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A Holy Place, Where Long Ago a Young Nun Sat Under a Guava Tree

By Kenneth J. Cooper
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 14, 1997; Page A24

CALCUTTA, Sept. 13 "This is a holy place," Ashish Mazumdar whispered, motioning for visitors to remove muddy shoes and leave them outside on the doorstep.

Inside the tiny, neat room with a polished concrete floor, an entire wall is covered with photographs of Mother Teresa and her sayings. Near the opposite wall stands a wooden altar bearing small icons of Jesus Christ. It looks like a shrine, and it is.

What makes the room holy to Mazumdar and other residents of Motijheel, a Calcutta slum, is the memory of a historic event almost 50 years ago, long before the concrete walls were erected and the shiny tin roof was installed, long before Mother Teresa became "Mother" Teresa. This is the exact spot in Calcutta where the Albanian-born nun first began her fabled mission to serve the poorest of the poor.

"There used to be a tree here, and she used to sit under the tree and teach," Mazumdar explained. "She didn't have any copy books or slates so she used to write [in the dirt] with a stick." The tree was a guava tree that produced sweet tropical fruit. The time was December 1948, a few days before Christmas.

Mother Teresa had just left the cloisters of the nearby convent of the Irish Sisters of Loreto to establish what was to become the Missionaries of Charity. But she needed help, someone to summon slum children to receive her lessons. She asked Philomena Maity, who does not remember her age then, but said that at the time she was a young wife. "I said, 'If I call the kids, they won't come. I'll ask my husband to do it,'" Maity recalled. And they came.

Thus began the only school in Motijheel, where 2,000 families live along crowded narrow lanes that in some spots are not much wider than a car. Today, there was a stench from an open sewer. The Missionaries of Charity still operate Nirmala Motijheel School, where two nuns and five lay teachers provide instruction to a total of 300 kindergartners and first-graders.

The order's nuns also visit the homes of Motijheel's destitute and diseased once a month to give them cooking oil and bulgur wheat donated by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Because of the order's half-century of humanitarian assistance, Motijheel residents today gathered around the few televisions in the area, with as many as 50 people around a single set, to watch the funeral of Mother Teresa.

"We have to all get together and fulfill her task. Now that she is gone, we have to give love to everybody," Maity said, wiping tears from her eyes with the end of her sari.

Although Mazumdar has a Muslim name, he was born into a Catholic family and as lay supervisor of the slum's chapel, he received a ticket to attend the funeral at an indoor sports arena. A few hours after the funeral, the folded ticket was tucked into his shirt's breast pocket, close to his heart.

Limited access to the 13,000 seats in the arena aroused other emotions among some residents. "I have been a student here," Paltan Roy, 53, said as he sat in the holy room, tears welling in his eyes. "I should have at least gotten a ticket to the funeral. . . . I am not blaming Mother Teresa. She has always been good to us. But the Missionaries of Charity has not treated us well. We have been rejected."

As a little boy in short pants, Roy said, he used to accompany Mother Teresa on her rounds, helping carry milk to the homes of the poor. Now unemployed and dependent for financial support on his shopkeeper sons, Roy said he has offered to function as the school's physical education teacher, showing students how to play sports. "I am ready to do anything for this school," he said.

Some critics have complained that Mother Teresa did not try to transform the lives of the poor she served and to eliminate the root causes of their poverty. But Roy's commitment to the school represents just one sign that her example and message of helping the less fortunate has taken hold in Motijheel. So too has her religious tolerance.

The current school was built in the 1960s, for instance, on land donated by a relative of Maity's. Years ago, Mazumdar remembered, a Christian family in Motijheel whom Mother Teresa visited on Christmas Day offered her a heaping meal. She scolded the family and told them they should help feed their hungry Muslim neighbors. Then Mother Teresa took her meal next door and gave it to a Muslim family.

Most of Motijheel's residents, who scrape together a daily living as laborers and rickshaw pullers, are Hindus. The Missionaries of Charity has helped the slum's families, Hindu, Muslim or Christian. "Even when I was a kid, I never thought about it," Roy said. "Love has bound us together. I was never discriminated against even though I am a Hindu."

Friday evening, Roy joined Christians in a prayer service before an altar decked with marigold garlands and photos of Mother Teresa, next to the entrance to the school compound. Prayers have been offered there every evening since Sept. 6, the day after she died. Forty days from her death, Mazumdar said, he hopes to hold a larger prayer service on a muddy field that has to be crossed to reach the site where she began her mission to serve the world's poorest.

The Catholic with a Muslim name said Hindus and Muslims also would be invited.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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