`She makes me a bad Marxist, makes me believe in godliness'

Saugata Roy | TNN | Sep 5, 2016, 04.29 PM IST

A Marxist, Jyoti Basu stayed way from the funeral mass at Netaji Indoor Stadium, but attended mother's last journey.

How do a Catholic and a communist get along,"people often wondered while discussing the mu tual respect that Mother Teresa and Jyoti Basu had for each other. Basu was a Communist and atheist. Mother was a Catholic nun with an unflinching belief in God. Yet, Basu's doors were always open for Mother, who used to call on the chief minister at Writers' Buildings without hesitation. Once, she was even allowed to interrupt a cabinet meeting because she needed to meet Basu urgently. "We share a love for the poor," Basu would say in reply to the query. In his book on the Mother, `Messiah of the Poor', B K Chaturvedi quotes Basu as saying: "She makes me a bad Marxist since she makes me believe in godliness."

When Mother addressed Basu, she would prefix `My friend' before she took his name. The mutual understanding has a parallel in Cuba, where Fidel Castro in 1992 welcomed churchgoing Catholics to join the Communist Party of Cuba, shunning the "atheist" tag on communists. Known as a liberal among Mar xists, Basu didn't give up his Marxist identity though. He stayed away from the Mass before Mother's last journey at Netaji Indoor Stadium, where dignitaries like US First Lady Hillary Clinton, opposition leader Atal Behari Vajpayee had assembled to pay tribute. Basu joined the programme only after the Missionaries of Charity spokesperson announced in the stadium: "The Mother will now begin her last journey".

A retired state bureaucrat recoun ted how Basu worked from behind to give Mother Teresa a fitting farewell.He micro-managed the entire programme and also gave the Missionaries of Charity the go-ahead to keep her remains at Mother House, something that usually doesn't happen under the law.

In the book `Seeking Christ in the Crosses & Joys of Aging', Ronda Chervin recounts an incident when Basu called up the Mother asking her to provide a home for some destitute women who were languishing in prison for the want of a better place. She immediately took in 40 and provi sions were made to build a home for them on the land provided by the government.

Former election commissioner Navin Chawla, who was Mother's biographer, recounts how on one occasion when Mother was visiting Delhi, she fell ill and had to be admitted to a hospital. For a week that she was there, Chawla recalls, Basu called every day . When she was hospitalised in Kolkata, Basu would discreetly drop by and speak to the doctors.

It must be sheer providence that Mother House and Pramode Dasgupta Marxist Education Centre exist cheek by jowl. While the former was Mother Teresa's residence and continues to be the nunnery where relatively new entrants to the Missionaries of Charity are trained, the latter is, as the name suggests, a centre that trains comrades.

Basu and Mother Teresa: a special association

January 19, 2010

A file photo of 1994 shows veteran Communist leader and former West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu with Mother Teresa at a function in Kolkata.

As Kolkata mourns and prepares for the “shesh jatra” (final journey) of veteran Marxist leader Jyoti Basu on Tuesday, many are reminded of a public funeral more than a decade ago, when Mr. Basu, as the West Bengal Chief Minister, came to offer a wreath to Mother Teresa to sustained applause from a stadium full of people.

“The special association between Jyoti Basu and Mother Teresa was marked by a mutual admiration that they felt for each other. As far as Mr. Basu was concerned, there were standing instructions that should she ever seek an appointment with him, there was to be no delay,” said Joykrishno Ghosh, a personal aide of Mr. Basu since 1977.

Mr. Basu always tried to be supportive of her work and personally oversaw the arrangements for her funeral, Mr. Ghosh said.

“She makes me a bad Marxist since she makes me believe in godliness,” is what Mr. Basu reportedly remarked after one of their frequent meetings, according to Messiah of the Poor, a book on the life of Mother Teresa by B. K. Chaturvedi.

The remarkable, if somewhat paradoxical relationship between the Catholic nun, now known as Blessed Teresa of Kolkata, and the committed Communist leader is well known and widely written about.

In the book, Seeking Christ in the Crosses & Joys of Aging, Ronda Chervin recounts an incident when Mr. Basu called up Mother Teresa asking her to provide a home for some destitute women who were languishing in prison for the want of a better place. She immediately took in 40 of them and provisions were made to build a home for them on the land provided by the government.

Mother Teresa was once allowed to interrupt a Cabinet meeting when she needed to meet Mr. Basu urgently, film-maker T. Rajeevnath, who has been planning a film on the life of Mother Teresa over the past few years, told The Hindu over the telephone.

“A year ago I was surprised to receive a call from Jyoti Basu’s secretary. Jyoti Babu had read media reports about my film and called me up to assure me that the whole of Bengal will be with me if I made my film. Such was his regard for her,” Mr. Rajeevnath said. 

JYOTI BASU & MOTHER TERESA: An unusual friendship

THE HINDU, January 19, 2010 02:08 IST

Mother Teresa invariably prefixed "my friend" before she took Jyoti Basu's name.

Asked what he, a Communist and atheist, could possibly have in common with Mother Teresa for whom God was everything, Jyoti Basu said with a smile: “We both share a love for the poor.”

The Hindu requested Navin B. Chawla, Chief Election Commissioner of India and Mother Teresa’s biographer, to share his insights into the remarkable friendship between Jyoti Basu and the founder of the Missionaries of Charity:

During the course of writing a biography on Mother Teresa, I asked Chief Minister Jyoti Basu what he, a Communist and atheist, could possibly have in common with Mother Teresa for whom God was everything. With a smile that reached his eyes, he said: “We both share a love for the poor.” For her part, Mother Teresa invariably prefixed the words “My friend” before she took his name.

From the legendary Chief Minister of West Bengal, Dr. B.C. Roy, who first recognised her work, to the equally legendary Jyoti Basu who was always available to her when she needed him, Mother Teresa’s work in the city that was beloved of her, could not have been possible to the extent it was without their understanding and their support. It is not that the Missionaries of Charity did not spread their wings to almost 600 centres in 123 countries around the world. It is that Kolkata was her epicentre, the city she identified as her home.

On one occasion when Mother Teresa was visiting Delhi, she fell ill and had to be admitted to a city hospital. For a week that she was there, I was at her bedside and also became her link to the besieged hospital switchboard; there were no mobile phones in those days. With unfailing regularity, Jyoti Basu rang each day to enquire after her health. When I once told him that she repetitively said to me, “Let me go back to Kolkata, I will be all right there,” he laughed understandingly.
On another occasion, when she was admitted to the Woodlands Nursing Home in Kolkata, I saw him enter without fuss, meet Doctor Bardhan and the Sisters, make an enquiry and quietly leave. One of Mother Teresa’s senior-most companions, Sister Gertrude, said to me: “He does not miss a single day.”

In turn, whenever he was unwell, she would visit him in the nursing home or at his house, say a prayer and leave. The good wishes of the one and the prayers of the other complemented each other both in sickness and in health.

On one of my visits to Kolkata, Mother Teresa asked me whether I had been to Tengra. She explained that the Chief Minister had asked her to take charge of about 400 women inmates of the Kolkata jail, many of whom had been undertrials for long years; others were mentally ill. In her practical way, she asked him for some land. He gave her about 11 acres in Tengra, near the leather tanneries.

When I visited it, she had already created a haven of peace and tranquillity. Just four of her Sisters had taken charge. The women were finally at peace. Tengra was a visible demonstration that both spoke the same language.

In July of 1997, when I was a mere Joint Secretary in the government, I sought an appointment with the then Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister; I do not know what made me do it. I told him that Mother Teresa was very sick and did not have much time left to live. Having nursed her once in Delhi, I had also become distantly acquainted with the halls of power that called with unfailing regularity seeking a health bulletin.

I knew that many of these callers would come to her funeral, and there could be a protocol nightmare. I added that no matter where she passed away, the Sisters would bring her to Kolkata for her burial there. “Leave it with me,” he said adding that he would need to be in touch with Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, as he would need to look into all the arrangements.

She died about two months later on September 5 that year. I was told later that Jyoti Basu had been alerted some weeks earlier. When my family and I attended the memorial service and the funeral in Kolkata, everything went off like clock work.

Later on, my batchmate and friend S.N. Menon, Secretary to the Chief Minister, told me of the correspondence and work that began at the West Bengal end. During the first part of the actual ceremony, where religious rites were also being administered, Jyoti Basu chose not to be present. Like a good communist, he entered at exactly the moment when these ended, and the civic part of the ceremony began. But I saw his imprint in every last detail.

And when at the very last, the Missionaries of Charity Sisters asked for special permission to bury Mother Teresa at Motherhouse, her headquarters at Acharya Jagdish Chandra Bose Road, that permission too he accorded.

He gave his friend Mother Teresa a befitting farewell.