In 1974, while I was posted in Calcutta, one morning, I received a phone call from Chairman T Thomas. He enquired if I had heard of one Mother Teresa. I had not, but told the chairman I would find out and get back to him.

Chandi Basu, the Calcutta branch manager, helped me locate Mother Teresa’s address. A few days later, Chandida (elder brother in Bengali) and I went to meet Mother, at the Mother House of the Missionaries of Charity. While we waited to see her, in walked a diminutive and slightly bent elderly lady, in a blue-bordered white sari. This was Mother Teresa of the Missionaries of Charity, in person.

We introduced ourselves and explained to her that we worked in HLL and that we had come to learn about her activities, on behalf of our chairman, Mr T Thomas. Mother responded enthusiastically and informed us that the ideal way to learn about the activities of the Missionaries of Charity would be, if we were able to spare the time, to spend the day with her, as she went about her work. Basu and I readily agreed and accompanied Mother on her daily rounds.

First, we drove to the ‘House for the Dying’, which is located right next to the famous Kalighat Temple. The enormous place is a hospice for the poor, who had been abandoned on the streets of Calcutta. The House for the Dying was a neat and spotlessly clean cavernous hall.

The environment in this hall exuded peace and silence. It is dedicated to the care of a large number of inmates, lying on very clean beds, in completely aseptic surroundings. There were close to a hundred beds, and a number of young doctors and sisters of the Missionary of Charity were busy attending to the seriously ill and some who were nearing death. It was a deeply moving experience for Chandida and me. No one fussed around Mother or us during our visit.

We then spent the next few hours going around with Mother and visited some other locations, which were all under the care of the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity.

One of my most stunning and deeply transformative experiences was our visit with Mother Teresa to a corrugated tin-roofed shelter with open sides, occupying a broad sidewalk near Sealdah station. A number of Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity were busily engaged in ministering to a large number of children of different ages. Mother told us that this place was a day-care shelter, for the children of beggars, plying in and around the Sealdah station.

There was a group of children in one corner of the shed, attending a study class being conducted by one of the Sisters, at the other end there were groups of children of different ages, being supervised by other Sisters attending to them. In another corner, there were a few children who were ill and they were being cared for by a different group of Sisters. One unusually frail baby amongst this sick group appeared seriously ill. Mother Teresa sat down on the floor and picked up this sick baby on her lap. Then she summoned me to squat next to her and gently placed the sick infant on my lap.

At first, I felt very flustered, not quite knowing what I was supposed to do. That was when Mother told me, ‘Dr Ganguly, the infant on your lap is dying; please smile, so that she carries your smile as her last mortal memory, along with her, to heaven.’

While the child was on my lap, I watched the life of the infant slowly ebbing away, and shortly the baby died on my lap. I was stunned by this experience and completely overwhelmed. I had never before encountered any incident such as this, or have ever since. I was in tears.

After spending the rest of the day with Mother Teresa, going around Calcutta, I returned home. I related to Connie about my encounter with Mother Teresa and the events of the day. My first experience of meeting Mother Teresa has left a lifelong impact on me. Whenever I recall the events of that first day, I always feel a sense of reverence, which has remained deeply rooted in me ever since. Also, since that day, Connie and I have remained committed to our lifelong attachment with the Missionaries of Charity. It began in Calcutta, continued in Bombay.

We remained in contact with Mother Teresa until her passing. While we lived in Calcutta, Connie regularly visited the Mother House and spent time assisting Sisters to prepare packets of medicine, meant for the different locations, in and around the city.

Mother had set up a large place for taking care of lepers, in Tiljala on the outskirts of Calcutta, as well as a number of other homes, for the poor and destitute. As well as several other locations, in India as well as abroad.

After we moved back to Bombay in January 1976, our interaction with Mother and Missionaries of Charity entered another phase. Mother persuaded Chairman Thomas to provide a space in a central location of Bombay city to set up a shelter and care home for the poor, the abandoned on the roadside and the sick of the city.

We located an old and very infrequently used set of warehouses of HLL during our search, which Mother Teresa felt were well suited for what she had in mind. My colleagues in the Bombay factory assisted in excellently sprucing up a couple of warehouses, in 1976. The location in the congested lane called Sankli Street, in central Bombay, was to be named as Asha Daan, and inaugurated by her on 8 January 1977. Mr Thomas, I and a large number of our factory employees and several residents of the locality came for the event.

Asha Daan was dedicated to the sick, the deformed and abandoned, including infants and children, who were to be looked after with love and care by a team of Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity.

Asha Daan was their new home, in Bombay. We also spruced up a smaller shed, and converted it into a residence for the Sisters of Asha Daan, along with a chapel, for their daily prayers. The place has since expanded and now accommodates over 400 men, women and children, who are sick, deformed and abandoned, but cared for with love and dedication by the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, and it is maintained by Hindustan Lever.

I am convinced that our family has been truly blessed, by the prayers of Mother Teresa and our association with her during her lifetime, and ever since by our association with the Missionaries of Charity. This is one of the most important episodes in my lifetime. As a family, we are truly blessed, by the love and prayers, showered on us, by Mother Teresa.

My father passed away on 7 January 1991, and Ma on 13 June 2001. On their death anniversaries every year, a special meal is served to all the inmates of Asha Daan, in my parents’ memory. Our association with Asha Daan will continue for as long as we live, and that of HUL, hopefully, forever.

NB: While my work on this manuscript was in progress, Connie tragically passed away on 28 October 2019. Our daughters and I plan to mark her remarkable life by arranging a special meal at Asha Daan every year on her birthday as well.

Afterness: Home and Away

Excerpted with permission from Afterness: Home and Away, Ashok Ganguly, Penguin Random House.