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Saint Of The Gutters: When The Little Nun In A Sari Asked For My Help

22/07/2016 11:12 AM IST | Updated 22/07/2016 12:26 PM IST
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Hallelujah! It's been announced. The Vatican will declare Mother Teresa a saint, after all. Pope Francis will canonize her on September 4. She will be known as St. Teresa of Calcutta. The modern world's most ardent apostle of compassion for the disadvantaged in our society. Hundreds of priests, missionaries and admirers from India are going to the Vatican for the ceremony. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is leading a team from West Bengal that will then go to Rome, Pisa, Venice and Milan. Naturally! Goa's pious will not be left behind. They are going on their own. Airline tickets to Vatican City for September are sold out everywhere in the world. Publishers are bringing back to the shelves books about Mother Teresa -- new titles and new editions to old titles. Kolkata is planning the Mother Teresa International Film Festival in August as a curtain-raiser to the canonization.

I was hurrying to a pani puri cart when a hand grabbed me. I looked down to see gnarled fingers holding onto my bicep, the arm disappearing into the folds of the famous blue-and-white sari.

I met Mother Teresa when she was Calcutta's Saint of the Gutters – she was also almost literally in a gutter in Bombay when I chanced upon her. It was just after she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. I remember, because the newspapers were full of the news and her pictures. I was very young; I had some idea who she was, but not what she did. The meeting, I am sorry to say, did not change my life. Nor did I come away impressed. I now put that down to the indifference of youth. I regret I thought Mother Teresa was a little nun in a sari. Nothing more. By the time I realized my mistake, it was too late. I was a journalist by then. And she had no time for journalists. Though that day in 1979, all Mother Teresa had wanted from me was a moment of my time.

I was rushing along Clare Road in Byculla one Saturday evening. My grandmother lived here. And I used to visit her Saturdays and then catch a bite from the food stalls along the road. This was one of the Bombay's oldest eat streets. Byculla was a foodie's haunt for pani puri, pyali, chana batata, seekh kebab paratha, gurda kaleji, kala khatta and malai kulfi. It still is, though I don't go there anymore. I was hurrying to a pani puri cart, my first halt, when a hand grabbed me. I looked down to see gnarled fingers holding onto my bicep, the arm disappearing into the folds of the famous blue-and-white sari.

I found myself lifting the leper with her and putting him onto the stretcher... Mother Teresa grabbed my arm again. "Thank-you," she whispered gently.

I recognized Mother Teresa. Still holding me, she asked softly: "Will you help me?" I bent to catch her words. She was petite and stooped, as if the burdens of the world had weighed her down. And pointing to a gutter where an old leper lay close to death. He had terrible open sores oozing pus and blood over which a hundred flies swarmed. I felt sick and looked away, my stomach heaving. Mother Teresa squeezed my arm and nodded towards an ambulance parked by the side. It said "Asha Daan". This was the Bombay branch of her Missionaries of Charity. I knew it was located somewhere in Byculla itself. At Mother Teresa's signal, the driver came out dragging a stretcher.

Mother Teresa's presence was magnetic. And it was compelling. I found myself lifting the leper with her and putting him onto the stretcher. Then the attendant and I carried him to the ambulance. I turned to go. But Mother Teresa grabbed my arm again. "Thank-you," she whispered gently, her wrinkled old face breaking into a slow and shy smile of a thousand creases. "At least he will now die like a human being." I didn't know what to say. She squeezed my arm with surprising strength and said, "God bless you." And was gone.

[S]he was already a saint while she was alive... She did it all on her own. And with the help she could persuade strangers like me to give her.

Once she is canonized people will worship Mother Teresa, I know, because the Roman Catholic Church loves to fall back on its saints. They will pray to St. Teresa of Calcutta, invoke her blessings, seek divine miracles from her. Somehow I don't think Mother Teresa would have cared for all this. To my mind, she was already a saint while she was alive. Out of nothing, she built a worldwide organization whose avowed mission was to give wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor. Which included the sick, abandoned, aged and convalescent, among them destitute children, the mentally ill, lepers, prostitutes, people with AIDS. She did it all on her own. And with the help she could persuade strangers like me to give her.

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