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 whosoever was with her at any point in time - poor or rich, disabled, leprosy afflicted or destitute - was complete.
Yet she 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 Sisters and Brothers of her Order. Absent from this structure was the army of administrators and officials we associate with global enterprises.
When Mother Teresa was alive, I had expressed concern to her about whether the organisation she built from scratch had not overly grown, and which could 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." At 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," she said.
"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 overseas. The homes 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.
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. 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 (both in Kolkata), or feeding the homeless destitute sleeping on cold wintry nights in cardboard boxes 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.
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 passed. 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, 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 affect my inner being.
The last time I met Mother Teresa was in Delhi a few months before she died. She was on her way back from America to her beloved Kolkata and stopped for a few hours to change planes. She spoke then of simple things, of loving, caring and sharing. She held my hand in hers and said, "You must always work for the poor and the good of all people. You must continue to touch the poor."
(Navin Chawla IAS (Retd) is the former Chief Election Commissioner of India)