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Life without Mother

Ashis Chakrabarti, Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd, Sept. 5, 1998 - Sixteen-year-old Sunil Das used to work in a roadside eating place at Halisahar, about 50 km north of Calcutta. About a month ago when his legs showed symptoms of leprosy, his employer sent him home. But the boy's stepmother would not keep him with the family and his father, a construction worker, pleaded helplessness. He was brought to the Gandhiji Prem Nivas, a center for leprosy patients run by the Missionaries of Charity at Titagarh. Last Tuesday, Sunil was to be released as his legs had improved but he pleaded with Brother Eugene, the man in charge of the center, to let him stay in the adjoining hostel.

``I won't go back home because my stepmother never loved me. Now that I had this disease, they won't take me back. I'm much better here.'' Sunil who never went to school had not heard of Mother Teresa until last August 26 when they observed the late nun's 88th birth anniversary at the center. ``We were told she loved people like us, the poor and the sick, whom nobody loved and cared for.''

Sunil's story has been the quintessential saga of Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity since 1950 when the Albanian-born nun set up the religious order in Calcutta. A year after Mother Teresa's death on September 5 last year, that saga is under scrutiny. Has anything changed since that global icon of Christian compassion left the scene? Sunil's story would suggest that the story goes on, that her spirit lives and guides the work of the sisters and brothers of the order. The spirit keeps drawing volunteers from all over the world to work with the nuns. ``We feel her (Mother Teresa's) absence like the sisters and the patients but now is the time more than ever before to stand by them,'' says Jill Brewer, a graduate student from Tennessee, USA, who has been working at a Missionaries home for the past one month.

But one has heard some other stories too since Mother Teresa's death. Like the one that unfolded barely three months after her death before a crowd outside Nirmal Hriday (The Pure Heart), the home for the sick and dying adjoining the famous Kali temple at Kalighat. An old ragpicker woman lay huddled on a nearby sidewalk, her frail body racked by fever and exhaustion, while her beggar husband knocked on the doors of the Missionaries home for medicine and shelter. But the doors remained shut.It would not happened in Mother's time, exclaimed a neighborhood shop owner.

``It was a mistake,'' admits Sister Nirmala who succeeded Mother Teresa as Superior General of the order, ``it happened because the sister in charge of the home was away. But the woman was later taken in and she died peacefully with us.'' Sister Luke, a Singapore-domiciled Malayalee who has been with the home for 20 years, confirms the incident but adds, ``Such things happened even when Mother was there because there are always far more people wanting to come in than we can accommodate. We've to move out people who get better to make room for the more needy.''

Father Camille Bouche, the Jesuit priest who has been a spiritual advisor to the order for over 30 years, is a trifle worried, although he thinks the sisters and brothers, under ``good superiors'', are carrying on Mother Teresa's good work. ``There are too many who come. People aren't satisfied. But perhaps there's a little less compassion now,'' the 76-year-old priest says. He is happy that Sister Nirmala has got over the initial ``tensions'' and is now ``more organized and settled'', though she lacks her predecessor's ``charisma.'' After some early tensions over her succession, she has been able to gain the order's acceptance. Besides, the five councils of the Missionaries are gradually developing a system of ``collective functioning.''

But Father Bouche is worried about something more important. ``It worried Mother Teresa too,'' he recalls. It is the declining number of girls joining the order. The present group of novitiates under training for two years before they take the vow as sisters number 50, but the beginners who joined this year number only 25. Father Bouche attributes this to changing family patterns in Kerala from where the majority of sisters and brothers had come over the past decades. ``Families have grown smaller. Those with one daughter no longer want to give her to the church. Earlier, they considered it an honor. But that's not the case now.'' In this the absence of Mother Teresa may increasingly become a factor. Her name drew many like Brother Verghese who dreamt of joining the order since early youth in a Kerala village and now works at the leprosy center at Titagarh. The order is now looking eastward to tribal areas of south Bihar for a greater number of novitiates.

The Jesuit priest who came to India in 1947 is not quite happy that the Missionaries have sanctioned 19 new ``houses'' since Mother Teresa's death. ``The feeling was that they would do better to reduce its activities and make the houses more compact because there are less sisters.'' He, however, has no doubts that the Missionaries would be there serving the poor and the sick. ``Right now it's passing through a transition,'' he says, almost in a murmur. `In my choice, I saw God's hand'

Carrying on the legacy of Mother Teresa whom the world has known as the `Saint of the Gutters' and the `Apostle of the Unwanted' is not easy task. No one knows this better than Sister Nirmala, the 65-year-old Nepali-origin nun who took over the baton from her six months before Mother Teresa's death. The transformation has been particularly dramatic for the low-profile nun because she had spent seven years in the seclusion of the order's contemplative wing before being hoisted on the center stage. But the job seems to have changed the nun substantially, making her articulate and composed. Sister Nirmala speaks to The Indian Express on life at the Missionaries after Mother Teresa:

What has changed in the one year since Mother Teresa's death for you, the sisters, your home inmates and the volunteers?

We miss Mother. Although her body is here ( at Mother House tomb), we miss her physical presence. She's changed address from earth to heaven. But her spirit is here with us and in our homes.

How do you feel taking over her legacy?

I never thought about the awesomeness of my charge. If I looked at that and my personal inadequacies, I would have said no to the proposal to take over from her. Everybody was free to say no. But I depended on God's mercy. In my choice (as Superior General) I saw God's hand.

Is it true that there were some tensions about your choice?

Do you enjoy the order's obedience and trust? I don't know of any tensions. Mother was there when I was chosen. And in our order we take the vow of obedience. The minimum one expects of that vow is the obedience to superiors. It's also the obedience to God. The sisters are one with me. That's my biggest strength.

How is the work going? Has anything changed?

It's going on as before, as Mother wanted. Since her death, 19 new houses have been sanctioned all over the world. In Calcutta, we're going to open the first new home after her death -- a home for handicapped children -- on Mother's birth anniversary. (The interview was taken before the anniversary on August 26)

Have there been any changes in the flow of funds, donations?

Actually, we were flooded with a rush of funds and donations immediately after (Mother's) death. That flow has stabilized now.

And the volunteers?

They keep coming in large numbers. It's God's work. The problem is not with money or volunteers. We constantly must see that we are not unfulfilling in God's work.

With poverty and sickness showing no signs of reducing, what difference really Mother Teresa made?

She never claimed to wipe off poverty or sickness. She tried to wipe off the tears, reduce the pain and bring hope for the poor and the sick. She made a difference insomuch as she created an awareness about such people.

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