‘Sisters Of Charity’ Are No Ordinary Mortals

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About the Author:
Mr. C.M. Bhandari is Ambassador of India to the UAE, based in Abu Dhabi and can be reached at

Team Mangalorean

Mother Teresa’s B’Day has just passed by on August 27.  Reading in the media and watching some television coverage of her Order, ‘The Sisters of Charity’, in Kolkata, India, a quarter century of association with the Mother and the Sisters flashed before my eyes.  I had first seen her, a tiny little figure, descending down the steps of the aircraft on that snowy evening of December 1979 when she had arrived in Oslo to receive her Nobel Peace Prize. 

She was clad in her trademark white Khadi Sari with blue border, an overcoat and wearing chappals.  I wonder if she was fully aware of the temperatures in Oslo during the peak of winter, below zero degree celcius sure but mostly ?10 degrees or lower and when accounted for the chill factor of wind, going below ?25 degrees.  I was then posted in the Indian Embassy at Oslo as Second Secretary and got a rare opportunity to accompany Mother during her stay.  In fact, I got so influenced by her that I decided to send a report of her visit in Hindi to Dharmayug, then a well known Weekly of India, and to my great joy, for that was my first article ever to be published by any magazine, they published it immediately.

I distinctly recall her first press conference at the airport lounge, immediately after arrival.  One question put to her still rings in my ears and more so, Mother?s instant reply to it in a matter of fact manner, with her eyes gleaning with charm and aura of love.  I wondered where from did that tiny little soul get all the energy and wisdom?  There was never an iota of doubt in her mind through out the Press Conference and the replies came right from the bottom of her heart.

The question put to her was something like what if she had taken care of the few thousand destitutes of Kolkata, what about the millions in rest of the world?  She disarmingly had said something like: ?I have only two eyes and I can see only this far.  If I can take care of what is before my eyes, that is sufficient for me.  I do not have to be worried about the rest of the world.?  The implication was simple ? only if everyone could respond to what they see before their eyes, there would be no poverty in the world.

Another statement of hers while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize is noteworthy and I ponder over it very often.  She had told her audience that it is not that there is poverty in the developing world alone.  There is poverty even in developed world.  She referred to her visit to the Old Age Homes the previous day in Oslo and the longing she had found in the eyes and hearts of those old people.  They were starved to talk to their loved ones or get a touch of care from them.

True, poverty is not just of food, clothing or shelter.  Even greater poverty is to feel lonely, to be left out, away from your own family, unwanted, or more tragic totally abandoned!  Material comforts are no substitute for emotional satisfaction.

Mother did not accept the customary dinner following the award ceremony of the Nobel Peace Prize.  She was horrified at the thought of spending a fortune on the grand dinner in her honour while millions went hungry elsewhere in the world.  She suggested that the money be given for feeding the poor.  That night, the people of Oslo observed a candle light vigil and raised matching amount for Mother?s charity.

I remember my Cambodia days in early nineties when that country was going through the UN Peace Process.  Mother?s order, the ‘Sisters of Charity’ had opened their home in Phnom Penh, capital of that war-torn country after Khmer Rouge genocide, to provide healing touch to old and young who had no one to care for them and who shivered at the name of Khmer Rouge.

There were the four-five frail looking sisters, who would scout from street to street and take destitutes to their home.  It was there that I learnt that the Sisters of Charity are no ordinary mortals.  They were admitted into the Order after thorough scrutiny and the applicant having met all the preconditions of the Order.  They had to severe all contacts with their families, and renounce all worldly belongings.  They received no salaries.

The Sisters of Charity have no possessions except one pair of the white hand spun Khadi Sari, one pair of chappals, essential toiletries and one small cloth bag to carry these few items.  They could not venture out alone, always at least in pair and have to return to their Home before dark.  They do not accept any food out of Home.  I remember when on August 15 to mark India?s Independence Day, I invited them to some snacks after the official ceremonies and they quietly excused themselves saying they had some pressing engagement to attend to.  All other guests no doubt took part in the tea and refreshments.

I am also reminded of my visit to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda in 1995.  That country too had gone through a genocide (tribal war in which the Hutus went after the Tutsies) the year before.  There were large number of women who had become psychic and orphans.  I was surprised to find Sisters of Charity there and when I visited their Home, a former army barrack if I remember correctly, there were few hundred inmates and the 10 ? 12 Sisters were providing solace to all of them round the clock.  Some had to be chained or kept in locked rooms because of their mental state.  Toddlers had to be kept in fenced cots so that they did not fall.  Ordinary mortals could not have dared that screaming of women or silence of babies and mothers alike, specially as darkness descended on the camp.

I am also reminded of the news story I had read last month about the camera team of one TV channel of London, UK having secretly filmed children tied by their ankles to their cots in the Daya Daan Home in Kolkata run by Mother?s order and naturally sought to make big sensation out of it.  Daya Daan means donation of loving kindness.  Why were then the children tied to their cots by their ankles?  The news item also wrote of children being left unattended for up to twenty minutes in the toilet, or their hands being tied while being fed.  What was most shocking was an insinuation that: all this after millions of pounds were received by the organization in donations.

I am glad that the wire service carrying the news item, had also carried response of the Daya Daan Home.  It admitted to the TV Channel?s report as being true but that the tying was done in the interest of safety of the physically challenged children, adding also that  they were open to constructive criticism and there was always room for improvement.

On the one hand, the tying of infants by their ankles to their cots sounds abhorrent but on the other, the local situation may find it better than being left out on the street, totally unattended.  Just wander outside in Kolkata or for that matter in any city or big town in India or in majority of developing countries or visit few slums in nearby areas and you will conclude that the Daya Daan Home is after all a better place to be in.  It is all relative, isn?t it?  West cannot believe that one room can house a whole family.
I wondered whether it was necessary to make so much fuss about a small event that may be abhorrent in the West but is common place in the developing world – just as Mother could not digest the idea of having the dinner in her honour in Oslo.  Any body else would have deemed it as a great honour or discourtesy to refuse the dinner.

There should be no doubt about misuse of the donations, for the Sisters live in utter poverty as recounted above.  If not, they would not know what poverty means and how much it matters to the destitutes to be cared for, even if a little.  The Sisters generally go walking in the city and use transport only if they are going long distances.

I was lucky to have attended Mother’s funeral.  I was then posted at my Head Office in the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi and was assigned protocol duties to usher foreign VIPs who had come to attend Mother?s funeral in Kolkata.  Even after eight days of her death, her face shined in glory as her cortege was brought for burial with full State Honours.

Mother is recipient of India’s highest civil award, the ‘Bharat Ratna’ or ‘Jewel of India’.  I await the day when she would be conferred the title of ‘Saint Teresa’ but perhaps ‘Mother’ is a more befitting title for her, just as Mahatma was for Mr. M.K. Gandhi.  Let us also remember what Gandhiji had said: “Mother Earth has enough for everyone?s need but not greed”.  Mother had no personal possessions but her legacy is the priceless possession of Humanity, specially that of the Sisiters of Charity.

Author: C.M. Bhandari- Ambassador of India- UAE

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