TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIDDHARTH SUNDAR
My paternal grandfather, TS Swaminathan, whom I call Thatha, was born in Palakkad, Kerala, in 1933. He is the second eldest of the five siblings – they were three brothers and two sisters – and was raised in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, where he also finished his schooling. His first job was in 1951, in Coimbatore, after which he moved to Calcutta in 1954, where he did his B. Com from City College, Calcutta (evening college). He also passed the Eastern Railways competitive exam in 1956 and was posted as a Stenographer in Calcutta. In September 1959, he resigned from his job in the railways and got a better job in Tatas Calcutta, again as steno. Due to his constant efforts and commitment to his work, he was gradually promoted to Accounts and Admin Officer. In 1967, he was married to my late grandmother and just before my father’s birth in 1971, they moved to Madras with my aunt.
In January 1971, Thatha was transferred from Calcutta to Madras as Factory Manager of Tata’s Pesticides Factory. Alongside this, he had additional responsibilities as the Admin Manager for the entire South, in charge of all four southern states.
Due to the transfer, he had to shuffle between the two cities a few times. In December 1970, he flew Indian Airlines from Madras to Calcutta in a Fokker F27 (Dutch made) aircraft which could carry about 50-60 people. Once he boarded the flight, he found the seat next to him empty, until a few minutes later, Mother Teresa boarded the flight and sat beside him. My Thatha stood from his seat and reverentially with hands folded, said, “Namasthe Mother”. In response to this, Mother Teresa said, “My friend, may God be with you.”
Thatha recalls Mother Teresa was reciting verses from the Holy Bible for the better part of the flight. A few minutes before the pilot announced that they would be starting the descent, Mother Teresa made brief enquiries about my Thatha’s work. Most people were already well acquainted with her work of serving the poor and destitute around the world. Mother Teresa moved to Calcutta in 1929 where she was first a teacher and subsequently the headmistress of a convent school, and later went on to establish the Missionaries of Charity, a religious organization devoted to helping those in great need. Wanting to donate to her cause, Thatha handed over Rs 101 and said, “Please accept this as my humble contribution”. Mother Teresa again blessed him and gracefully accepted it. And, she also asked for his address which she took note of just behind her boarding pass.
My Thatha did not expect Mother Teresa to write him at all. But after two weeks or so, once he was transferred to Madras, he received a signed letter by Mother Teresa at his Madras office. The letter conveyed gratitude and how his contribution helped several children at the Missionaries of Charity. Thatha was absolutely overwhelmed to read the letter and still cherishes that he got an opportunity to meet and her. The document itself, of course, has become somewhat of a treasure.
It is a typical, rectangular ink-jet paper, pale white in colour, 20 cm x 12 cm in size. The letter has been altered by punching holes in its side, but apart from that, remains unchanged. It has a stamp which reads Missionaries of Charity, Calcutta at the top right, and mid-way along the letter, in Mother Teresa’s handwriting, it reads “God bless you” along with her signature.
I was probably a teenager when he narrated this incident to me, and initially, I thought how lucky my Thatha was to have sat next to her. I always thought the story ended with him donating the money, but never knew that she had written to him. What startles me even now is that Mother Teresa actually took the time to write my grandfather a letter, which was indeed a grand gesture of acknowledgement. Although the content of the letter is quite crisp, the sentiments attached to it mean a lot, especially for Thatha. The document is still in good shape, for the most part, considering it is 40 years old. My Thatha being a very meticulous man makes sure that he preserves items that are close to him, and this letter is no different. In fact, it has been laminated and kept in his personal files. Every time there is a conversation in the family about meeting renowned people during travel, he makes sure he narrates this incident.