A brief encounter with Mother Teresa

19th September 1997 at 01:00
It was when he insisted on peeling the wafer-thin skin off each segment of the orange that the irony fully struck me. Here I was, having breakfast in a huge guest bedroom that would have graced a six-star hotel, trying to prepare myself for a meeting with Mother Teresa at the Sisters of Charity Mission in the heart of Calcutta. I'd been allocated my own personal "batman", and he was waiting, poised, with a fruit knife.

A young reporter, I had decided to spend a few days in the city during my annual family visit to India, to go to parts of Bengal where floods had left tens of thousands of refugees. I had also decided to try to fulfil another ambition - a visit to Mother Teresa's orphanage.

I had no money for a hotel, but had struck lucky: I had been offered house room in the Calcutta home of a well-known industrialist. The car that collected me from the airport drove up a long gravel drive to the entrance of a huge Raj-style house, a cul-de-sac in the middle of the city.Sharp calls of "Howzat?" rang out from the servants who had formed themselves into two complete teams for a game of cricket on the front lawn.I was to be alone that night and the staff were making the best of their free time.

I was shown round a vast orchid house, a dining table set for 50, an inspiring collection of art works and my own bedroom, where the furniture seemed hugely spread out. It was after taking dinner alone that I discovered I had been assigned my own "batman". He waited up until my light was out and arrived early next morning with tea. A little later, when I came out of the shower, I noticed that the flowers in my room had been replaced with swathes of freshly cut blooms of chrysanthemum s and roses. It was soon after this that the "batman" leapt forward to peel the orange - and then, when I tried to pick up a segment, prepared to peel each one. They were delicious oranges, but this was absurd.

I hurried out of that palatial house into the waiting car and headed for Mother Teresa, feeling unworthy. Shame led me to be set down some yards from the entrance to the Missionaries of Charity building, which opened on to a courtyard, pale yellow walls, surrounded by two sets of balconies.

I had come to look, to learn, I explained to one of the several smiling Sisters, wearing the order's distinctive white sari edged with blue stripes, who greeted me. If Mother was around, I went on, I would be very pleased, honoured, to meet her.

"I am sorry, but Mother is very busy, today," she was just saying, when there was a flurry of sounds and commotion behind her and several more Sisters arrived in the courtyard surrounding a small, slightly bent, instantly recognisable figure. I stood by and watched as she welcomed a frail, limp elderly man who was being carried in. She held him, thanked those who had accompanied him, and asked the Sisters to find some space.

My camera clicked. She turned to me. "Where have you come from?" she asked, waving aside the young Sister who had first greeted me, who was probably trying to tell her I was no important visitor.

"Well, I am visiting from England, I wanted to see your work at first hand, I have heard so much about it#201;" I managed to reply, fingering my small camera. "England. England - that is a good country. Here we have much to do in God's name. Jesus gives the faith to help the hungry, the sick, the weak. "

"There are so many people to care for. How can it all be done?"

"We can each do our bit. That is God's way," she said beginning to turn away.

But I had started. "Your work is so important. But don't you think the Government should be doing more? Is that not really for the Government to do?" I was metaphorically kicking myself. How could I slate her work so directly, so crassly, so cynically? I need not have worried. "But there is work for everyone to do," she replied simply. There was a pause as we looked at each other.

"Yes, governments should do more," she continued. "We should all do more,we should all do more. There is so much to do. Have you visited the city?Have you seen?" It was said very softly. it seemed as much an exhortation to her Sisters - and to me - as a reply. I had seen. Years earlier I had toured the country for the best part of a year, working in villages, travelling third class. Staying in a flat with a friend in the middle of Calcutta, I had befriended a large family who lived, washed, slept rough on the payment outside, always scavenging for scraps - even discarded orange peel. I say befriended because I talked to them, played with the children and gave small presents, before moving on.

"But shouldn't Indians do more to help these people? There are so many rich people, even living close to your mission in the city."

I knew of her international fund-raising efforts, many strangely dubious, but here I was asking from personal experience. "They do what they can. Everyone does what they can. Many people help. Did you see those people who bought in that sick old man? We must all do God's work...in our own way." She looked into my eyes, deep and straight.

Having reminded herself, she went to check the plight of the new arrival.I toured the mission. I will never forget going to the room where the orphan babies were kept, rows and rows of cots with two, three, perhaps even four in a cot, the collective crying, and all the children clutching at me, reaching out as I bent to say a greeting.

It was impossible not to be moved. But all the time I was convinced that such poverty, rejection, exclusion of the kind Mother Teresa and her Sisters were so dedicated to alleviate, could only be overcome by state or national authorities. Individuals could point the way, set the example, bring pressure to bear. But for me the answer lay in national anti-poverty strategies, coupled with programmes in literacy and family health.

These were themes I took up in the rest of that visit. I met members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) state Government of West Bengal, including Ashok Mitra, the finance minister and intellectual. The sense of helplessness of so many of the flood victims that I met on the same tour confirmed my thoughts.

Last week my memories of 17 years ago all came rushing back when I heard of Mother Teresa's death. She and her Sisters had worked tirelessly. Yet enormous, avoidable suffering and hardship remain at the heart of Calcutta and throughout India.

In the 50th anniversary year of Indian independence, I am more certain than ever that the real culprit in all this - India's singular failure to tackle the most urgent questions about the welfare of villagers and slum-dwellers - is the National Planning Commission. The system set up by Jawaharlal Nehru was misguidedly modelled on Joseph Stalin's "successful" Five-Year Plans, without the powers and wherewithal to achieve the goals each plan set itself.

Mother Teresa herself was not stressing the power of the individual over the collective, though I probably saw it more that way then. Her way was to see Jesus in every individual, to see dignity and worth in everyone.

It would be easy to dismiss this work as too little, often too late, on shallow foundations. But then, after 50 years the big problems remain, barely tackled, let alone solved. The need and scope for redistribution in India are plain for all to see. That day had brought home to me that, whatever had been done, much more remained to be done even under a committed state government.

Mother Teresa never claimed to solve the problems of poverty, never sought out causes, let alone solutions. She and her sisters were driven to their work, among the poorest of the poor on the streets of Calcutta. There was even a dignity in the very futility of that work.

I remain haunted by the image of that distinctive hunched figure moving, more swiftly than you would expect, almost gliding with purpose - then visible on the first balcony, going to check on the frail old man, surely near death, who really was the important visitor that morning.

Dr Paul Flather is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman and now a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford

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