Meeting Mother Teresa, September 1987
I had been invited to lunch in Bombay by the actor Sashi Kapoor. We chatted I mentioned that I stayed always at the Oberoi Grand Hotel in Calcutta. He suggested I try the Fairlawn Hotel where he and his late wife Jennifer, the sister of the actress Felicity Kendall, had stayed on their honeymoon. It was very much a relic of the Raj and was run by the formidable Violet Smith, whose mother was Armenian and whose husband was British and had worked for a British Engineering company. I told my London colleague on the India desk that I would stay there on my next banking visit. Later I got a call back to say that a visiting Indian banker had said it was in an area notorious for drug addicts and prostitutes; what did I think? I said that nothing but nothing would stop me staying there.
This was September 1987 and I had just appeared in an Indian TV series, Raj Se Swaraj, about freedom fighters. I invited friends, visiting from London, to the official launch and one of them, Michael Bennett, said I hadn’t seen India properly unless I went on a train journey. I booked the train to Calcutta, with Michael, and took the 36 hour journey. I did jot a note on that and it is for another time. We were met at the station by the local Thomas Cook Manager, Brendan Brown who took us to the hotel. At the time Midland Bank owned Thomas Cook (they had bought it for the travellers cheque business, fancying themselves as a competitor to American Express; how times change!) and I was their Director on the Indian board. They had looked for premises in Calcutta, after recruiting Brendan, and on a visit I was introduced to the remarkable Kitty Brinnand; another Armenian. We got on like a house on fire and she agreed that Thomas Cook could rent her premises.
Brendan took us to the hotel for a welcome room and shower. It was a backpackers hotel and was wonderful. The waiters seemed to be retired Gurkhas and the plates were grabbed as you finished a course and the next course plonked in front of you. The only other hotel I stayed in like this was the Windermere in Darjeeling. We did the tour of Calcutta, including the incredible Victoria Memorial which is like a British Taj Mahal and Michael remarked that all we needed now was to meet Mother Teresa. Brendan asked when we would like to see her. Kitty was an old friend of hers and had been her bookkeeper; she arranged the visit and the piece that follows describes this.
What I didn’t say was that Kitty had cut her the top of head and when we sat down Mother Teresa asked how it was. As Kitty leant over to show her I remarked “Yes, Mother. The doctor said it was like stitching concrete!” Mother Teresa gazed at me thoughtfully as if to say “I think this man is trying to make a joke. How strange, Nobody tries to joke with me.”
Afterwards it took another turn. I had worked with Lord Selsdon, the Midland Bank’s Project Finance Director, on the Greater Cairo Wastewater scheme and we had worked well together. He told me that he had become Director of the Docklands Arena and wanted to raise funds for Mother Teresa. Did I know the Indian singer, Lata Mangashker, who was “India’s Vera Lynn” as he wanted her to sing there. (I called Sashi, who told me he was having dinner with her that evening, and he called back to say she would do it.)He would like Michael Caine, Bob Hope, and Steve Martin as narrators pus Whitney Houston as one of the singers. I suggested that Sashi would be a great Indian narrator and he agreed. Sashi agreed also. We had a meeting in London with Michael Hollingworth, a promoter, and discussed how to approach Mother T.
After she had agreed I would need to invite Mother T and Bob Hope to join Lord Selsdon and me at the House of Lords for tea, “Wow!” I thought; “a whole new world opening for me”. He wrote to Mother Teresa and she replied that she would not allow funds to be raised in her name. If God wanted her to have the money, he would give it to her. So that was that and it ended my brush with Hollywood.
Violet Smith ran the Fairlawn until 2014 when she died aged 94. Her daughter took over and in 2018 sold it to a member of the Oberoi family. It is still there, refurbished, and If I ever returned to Calcutta I would want to stay there.
Our destination was a tall grey building with brown shutters and rotting vegetables on the pavements. IN” We went down a side street to a brown door and a little sign “Mother Teresa IN” on the wall outside. Kitty spoke to a young nun inside and we were escorted to small spartan room, containing a plain table and 5 chairs; three pictures were on the wall, a large white Bible in the middle of the table and a ceiling fan overhead. Kitty told us that it was the only one in the home. The nuns slept without them in their rooms; the vow of poverty had been taken that they had taken ensured that they all had the same food as the patients. They had only two uniforms; one on and one in the wash. rose
We sat, Kitty telling us which chair to leave empty. We chatted quietly for a few minutes and then Kitty arose saying “Hello, Mother how are you?” as someone walked through the curtain behind me.
How does one describe meeting a person who is a legend in here own lifetime, who dismisses fame and her own achievements saying it is the Lord working through her? I stood as a tiny old lady walked past me. Much photographed, she shouldn’t have been a surprise; but she was. The main first impression was that she was ordinary; not in an overt sense, just that in a crowd she wouldn’t have stood out. She wore the white robes, trimmed at the edge with blue, of her order. A cross on a pin secured the robe on her left shoulder. I was introduced and she took my hand in her own, big hands and gazed up at me and you had the feeling that, at that moment, you were the most important person in the world to her.
That of course is the secret; it is only when you talk to her, hear that firm but gentle voice, hear the utter conviction of her faith and work that you appreciate the drive and energy. It is not overt. She knows that “The Lord will provide “ and indeed he doesn’t let her down. She spoke of a man coming to see her who needed a special drug for his extremely sick daughter, a drug available only on import. At that moment a benefactor arrived with a selection of drugs as a gift with the very drug and the exact dose at the top of the basket.
We learned of her various homes in India and abroad, of a new home in New York for AIDS victims. Knowing we were British, for our benefit she spoke very kindly of donations from British companies in terms of money and properties. Those were the only names she at the touch of mentioned; no monarchs, no presidents, no celebrities. My friend Michael Bennett spoke of Ethiopia and how one man has started Band Aid; she thought she had met the man concerned in Ethiopia but she couldn’t quite remember. A name isn’t important, it’s the deed that counts. She mentioned walking down a London street, seeing a man sitting in a doorway, a picture of misery; of going up to him and taking hold of his hand, of his face lighting up the touch of another person which had not happened in a long while.
It was easier to help the poor than the rich because she could give the poor something yo relieve their suffering, but the rich had everything material. When I asked if she found sympathy and understanding from World leaders, she replied that yes, she didn’t give them any peace until they did!
Her main concern was for the terminally ill, giving them a “beautiful death”. Many arrived embittered at the fate about to befall them and she wanted to give them peace of mind. She said that we were just the pencils, God did all the writing and thinking and she never worried about the enormity of her task.
One note of sadness had been the reason for her recent absence from Calcutta. Two of her sisters, one aged 25 and the other 35, had been killed in an accident in Dehra Dun during the monsoon. They hadn’t needed to go out that night but they had insisted as there was still work to be done. One was killed outright, the other swept away in the river and her body recovered afterwards. Mother Teresa’s main thought was that fortunately the driver who had been saved had a large family so “God is merciful”.
She touched upon waste, how when she flies she asks stewards to give her any leftover food, so she can go on board with one bag and come off with three. Air India and Indian Airlines give her leftover food from flights into Calcutta but she regretted the absence now of foreign airlines. There was waste to an excessive degree in the West which she wanted to utilise if she could.
And that was it. A conversation over almost an hour. A voice firm and gentle, a direct gaze into the four of us when each spoke, an impression of utter conviction and inner peace. One could not but feel humbled at such transparent goodness. She would mot allow any photographs but gave each of us a momento, an extract from the Bible. Dear…………(any our name) “See I will not forget you. I have carved your name on the palm of my hand. I have called you by tour name. You are mine. You are precious to me. I love you.” (Signed)
God Bless you. Mother Teresa.
She recited it to us. Michael and I made a donation which she accepted without looking at it; it was the spirit in which it was given that mattered. She never asked but always accepted.
And so we left. She had treated us with the same respect, kindness, patience and understanding she would have treated the highest and the lowest.
We went on to see her home in Prem Dhan. It took 500 patients with separate dormitories for men and women. The patients are taken literally from ten streets; the destitute and the dying, the mentally handicapped, the lost. Most arrive in rags and clothes are found. A nub, round faced, placid and happy showed us around. The overpowering smell was of excretia dulled by disinfectant. Emaciated figures sat on beds, lay on beds, some who wre obviously in the ebbing twilight of life. Incongruously a plumpish, long-haired, bearded, Kurta clad Englishman was sitting on one of the beds. It appeared he had been attacked and robbed on the train from Benares, losing money, passport, everything. He had arrived the previous evening and the sister said she could not turn him away.
She showed us the workshops. How they take coconut husks, soak them until they rot, dry them out and then the local women beat out the fibres and use the as stuffing for mattresses. How newspapers are magazines are collected and the paper recycled and how nothing was wasted. Vegetables are grown in the grounds (of which were once ICI storage sheds) but not enough. She showed us the small chapel and we stood silent, even humbly, at the back during a service for nuns.
Calcutta’s memories for me are varied. The green, the lawns, the temples, the architecture, the huge white memorial building to Queen Victoria (an English Taj Mahal), the slums, the beggars, the people. Mother Teresa (who was Albanian, born in Kosovo in what was Yugoslavia) remarked that if you only saw squalor in Calcutta then you should open your eyes and look again. She had told me that she came to Calcutta originally s a missionary; perhaps God had directed her. The British Deputy High Commissioner had told me that she had placed the Order of Merit, given to her by HM the Queen, on a statue of the Virgin Mary as it was “Our Lady who deserved it”.
Calcutta, September 1987.