palaces and chancelleries as she was in the slums and streets of the world's cities. People sometimes accuse her of converting others to her faith: surely then there was no need for her to set up a branch in the heart of the Vatican. She cajoled Pope John Paul II to carve out a soup kitchen next to his grand audience chamber. Anyone today can witness the queues of Rome's poor, who are fed their only hot meal every evening. A former British Prime Minister told me not long ago that when Mother Teresa visited him at Downing Street she always managed to get his aides overruled, and got everything she wanted — because it was always for ‘her poor.' In any event, by now it was difficult for Prime Ministers to say ‘no' to her, for she was recognised as the conscience-keeper of her age.
As a Hindu, armed only with a certain eclecticism, I found it took me longer than most others to understand that Mother Teresa was with Christ in each conscious hour, whether at Mass, or with each of those whom she tended. The Christ on her crucifix was not different from the one who lay dying at her hospice in Kalighat. There could be no contradiction in her oft-repeated words that one must reach out to one's neighbour.
For Mother Teresa, to love one's neighbour was to love God. This was what was essential to her, not the size of her mission or the power others perceived in her. “We are called upon not to be successful, but to be faithful,” she explained. Mother Teresa exemplified that faith — in prayer, in love, in service, and in peace.
(Navin Chawla, a former Chief Election Commissioner of India, is the author of Mother Teresa: The Authorised Biography .)