The Sisters Know It
Mother Teresa’s centenary year was ushered in in India and elsewhere in the world on August 26 this year. In New Delhi, the president released a five-rupee coin bearing her imprint. On September 14, UNESCO in Paris too celebrated the event. The evening opened with an oration, and was followed by a photographic exhibition where some of her personal effects, brought specially from Calcutta, were put on display. I was later told that seldom had the main hall been packed by so receptive an audience. With a seating capacity equal to Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan, every seat was occupied by ambassadors accredited to UNESCO, its staffers, members of the Indian community and Parisians alike, attracted to the event when a public announcement was made two evenings earlier from the podium of the Notre Dame cathedral on the occasion of a special Mass. The renowned Notre Dame Versailles choir brought the function to a close: they received a standing ovation.
The primary impetus to so honour Mother Teresa came from the Indian government and unquestionably underlined India’s secular credentials. That the Missionaries of Charity sisters should also have suggested that not they, but I, deliver the keynote address prompted many to remark that they found it quite extraordinary that India should have taken the initiative to honour a Catholic nun, while the Missionaries of Charity should have put forward the name of one who does not share their faith. Indeed, truth to tell, it was one of the senior sisters who was the first to inform me of their choice, and thereafter accepted many of my suggestions in the planning of the event.
For Special Occasions Only
The exhibition of some of Mother Teresa’s personal effects was a huge draw and had its own poignancy. Sister Joanne, a senior counsellor, carried from Calcutta some of Mother Teresa’s writings, including her handwritten prayer book, as well as her sari and her last pair of sandals. The sari was clearly darned in several places, and her sandals mended many times by a mochi, a reminder of her difficult life walking the pavements and slums of the world. For the first time, visitors became aware that Mother Teresa and the sisters owned just three saris—one to wear, one to wash and one for “special occasions”. When I had referred to this in my speech earlier that evening, it prompted the UNESCO interpreter to tell me that this had moved her so much that she found herself departing from the normal rule for interpreters (which is to translate with matter-of-fact dryness), to instead convey the emotion of my speech, which I fear I made difficult for her by speaking extempore.
Two evenings earlier, the iconic Notre Dame cathedral honoured Mother Teresa with a special Mass. For most tourists to Paris, this cathedral is a “must-see”, and I had also visited it on my first visit to the city many years ago. I had then admired its Gothic architecture, the imposing size of the rose windows and its flying buttresses. Crusaders prayed here before leaving on their wars, and centuries later Napoleon emphasised the primacy of State over Church by crowning himself as emperor at the altar. But this time, the cathedral was full with believers and admirers alike. Every pew and chair was taken. There was hardly any standing room. It was when the multitude joined the choir to sing that I began to appreciate the engineering skills of the cathedral builders eight centuries earlier. For as the sound of a thousand voices hit the high-vaulted gables, there was not the slightest trace of an echo. I also noticed that at a time when the absence of youth is a cause of papal lament, the old and the young jostled equally for space. Altogether, this proved to be a special evening in Paris to honour a simple woman whom the world considered to be a saint in her lifetime.
The Eiffel Shadow
The Eiffel tower is indisputably the symbol of Paris and remains its favourite tourist destination. On this occasion, my wife Rupika and I enjoyed our share of its magnetism. Our hotel was located practically at touching distance, and from our room it felt as if it were a part of the interior design. Each time we walked out we were in its shadow. And when we dined at the Indian ambassador’s residence, it felt like the Eiffel was located practically in the embassy garden. This stately mansion was one of many exclusive properties purchased soon after Independence, thanks to the foresight of prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru who had the vision to realise that in all major capitals in which Indian diplomacy was to engage, our embassies had to be in the best locations. In this case, Ranjan Mathai told us that the house last belonged to the Duchess of Marlborough from whom the Indian government bought it in the 1950s.