Years ago, Maqbool Fida Husain, the iconic Indian artist, drew three striped lines on a swathe of white canvas. There was no face; just the folds of the sari covering what would be a head, draping shoulders hunched in a mother’s stoop, an interpretation perhaps of the Pieta statue by Michelangelo now in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. To every Indian, as to most others across the globe who saw it, it was instantly recognisable as Mother Teresa of Kolkata, the woman who took dying men and women from the streets of the city to her home, or the person behind the orphanages which cared for newborn babies abandoned on some other town’s pavement or refuse dump.
And as Pope Francis, himself radically interpreting Christ’s compassion and love in a modern world, canonises Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, born in the distant town of Skopje, now in Macedonia, as Saint Teresa of Kolkata, India sees it as an honour to its own tradition of renunciation and service.
In fact, Mother Teresa made the khadi sari or dhoti with its three blue lines border as iconic as herself. A symbol of compassion and love. Much as Mahatma Gandhi had made the homespun a symbol of the poor of the land. India never had better ambassadors. The khadi he wore was spun by himself. The khadi she wore was woven by victims of Hansen’s disease, deemed by others to be unclean and historically doomed to places where they would not be seen by others.
Today, Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity of many nationalities and all races wearing the same sari carry a little bit if India to every corner of the world, working among the poorest of the poor in lands haunted by disease and want, and often razed by war. Some die when their ashrams are attacked by gun-toting terrorists, as happened recently in Yemen. No mean work by one who came to India as a young woman in 1929 with the Loreto Sisters.
What Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his ‘Mann Ki Baat’ on 28th August, 2016, reflects best the sentiments of the Indian people: “She was born in what was then Albania. Her language also was not English. But she moulded herself (to Indian conditions) and served the people of India. It is natural for every Indian to take pride in the moment in which such a Mother is declared a Saint.”
She had learnt English for she first wanted to be a teacher, and she soon learnt Bangla in her adopted land. With the language, Mother Teresa herself not only imbibed Indianness but, she went further and proclaimed Indian values that she admired, to the world. She praised the Indian attitude of listening to each other and contrasted it with the hurried rat race of the West. According to her, the Indian ethos of being with someone, listening without a clock and without anticipation of results, teaches us about love. Because the success of love is in the loving – it is not in the result of loving.
For 17 years she taught in Loreto, St. Mary’s School, Calcutta (now called Kolkata). This totally Indian nun taught in Bengali because the medium of the school was the local language and she called herself “the happiest nun in the world”. These 17 years of her life epitomise the wonderful services rendered by the Catholic Church to education and nation building in India, inculcating values and love for our country.
Teresa gave her all to this vast country. And the Indian people gave back love in equal measure. She became the quintessential Mother, a title given by the people only to a very few in recent times. The state bestowed on her the highest civilian honour ‘Bharat Ratna’ in 1980.
But her eventual calling was different. Rukmini Chawla, her biographer, recounts that on a train to Darjeeling for her retreat, Mother Teresa heard her call. Rukmini had the privilege of getting to know Mother Teresa at the tender age of two when Mother Teresa visited her home and with whom her association continued till Mother’s death.
Asceticism, a highly valued virtue in Indian culture, took a new form in the saintly woman. Three saris are all that she owned: one to wear, one to wash and one reserved for festive occasions. She refused to eat in the houses of others, not because she did not like to eat in company but because the poor would have to struggle to feed her if they invited her and if she ate with those who could afford; she felt it would mean discrimination.
But her asceticism was not an asceticism of the secluded. She denied herself everything just like her Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, to be at the service of the poorest of the poor, the dying and the abandoned. She gave the Indian asceticism a new value, a new form: deny yourself everything so that you can become everything for those who have nothing. Her life, her work and her ministry were a manifestation of the Love of Christ in her and the Love of Christ for India. Her work was based on a deep prayer experience. She would spend hours in prayer and this prayer would sustain her work. To this country with its deep spiritual character, its longing for the God Experience, Mother Teresa showed us what real God Experience can do – love the poor without counting the cost, serve the lowest of the lowliest, without measuring the efforts.
The moment of her canonisation can be summarised in her own words quoted by Rukmini Chawla on the back cover of her book: “I see God in every human being when I wash a leper’s wounds, I feel I am nursing the Lord Himself. Is it not a beautiful experience”. Mother Teresa was God’s gift to India. By imbibing Indianness, cultivating asceticism, taking the love of God from India to the rest of world, she became India’s gift to the world.
Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas is secretary general, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India