By Michele Leight
dirt lane that led to Mother House from Lower Circular Road back
in those days is now paved over. Signs abound to guide the thousands
who visit Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity headquarters
in Calcutta today. Her simple tomb of white marble stands in the
room in which she prayed with the sisters of her Order every morning.
It is as unpretentious and simple as a room can be - like Mother
herself, no matter who she was with.
seeking connection to an extraordinary human being - who has now
become a household word - come from countries around the globe.
Curious, sleepy young tourists with backpacks, the devout, those
who believe they are walking in the footsteps of a saint, and
those who knew her in the early days of her mission to help the
poor, all trudge up the lane to pay Mother a visit, even though
she is no longer with us - on earth.
ask anyone in Calcutta where the home of "Mother" is
they will tell you. She is called "Ma" in Bengal, which
means 'mother.' Cab drivers, rickshawallahs, cyclists, all beam
as they claim "Ma" for their own. She has made Calcutta
famous, she has brought many tourists, they love Mother. Her densely
lined face looks out from framed photos in churches, doctors and
dentist's waiting rooms, clubs, schools and private homes, and
her image even pops up beside garish Bollywood posters pasted
on city walls and railway stations. Mother would have liked this
juxtapositions. She would have beamed to see herself featured
beside a Bollywood Romeo and Juliet. Mother loved happiness and
love in all its forms.
Teresa is a beloved icon in Calcutta, where she began her now
famous order, The Missionaries of Charity. The Oxford Bookstore
on Park Street has a table and several shelves devoted to the
Nobel Peace Prize winner - now canonized a saint - whose name
is synonomous with Calcutta, where she first began her mission.
Mother Teresa used to teach Moral Science at my childhood convent
school. One day she decided there was much more to be done than
teach religious studies and she headed off alone into the bustees
and slums of Calcutta. The rest, as they say, is history. When
she died, she was laid in state at St. Thomas' Church, which is
attached to the Loreto Convent at which she taught. It was my
school till I left India to study in England. My friends and I
used escape the heat of mid-day and sit in the empty church during
our lunch hour, chatting quietly, and no one told us to leave.
At that hour it was almost empty, except for a few devout souls
who prayed with eyes closed, lips moving silently.
all the iconic imagery of Mother takes some getting used to.When
I was a young child Mother Teresa was not yet world famous, and
my mother had a picture of her on her bedside table - right by
her favorite books by the Brontes and Jane Austen - and every
year we went to be blessed by Mother. That was the only image
I saw of Mother in my earliest years, besides the person herself.
referred to her simply as "Mother" and I heard her in
telephone conversations with Mother numerous times a week, discussing
venues for future benefits, the leper colony in Asansol, the Pope's
visit, movie premiers, children's Christmas parties, "Nirmal
Hriday" in Kalighat, Prem Dan, and most of all Shishu Bhavan,
Mother's orphanage on Lower Circular Road.
7 years old the first time I spent more than a few minutes with
Mother. My mother decided it was time for me to accompany her
on a lengthier visit. At last I was grown up enough I remember
thinking. I did not know exactly what my mother did for all the
hours she went away with Mother in the car. All I knew was that
she was very important in my mother's life.
dirt lane to Mother House was quiet except for the twittering
of sparrows and the incessant cawing of crows that is so much
a part of the audio backdrop of India. I held my mother's hand
as we walked and I noticed how happy she seemed. It was peaceful
in the lane after the cacophony of the congested road and the
teeming crush of humanity. A high wall protected Mother House
and the sign to the left of the simple wooden doorway said "
IN." Above the "IN/OUT" sign was a large bell,
a lot like our school bell, which my mother rang as though she
had done it many times before.When Mother was not in residence
the sign said "OUT" my mother explained. That made perfect
sense to a child.
postulant in full white - without the distinctive blue border
of the ordained sister's of Mother's Order - opened the door,
smiling in recognition of my mother. She bowed her head down towards
folded hands in a gracious 'namaste," the Indian gesture
of welcome, which my mother returned. "I will call Mother"
she said, and disappeared through a curtained doorway. My mother
and I sat on the bench and watched the birds darting about. I
was alittle nervous, but my mother was totally at peace. I noticed
how sparse and clean the courtyard was. The only decorations were
a palm tree and a few young plants being nurtured to growth in
must talk to Mother about the children's Christmas party,"
said mum, "and you can help with it if you like." This
was a subtle reminder on the part of my mother to be well behaved
and somewhat inconspicuous. I had a sense that this was a very
important event in my life, and my palms were clammy.
appeared through the curtains and took both my mother's hands
in hers. I held back, being naturally shy, but Mother soon had
me smiling and laughing as we discussed the antics of the sparrows.She
was the first adult person who did not mention my shyness, understanding
intuitively that it only made things worse and my face redder.
My mother produced the bulging 'children's party' file and they
sat together while I immersed myself in observing the sparrows
in the courtyard. The acoustics in the walled courtyard magnified
their ecstatic twittering and tweeting. They were such little
things and they made such a din I remember thinking.Tracking the
sparrows' bouncing around on matchstick legs with my eyes made
children should be given the food in boxes" said Mother "because
they will not eat everything at once. They do not eat cakes and
sweets everyday. Please make sure there is fruit....." Mother
was as practical as she was humorous and kind. "The children
will take the food from the party to share with those who could
not attend back at home."
jotted down all Mother's comments and preferences on the yellow
legal pad from my father's office. My mother fundraised for Mother's
support charity, a laypersons "Co-Worker" group for
Mother's Mission in Calcutta. There were so many events all year
round she was constantly busy on the phone - or "pestering
someone in the office" said my father plaintively. His office
was on all her lists.
a week there were meetings at various "co-workers" houses,
including our own, and Mother often came to them, pausing to pray
at the beginning of each session. The atmosphere was happy and
informal, and Mother rarely stayed for long as there was so much
for her to do elsewhere. The ladies chatted as they cut small
white pills into halves and quarters with razor blades, and placed
them in paper bags. I learned that the pills were given to lepers
to make them better. No one minded if a young person strolled
in to the group out of curiosity, watching as they sewed sequins
on felt Christmas stockings or stencilled glittering reindeer
on large sheets of construction paper. Before long I was roped
in to help. The ladies had a good gossip and coffee as well -
but not when Mother was there - and verdicts were sought on the
latest hairstyles. Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren's "do's"
were winners. I learned from my mother and her friends that helping
others was important - no matter how small the task or donation.
I had no idea at that time what Mother would mean to the world
one day. But I knew for certain she was really special.
The children's Christmas Party
was an annual event and everyone loved being involved in it. Several
hundred of Mother's orphans from different homes were bussed in
from the suburbs, joining the children from Shishu Bhavan, and
the venue was usually one of the schools with large enough grounds
to handle the energetic and eager youngsters, the high-octane
games and the sit down picnic of individually boxed goodies -
Mother's brilliant idea - donated by local restaurants, corporations
and private individuals. As the children were given their boxes
filled with treats, I saw them take a bit or two of a luscious
pink petit four with marzipan roses, smile, and close the lid
of the box. Child after child did the same thing. My mother explained
that I must not think they did not like the food (I did). They
loved the treats, she said - they were probably going to take
them home to those who could not attend the party.
Women like my mother solicited
all their husbands business associates and friends who headed
big companies for donations for Mother's benefits and events like
the Children's Party - as determined as though they were on an
Everest expedition. Woe betide the man who dared refuse these
ladies! I helped at the children's party by handing out boxes
of food and gifts, spoons for the egg-and-spoon-race, sacks for
the sack race and so on. Nothing terribly important but I loved
being near the joy of those children. Their joy was absolute and
filled with gratitude. It was the happiest of the occassions I
associated with Mother. I can still hear their shrieks of delight
as they ran around the grounds, dressed in their best clothes,
which had been donated from countries around the world. As dusk
fell, the children boarded the buses to return to their orphanages
and homes in the suburbs. Each one carried their box of food like
treasure, to share with the folks who could not attend the party.
Just like Mother said.
Memories of the children in
Mother's orphanage, 'Shishu Bhavan,' are lodged permanently in
my heart and will never be erased. Nor will the the gentleness,
experience and humor of the nuns who cared for them. I remember
a makeshift clinic in the courtyard behind the large wooden gateway,
and Mother's nuns in white saris with blue borders stirring the
curries, dhals and bhajis in huge dekchis balanced on chulas for
the mid-day meal and the soup kitchen. Children darted about happily
- everywhere. They were clean, sweet and spunky and pulled at
the petticoat under my dress, asking me what it was. Indian petticoats
went all the way to the ground. My short, lace-edged one was a
curiosity. When I had a Beatles haircut they thought I was a boy
in a dress - but I explained about the Beatles. "O-kay!"
they said sweetly, giggling. They definitely thought my haircut
Upstairs in the quiet, darkened
corridor of 'Shishu' were the row of "Preemies" or premature
babies in incubators. I had never seen beings that tiny before;
miniature human beings with closed eyes and tightly closed fists
the size of a grape. They were usually fast asleep with tubes
attached to them, tiny chests inhaling and exhaling precious air.
The incubators protected their fragile body temperature and endangered
lives. Some were so small they could fit in the palm of a man's
hand: perfectly formed life at its tiniest. Some lived and some
"Hold the baby and love
the baby," said a busy nun, when I asked how I could help.
The baby in my arms was not a 'preemie', but a gurgling six month
old, with enormous black eyes. "Mother says the baby feels
the love," she said smiling, and disappeared. So there I
was, not terribly old myself, holding and loving a baby I did
not know. It felt good. From that moment onwards, I looked forward
to holding and loving all babies, although my own son has been
the most loved and held.
My mother told me that many
of the "preemies" were left at the gates of Shishu Bhavan
in the dead of night in boxes, or wrapped in rags or newspaper.
Their desperate, poverty-stricken mothers knew that the nuns would
save them and care for them when they knew they could not. Now
I understood why holding and loving babies was important. Their
own mothers could not be there to do it.
'Johnny Walker,' my favorite
child at the orphange, had come to Shishu Bhavan that way. He
was named after the whiskey crate in which his mother had placed
him before she abandoned him at the gates of Mother's orphanage.
He was disabled and paralyzed from the waist down, and shuffled
about without a wheelchair. He was mentally retarded as well but
he was not separated from the other children and everyone loved
his sunny personality. Mother did not believe in separating the
mentally retarded children from the others.
Boy did Johnny Walker sing!
He sang whenever he felt like it, belting out songs of his own
making, or Hindi movie tunes and familiar nurserty rhymes. He
sang louder when he was not supposed to, making everyone laugh;
he sang when there were important visitors, and he sang when he
was given his dish of food. He had a beautiful voice. He sang
like he felt loved.
When Johnny had fits - he had
some other central nervous system problem - he was gently soothed
by one of the nuns till his tremors subsided. It saddened me to
see him that way, but the nuns assured me that he was okay, that
God was watching over him. That was when I understood how important
God was, that he could do something like that for Johnny so he
did not know his own suffering. I do not recall ever seeing him
sad - and yet there were so many things that Johnny could have
been sad about. I can still hear his high notes ricocheting off
the courtyard walls of the orphanage. As a child I thought God
sang to everyone through Johnny. Children are straightforward.
They have imagination and faith.
I never went to Nirmal Hriday
in Kalighat, Mother's home for the dying. My mother never took
me there. She went often with Mother or on her own. She told me
that Mother believed very strongly that those who were dying and
had been abandoned needed to feel loved. Most of all Mother felt
they needed to die in dignity.
Mother and her nuns offered
the dying their favorite meal at Nirmal Hriday before they died
- whatever their heart desired. Some asked for grapes, many asked
for sondesh, a special Indian sweet. One of the most popular requests
was for fish curry, a favorite of Bengalis, often associated with
happy, auspicous family events like the birth of a baby or a wedding.
Mother Teresa spoke of one
woman repeatedly at gatherings and meetings through the years,
even after she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. She described
how she found her dying, abandoned in the gutters of a slum, infected
with lice, TB and maggots. When she was cleaning and changing
the dying woman back at Nirmal Hriday - personally removing the
maggots lodged in her flesh - she said the woman held her hand
and said over and over again: "My family did this to me,
they put me out of the house to die alone." The woman did
not have long to live, but Mother personally attended to her.
It was the word "alone"
that Mother zeroed in on when she spoke of this woman. She always
emphasized "alone" and "unloved" so there
was no mistaking their significance."Make sure you look first
to your own families to see that they are cared for and loved.
Take care of your own, and there will be no poverty," Mother's
said often. She always simplified life down to the essentials.
Her speeches were never long or complicated and she had a delicious
sense of humor.
Mother said she thought the
elderly in the East were more fortunate than their counterparts
in the West. She never understood putting parents in an "old
people's home" or anything like that. It was a completely
She worried about the homeless
in a wealthy country like America, where she opened a home in
the Bronx. She said the homeless in nations like Britain and America
were more isolated and alone - and unloved - than the poor in
India, who had so much company. Whenever I see a homeless person
in New York, surrounded by well-groomed people in fine clothes
passing them by in a hurry, I think of Mother's comment about
their isolation. In India, wherever you look, there are poor people
gravitating towards each other with a common bond - survival.
Most homeless in the United States walk utterly alone - unloved.
Mother had such love and commitment
for the marginalized and the stigmatized. Her relentless mission
to improve the lot of lepers in India was life-long and meant
a great deal to her. If she were alive now, I have no doubt based
on what I knew of Mother that she would be championing people
living with the stigma of HIV/AIDS in India and around the world;
she would be advocating to end the horror of unmedicated
full-blown AIDS by giving those who cannot afford them the anti-retroviral
medications free. The medications exist, but not
for the poor. It is such a violation of human dignity - and fundamental
Dignity for the outcast, the
forgotten and abandoned was vitally important to Mother, but this
was not easy to communicate when there was so much poverty in
India . Mother did not beleive in "untouchability."
For her, how people treated others was a test of their "humanity."
Those who walked beside Mother would by necessity have to walk
where the shunned and the outcast dwelled. They would have to
risk controversy and censure. Mother's moral bar was one of her
own creation, but she did not impose it on anyone - except by
the extraordianry example she set in her daily life. She had no
recriminations for those who could not walk her road. Mother's
strength came from her deep faith, which nothing - not even the
worst atrocities she witnessed - could erode.
Mother loved the poor for their
generosity of spirit, their hope and their humanity:
"Look in the faces of
the poor in the bustees, in the slums and you will see them smiling.
They may have no food in their swollen bellies, no roof over their
head, but whatever they have they will share with others who are
poor like themselves. They are not alone because they have each
other. We have so much to learn from the poor."
Above all Mother loved children
and small babies. I remember her saying they were the closest
thing to God - the divine - on earth.
So many years have passed since
that sunny spring morning in the courtyard of Mother House, when
my mother took me to visit Mother.
Birdsong and the touch of Mother's
hand on my head are memories entwined. My mother had given me
something that day that would shape the rest of my life. "You
help mummy ok?" The famous wrinkled smile and twinkling eyes
marked the end of our visit and the weathered wooden door of Mother
House closed. My mother and I were alone in the lane, wending
our way back to the car and the multitudes on bustling Lower Circular
Road.The twittering sparrows remained with Mother at Mother House.
Whenever I see sparrows I remember
that day and think of Mother. I feel her spirit in their joy and
optimism and boundless energy. She loved all birds and animals,
as did her favorite saint, Francis of Assissi, whose prayer my
mother had - and still has - on her bedside table, alongside the
photo of Mother. Both are worn with age, precious for the memories
For all of those who knew her
then, she will always be "Mother." She walked where
few dare to tread and she witnessed her fellow human beings at
their lowest possible ebb. She found and inspired hope in the
most degraded circumstances. She never tired and she never recoiled
from what she found.
For most of us, the degradation
and illness she handled with her own two hands and her enormous
heart would destroy our faith in humanity. But not Mother. She
believed in helping, and in healing, even if the person had only
a few hours to live. She extended the suffering and the outcasts
her strong, sinewy hands, and took them away from the stinking
hovels and garbage piles in which she found them. She gave them
the one thing she had in abundance - her love - before they departed
this earth. Way back then they knew she was a saint. Those
she saved did not need anyone else to tell them that.
I have a small, timeworn booklet
with frayed corners commemorating Mother's 1979 Nobel Peace Prize
Acceptance Speech in Norway. It faces me every day above the desk
at which I write. My mother gave it to me when I left my childhood
home in India to make my own life in the West. The cover, inscribed
with a few lines, bears a picture of Mother with a baby, whose
tiny hands reach for her deeply lined face (illustrated).