Mother Teresa’s journey was extraordinary. Imagine a teenager living with her family in the early 1920s in distant Skopje, then a town in Albania. At the age of 18 when teenagers often don’t know their mind, she made up hers to travel to distant India to become a nun. She found that the only way to India was through the Loreto Order. For almost 20 years, she taught the poorer girls at the Loreto Convent in Kolkata. However, she was convinced that her true vocation lay in the streets and the slums. She sought permission to leave the convent, but with her vows intact. In an extraordinary move, they gave her permission. When she said goodbye to the convent, she said it was a parting even harder than leaving her own home.
Visualise Calcutta of 1948. The tragedy of the Partition which came on the heels of the Great Famine saw hunger and hardship on every street and pavement. In these rough neighbourhoods, she walked alone, with no helper, no companion and no money to speak of. She soon started a ragtag school in the shadow of her Convent walls, whose security constantly beckoned her to return. In spite of fatigue, loneliness and often hunger, she persisted. She created a little school in Motijhil, soon a little dispensary elsewhere. She taught herself to beg, especially for medicines from chemists to hand out to the sick. She met with goodness but also hypocrisy, criticism, refusal and learned the hardest lesson of all, the pain of humiliation. She once told me that the greatest fear that a human being faces is the fear of humiliation.
This then is where she started. We know where she left off. By the time she died she had established her Missionaries of Charity in 123 countries. She and her Sisters set up clinics and dispensaries, feeding stations, soup kitchens, leprosy treatment centres, Aids hospices, Shishu Bhawans for abandoned children, and old age homes for the elderly destitute. In the process she benefited untold millions. All this was done without the assistance of accountants, administrators and computers. When I asked her how the Missionaries of Charity would survive without her charismatic presence at its helm, she explained, “You have been to so many of our missions in India and abroad. Everywhere our Sisters wear the same saris, eat the same kind of food, do the same kind of work. But Mother Teresa is not everywhere. Yet the work goes on”. Then she added, “As long as we remain committed to the poorest of the poor and do not end up serving the rich, the work will prosper.”
She was criticised for conversion. Yet in all the 23 years I knew her she never once whispered such a suggestion. I once bluntly asked her if she did convert. Without a moment’s hesitation, she said. “I do convert. I convert you to be a better Hindu, a better Muslim, a better Protestant, and a better Sikh. Once you have found god, it is up to you to do with him as you wish”. She was quick to realise that in India, the 19th century proselytising approach could not be sustained.
Her brand of religion was, therefore, not exclusive. Every person she ministered to was for her Christ in suffering, and so she was able to reach out to people everywhere irrespective of their faith. I once asked Jyoti Basu, the legendary chief minister of West Bengal who supported Mother Teresa throughout, what he, a communist and atheist, could possibly have in common with Mother Teresa, for whom god was everything. With a smile he answered, “We both share a love for the poor”.
The very last time that I met Mother Teresa was in July of 1997, two months before she died. She recapitulated simple lessons: loving, caring, and sharing. She reminded me of my promise that I would not leave government service, as I had wanted to do some years earlier. “You must continue to touch the poor,” were amongst her last words to me.
On August 26, Mother Teresa’s birth anniversary will be marked with prayers and thanksgiving for the life of a humble nun whose name has become synonymous with compassion and goodness.
Navin Chawla is a former Chief Election Commissioner of India and biographer of Mother Teresa
The views expressed by the author are personal