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We need to take a leaf out of the book of Mother Teresa’s continuing work to better understand why we are still so shamefully placed on the Human Development Index
Kusum was a child of about six when I first saw her in one of Mother Teresa’s ashrams, very close to where I live. Two things struck me at once. The first was that she was crippled and the second was her lovely smile. In those days, I went quite often to that Home, and little Kusum was always there to greet me. I soon learned that she would never be able to stand on her feet because of her many disabilities, and so the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity would wait on her hand and foot. They fed her, bathed her, dressed her in new clothes every morning, and carried her to the toilet every time she needed to go. They changed her clothes each time she inadvertently soiled them. Painstakingly, she learned to say “Hello” to me when I came by and one day I was delighted to hear her add “uncle” to complete her little sentence. The Sisters had found Kusum somewhere between two busy roads where she was being forced to beg for alms.
On the afternoon that they found her, it was pouring with rain and the drenched child had a wracking cough. They looked for a parent or a guardian. They found none. They reported the matter to the local police. They needed to take her to a hospital for medical attention. After she stabilised, they brought her to their ashram, where she joined about 60 children who all suffered from mental or physical disabilities. More than one orthopaedician to whom she was taken opined that her legs had broken either in an accident or perhaps deliberately. But when anyone asked her who had done this to her so that she could be made to beg, she would burst into tears. That was the only time she would cry. For the rest of the time, Kusum’s smile would invariably reach her eyes.
“Implementers like us hardly ever ‘adopt’ an area in the country to see if the schemes that look good on our files are being implemented on the ground”
Kusum could well be the child whom we see from the comfort of our cars, when we stop at a traffic intersection. We react with disgust (“Why doesn’t the government do something about these beggars?”) or a sense of guilt, as we either give the child some money or look in another direction, hoping the traffic light will change to enable us to speed away. But while we salve our consciences in some way or the other, we seldom, if ever, do anything to help with our own hands.
Little known to most of us, there is an intrepid band of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity Sisters and Brothers who spread out each day into streets, slums and ghettos. They do so not just in our cities, but also in urban clusters in 136 countries. They rescue the homeless. They feed the hungry. They treat the sick and leprosy-affected. They rescue abandoned children like Kusum from predatory streets and provide them lifelong care with the love they should have rightfully received from their real mothers — who cast them aside because the children were either challenged, deformed or illegitimate. The Sisters perform these daily miracles without expectation of reward or favour.
For the 23 years that I knew Mother Teresa, I witnessed the growth of her organisation till it had covered almost 600 orphanages, old age homes, leprosy and feeding stations, and schools and homes for the dying, in 123 countries. However, I used to worry about what would happen to the Order that she had founded when she passed away. I had seen many Orders decline steeply after their charismatic founders died. In the course of writing her biography, I felt the need to ask her how an organisation that had grown exponentially during her lifetime could possibly survive without her at the helm.
The first time that I attempted to do so, she did not answer, but instead pointed a finger heavenwards. A few weeks later I tried again, but this time she just laughed my question away. It is very awkward for most of us to repeatedly discuss the death of a parent or elderly relative or a friend with the person directly. But as a biographer, I had to persist. On the third occasion, she finally gave me her answer. She told me that I had visited so many of her “homes” — in India, in Europe and the U.S. Her Sisters everywhere did the same kind of work, wore the same saris woven by ex-leprosy sufferers, lived and worked the same rigorous schedule; yet Mother Teresa was not everywhere. And then in a gentle dig, she asked why her organisation could not be as well organised as one in the government. She added a crucial caveat. As long as the Missionaries of Charity remained wedded to its special fourth vow — that of providing wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor — and did not end up serving the middle classes or the rich, “we will be all right,” she said.
Many friends have asked me how Mother Teresa’s organisation has fared over the years since her death in 1997. My answer is based on the underlying spirit of the Sisters and Brothers of her Order whose abiding faith in God is their anchor. That is what propels these brave and always cheerful women and men to step out each day to scour the streets for those who have fallen by the wayside. For in the act of rescuing or caring, they are one with their God. Mother Teresa once explained this to me simply but meaningfully. “You can, at best, look after a few loved ones in your family. I can look after everyone, because for me they are all God.” This also helped in explaining her answer to a rich lady who visited her and saw her cleaning the ulcers of a leprosy patient. “I can never do this work for all the money in the world,” the lady said. “Nor can I,” answered Mother Teresa cheerfully. “But I do it for my love of Him.”
Ending this on a less cheerful note, after 41 years of experience in the government, I have had to conclude that the world of bureaucrats and planners, of which I too was a part, remains divorced from the reality of our poor. While we are still determining where to draw the poverty line, implementers like us hardly ever “adopt” an area in the country to see for ourselves if the schemes that look good on our files are being implemented on the ground — in whole or even in part.
Arguably, we need to take a leaf out of the book of the Ramakrishna Mission, or of Baba Amte’s and Mother Teresa’s continuing work, to better understand why we are still, 67 years after our Independence, so shamefully placed on the Human Development Index.
Five years ago, Kusum developed several complications related to her early deprivation. She died in a city hospital where the Sisters rushed her. She had enjoyed just a dozen years of love and security. She was just 18 when she died.
Navin B Chawla, Mother Teresa, Biography of Mother Teresa, Association with Mother Teresa