'In the poor we have been united'

It was a very Indian affair, says Peter Popham, as the people of Calcutta claimed Mother Teresa for their own

In The shuttered ground floor of the nondescript four-storey concrete block that all Calcutta knows as the Mother House, Mother Teresa was buried shortly before 3pm yesterday. After the pomp and bombast of the military honours that preceded it, the funeral was a family affair, attended only by sisters of her order and other clergy.

But so many hundreds of nuns had arrived from around the world that Mother House was barely able to contain them. The narrow drive to the entrance was a sea of saris, and several times the police halted the flow, fearing for their safety. But finally they were all swallowed up, and then a fusillade from the Gurkha Rifles lined up outside told Calcutta and the world that the most famous nun of the century had finally passed from view.

From early in the morning the crowds had gathered. "We are confident, I say, and willing," declared the hand-written posters on walls near St Thomas Church, where Mother Teresa's body had been on view all week, "rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord." But although Mother Teresa was a very orthodox Catholic, this was not a crowd suffused with Christian feeling - after all, in a city of more than 10 million, a bare 30,000 are Catholics.

People had all sorts of explanations for why they had come. "I came to see the line," one man said simply. "She was a goddess," said another. "She was an incarnation of Jesus Christ" said a third. "We want to see her body," said one teenager, "she's famous, that's why we've come." He carried a home-made poster declaring in block capitals: "Dearest Mother Teresa and Diana, we will not forget you, we will remember you as long as we live."

Sheer fame certainly had a lot to do with it. An elegant lady in a brown silk floral patterned sari, clasping umbrella, sketch pad, pens and a camera, fought her way with flashing eyes to the front of the crowd outside the church. She took snaps, then opened the sketch pad and dashed down the scene of military jeeps and Rajput pipers. "I need to draw this," she said, her hand moving furiously across the page. "I'm writing poetry on this, it started with Diana poems and went on to Teresa poems... In London years ago I walked and walked your streets trying to catch Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. I've queued for days to see Duke Ellington..." I forgot to ask her whether he was dead or alive at the time.

Many others came from a more personal motive. A Hindu businessman ("very Hindu," he affirmed) called Anil Khanna said, "I sent a contribution to Mother every month, and I always got a note back in her own handwriting." His wife, Rani, added, "We always used to help with the children at her home. She was sent by God to do her mission, it will be very hard to replace her."

Shortly after 8.45am, Mother Teresa's coffin, the lid removed and her head raised so the profile of her face was clearly visible, was carried from the church and placed on the gun carriage that has only twice has done such service before, once for Gandhi and once for Nehru. Of course, neither of them were military types either, but the slight discord between the dash and finery and elan of the Rajputs and Gurkhas, and the sorry, sober demeanour of the gently milling flock of nuns, was to persist throughout the day, until the soldiers finally yielded Mother up to her own in the afternoon.

By nine o'clock the cortege was under way, moving slowly through the cleared streets of Britain's old Indian capital, still, in its fantastic decay, so English in all important respects. This is the affluent commercial heart of the city, sanitised by the broad expanse of the Maidan, Calcutta's huge park, and a long way from the disease-infested alleys where Mother Teresa's work with the destitute and dying began 47 years ago. But among the ordinary working Calcuttans lining the route her constituents were at hand, too.

Small, emaciated, dressed in fraying vest and pants, Kasu D'Souza greeted me with a muddy eyed smile. Formerly a fisherman and merchant seaman in Goa on the other side of the country, he came to Calcutta a year ago with his wife and two children in search of work.

"For one month I found no job, so every morning at six o'clock with a thousand other people I got breakfast from Mother Teresa, potato, tomato, flour, beans, beef and rice. Then I got a job in a plastics factory, making 80 rupees (pounds 1.50) for an eight-hour day. I worked there for four months, then there was a strike! Red flag! Christ!

"Now I hang about in the streets, push a car if it breaks down, make 30 or 40 rupees a day. It's not enough. So every day I go to Mother for breakfast. But for the past eight days I don't go there, because she's dead. I know they're still giving out food, but it's not the same. I don't like it."

Half an hour later inside Nettaji Stadium, another D'Souza, the Rt Rev Henry D'Souza, Archbishop of Calcutta, led the prayers of VIPs and 12,000 other guests for Mother Teresa's soul, while a choir of nuns from the Missionaries of Charity sang plangent Indian hymns, and "Abide With Me", her favourite, over and over again.

During the ecumenical part of the service, speakers from India's various religions, including Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Parsis, paid homage to her work. Although there are 4,000 sisters and 600 Missionaries of Charity homes in over 100 countries, Mother Teresa made sure that her organisation's roots were deep in Indian soil and in its determined inclusiveness the service was a very Indian affair.

Sister Nirmala, Teresa's anointed successor as superior-general of the Missionaries of Charity, had her baptism of fire on Friday at her first press conference, when journalists peppered her with questions about condoms and tainted money. Yesterday she had it easier, recalling their beginnings on what the nuns call "Inspiration Day", when in 1946 en route to Darjeeling Mother Teresa heard God telling her to start a new order.

"All of us feel ouselves to be among her children, even the Archbishop here today called himself her son," she said. "We appreciate the honour of this service as a gesture of the Indians' great love for her, we pledge ourselves to carry on the work."

After Hillary Clinton, the Duchess of Kent and the other guests of honour had laid wreaths around the coffin, the Archbishop of Calcutta drew the proceedings to a close. His theme, almost inevitably, was poverty. "The common bond of those coming here was the poor," he said. "In the poor we have been united. Mother Teresa accepted the Nobel Prize in the name of the poor, and she said, when we serve the poor we are united with each other... Thank you, the poor of Calcutta, who created Mother Teresa."

Outside, the moist sunny heat of the morning had dissolved into a heavy monsoon shower. But the crowds continued to grow, for the opportunities to glimpse that holy face were fast slipping away. A gang of ragged boys, the leader holding her portrait, galloped wildly through the crowd, chanting, "We want to see her again! We want to see her again!"

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