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Missionaries of Charity: A mission without rewards or favours

Mother Teresa and her sisters had no need to convert anyone as the abandoned destitute was their god, Navin Chawla talks of Mother Teresa's selfless service.

analysis Updated: Aug 26, 2015 00:20 IST

Kusum was about six when I first saw her at one of Mother Teresa’s ashrams in Delhi where I was volunteering. Two things struck me about her: She was crippled and her smile. The sisters had taken her to orthopaedics but they agreed that no surgery could help the child.

For many years, the sisters at Missionaries of Charity looked after her. I took Kusum to a doctor who said her legs and hands were fractured in an accident or perhaps smashed deliberately. The one time I asked her who might have done this, she burst into tears.

A little-known and intrepid band of sisters and brothers spread out each morning into the streets and slums of 130 countries to rescue the homeless, feed the hungry, treat the sick and leprosy-affected people. They also rescue abandoned children like Kusum and provide them lifelong care and love, which they have been deprived of after their parents cast them aside because of their physical deformities or their ‘illegitimate’ birth. The volunteers do their bit without any expectation of rewards or favours.

After Mother’s death in 1997, the underlying spirit of its volunteers combined with their abiding faith in god propelled them to scour the streets for those who have fallen by the wayside. In the act of caring, they are one with god.

Mother Teresa once explained this simply by saying, “You can, at best, look after a few loved ones in your family. I can look after everyone because for me they are all god.” She once explained it to a rich lady who saw her clean the ulcers of a leprosy patient. “I can never do this work, for all the money in the world”, the lady said. “Nor can I,” replied Mother Teresa. “But I do it for my love of him (god).”

At the brightly decorated wards for the leprosy patients, she would greet each one with a smile and kind words. She often stopped to talk to an old lady who kept repeating one question, “Mother, will my sons come to visit me this Diwali?” She would console her by saying, “You say a prayer to your god and I will say a prayer to mine and we together pray that your sons will visit you this year.”

I gathered later that the lady had been the headmistress of a well-known public school but when her sons learnt that she had contracted leprosy they threw her out. But somehow she found her refuge. In all the years, Mother told me, the lady’s sons never visited her. “They will never come back.” After a few months later, her cot at the ward was occupied by someone else.

Mother Teresa did not make it her business to convert anyone. Her mind was not that of the 19th century proselytisers. If it had been so, she would have never been able to receive the abundant adulation and respect in the country including from late West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu. Mother Teresa could walk into his office without an appointment and would seldom come out empty-handed. While writing her biography, I once asked him what he (Basu), a Communist and an atheist, could possibly have in common with Mother Teresa. “We both share a love for the poor,” he replied.

I knew Mother Teresa for 23 years. Never once did she ever suggest that her religion might be superior to mine. In fact, we never discussed religion. However, it was not long before I came to understand why she and her sisters had no need to convert anyone.

The reason was — and still remains — that for her and members of her Order, their work is sustained by prayers, which gives them the strength to look after leprosy patients, abandoned infants and the destitute. For them, they are all embodiments of god. Where then is the need to convert when the abandoned destitute is their god? This enabled me to understand how Mother Teresa and the sisters after her continue to work with a smile.

The sisters rescued Kusum in 1989 and took care of her till her death in 2009. Kusum was a Hindu and her faith was maintained as a Hindu priest performed her last rites; with the sisters to mourn her passing.

Navin B Chawla, a former Chief election commissioner, is the biographer of Mother Teresa. The views expressed are personal.