People from all walks of life have fascinating experiences to relate about Mother Teresa. I understand these anecdotes to be lessons in faith, peace, tolerance, goodness and compassion. Her work — indeed the continuing work of the Sisters and Brothers of the Missionaries of Charity — became possible because she saw a manifestation of God in each person she ministered to. Deeds such as adopting an abandoned infant on a Kolkata street or helping a destitute sleeping in a cardboard box on a cold wintry night under London’s Waterloo Bridge, were possible because of her deepest conviction that she was ministering to 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.”
So, the work that I witnessed over years — dressing the ulcerated hands of leprosy patients in Titagarh, or comforting those dying at Kalighat in Kolkata, or just reaching out to one’s neighbour — not only became possible, it was often joyful. This also helps to explain the ease with which the Sisters smile.
During our 23-year association there were many things Mother Teresa would explain to me in her simple and unaffected way that became more meaningful as time went by. My relationship with her grew into one of trust and confidence, often deepening with increased understanding. In the beginning, when Mother Teresa spoke to me or spoke in public, it seemed she was talking about everyday truths, and they seemed much too simple. My mind accepted them because of the respect in which I held her — that intensified as 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 herself was poor. But over the years, I began to apply the meaning of her words in their spiritual sense in my daily life and they began to affect my inner being.
Soon after 1992, when my biography on Mother Teresa was published, I thought of using the book’s royalty, which I was beginning to receive, for social causes. I believed that a book selling in her name should not enable me to keep all the income for myself. I posed my dilemma to her. She suggested I must at least keep aside some amount for my daughter’s education. She had encouraged my elder daughter to study overseas and provided a reference to a university in the UK. The rest of the royalty I could devote to charity if I wished to, for the marginalised, the disabled and, especially, the leprosy-affected, who had a special place in Mother Teresa’s scheme of things. One day, I asked her what numbers I should begin with. She said, “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.”
While writing her biography, I sometimes went through frustrating moments that any biographer will understand. I would sit with her on a bench outside her office at Mother House, her ashram in Kolkata. Sometimes, in the course of several hours, I would pose many questions, but would hardly be able to get one or two satisfactory answers. Each question would be frequently interrupted, for she would reach out to someone waiting to meet her. That morning she sensed my frustration and said: “This is my apostolate, they come from far and I must comfort them.” When I thought I was finally able to get her undivided attention, she received a message that a cyclone had hit the Bangladesh coast, killing many and rendering thousands homeless. She immediately decided to go to Dhaka. I reminded her that her doctors had not permitted her to step downstairs, let alone go to Dhaka, and that her pacemaker needed to be changed the following week. But she would heed none of that and proceeded to get ready to leave. That was not a particularly fruitful morning for me.
Mother Teresa never ever imposed her religion. She never once, even by inference, suggested any such thing. She knew I was at best vaguely spiritual. Like many other persons I know, I only prayed in times of trouble. With a smile, she would often say she prayed for me everyday, and yet urged me to learn the power of prayer. Sometimes, when she distributed what she called her ‘business card’ (on which a prayer was printed), she would also hand one to me, and with a twinkle in her eye, would say that maybe this would help me to learn to pray. What an unlikely biographer I was then — not born into her religion and only occasionally spiritual, but a person like several others to whom she gave so abundantly without any expectation of return.
—Navin Chawla is the former Chief Election Commissioner of India and biographer of Mother Teresa