Former West Bengal leader Jyoti Basu made a request to Mother Teresa, and several women inmates finally found peace
It was 1996. I was on one of my visits to Calcutta to spend a little time with Mother Teresa. She had been very unwell, in and out of hospital. I found her sitting in a wheelchair outside her small office. I presented her an updated Hindi edition of my biography of her. There was a queue of people waiting to meet her.
Giving shape to an idea
She introduced me to a few monks visiting from Japan. She then asked me if I had been to Shanti Dan where these monks from Japan had helped her. The story began, she said, when she responded to a request from the West Bengal Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu (She always prefaced his name with the words “my friend”). “Mother, take care of some very unfortunate women, they have been long years under confinement in an institution attached to a Kolkata jail.” When she went there she found several hundred inmates, all women, in great distress. Some had been in confinement for 40 years. She agreed to do something. In her practical way, she asked the Chief Minister for land. She would create the institution herself. That was a few years ago.
Sister Bella took me around. There were three dormitories on two floors, a small recreational centre, a few small workshops. The rooms were bright and airy. Unlike the Sisters rooms which were spartan on account of their vows of poverty, here there were bright and pleasant dormitories with ceiling fans and mosquito nets. Colourful bed covers had been specially woven by her leprosy community in Titagarh. There were real and paper flowers everywhere. Not a pin was out of place. The utensils in the kitchens were spotless. The women cooked their own meals and cleaned up after. There was no sign of any volunteers, who were a feature of her other homes. Here, Sister Bella encouraged them to keep themselves and their environment clean as a necessary part of occupational therapy. As I walked past groups of inmates in the grounds, I had expected to encounter sullenness or hostility. Instead, everywhere there were smiles, a namaste or a wave.
A new life
“When they came here two years ago, they would not put on the clothes,” said Sister Bella. “When we tried to go near them, they would cower with fear. Now they do most things themselves. Some of these women have been in jail wards for years on end. We have come very far in this time. It is only when they are really sick or feeling low that they go inside to lie down. Otherwise they tend the gardens or do simple work in the craft centre. See these dolls here, said the Sister pointing to the shelf. A benefactor gave us wool and items for embroidery. Another benefactor donated school exercise books, simple story books and items of stationery. Some teachers have volunteered to give them lessons. They really look forward to the classes. Small things make them so happy,” she added. I saw groups of them in clean saris, sitting under the shade of the fruit trees that they tended or in the gardens where they grew vegetables and flowers. In this oasis that Jyoti Basu and Mother created, these unfortunate souls had finally found some peace and dignity.
The next day I recounted my visit to Mother Teresa. She nodded, not particularly surprised. “You remember the Buddhist monks who came yesterday,” she asked. They were part of a group from Japan who came to see me some years ago. I told them we have a practice that on Fridays none of us Sisters eats during the day. We forego one meal. With the money saved we buy food for the poor. When the group of Buddhist monks went back to Japan, they told other monks about our practice. Soon the word spread in Japan, and many people began to give up a meal a day and put money aside. They sent me the money they saved. With that money I was able to build another dormitory building and to take 100 more women from the jail. Wonderful, no? In fact, 20 more are coming next week. God has such wonderful ways of providing!”
In the course of my visits to Kolkata, I met Jyoti Basu a few times. I once asked him whether it was true that soon after he became Chief Minister, some of his party workers asked him to drive Mother Teresa out of Kolkata. She was converting people to Christianity. He asked them if they had ever seen her taking care of leprosy sufferers. The day they would clean the wounds of the leprosy affected, he would ask her to stop her work. That day never came.
In the course of writing my book, I needed to ask him what he, a Communist and atheist, could possibly have in common with a Catholic nun for whom god was everything. With a smile he replied, “We both have a love for the poor.” Whenever she was hospitalised, he would visit the hospital for a few minutes almost each day. I met him there sometimes. And, in turn, when he was ill, she would visit his house with her Sisters and say a quiet prayer.
Navin B. Chawla, former Chief Election Commissioner of India, is Mother Teresa’s biographer. September 5 marks her 23rd death anniversary