Mother Teresa, shortly to be sanctified as St Teresa of Kolkata, and I had two things in common. Both of us lived in the same city and both were Catholic.
Yet, I wasn’t drawn to her because of my Christian faith. Like others in the city – and the world – I had admired Mother’s work and the selfless service of her order of nuns, little women in their blue and white saris, literally picking up the poor, the starving and the near dead from the footpaths of Calcutta. But I had never met her privately.
Not till 1991. I was at an inflection point in my life and had just taken a major if controversial decision, controversial for my parents at least. After eight and a half years in advertising, I had decided to quit Ogilvy & Mather.
For three years before I resigned, I had spent most of my weekends conducting quizzes, fulfilling a childhood obsession with trivia and strange facts and earning some money on the side. Somehow I felt there was scope for a company that would leverage this quizzing expertise and build a business around the pursuit of knowledge.
My parents and friends were not so sure. They couldn’t understand why I wanted to give up a steady job and couldn’t fathom this crazy entrepreneurial bug. Nevertheless I was determined to give it a shot. Were there moments of self-doubt? Oh yes, there were several. I took three months off between my old job and my new company. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but somewhere deep inside I wanted time for contemplation and to pay back my dues.
One day, the photographer Sunil K. Dutt came to see me. I had known him for several years. He was older than me and renowned as a chronicler of Calcutta and its many moods. Sunil came with an idea. He had a set of black-and-white pictures of Kolkata that he wanted to sell to a publisher for a book. Could I help him?
A book on Kolkata…This set me thinking. Could I take up the project myself and publish it under my own imprint? It would be a fun project and help me do something to commemorate the city I so loved. Sunil left the photographs with me and asked me to choose the best ones for a book. He trusted my judgement and was insistent only on the fee: Rs. 1.5 lakh.
I went through the photographs and while Sunil’s work was remarkable, the pictures didn’t convey anything dramatically different. They did little to contribute a new angle or give the city a new look. When Sunil and I met again, I was frank with him. He looked crestfallen. “I need the money,” he said, “I need that Rs. 1.5 lakh (150,000).” “Why Sunilda,” I asked him, “that’s a lot of money, why do you need it?” The answer was a punch straight in my solar plexus: “Derek, I need the money to pay for my daughter’s wedding.”
I was looking for something meaningful to do. I had found it. “Sunilda,” I said, “the book will be done and the wedding will go through, don’t worry.” I told him the Calcutta book wasn’t a good idea, however. Then I had a brainwave and asked him to show me pictures of a woman he had been chasing, stalking, following for decades: Mother Teresa. Was there a book there?
Sunil brought his collection of Mother Teresa photographs – black-and-white works, some ordinary, some stunning and some absolute masterpieces. There was Mother praying, Mother helping a stricken child, Mother supervising cooking in a gruel kitchen, even Mother coming out of a police station, having secured the release of poor folk who had been detained unfairly. Instinctively I knew we had a book.
The first thing I did was to take out 150,000 rupees from the provident fund I had withdrawn from Ogilvy & Mather and give it to Sunil. Then I wondered how I could make the book stand out, for there was no dearth of books on Mother Teresa. Discussing it with Sunil one day, I thought loudly: “We need good captions for the photographs…Why not get Mother to write the captions?”
On a whim and a prayer, I asked for an appointment with Mother Teresa, reaching her office on the Kolkata street that housed the Missionaries of Charity.
It was my first visit to Mother Teresa’s room. Outside was a nameplate saying “Mother Teresa”, with an option: “In” or “Out”. If she was in the office the “Out” was covered by a small shutter, or the other way round. Incidentally, after Mother’s death in September 1997, the room has been preserved as a memorial and the sign always says: “Mother Teresa … In”.
I broached the subject of the book to Mother Teresa. She was dismissive. Why another book? “It will help spread the word of your work to people,” I offered. She smiled back, compassionate and clinical at the same time, “Son, God has been good. People already know about our work.”
I told her I was planning to get the book sponsored and have the sponsor donate Rs. 5 lakh to the Missionaries of Charity. I would not make any money on the book. All we needed were her blessings, and her text for the captions.
Mother looked in the direction of one her colleagues, Sister Priscilla. Then she nodded, but said she had no time to write the captions. “I have said so much over the years,” she pointed out, “why don’t you use those in the book.”
It was a green signal for the project, but it meant more work for me. I would have to pore over hundreds of articles and books and speeches relating to Mother Teresa to find appropriate quotes and lines she had uttered.
As I was leaving, Sister Priscilla told me what had won Mother’s heart. “So many books have been written about Mother,” she said, “but this is first time somebody has offered something to the Missionaries of Charity.”
I had to find a sponsor, somebody who would underwrite a book that had Mother Teresa’s photographs, described in Mother Teresa’s words. Eventually, Citibank agreed. It would give 500,000 rupees to the Missionaries of Charity and pay for the printing and production of the book. It would also have the right to write the introduction. Jaithirth ‘Jerry’ Rao, now a well-regarded businessman, social entrepreneur and public intellectual but back then only the India head of Citibank, agreed to sponsor the book and to write the introduction.
I worked on picking the captions and matching them with the photographs we had chosen. The designing of the book started and we went into the technicalities of choosing the paper and the printer.
Then, as the book was set to go to print, we got a call. Jerry Rao would no longer be writing the introduction; the Citibank Asia head, based in Hong Kong, would be. A few days later, there was another change. The bank’s international chief, based in New York, would be writing the introduction. Clearly, Mother Teresa’s appeal ran across continents.
Finally, the big day came. The book was to be released by Mother Teresa in the presence of the bank top brass, including the India head from Mumbai (then still Bombay) and the Asia head from Hong Kong. They had come with a check for 500,000 rupees; they had also come as pilgrims to the shrine of Mother Teresa, Calcutta’s living saint.
Sunil K. Dutt arrived. The tennis player Naresh Kumar and his wife Sunita, one of Mother’s closest confidantes, were there. All of us reached the Missionaries of Charity building and waited for Mother to come out.
Word was sent, Sister Priscilla went in and then I walked up to Mother’s room, nervous and sweating, and requested her to come to the book release. Her response took me aback. “What book?” she asked. I mumbled and stammered and told her about the photographs and the captions and our previous meeting. “The officials are here Mother,” I said, almost beseeching her, “they would like you to bless them and accept that check…”
Mother smiled. It was a naughty, childlike smile: “I’m sure we can ask them for an ambulance, can’t we? After all it’s all God’s work.”
So the great lady walked out, greeted those gathered, unpacked the first copy of the book, accepted the check and thanked all of us, particularly the visitors to Kolkata. Then she added, almost as a parting shot, “I’m sure our friends can help us with an ambulance too, for the service of the sick.” The hard-nosed bank executive from Hong Kong agreed at once. She had no choice!
It all ended well. The book was released to critical acclaim. The bankers went home walking in the air. Sunil’s daughter got married. The Missionaries of Charity got 500,000 rupees and a spanking new ambulance to continue their work.
As for me, I was happy that my three-month interlude had resulted in something useful and in a project that had proved beneficial to a variety of people in a variety of ways. I felt touched by Mother’s presence.
Mother passed away in 1997. It can take decades, even centuries, for a person to be declared a saint by the Catholic Church. In the case of Mother Teresa, the process will be over in less than 20 years. This is a tribute to the current head of the Church, Pope Francis, who has proved to be a liberal and far-sighted leader and has engaged with issues related to divorce and the status of divorced people within the Catholic community, gay rights and abortion.
There have been some questions about the mechanism by which Mother Teresa, and other saints, have their sainthood conferred, and particularly in the identification of miracles.
Personally, I don’t place much value on these “miracles”. For me, Mother Teresa’s greatest miracle was her life and work, and how she came to Kolkata as a geography teacher and a nun but left it as the city’s patron saint.
(Derek O’Brien is leader, Parliamentary party Trinamool Congress (RS), and Chief National spokesperson of the party. this first appeared in ndtv.com on December 21, 2015).)