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Today, August 26, 2013, the birth centenary of Mother Teresa will be marked with celebration and thanksgiving in many parts of the world. This simple nun with her unique brand of faith and compassion was able to alleviate loneliness, hunger and destitution by reaching out through a worldwide mission that spanned a presence in 123 countries by the time she died in 1997, bringing relief to millions of abandoned, homeless and dying destitutes, irrespective of their religion, caste, faith or denomination. In the process she became, indisputably, the conscience-keeper of her century.
Although she herself remained true to her religion, her brand of faith was not exclusive. Convinced that each person she ministered to was Christ in suffering, she reached out to people of all religions. She did not believe in conversion." That is Gods work" she would tell me. In India, she was widely revered. I once asked Jyoti Basu, the former Chief Minister of West Bengal, why he supported her work. After all he was a Communist and an atheist, while for her God was everything. He famously replied. "We both share a love for the poor". I once called her the most powerful woman in the world. Mother Teresa replied: "Where? If I was, I would bring peace to the world." I asked her why she did not use her undeniable influence to lessen war. She replied: "War is the fruit of politics. If I get stuck in politics, I will stop loving because I will have to stand by one, not by all."
I first met Mother Teresa, 36 years ago in 1975. That meeting remains indelibly printed on my mind. I was taken aback when I came face to face with her. She was smaller than I had imagined, dressed in her trademark, hand-woven sari with three blue stripes that was neatly darned in several places. I noticed her back was bent even then. Her feet were twisted and her hands were gnarled, testimony to her arduous life in the slums. She spoke of simple things: of loving, caring and sharing. She seemed at many levels a very ordinary woman. Yet she was a powerful communicator who reached the hearts of those who listened to her. My overwhelming thought that morning was that there was very little difference between the poor whom she and her Sisters served, and their own vow of poverty.
As I reflect on her life, I find there were several mysteries that lend themselves to no easy answers. Mother Teresa was hardly qualified in academic terms. She never went to a 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 centres and soup kitchens. She started Shishu Bhavans for abandoned infants. 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 were a sickness she likened to leprosy.
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. So, whether it was taking care of an abandoned infant on a Kolkata street, or a homeless destitute sleeping on a cold wintry night in a cardboard box under London's Waterloo Bridge, or the hungry in a Vatican square, awaiting their only hot meal from Mother Teresa's ashram, all this became possible only out of her deepest conviction that she was ministering to 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.
I felt instinctively that a book that was selling in her name should not enable me to keep all the royalties to myself. I posed my dilemma directly to her. She suggested that I must at the very least keep aside some amount for my daughter's education overseas; she herself had provided a reference to a university in the U.K. The rest I could devote to charity if I wished. That crystallised in my mind into establishing an NGO that could work with the marginalised, the disabled and especially the leprosy-affected, who had a special place in Mother Teresa's heart. Even as such an institution was but a thought in my mind, I had asked her with what numbers I should begin. She said simply, "Don't get lost in numbers. Begin humbly. Begin with one or two. Even if the ocean is less by one drop, it is still worth doing."
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. The Christ on his crucifix was no different from the one who lay dying at her hospice in Kalighat. 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. "We are called upon not to be successful, but to be faithful," she explained. Mother Teresa exemplified that faith—in prayer, in love, in service and in peace.
(NAVIN B CHAWLA IS A FORMER CHIEF ELECTION COMMISSIONER OF INDIA AND BIOGRAPHER OF MOTHER TERESA'S)