Sister Nirmala, the daughter of a Hindu Brahmin Army officer of Nepalese origin, was all but unknown when she succeeded the late Mother Teresa as the head of the Missionaries of Charity. As she was buried today, a day after her death on 23rd June 2015, her epitaph could be that the put the spotlight back on the work of the MC Sisters (as the blue-bordered-sari-clad women are known the world over), shifting it ever so slightly from the overwhelming persona of the founder.
It could not have been easy to fill the humble sandals of someone who was known as a "living saint", and had won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Bharat Ratna, and the adulation and reverence of the Indian people, irrespective of their faith. The Blessed Mother Teresa will be anointed a saint by the Pope in the not too distant future. When she passed away, there were fears for the movement she founded, the caring of those rejected by society. There was also media speculation about whether the congregation could be managed by a person of Indian origin. At that time, there were senior nuns, companions of the Mother from almost the very beginning, who could have been considered.
"Nirmala... proved an extraordinary administrator. The congregation still remains essentially intuitive in interpreting Christ's love for the poor, but the ashrams, orphanages and hospices are now perhaps better run."
Instead, the mantle fell on a quiet, unassuming woman who had been the backbone of the Order, but had meticulously kept away from the public gaze. It was then that the world really earned the remarkable story of her journey of faith.
Nirmala Joshi was born in 1934 in Ranchi, now capital of Jharkhand state, which was then a part of a much larger province in British India. Her father was an army officer, and she went to elite Catholic schools in the state capital Patna.
Calcutta, now Kolkata, was the intellectual centre of east India, and the social, cultural and religious events and developments here had a far-reaching influence. The young Nirmala was moved by the Mother's work. Here was a woman who was doing things which were unthinkable in these parts of the world. Mother Teresa has her critics, and very strong ones, but there is no denying the power of her simple touch on those who were considered untouchable or repulsive for their diseased and sore-ridden bodies.
It is not easy to become a nun, especially in a congregation that was new and did not have the long history of other groups of nuns coming from Europe. Mother Teresa accepted the young Nirmala seeing her persistence, intelligence and piety. Nirmala would go on to earn a Master's degree in political science and -- this may surprise many even now - as well as one in law.
Mother in time chose her to start a contemplative unit of the MC Sisters, focusing on prayer as much as on social work. She headed the contemplatives till 1977 when the sisters of the Congregation elected her to succeed the Mother. Nirmala, who had headed the congregation's chapter in Panama, proved an extraordinary administrator. The congregation still remains essentially intuitive in interpreting Christ's love for the poor, but the ashrams, orphanages and hospices are now perhaps better run.
The MC Sisters and their ashrams have, because of the founder's charisma, largely remained safe from targeted violence and malicious propaganda. They have also always filled a need in the community where they exist, be they rescue centres for abandoned newborns, or the terminally ill who have been turned out by their families. This sense of belonging that the communities feel is evident in the large number of local men and women from all economic and social strata who contribute their time and finances to the mission.
"Sister Nirmala refused to be called Mother, a term forever identified now with Teresa, her role model and mentor."
But there were dark times too. When the Ashram in Orissa's Kandhamal district was attacked in 2008, the nuns had to flee into the forest, and were missing for several days. For the state government as well as Centre, the missing Missionaries of Charity sisters were a bigger international public relations disaster than the entirety of the violence which left 56,000 persons homeless, 6,000 homes and 300 churches destroyed. Sister Nirmala went to the forested region at the height of the violence. But her public statements surprised the community. It was as if she did not understand the political processes and personalities behind the violence. Father Cedric Prakash, an Ahmedabad-based Jesuit human rights activist, articulated the feelings of the community to her. Sr. Nirmala understood. But her dash to the destroyed convent was an important footnote of concern in the terrible story of the district.
Sister Nirmala refused to be called Mother, a term forever identified now with Teresa, her role model and mentor. She ended her term as the head of the congregation in 2009, succeeded by Sister Mary Prema Pierick, who was born in Germany.
The outpouring of love for this simple woman, the condolences from the powerful and famous of the land, would have surprised and possibly amused Sister Nirmala, who would want to be known as just another person practicing the love of God that the Mother taught her when she was a young woman.