Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Two ladies

We live in an age where we are agog.

Amidst the brouhaha of a turbulent US election (yes the votes are being cast even as your 'umble blogger types away in far-off Lalitpur) we have a brouheehee of a sudden announcement by our eminent first citizen that as of now all the Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes in India are not valid any more (how can you just mandate that?  Who is our govt. accountable to?).

O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! sondern laßt uns angenehmere anstimmen, und freudenvollere....

Lets take a step back and think about two ladies.

We were in old Calcutta 10 days ago.  It now seems a year back, but that's the pace we are living at.

Sheba, Enoch, Victor and I arrived in Cal for a conference on a red-eye flight from Delhi, to find out that instead of starting right after lunch as I had thought.  And so since this was the very first time Enoch was in Kolkata, we were able to look around a bit.

We dropped off our baggage at the Baptist Mission Society - which was where Victor was put up... and wouldn't we know it, but just 30 meters away was the "Mother House".

Yup, the place where Mother Theresa of Calcutta lived.  Where Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu lived and where she died.  Where the Missionaries of Charity are head-quartered.  A non-descript, dumpy building on what could have been any large road of the mighty city of Kolkata.

Would they allow us in?  Was there anything to see?  I was totally unprepared for this, but there we were at the entrance and saw this sign:

Yes, the dear Mother is 'in,' and yes, we could come in and look, said the gentle nun sitting just inside the door, clad in the blue bordered white sari of the Missionaries of Charity.

I caught my breath at the next sign:  no photography allowed, except at the grave.  

At the grave?  

Sure enough, just a few steps away, and without any fan-fare, we were suddenly in a room where the mortal remains of the little woman whose heart burned with love for Jesus and for the poor has been laid.  

I couldn't believe that I was just there, standing next to the plain white marble cube that is her grave, with a few people praying and some flowers spelling out a message: "You did it to me" 

Ordinary people praying.  A sense of the total normalness of devotion.

In a simple room next door is a mini-museum.  What a life this lady lived.  Stepping out of the safety of the convent to minister to the poor.  Being feted by the glitterati of the world - and still staying mission-true to her calling.

Fascinatingly, the day before I had a conversation with a very experienced development leader. Somehow she mentioned that she had once called Mother Theresa on the phone.  This lady had worked with a Scandinavian country's foreign aid agency, and the royal family of that country was visiting Calcutta and wanted to meet Mother Theresa.  "What should they bring with them" was the question my friend was to ask Mother Theresa.  This she dutifully did.  Mother told her: "Milk powder.  Tell them to bring milk powder for the children."  When this was conveyed to the powers to be, my friend was asked to reconfirm.  Same reply.  And so the royals met Mother T and handed over a few boxes of milk-powder.

I was deeply moved to see the utter simplicity of these lady's life.  Her hidden world of prayer is of course well known, but I was touched by the spartan reality of a life of renunciation - and yet a life of fullness.

Seeing a letter she wrote to her beloved sisters in her order, informing them about one of the many honours that were given to her touched me deeply.  The spidery, fading hand-writing was written all over... an old envelop which had been addressed to her.

And then the picture of her room.  It was Thursday, and for some reason that is the day of the week where her room is closed, but we saw a picture of where this little light of Jesus lived.  Talk about basic, stripped down.  It looked to me like a store room where some old tables were being stacked, rather than the dwelling place of a Nobel laureate and one who received a full state funeral when she was finally called home.

The compactness of it all meant that we were immersed in the life of Mother Theresa for an hour, and then were out on the streets of Cal again.

What do next - with the precious hours on hand?

We decided to go to the Victoria Memorial.

I dimly remember it as a white building with a museum gallery about how Calcutta was formed.  So we hopped in a yellow Ambassador Cab and were scooted away to the centre of the city.

Wow.  Most times when I see something after many years, it always seems smaller.

But this time was the opposite.  Was it having come from the austerity of the Mother House? Anyway, I don't remember at all the place being so huge, and lying in the middle of a massive expanse of open space.

We had to take an obligatory touristy picture with the lions (and sleeping dogs) that guard the memorial!

As  we walked along what seemed an endless space from the gate towards the main structure, we passed the crusty statue of a monarch long dead:  Queen Victoria (the then) Empress of India.

The contrast between this dead woman, the small shrivelled nun, who had emptied herself as her Lord did could hardly be greater.

Her royal doughtiness sits on her throne, with selfie-taking tourists arrayed in front of her (I cropped them out of this image of course).  For all the pomp and glory she enjoyed in her life-time, I doubt whether even 1 in 10 of the folks passing her statue even knows who she is.

At the base of her statue, is this rococo brass work (originally made for another statue - so perhaps an early example of recycle, reduce, reuse).

And the theme continues as we come close to what is a colossal building.

It just towers above you.

Inside, we are part of a stream of folks looking around.  There are statues galore - with a lysome young Victoria portrayed idealistically in her youth in the central done - and other royalty of that era (Princess Ann comes to mind) standing in life-size in various nooks and crannies.   We take the steps up to the viewing gallery in the cupola - and realise that it is a view down to the main floor, and a view up to 12 iconic paintings showing the key events of her Victoria's life - all the way from her christening with Bishops galore, to her funeral.  Ditto.  And Bishops in between too.

I looked at our fellow visitors.  Many seemed strangers to the big city.  Very few glanced up at her gilded life, as portrayed in the 12 art-deco scenes.  The memorial is huge, but few seem to grasp that this is a building to celebrate a great lady.

Reading the origins of the monument heightened the disconnect.  The inscription informed us that after the news of the death of Victoria came to India, the great and the good decided to raise a monument in her honour - so that the whole populus - native and european - could glory in her memory....   We were also informed that the funds for this vast project were raised by public subscription.

Initially I thought of little boys carrying collection boxes and raising funds.  But then I looked at the base of two of the royal statues.  "A gift of the Aga Khan" was inscribed on the base.  Public subscription thus probably meant milking the rich and powerful to make something dazzling.

Now, it's another matter that we don't seem to have made anything really noteworthy as a nation since the Brits marched back to Blighty three score and nine years ago.  We do understand that some collossal statue is being built in Gujarat of course, but will have to wait till it actually is constructed before making a comment.

But the deeper question for me was comparing these two ladies.

Who remembers Victoria anymore.  Yes, you can say that she died a century before Theresa of Calcutta did.  But then another famous British royalty died on the same day too.  Who remembers Princess Di these days?

But a simple, broken lady, who poured out her life in rigorous prayer and focused care for the broken and rejected is feted and remembered all over our land... and in many parts of the world.

As I wrote in the guestbook at the Mother House, I could not help be moved to tears by what others had written too.

I saw no such wonder - neither among the 'Native' nor in the (scattered) 'European' visitors - as they filed out of the cavernous Victoria Memorial.  Selfies - yes.  Tears of wonder - no.

The grand memorial to ole queen Vic is still in fairly good shape.   There is no ruin as Shelley talked about in his poem Ozymandias.... but at the same time, the very purpose of memorialising Victoria has lapsed as generations of Indians have grown up without her successors ruling over us.  So here the voice of the poet anyway:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

Far better, far deeper, far more reaching is to do small things in the face of God.

Theresa of Calcutta lived this out.  We have opportunities to do so like wise.

The US is choosing their leader as we type this out.  You and I can choose which of these two ladies we seek to emulate - the white-saried nun, or the ruler of the empire where the sun never sets.  Both lie in the grave, but one's life shines forth...


  1. Beautiful. Simply beautiful. Thank you for sharing, Andi!

    Yes, you nailed it: Will we exchange the glory of the eternal God for a few trifles that will perish with this world?

    And it seems we have.

    Yet, such was the state just before the 1st and 2nd Great Awakenings in America. And so I pray...


  2. Thanks for sharing, Andi. Very inspiring.