I have only been in Calcutta for a few hours when I ring home to find that my grandad has passed away. The timing could not have been worse because for the first time in my life I am travelling alone. I walk back from the telephone exchange with my head full of memories of the countless walks that my grandfather and I made over a period of 15 years. I am filled with a mixture of happy and sad feelings.
Arriving back at the guest house I retire to my room in a reflective mood. Sitting on the top bunk of my dingy bed I pick up my India, Lonely Planet book and beginning flicking through it with little enthusiasm. Although I am in a gloomy place I find myself attracted to a section of the guide book which talks about Mother Theresa and her Mission of Charities. The mission was set up by Mother Theresa in 1950 to help the homeless, the lepers, the hungry and the unwanted. At the bottom of the section there is a casual mention that if you go to her Mission of Charities at 5 a.m there is a glimmer of a chance that you may be able to meet Mother Theresa, if she is in the city. Apparently this is a big if because her constant crusade to help those in need takes her around the world as a regular occurrence. My interest is immediately captured and I make a decision to go to her mission the following morning. I am glad of the distraction and lie back full thoughts of meeting Mother Theresa, even though I believe this to be highly unlikely.
I am disturbed from my day dreams by the shaking of the bed frame underneath me. I crane my neck to check out the cause of this disturbance and I am confronted with a young Oriental guy who is occupying the bottom bunk. I spark up a conversation with him and although his English is not that great, I inform him of my plans for the following day. I think that he expresses an interest in coming but can't be too sure because of the language barrier. I do however establish that he is Japanese. Our conversation lasts for 15 minutes or so and eventually fizzles out. I resume my relaxed position on the top bunk, my thoughts filled with my grandads life, questions of mortality and the prospects of meeting Mother Theresa.
I am awoken by my alarm at 4.15 a.m and through half closed eyes I see the Japanese boy getting dressed. I have never been an early riser and had been sort of hoping that he had changed his mind, or simply misunderstood me in the first place. I amble from my bunk and get dressed. The dorm is full of sleeping bodies which means that there is no communication between my new Japanese friend and I. We exit the room together.
We can see from the Lonely Planet map that we are not too far away from the Mission of Charities and we miraculously make it there without incident. For those of you that have been to Calcutta you will realise that this was no mean feat. Even at 4.30 in the morning the place is literally buzzing with life and in some cases death. There are beggars that defy description literally everywhere, whole families sleeping on the street, people showering in the jet of the a broken water pipe and lepers reaching out for help, their eyes filled with the look of defeat.
When travelling through developing countries you almost get blase to these sorts of sights, If you let it get to you, it would literally destroy you. There is so much poverty, pain and utter devastation that it is impossible and dangerous to focus on any one issue. I guess that this is where Mother Theresa differed. She came to Calcutta from Albania, saw the utter desperation which permeates the city and decided that she could not allow this to happen. She dedicated her life to trying to help the people that I now saw before me.
We tentatively ring the doorbell of Mother Theresa's Mission of Charities and wait. There are few words between my latest travel partner and I, but we can both sense each others nervous excitement. We hear foot steps approaching and turn to look at each other. I see my own thoughts reflected in his eyes. What was the next hour going to bring? Would our early morning endeavours be rewarded by a glimpse of Mother Theresa? I suspect very strongly that I will be back in my hostel bunk within an hour, disappointed at our failed mission. As the door opens a flash thought enters my mind that maybe Mother Theresa will be standing behind it. The look on my Japanese friends face reveals that this has been a shared thought.
One of Mother Theresa's nuns invites us into the building and beckons for us to follow her. We are walked through the convent and led up some stairs. At the top off the stairs there is a large sign emblazoned across the wall, warning us that camera's are not allowed beyond this point. I have mixed feelings about this sign. On the one hand it re-ignites my excitement in the fact that Mother Theresa may well be around but on the other hand a feel guilt because I have a camera in my pocket. Beyond the sign, we are ushered into a fairly large room which is half full of nuns who are all sitting on the floor. We find a space on the floor and sit down amongst the nuns. My eyes glance around the room and I notice that we are not the only tourists in room. A middle aged couple sit in the corner of the room and at first glance I assume that they are American. The male half of the couple notices me looking at him and raises his hand to let on to me.
We have been sat in the room in absolute silence for about 10 minutes and I have fallen into a medative state, which vaguely resembles sleep. I am awoken from my quiet moment by the prodding finger of my Japanese friend and takes me a while to mentally piece together where I am. A Mother Superior type figure is stood at the front of the room and mass has commenced. At this point I give up on any hopes of seeing Mother Theresa because I assume that if was going to be around, she would now be delivering the mass. Inisde my mind, I am hoping that the mass will finish so that I can get back in my bed. I am fighting to keep my eyes open with the sound of the mass having a soporific affect on me.
I estimate that it is 20 minutes into the mass when the double doors of the room are opened and everybody's attention is immediately cast in that direction. The atmosphere distinctly changes, an energy seems to flow through the room and I am instilled with a ripple of excitement. The unmistakable small framed, extremely hunched figure of Mother Theresa comes walking into the room and heads in my direction. I look around and it is only now that I notice that the only space in the room is right next to me. My Japanese friend looks at me and I look back at him. Is this actually happening? That question is answered when Mother Theresa plonks herself right down next to me, leaving me in complete and utter shock. She remains there for the rest of the mass and I have an overwhelming urge to reach out my toe and touch her. My foot slides closer and closer to her rear but I am too scared to go the last inch. Just as I summon up courage the mass ends and Mother Theresa stands up.
The next 5 minutes turn out to be the most surreal of my whole life. The Western couple in the corner of the room jump up and in the blink of an eye, the guy has whipped out a massive SLR camera and literally nailed Mother Theresa with the flash of his camera. She is walking out of the room at the time but is stopped in her tracks and illuminated. I expect a backlash from this given the large sign at the top of the stairs and the countless signs littered around the room warning of use of camera's. However Mother Theresa takes it all in her stride and says nothing. For the next couple of minutes she is hit from every camera angle possible by all 4 cameras of the tourists in the room. At one point she disappears and we all think that her patience has reached it's limit. However, she returns within minutes with gifts of rosary beads and bibles for us. I ask if I can have a photo with her and to my absolute amazement she lets me put my arm around her and get a photo.
We walk back to the hostel in disbelief of what has just happened. Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think that was going to be the outcome. As we walk down streets full of beggars and lepers I am instilled with a deep admiration for Mother Theresa and her mission to help the poor of Calcutta. I am deep in contemplation about the absurdity of the world and it's terrible disparities, when a rickshaw comes riding past me. The guy pulling the rickshaw is emaciated and as I later fnd out, has an average life expectancy of 40 years old. Conversely, the guy being pulled is fat and will no doubt live to a ripe old age. There are no answers to many of the worlds problems but turning our backs on the problems is a sure fire way to ensure that they remain.
Fast forward 3 years, to late August 1997. Princess Di has just lost her life in a car crash in the Alma tunnel in Paris and the world is in mass mourning. Princess Di is the darling of the press, her pictures adorning every magazine for almost 20 years. A week later whilst the world mourns the "Queen of hearts", a real "Queen of hearts" slips away in her Calcutta home. In the shock waves of Princess Diana's death, Mother Theresa's death passes by virtually unnoticed.