How I lost what Mother gave me

For exactly a quarter of a century I had them with me - in my wallet. No matter how many times I changed wallets, I got them in the new one. Until one October morning in 2004, when a pickpocket robbed me of them as I boarded a train at the Prague station. The man obviously did not know what he was doing - or getting.

By Ashis Chakrabarti
  • Published 4.09.16
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Missionaries of Charity nuns arrive at St Peter’s Square on Saturday. (AP)

For exactly a quarter of a century I had them with me - in my wallet. No matter how many times I changed wallets, I got them in the new one. Until one October morning in 2004, when a pickpocket robbed me of them as I boarded a train at the Prague station. The man obviously did not know what he was doing - or getting.

The wallet contained two simple things Mother Teresa had given me one evening in 1979 when I reached Mother House to interview her - hours after her Nobel Peace Prize had been announced.

What turned out was more of a "story" than an interview. Mother Teresa was a very visible figure in Calcutta, attending functions and driving to her homes or to meetings with officials. But she wasn't very keen on meeting journalists, especially the city-based ones.

So I walked through the small entrance of Mother House with great expectations. I had read Malcolm Muggeridge's Something Beautiful for God, based on his interview of Mother Teresa on the BBC in 1968.

But that evening, all she said was that she had accepted the Nobel on behalf of the poor of Calcutta. God, love and the poor were her answers to the few questions I managed to ask her.

But throughout the brief encounter, she smiled. All who had met and known her would remember her smiles. The only other famous person I met and who would smile as much is another woman and also a Nobel Peace Prize winner: Aung San Suu Kyi.

As she rose to signal the end of the brief interview, Mother, as everybody addressed her, handed me two things - a card with "God Bless You Mother Teresa, mc" printed on it and a tiny, oval-shaped Virgin Mary in white metal, which she kissed before passing it to my palm.

"Now go," she said, smiling one more time.

She must have given such tokens to hundreds of people who happened to meet her at Mother House or elsewhere. In earlier years, I was told, she wrote and signed the same message in her own hand.

Muggeridge's interview not only made Mother Teresa famous the world over but it also transformed him personally. So moved was he by Mother Teresa that the British journalist, an agnostic until then, converted to Catholicism.

In the most quoted part of that interview, she said: "It is not often they needed things. In these 20 years of work among the people, I have come more and more to realise that it is being unwanted that is the worst disease that any human being can experience.

"For all kinds of diseases, there are medicines and cure. But for being unwanted, except there are willing hands to serve and there's a loving heart to love, I don't think this terrible disease can ever be cured."

For me, the tokens she gave me didn't mean anything particularly religious. But I took care to carry them with me wherever I went. They came in handy in some situations, especially on foreign shores.

Many people who knew nothing about Calcutta but something about Mother Teresa would open up and enter into long conversations once I showed them the two little tokens from her I carried with me. Sometimes, such conversations would lead to complete strangers offering to help me over little things.

True, I also met people who had heard of Christopher Hitchens's Hell's Angel, which makes scathing attacks on Mother Teresa and the Missionaries for allegedly exploiting poverty and for accepting donations from dictators and shady businessmen.

But, just as the criticisms did not deter her, they did nothing to stop her fame and the eventual worship of her from reaching more and more people and countries.

On a holiday in Slovenia in 2013, I spent a few hours at Kamnik, the tiny town where tourists go to see the Roman ruins. This was a new country that was once part of Yugoslavia, which also included Mother Teresa's native Albania.

For someone from Calcutta, it felt nice to see that the town had installed a statue of Mother Teresa just opposite an old church. This July, I had the same feeling when I stood next to a statue of Mother Teresa at the chapel at the Catholic University of America in Maryland.

But I could no longer start conversations with fellow tourists or co-passengers by taking out her tokens from my wallet.