To love one’s neighbour was to love God — this was the key, not the size of her mission or the power others perceived in her. Mother explained it thus to her biographer: “We are called upon not to be successful, but to be faithful.”
Mother Teresa, the diminutive nun who straddled her century as one of its most towering personalities, was at one level a very simple person and at another a complex enigma. In modern management parlance, she could well be projected as a management guru who could have presented to the world’s best business schools her uniquely evolved model for success. With 4,000 nuns, she created a multinational enterprise of service that encompassed 123 countries by the time she died in 1997.
She would however have rejected such a proposition because her model was not based on material achievement, but on its spiritual quotient that sprung from and was nurtured by her faith. It required no banks of computers, no army of accountants, no bureaucrats. Her Order was rooted to a unique vow of “wholehearted free service” to the abject poor and marginalised.
As her biographer, I found there were several mysteries that lent themselves to no easy answers. Mother Teresa was hardly qualified in academic terms. She never went to university and her studies were largely confined to the scriptures. And yet she set up hundreds of schools that lifted poor children from a desolate life on the streets. She provided a safety net for the homeless by opening feeding centres and soup kitchens and also started Shishu Bhawans for infants her sisters found abandoned in the streets. There were homes for the terminally ill, so that they were not alone when they died. Not all these centres were in the poorer parts of the world; many were in the affluent west where loneliness and despair was a sickness she likened to leprosy.
Her coming to India itself was a mystery, a word I use in its mystical sense. Born in 1910 in Skopje, then a small town in what was Albania at the time, Agnes was raised in relatively frugal circumstances by a fiercely Catholic mother, the youngest of three children. As a young girl, her imagination was stirred by stories of Yugoslav Jesuit priests who worked in distant Bengal. At the age of 14, barely a teenager, she asked her mother for permission to join the Church and work in India. At 18, she had her way and when she bade her mother goodbye, she was never to see her again.
We might well imagine Kolkata from an Eastern Europe standpoint in 1928. The journey from Albania to India would itself have seemed inconceivable to most. In those days missionaries hardly ever returned home and India was a world apart. To leave her tightly knit family for a most uncertain future in a land of whose language, customs and traditions she knew nothing was, at the very least, foolhardly. But young Agnes never recorded any doubts about this decision, even in her later years.
She had learned that the only way to India was through the Loreto Order of teaching nuns headquartered in Kolkata. Her route however lay through the heart of the Order in Ireland. From Zagreb she travelled by train and ship to Dublin, where she spent six weeks learning a smattering of English, a language unknown to her but which she would need in India. Her ship journey to Mumbai would have exposed her for the first time to peoples and climate so different from her own. And, finally, when the Bombay Mail steamed into Howrah station in Kolkata on a January morning in 1929, an 18-year-old had taken a major step that covered geography and time zones into a world that would gradually unfold itself. But of her decision, she was even then not in doubt.
She had said to me, as she had said to others before, that it was a lesser wrench for her to leave mother’s home than it was for her to leave the Loreto Convent in Entally. In her 20 years as a Loreto nun, first a teacher and later Principal, she developed the discipline of an Order; in its most simplistic sense, her life was regulated by the ringing of the school bell. Here there was order and security, but also some exposure to the disadvantaged, as many of her wards were orphans and children of poor parents, with whom she could speak in Bengali with ease.
She was happy in her work, but restless too. The world she glimpsed from her classroom window was made up of slums and abject poverty: it seemed to be the real world, and she slowly sensed that her vocation belonged there. She began to attempt this almost impossible transition from convent to street, but with her vows intact: a Catholic nun within the Church order, yet outside of it. This was inconceivable in the Church’s rigid framework. Her Superior General of Loreto gave her the nod to try. But the Archbishop of Kolkata forbade it.
In these many divides of life, she resorted to prayer that deepened her faith. I often found that she faced dilemmas by first a retreat to prayer, and then renewed attempts, until the object was achieved or otherwise. Two years later, surprisingly but perhaps not, the Vatican made its first exception of this kind.
Her early steps, too, were a mystery. What a strange sight she would have presented on the streets of Kolkata in 1948. A European not in a familiar western habit, but in a cheap sari similar to what the municipality sweepresses wore, her feet encased in a pair of rough leather sandals: a nun in her belief but not in appearance.
She was alone. She had no helper, no companion and carried no money to speak of. She stepped into a city in which she had taught long years but of which she knew nothing. She taught herself to beg, the ultimate humiliation for one whose life had not been luxurious but it had been secure. In her only diary, which I was privy to, she wrote of her struggle between her faith and the temptation to return to the security with convent walls.
Between occasional bouts of tears and longing to get back to Loreto, she set up her first school in the very slum she saw each morning outside her classroom. It had no classroom, no table, no chair, no blackboard. She picked up a stick and before a group of curious children who had never seen the inside of a school, she began to write the Bengali alphabet on the ground.
Within a few days, some rickety furniture appeared; someone donated a blackboard and chalk. Lay teachers from the Convent soon volunteered to teach. Her little school in Motijhil became reality. And soon there was a school in Entally. A tiny dispensary followed, stocked with a few basic medicines cajoled from chemists. Bengali-speaking Teresa discovered she could multi-task, and her disarming charm and directness moved people to want to help her.
Her early admirers included the legendary Chief Minister B.C. Roy’s family members. In later years the equally legendary Jyoti Basu lent her his shoulder. Till the end she invariably prefixed the words ‘my friend’, whenever she spoke of the latter. In the years in between, the Calcutta Statesman began to follow her activities. Her name became known outside Kolkata when the Indian government awarded her the Padma Shri at a ceremony where she arrived matter-of-factly in a van and at which she moved many to tears.
As a Hindu, armed only with a certain eclecticism, I found it took me longer than most to understand that Mother Teresa was with Christ in each conscious hour, whether at Mass or with each of those whom she tended. It was not a different Christ on her crucifix and a different one who lay dying at her hospice in Kalighat. Neither existed without the other; they were both one. 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. She explained this to me simply but meaningfully when she said, “We are called upon not to be successful, but to be faithful.” In her life, Mother Teresa exemplified that faith: faith in prayer, in love, in service, and in peace.
(Navin Chawla is the Chief Election Commissioner of India and the biographer of Mother Teresa.)