It was November 1992. I was working with Tata Steel at that point—I had appeared for the civil services exam the previous year and had been selected for the Indian Revenue Service. In order to improve my rank, I took the exam once again and so, that November, I had just finished my mains. I already had IRS as an option, but my real keenness lay elsewhere. I wanted to do social work. So I went to the Tata Steel management and requested them to transfer me to their social welfare department—the wing that does all its CSR work. They refused, saying they had hired me as an engineer and wanted me to do engineering.
I resigned from Tata Steel and, following my natural desire, went to meet the Mother in Kolkata. It was morning and there was a long queue of people who wanted to meet her. She was meeting everyone for a few seconds. When my turn came, she held my hand and asked me, “What do you want?” I said, “Mother, I want to work with you.” She asked me to go to the Kalighat Ashram—which was one of the important centres of the Missionaries of Charity—and work there. I did as she told me.
Kolkata is a place where you have both extremes: extreme poverty as well as extreme opulence (I don’t know whether the situation has changed now). Those days, if you walked on the footpath you would find many beggars, some of them in a terribly pitiable condition. There would be wounds on their bodies, often worm-infested. Our job required us to move around the city and bring such people to Kalighat Ashram and nurse them. Some of them would be in a state of near-total physical disability so we would actually clean their excreta, wash their clothes, nurse them, cook food for them and help them eat.
Mother told us that these were people who had never experienced dignity in life. She believed it would be a great service to God if we offered them at least dignity in death. Most of them would be brought in when their condition was so bad that it was clear they were in their last moments. A volunteer would put the dying person’s head on his lap and stroke the person with affection so that a dying human being could at least feel the warmth of another—the final reassurance that someone actually cared for him or her. I too had the chance to participate in and experience such moments of communion.
There were times when a person would come to Mother Teresa’s house, get healed and then go back to the streets, only to return in a worse state. I asked Mother once, “Why don’t you provide them skills so that, after getting healed, they can become self-sustaining?” She had a very simple answer: “That is the job of the government and various other NGOs.” Her job was to serve the people. By serving people, she was serving God. The whole experience was a spiritual one for me. I stayed there for a few months, till I got an interview call. I was happy that I could be there, participating in her unique work. During my time there, I must have met Mother a few times and each meeting was a spiritual experience. She was a noble soul with a higher consciousness.
I still remember my routine at the Ashram. I was in the morning shift. We would reach there at six in the morning. Our first job was to cook breakfast for all the patients. Then we would serve them and help them have breakfast, after which we would clean utensils. Some of them were bedridden and we would clean their clothes every morning. Often their clothes were completely filth-ridden. Regardless, we would clean them.
Mother Teresa serves an inmate at Nirmal Hriday
By then, it would be time for the next task—preparing lunch. Just like with breakfast, we would cook, serve and help them have lunch. By this time, the first shift for volunteers would be over and the second set would have come in. It was a very tiring schedule—working without a break from six in the morning till one or 2 pm. Volunteers used to come from all walks of life, all kinds of people from all over the world. That was my first experience of public service.
There was a huge turnover of volunteers—some would come for two to three days, others for a week. Since no skill was required, anyone could come and join as a volunteer. After my stint with Mother, I spent a couple of months with Ramakrishna Mission before joining the academy. The RK Mission work was different. We used to visit villages and campaign against alcohol and promote self-help groups. During those days, I was staying with one of my friends, Vikram Bhargava, who was also working with Tata Steel. I am still in touch with him. He is in Lucknow now. I was from IIT-Kharagpur and Vikram was from BIT-Ranchi. During my Kharagpur days, I never really thought about going to Mother Teresa. That desire took hold of me when I was at Tata Steel. After passing out from the IITs, people normally go abroad. A large chunk of my batchmates too went abroad. In fact, I took the civil services exam because I thought civil services would offer me the chance to do something for the country.
When I went to Nagpur for training at the National Academy of Direct Taxes—that is where IRS trainees go—I found out that there was a Mother Teresa ashram very close to our academy. I had met Sunita, my wife, at the academy—we used to go to the ashram every weekend. We kept up with that routine religiously all the while we were there. The Nagpur ashram was different. Unlike the Kalighat ashram where volunteers did a lot of work, the Nagpur one was run by nuns. So we didn’t have much to do there. In Delhi, there is an ashram at Majnu ka Tila, but I have managed to go there only once or twice. Unfortunately, we could not continue with the visits the way we could those days. At Civil Lines too, there is an ashram for children. We have been there a couple of times.
I am extremely happy that the Mother has been bestowed with sainthood now. I am also happy to have been invited by the Vatican for the ceremony.
By Arvind Kejriwal, Chief Minister of Delhi