Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, or Mother Teresa as she came be known later, was born in Skopje, then part of the Ottoman Empire but now the capital of the Republic of Macedonia, on August 26, 1910, and moved to Kolkata in her 20s, going on to establish the Missionaries of Charity that served as a beacon of light for the destitute and the underprivileged.
Swami Vivekananda, born Narendra Nath Datta, was a spiritual leader who created an awakening in the youth of India, his place of birth in Kolkata on January 12, 1863 now housing the Ramakrishna Mission, named after Ramakrishna Paramahamsa whose follower and chief discipline Vivekananda was.
The Eden Gardens, a wonderful cricketing monument that has served as the theatre of many a dream, was established in 1864 and has come to be known as the Mecca of cricket in India, which can host 67,000 spectators and is at once India’s biggest and loudest cricketing stadium.
Mother House, where Mother Teresa spent the better part of a half a century, the Ramakrishna Mission, and the Eden Gardens might appear singularly unconnected to each other, but his admiration for Mother Teresa’s work, his respect for the Swamiji’s teachings, and his love for cricket led to Brian Lara connecting the dots on a frenetic Sunday (November 10) afternoon in sweltering heat.
Lara was to have been one of the guests of honour during the fourth and fifth days of the first India-West Indies Test at the Eden, scheduled to end on Sunday. Instead, by the time he boarded his flight to Kolkata on Friday night, West Indies had been beaten by a mile. Lara had the option of rescheduling his visit and landing directly in Mumbai, but he chose to fly out to Kolkata nevertheless, mainly because he wanted to take in these three stops.
The former West Indian skipper was scheduled to arrive at Mother House at 10.30 am, but by the time he entered, in green trousers and a smart white tee-shirt, it was well past noon. The morning had been taken up by a round of golf at the Royal Calcutta Golf Club in the southern part of the city, but long before he arrived at Mother House, all was in readiness to greet the Caribbean superstar.
Sisters at the prayer hall that surrounds Mother Teresa’s tomb had to request, politely but more than once, the assembled media corps – their patience quickly running out with every passing minute — for silence. All this, even as people of all ages and religion and various demographics streamed in and out noiselessly, paying their respects by kneeling in front of the tomb, resting their hands and head and cheek on the off-white marble top and losing themselves in the moment.
Eventually, when Lara did make an appearance, the mood changed. The sisters, not unused to celebrity visitors, were their normal selves but the gathered media as well as regular visitors were overcome with excitement. Just off the area housing the tomb stood upwards of 100 boys and girls with rose petals in their hands, their faces breaking into 1000-watt smiles as Lara walked in. One of the girls from an orphanage run by Biswarup Dey, the treasurer of the Cricket Association of Bengal, came forward with a foot and a half long green candle which Lara lit with some difficulty, another gave him the rose petals which he offered the tomb before standing with his hands folded in the traditional Indian Namaste.
The serenity of the sisters and the composure of the young kids was in stark contrast to the elbowing involving journalists, photographers and television cameramen all looking for vantage positions, even as a seemingly unaffected Lara then offered flowers to the statue of Mother Mary and signed in the visitors’ book before heading for the Ramakrishna Mission.
It’s no more than a 20-minute drive, almost twice the time Lara spent at the Missionaries of Charity, from Mother House to the Ramakrishna Mission, but it was the drive of half a lifetime – the second half was to come soon – as we chased down the Scorpio that ferried Lara there. Manic driving kept the Scorpio within sight even as accidents were avoided literally by the proverbial hair’s breadth, and we made it to the Ramakrishna Mission just in time to see Lara pray in front of Swami Vivekananda’s statue before being whisked inside for a first-hand glimpse of where the Swamiji spent his early days.
The Ramakrishna Mission, Swami Vivekananda’s Ancestral Home and Cultural Centre, is housed in a busy part of Kolkata – is there any other? – at Bidhan Sarani, on the main road, with buses and trams looming over cars and tempos and two-wheelers. As Lara’s vehicle came to a stop, so did the traffic. For once, there was no honking, there was no exchange of words, no one was in a hurry to go anywhere. By the time Lara came out of the building, more than 500 people had gathered on the outside. They didn’t want to touch him or speak to him or seek an autograph; just the sight of Lara, maybe a distant photograph with their cell phone camera – that sufficed.
With Andrew Berry, his friend, in tow, Lara waved to his fans and was then bundled in to the Scorpio, which took him to his final destination of the whistle-stop tour. The Eden was still decked up – the exhibition of photographs of Sachin Tendulkar in various moods dotted the entrance, the wax statue by sculptor Susanta Ray still lorded over the foyer. Lara strode over to the statue of his good friend, posed happily for pictures and then ducked inside the clubhouse, only to surface on the vast outfield at the Eden.
Purposefully, he strode towards the pitch on which the Test was played but which has since been watered in preparation for Bengal’s next Ranji Trophy match at home, starting on November 14. He told the Cricket Association of Bengal officials with him, “One of my great regrets is that I have never played a Test match at the Eden. I think you guys should roll out a batting paradise and organise a veterans’ match. Sachin will score 200, dada (Sourav Ganguly) will make 150 and I will make 125.”
On his way out, Lara charmed the groundstaff by putting his arms around them and grinning widely for numerous photographs and, having offered nothing more than his charming smile to the assembled media personnel, gingerly waded through the crowd to get into the Scorpio again to return to the safe but unexciting confines of his hotel room. As the vehicle reached the main gate, he was noisily greeted by another 200 fans who had somehow come to know that the West Indian genius was in their midst. Lara again waved enthusiastically, the smile never leaving his eyes. West Indies’ capitulation might have pained him, but the passion for cricket in the City of Joy, coupled with his humbling visits to Mother House and the Ramakrishna Mission, had made it an afternoon to remember. For Lara, and for those of us who maniacally followed the Lara trail, putting life and limb on the line for no discernible reason, actually.