A Last Goodbye
09/29/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
DURGA PRASAD WAS RUNNING HARD ALONG the rills of mud and dung to keep up with the gun carriage bearing Mother Teresa's body, protected from the drizzle by a sheet of plastic, away from her extravagant state funeral. The Hindu businessman craned to see, but with mourners seven deep lining the sodden route to the convent where the woman revered as the "saint of the gutter" was to be buried, he could only glimpse the frill of red fans on the bodyguards' headgear. "We were pen pals, of a sort," said Prasad, 52, drenched with sweat and rain and clutching a white lotus—the flower that in India symbolizes divinity rooted in filth but rising to purity and light. "She wrote 30 letters to me."
Along the winding alleys and broad boulevards of Calcutta, the city Mother Teresa served selflessly for half a century, mourners similarly touched—numbering hundreds of thousands—vividly demonstrated their affection. White roses, gladioli and carnations were woven into memorial wreaths. Impromptu shrines were set up on the pavement. And hundreds of onlookers clambered up trees and onto rooftops for a last glimpse as her body passed below. "That's where the real funeral was," says John Roach, retired archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis and a member of the American delegation to the funeral. "In the streets."
Indeed, the ceremonies televised around the world from inside Netaji Indoor Stadium seemed incongruously regal and detached from the gritty realities and human suffering to which Mother Teresa had devoted so many of her 87 years. A military guard of honor placed her small, white coffin on the same World War II-era gun carriage that had borne Mahatma Gandhi, the father of Indian independence, to his funeral pyre. En route to the sports arena, police kept back the surging crowds that strained to touch the nun's rosary-entwined hands. The rich and the powerful—from the queens of Jordan, Belgium and Spain to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton—were seated in plush front-row chairs, while representatives of the afflicted, whom Mother Teresa cherished—a leper, a deaf man and an ex-prisoner—were ushered in to offer symbolic gifts of wine, bread and water.
Still, as only the second state funeral for a nongovernment leader in modern India's history, it was a remarkable tribute to the Albanian-born Mother Teresa's ability to transcend her Roman Catholicism (a religion shared by barely 3 percent of the country's population) by her example of human compassion. Fittingly, the tenderest gesture during the ceremony came as Sister Nirmala, 63, Mother Teresa's successor and her constant companion in recent years, passed by the casket for the last time. She touched the forehead of her spiritual mentor, then put her hand to her own lips. Nirmala, who officially converted from Hinduism 39 years ago, has refused to accept the title of Mother. Her task, she says, is merely to follow in Mother Teresa's footsteps. "We will be missing her physically," said Nirmala, "but she is still alive in our hearts."
In the week before the funeral and burial, some 60,000 mourners had come each day to St. Thomas Church to pay homage as the sari-clad nun who built the Missionaries of Charity into a worldwide order lay in state. Some were celebrities but most were ordinary Hindu Calcuttans—rickshaw pullers, ragged street children and schoolgirls with red ribbons in their hair—drawn by their belief in darshan, the idea that viewing a great personage bestows a mystical gift on the soul. For Archbishop Roach, 76, sitting before Mother Teresa's child-size coffin at the funeral had almost the same effect. "It's a remarkable example of the power of God," he said, "that someone so tiny could accomplish so much."
JAN McGIRK in Calcutta