By Sirshendu Panth
Kolkata, Sep 2 (IANS) For those who accuse Nobel Peace Prize winner Mother Teresa of “religious bigotry” and baptising even dying people, her close associate Sunita Kumar could be the perfect counter. A devout Sikh, Kumar says she often sat in the same chapel beside the Catholic nun who the Vatican will canonise on Sunday — the two reciting their own religious prayers.
“And that’s how the Mother wanted it. We prayed with her so often in her chapel. But she never insinuated ‘come and say my prayer’,” said Kumar, the wife of tennis legend Naresh Kumar.
“She always liked us (Kumar’s family) to sit the way we do for our prayers. And she would sit the way they sit for their prayers. And we prayed in the same chapel, but saying our own prayers,” said Kumar, who spent 30 years in close proximity of the Albanian nun who made Kolkata her home and the epicentre of her Catholic order Missionaries of Charity’s (MoC) worldwide service for the poorest of the poor and the infirm.
Mother’s critics like Christopher Hitchens have called her “a fanatic, a fundamentalist” in her religious beliefs. Murray Kempton and Susan Shields have claimed that dying patients were stealthily baptised through cunning in MoC’s Homes.
But Kumar, a well-travelled renowned painter and an influential socialite of Kolkata, told IANS that nobody ever was converted.
“At least that was the scenario during my time with her. That was not her focus at all, not at all,” said Kumar.
Kumar still remembers her first meeting with the Mother in 1967. “I was only 25 years old. She shook my hand, and gave me so much strength and warmth that I felt something going through my body. And After that, I just helped her and carried on.”
The friendship continued till Mother’s death on September 5, 1997.
At various times, Kumar worked as a volunteer in MoC’s homes cleaning floors and making bandages; letting her well-appointed residence be used as registration office for the volunteers from abroad; doing administrative work at the order’s global headquarters, Mother House; and finally as MoC spokesperson for decades.
Thus blossomed the friendship between two women whose worlds were poles apart — one a diminutive nun always clad in her trademark white-blue saree, who shunned all extravagance and modernity, and the other one of the most affluent and stylish persons of Kolkata (then Calcutta).
Kumar credits Mother for making things easy for her.
“There was no demand and no stress. She said: “I don’t want you to give up your style of living, or your habits of travelling or anything. After you have looked after your family, and your children, you come to me, for however much time you can give’.
“She made it so plain and simple for us. So that is one thing, which helped us all to join her,” said Kumar, whose drawing room on central Kolkata’s posh Middleton Street is adorned with a portrait of the Mother she had done.
So, how does she look back on the 30 years she spent with the Mother? Kumar’s eyes glow with happiness, her voice reflecting a deep satisfaction.
“Well, it all worked beautifully. She was very warm, with a sense of humour. She was always happy and cheerful. And whichever home she was working in, for you and me, they were kind of depressing, but not for her. We all began to work with her, with a smile. That’s what she wanted.”
Mother Teresa was a hard taskmaster. But she never shouted or punished people. “If she wanted to sound firm, she would do it with a firmness in her voice, and she would want her work done.”
Talking about Mother’s jovial nature, Kumar recalled driving past the city’s iconic heritage museum — the Victoria Memorial — with the nun by her side one afternoon.
“She looked at the magnificent structure made of white marble, and said ‘Why can’t they give it to me to house my poor?’
“When she said that, naturally I giggled. And I said ‘Mother, do you think that can ever happen?
“She said ‘No.’ She was saying it for fun.”
But how did Mother take the missiles of criticism hurled at her? For instance, she was pilloried for accepting donations from Haiti’s right-wing dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, scam-tainted American financier Charles Keating and British publisher-turned embezzler Robert Maxwell.
“Oh! When they were criticising her for accepting money from what they called dubious sources, she didn’t bother at all. Her main thing was ‘pray for them’.
“She was only receiving money for all the poor. So what is the harm in that? And she never told them to go and steal money and come and give it to her,” Kumar said.
Another sore point with critics is Mother Teresa’s views opposing abortion, or even use of contraceptives. But Kumar feels it only showed how much she abhorred killing of a life.
“She firmly believed ‘why kill your child?’ Because if you can kill your child, that means you can kill anybody. So that was her thinking. And she also told them ‘I will take your child. If you don’t want this child, I will take it and look after her’,” said Kumar.
Nineteen years have passed since Mother Teresa left this world. She is now days away from being anointed a Saint. And Kumar is looking forward to watching the September 4 event at the Vatican, but on television.
“All over the world, people are happy. I had gone for the Beatification (the first step towards Sainthood, when the Mother was declared ‘Blessed’ in 2003. As this event will be similar, I am not going. I shall rejoice here,” Kumar signed off.
(Sirshendu Panth can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)