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The Rediff Special


The Rediff Special/Mother Teresa

Prem Panicker

In far off Washington, DC, capital of the United States of America, the eponymous Post led its Saturday edition last August with the story that Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, more famous as Mother Teresa and synonymous, in every single language in the world, with 'love' and 'compassion' -- was sinking fast, even as the sisters of her order, Missionaries of Charity, maintained a vigil around her sickbed.

It all began fiftyone years ago, almost to the day. On September 10, 1946, Sister Teresa - as she was then known -- was travelling by train from Calcutta to Darjeeling. With her was one passenger whose name did not figure in the official lists, for whom no ticket had been issued, but who was to impact on Teresa -- and through her, on the rest of the world.

His name was Jesus Christ.

And sometime during the train's noisy progress uphill to the sylvan tourist resort, He told the impressionable sister, 'I want you to serve Me among the poorest of the poor.'

Those words, uttered during one routine train journey, were to change a life. And through that life, millions of others.

Those words were to signal the end of one journey -- and the beginning of another one. A seemingly endless one, that has taken Mother Teresa through the bylanes and back-alleys of human misery.

And -- such is the perverse nature of life -- the more she moved away from the haunts of the powerful and the famous, the more the latter class went out of its way to seek her out amidst the slums and hovels that formed her spiritual home and theatre of operations.

Pope Paul VI -- whose handmaiden she theoretically is - sought her out. During a visit to Bombay in 1964, he presented her with the white Lincoln limousine he had used in his travels. She promptly raffled it, raised five times its value, and used the entire proceeds to further her work.

Time magazine profiled her on its cover, dubbing her 'a loving saint'.

The governor of New York, impatient with the indecisive 'a' used by the magazine, announced, "She is the only one!"

Malcolm Muggeridge travelled down to Calcutta to film the life and times of Mother Teresa. "Let us," she exhorted, "rather do something beautiful in the service of God!"

How did a passenger in a second class train compartment accomplish this much larger journey? The process, when boiled down to words, had a certain simplicity - almost, an inevitability - to it. Here, in essence, is how it went:

Shortly after that epochal train journey, Sister Teresa applied to Rome, and secured, permission to live outside the convent.

Immediately thereafter, she went to Patna for a crash course in nursing, then returned to Calcutta and began her work among in the slums.

Shortly thereafter, a Michael Gomes, who had heard of her work, put first one room, then the entire top floor, of his house at her disposal. Sister - by now, Mother - Teresa had got her base.

Simultaneously, a young girl, a former pupil of the Mother's at St Mary's High School in Entally, Calcutta, sought her out. "I want to join you," the girl said. "It will be hard," the Mother replied. "I am prepared," the girl said. And Mother Teresa found the nucleus of her team.

In short order, the Missionaries of Charity was born. Its draft constitution, enjoining a life of poverty, chastity, obedience and "wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor", was ratified by the Pope on October 7, 1950. Mother Teresa - to misuse a phrase - was in business.

Staffing was not a problem -- young ladies, of every colour, caste, creed and economic strata -- sought her out and volunteered their services.

And the establishments began mushrooming. The Home of the Dying and the Home of the Children in August 1952. The Mother House of the Congregation in 1953. The International Sick and Suffering wing a year later...

Love, like hate, apparently had its own irresistible momentum.

The Mother had, at the very outset, been enjoined by the archbishop to confine her activities to Calcutta for the first ten years. She spent those ten years working with the poor of a metropolis where the word 'poor' had democratic, almost all-embracing connotations.

But then, she knew only too well that poverty and misery know no boundaries, obey no archbishopal edicts. Thus, the moment her ten-year moratorium ended, Mother Teresa began expanding her activities. And Houses of the Missionaries of Charity sprung up like mushrooms after the rains -- in Ranchi, Jhansi, Delhi and Bombay in 1963 alone... In more and ever more Indian cities in the months that followed...

Was poverty and its sister-in-arms, misery, then a peculiarly Indian phenomenon?

Not. In 1965, Venezuela welcomed the Mother. "We have opened our first house in the Americas," she announced.

Two years later, another house sprung up -- this time in Rome, a stone's throw from the Vatican itself. For Mother Teresa had found her constituency even in the shadow of the Pontiff.

Australia. Jordan. Gaza. North Yemen. Ethiopia. Tanzania. Philippines. New Guinea. Belgium. Germany. Holland. United States. Colombia. Peru. Fiji... the names trip off the tongue, a drumroll of nations and states as disparate as possible, yet unified by that great equaliser, Misery.

And in every one of these places -- and others more numerous to mention in the space of any single article -- the Missionaries of Charity established their bases. And the simple uniform -- of white sari with blue border - became as ubiquitous a sight as the sick, the poor, the hungry...

Wherever there was a tear, it seemed, there was a Mother Teresa acolyte ready to apply emotional band aid.

Twentyfive years after she established her first house - in 1975 - she was asked whether she would stop expanding, in order to concentrate on consolidation of what she had already accomplished. The Mother - then a spry 65 years old - had her answer down pat: "No. Next year, we will open 25 more houses where Jesus will live and be loved and served in the poor."

She did just that, in two months less than the full year.

Was she ready to stop? "No, next year I will open 25 more houses, to make it the Golden Jubilee of Jesus," came the reply.

She did that, too. And the tempo was maintained, year after year. Till at this present, the Missionaries of Charity are present in 600 establishments in 136 countries - a global presence the United Nations, for instance, would be proud to boast.

And yet the juggernaut of love and compassion rolled on...

Around this time, the Mother asked herself the inevitable question: was compassion restricted to women?

The answer came when a Jesuit priest, Father Andrew Travers-Ball -- Brother Andrew, as he came to be known -- walked in to her GHQ. The two sat down for a talk -- and when they rose again, the Missionaries of Charities Brothers had been founded, and an army of men dedicated to selfless service began its march against Mankind's oldest and most implacable enemy -- want.

From her home amidst the poorest of the poor, the Mother welcomed the glare of the spotlight -- and showed how any force, including that of the media, could be harnessed to the noblest of causes. Thus, when she wanted to found a House in Japan, she gave an interview to a leading Japanese newspaper. In course of the interview, she told the journalist, "Please write in your newspaper that Mother Teresa needs a house, a nice house. The Japanese are rich. A person owning two houses can give me one."

Found a House? With the response that one article generated, Mother Teresa could have, if she had needed to, founded a whole city!

The world watched. Admired. And applauded. The Magsaysay Award. The Templeton Prize. The Nobel Peace Prize. The Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian award. The Kennedy Prize, the ultimate accolade awarded by the United States...

At the screening of the film Mother Teresa at the fortieth anniversary of the United Nations, general secretary Javier Perez de Cuellar rose to present her to an elite gathering of the most powerful individuals on earth. He needed only one sentence to complete his task. "I present to you," de Cuellar said simply, "the most powerful woman in the world!"

Through most of the past year, she has been stretched on a sickbed in her headquarters in Calcutta, her devoted acolytes telling the rosary, praying for the miracle of healing even as they realise in their deepest hearts that it is perhaps time for the Mother to move on, to metamorphose from leader to symbol as her beloved Jesus had, so many aeons ago...

Even on her sickbed, the aura persisted. The inspiration remained. Powerful enough to reach out from the epicentre of poverty, to move the mighty on their thrones...

The power was palpable.

Power not of an individual -- for Mother Teresa had, long since, gone beyond the descriptive bounds of the phrase 'human being', transcended it and become, somehow, both person and movement, symbol and inspiration, force and direction...

It was the power of... what simile does one use? A candle in the dark of night? A good deed in a wicked world?

Priests for life


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