Remembering Mother Teresa on her 110th Birthday

Mother Teresa (now St Teresa of Calcutta) and I had two things in common – both of us lived in Kolkata and both of us were Catholic. Yet, I wasn’t drawn to her because of my Christian faith. Growing up in a household where going to church was as important as being part of the neighbourhood Durga Puja committee or visiting one of my father’s closest friends, a Muslim, for Eid, I took God seriously – but not religious identities. Like others in the city – and the world – I admired Mother’s work and the selfless service of her order of nuns.

It was 1991. Mother Teresa and service to humanity were far from my mind. I was at an inflection point in my life and had just taken a major decision – I had decided to quit Ogilvy & Mather. For the preceding three years, while I worked as its Creative Head, I had spent most of my weekends conducting quizzes. Somehow, I felt there was scope for a company that would leverage this quizzing expertise and build a business around the pursuit of knowledge…making knowledge interesting to help people and brands grow.

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 that had bitten me. Nevertheless, I was determined to give it a shot, to make my hobby my profession. I took three months off between Ogilvy & Mather and Big Ideas – the new company that I was setting up – and decided to spend it doing something meaningful. 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 Kolkata and its many moods. 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? Sunil left the photographs with me and asked me to choose the best ones for a book. He trusted my judgment and was insistent only on the fee: ₹ 1,50,000.

I went through the photographs and while Sunil’s work was remarkable, the pictures didn’t convey anything new. Kolkata is a well-chronicled city. There have been several books and pictorial works dedicated to it. Sunil’s photographs 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. “Why, Sunil-Da?’ I asked him, “that’s a lot of money, why do you need it?” The answer was a punch straight to my solar plexus: “Derek, I need the money to pay for my daughter’s wedding.” Here was a man, an artiste, who had spent a lifetime worshipping his camera and his subject and not caring for currency notes. Now he needed those notes for his beloved daughter’s wedding and had nothing, no assets, other than the photographs he had taken over the years.

I was looking for something meaningful to do, an act that would make a difference. I had found it. “Sunil-Da,”I said, “the book will be done and the wedding will go through, don’t worry.” I told him the Kolkata 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’s photographs – black-and-white works, some ordinary, some stunning and some absolute masterpieces. There was Mother praying, Mother helping a stricken child, 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 ₹ 1,50,000 from the provident fund I had withdrawn from Ogilvy & Mather and give it to Sunil. Next, I needed to 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?”:So, on a whim and a prayer, I asked for an appointment with Mother Teresa.

It was my first visit to Mother House. On the main door outside was a nameplate saying ‘Mother Teresa’, with an option: ‘IN’ or ‘OUT’. If she was at home, the ‘OUT’ was covered by a small shutter, or the other way round. Incidentally, after Mother’s death in September 1997, the entrance to Mother House (where she is now buried) always has the sign saying: ‘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 ₹ 5,00,000 to the Missionaries of Charity. 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 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 the 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 ₹ 5,00,000 to the Missionaries of Charity and pay for the printing and production of the book. Jaithirth ‘Jerry’ Rao, then the India head of Citibank, agreed to write the introduction.

I worked on picking the captions and matching them with the photographs we had chosen. Then, as the book was set to go to print, Citibank phoned us. Jerry Rao would no longer be writing the introduction; the Citibank Asia head, based in Hong Kong, would be doing so. A few days later, there was another change. The Citibank 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 Citibank top brass, including the India head from Bombay, and the Asia head from Hong Kong. They had come with the cheque; they had also come as pilgrims to the shrine of Mother Teresa, Kolkata’s living saint. Sunil K. Dutt arrived. Tennis player Naresh Kumar and his wife Sunita, among Mother’s closest confidantes, were there. All of us reached Mother House and waited for Mother to come out.

She didn’t.

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 reminded her about our previous meeting. “The Citibank officials are here, Mother,” I said, almost beseeching her. “They would like you to bless them and accept that cheque.” 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 cheque and thanked all of us, particularly the Citibank visitors. 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 Citibank executive from Hong Kong agreed at once. She had no choice!

It all ended well. The book was released to critical acclaim. The Citibank officials went home walking on air. Sunil-Da’s daughter got married. The Missionaries of Charity got ₹ 5,00,000 and a spanking new ambulance. As for me, I was happy that my three-month interlude had resulted in something useful – in a project that had proved beneficial to a variety of people in a variety of ways. I’m not much of a believer but I did feel touched by Mother’s presence. I continued to call on her and attributed at least some of my professional luck thereafter to her warm wishes.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament from Bengal
Trinamool Congress Parliamentary Party Leader (Rajya Sabha) & Chief National Spokesperson

[This article appeared on NDTV.com| Wednesday, August 26, 2020]

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