ARTICLES ON MOTHER TERESA

"Mother Teresa and the joy of giving" published in The Hindu on August 26, 2008

Mother Teresa and the joy of giving

The Nobel laureate’s biographer in his annual tribute on her birth anniversary notes that there was no difference between her precepts and her practice.

Mother Teresa with the Nobel Peace Prize … accepting the award “in the name of the poor.”

Mother Teresa, with whom I had 23 years of association, was a multi-dimensional figure, both simple and complex at the same time. Her attention to whomsoever was with her at any point in time — whether poor or rich, disabled, leprosy afflicted or destitute — was complete. Yet she also simultaneously ran a huge multinational organisation that had taken roots in 123 countries by the time she died in 1997. This included leprosy stations in Asia and Africa; hospice s for AIDS patients in North America, orphanages, homes for the elderly destitute, feeding stations and soup kitchens everywhere; Shishu Bhavans for orphans and abandoned children in most cities, drug de-addiction centres and homevisiting to comfort the sick, elderly and abandoned in the West; all these were achieved with a fair amount of precision and regularity by the Sisters and Brothers of her Order. Absent from this structure was the army of administrators and officials that we associate with global enterprises.

Photograph of Shri Navin Chawla with Mother Teresa

When Mother Teresa was alive, I had expressed concern to her whether the organisation she had built from scratch had not overly grown and which would be difficult to sustain after she passed on. I had seen several other organisations begin to wither away soon after their charismatic founders became either physically debilitated or died. Why would this Order be any different, I asked. The first time I posed this question to her, she merely smiled and pointed her fingers heavenwards. The second time I asked, she set my question aside with a smile saying “let me go first.” On my persistence some weeks later, she finally answered, “You have been to so many of our ‘homes’ (branches) in India and abroad. Everywhere the Sisters wear the same saris, eat the same kind of food, do the same 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 don’t end up serving the rich, the work will prosper.”

Present statistics reveal 758 ‘homes’ all over the world, of which 244 are in India and 514 are overseas. They have a presence in 134 countries. The total strength of their nuns is 4,912. The number of men (Brothers of the Order) is 367 who work in India and 20 other countries besides. Quite clearly, the presence of the Order globally has not diminished. The apprehensions I voiced to Mother Teresa in her lifetime continue to be laid to rest.

There were so many things that Mother Teresa would say or explain to me in her simple unaffected way during my association with her, that have become more meaningful to me as time goes by. My relationship with her grew into trust and confidence in the way that a guru-shishya relationship develops, often deepening with increased understanding. In the beginning when Mother Teresa spoke to me, or spoke in public, it seemed to me that she spoke everyday truths, and they seemed much too simple. My mind accepted them largely because of the respect in which I held her — a respect intensified because there was no difference between her words and her deeds, between her precepts and her practice and the fact that she could understand the poor because she was poor herself. But over the years, the deeper meaning of her words in their spiritual sense gradually began to be applied by me in my day-to-day life, and began to affect my inner being.

Soon after 1992, when my biography on Mother Teresa was published, I visualised using the book royalty that I was beginning to receive for social causes. I felt instinctively that a book that was selling in her name should not enable me to keep all the income 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. She herself had encouraged my elder daughter to study overseas, and indeed herself provided a reference to a university in the U.K. The rest I could devote to charity if I wished to. That crystallised in my mind into establishing an NGO that could work with the marginalised, the disabled and especially the leprosyaffected, who had a special place in Mother Teresa’s scheme of things. One day, 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 being.”

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