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Why Mother Teresa told me she was a businesswoman

From her I learned that saints are needed to pick up the bills left unpaid by politicians.

POLITICS  |   6-minute read  |   05-09-2016

The prospect of sainthood would have astonished, possibly amused, the Mother.  At least, the Mother I met in the Mother House in Kolkata in 1994. I had sought a meeting and granted one quite readily. The Mother took me by surprise by coming out to meet me. I had gone, expecting to be ushered into her presence to have an 'audience' with a Nobel Laureate. It turned out to be refreshingly different!  

All at once I was face to face with a living legend. And in no time it became heart-to-heart with a living saint.  

Mother Teresa: 'I see everywhere only opportunities to help the poor.' Photo credit: Reuters

She was unselfconscious, relaxed. I cannot help comparing, now in retrospect, this with the air of ponderous self-importance that some spiritual leaders have about them. Some of us were invitees from India, to take an example, to the first Millennium Peace Conference under the aegis of the UN in 2000.  All delegates had to undergo the mandatory security check. An important spiritual leader from India made such a fuss about being treated like the rest of the delegates!

"What is the vision," I asked her in the course of our conversation, "that guides you in your work?"  

"Vision of life?... No vision. All I know is that God is closer to those who suffer." My mind wandered, for a moment, to an interaction I had had with a distinguished British-feminist, who had been invited to deliver the biennial Westcott Memorial lectures in St. Stephen's College.

"The woman," she said, denouncing the Mother, "is a hypocrite. She endorses patriarchy and fawns on the Pope."The Mother I had known was courteous, but somewhat irreverent, to authority of all sorts. Save, of course, the Authority of God. To her, respect for the Authority of God left little margin for absolutizing the authority of human beings.

Now cut back to 1979, when the Mother was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Mrs. Indira Gandhi decided to felicitate the Mother through a State function. Those were the days when Sanjay Gandhi was championing family planning. Criticising artificial birth control practices was unthinkable then. Her well-wishers advised the Mother to keep "pro-life" references out of her speech. Why embarrass a powerful and supportive ally? All the same, Mother Teresa did state her stand, gently but firmly, on family planning.  

The Mother would have spent many an agonising hour resolving this dilemma. Like her detractors, I too know that behind the serene exterior of this "Saint of the Gutters in the City of Joy" there opened up, now and then, chasms of doubt and debate - the like of which Jesus too experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane.

The Mother I met was a servant of Life. This one word - life - sums up all that she ever did. She was a living protest against whatever degraded and devalued life. Respect for the sanctity of life -based on its divine, spiritual essence- is what links the Mother to Gandhiji. To me these two comprise the promontories across which the bridge of humanity is stretched in our times.

"Was your Gandhi a saint, or only a super-shrewd politician," asked my British host in Birmingham (1986) like a voice of bewilderment of the erstwhile Raj itself. The Mother, in a comparable vein told me, "I am a businesswoman for the destitute and dying".

"Businesswoman?" I was a bit taken aback and needed to understand.

"Yes, businesswoman. I see everywhere only opportunities to help the poor. Also, good people who are willing to help them."

The tragedy in our times is that the saint and the business man have parted company. Businessmen see only opportunities for murderous personal profit, blurring the boundary between business and crime. This is bad news, particularly for the poor.  

The basic responsibility of the state, Bertrand Russell wrote, is the security of citizens. So, the state protects life; except when politics is vitiated by insane lust for power. But shouldn't the State also ensure that the life, thus protected, is made worth living?

This is where the saint comes in. I believe that the Mother was also a sanctified politician. Can there be a more pressing political issue than poverty and destitution? From the Mother I learned, some twenty years ago, that saints are needed to pick up the bills left unpaid by politicians.

It matters little to me whether Rome canonizes her or not. She was, already in 1994 when I met her, a saintly neighbor to the poor. At a time most people abdicated responsibilities towards the lesser children of the land, the

Mother stood out as a charismatic invitation to love and to care.

From the perspective of the poor, sainthood is no great news. The saint is "taken over" and set up on a pedestal, at a distance from the poor. The Mother belonged to them. Saints belong to religion. Reaching out to the least and the lost is, mostly, an individual initiative, not church endeavour. "The poor," said Jesus to his disciples with a wisp of irony, "you will have with you always."

That was his way of saying that the eradication of poverty would never be a priority for religious establishments. Jesus was dismissive of charity because he loved the poor. The poor must stay poor that charity may survive. "When I distribute charity to the poor," said HelderCamara, the South American Bishop, "they call me a saint. When I asked why the poor are poor, they call me a Communist." Helder was shot. The Mother, died peacefully, loved by millions, with or without Rome.  

"Do you know the elderly couple standing there?" the Mother asked me as I was about to leave.  I did not.  

"They are Mr. Aggarwal and his wife. A rich business family. They sold all they had and gave it to the poor. They are now full-time volunteers with Missionaries of Charity . . . But for all that (the Mother added, as though it was most important for her to say it) they continue to be devout Hindus." The Mother folded her hands, smiled . . . as only she could. Her folded hands! They had a touch of Eternity about them.

There are two types of citizens, the Mother used to say. Citizens by birth and citizens by choice. "I am a citizen of India by choice. And that is even better…"

As for me, there is a touch of sadness, even embarrassment, about the global acclaim accorded to the Mother. I am, strangely, saddened even by her canonisation. These are, after all, born as much out of the magnitude of avoidable human suffering, which has only aggravated in the meanwhile, as they are of the sublimity of the Mother's humaneness.

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