A memoir

Twenty years have now passed since a Saint of the universal Church died and was translated to Heaven, from Calcutta. I remember it vividly, because I was soon there, as correspondent for a Canadian newspaper chain. I’d come away suddenly from a week of Princess Diana-mourning, through which I’d made myself increasingly unpopular by failing to “emote” in my op-ed columns. I was appalled by the show of mass-maudlin, in England and everywhere, and said as much; then sneered at the deluge of hate mail.

Calcutta (spelt “Kolkata” today, but not by me) was from my first immersion in its heat and squalour, nearly half a century ago, perhaps my favourite city. It would be hard to explain why. In a sentence, it seemed the purgatorial convergence of all human realities in space and time. The city’s crumbling palaces completed the effect; many juxtaposed with beggars’ hovels. (Now all is being crushed under glass and steel.) Too, I have a fierce if unaccountable love for the race (in the old ethnic sense) of Bengalis. Too, as I’d been fortunate to know from the start, it was the City of Teresa.

Two correspondents were sent from Canada to cover Mother Teresa’s funeral. The other, whom I need not name, had not been to Calcutta before. He took one good look around him, discovered that his hotel booking was worthless, and went right back to the airport, leaving all our readers to me alone. My own booking, in one of the city’s few hundred “first class” rooms, had also been cancelled. Hillary Clinton’s entourage, and the crews of the USA television networks, had appropriated them all, and even those guests already in situ were turned out to accommodate them. I was man-handled by the security detail of the ABC network — the usual pack of liberal and progressive goons.

But why waste time even trying to negotiate? An Indian concierge looked on me sadly — said there was nothing he could do against “these animals.”

Happily the town was familiar to me, and with my luggage I proceeded on foot up Chowringhee until I had found the old Raj hostelry called the Great Eastern, its air swished by rusting oil-sputter fans from high cracked-plaster ceilings. Now a government hotel, it was also booked out — for the Republic of India’s governing elite — but I knew I’d have a chance there. Theatrically declaiming my plight at the counter, the governor of the State of Kerala stepped forward to say he would share a room with his deputy, surrendering his own quarters to “our foreign guest.” This is the sort of thing that only happens in that country; why I have loved India so intensely.

I was exhausted from twenty-four sleepless hours of air travel, through multiple time zones and flight connexions, hungry and sweating like a white man, but also purpose-driven. Tossing my satchel on a marble floor, I hiked immediately to Mother House — on foot, because vehicular traffic was at rush-hour standstill. I joined the media mob outside the locked gate, nearly forfeiting my head to the swinging boom of a television camera. A diminutive Filipina nun was just inside the iron bars, explaining to the animals that no interviews would be given, and no journalists admitted. “This is a Christian convent,” she insisted, patiently. “There is no news here, please to go away.”

Then she caught sight of me, perhaps the least equipped of the mob.

“You look pale, you need a glass of water,” she said, then magically slipt me through. I found myself in a small crowded kitchen with a chapati and glass of tea. I was at the epicentre of some cosmic event, near a lady I soon identified as Sister Nirmala (Mother Teresa’s successor) among my new companions. I got to hear everything. One nun was on a telephone to Delhi — pointlessly demanding that all this State Funeral business be called off, in a colourful mixture of Bengali, Hindi, her native Tamil, and English.

Later, back in the lobby of the Great Eastern, I was now (alone among journalists) at command HQ for those official arrangements. Four miles of Calcutta boulevard were being swathed with thick bamboo fencing, for the parade route; and every single pothole filled. The ancient gun-carriage that had wheeled the corpses of Gandhi and Nehru was en route via the Indian Air Force. It was an incredible scene of army signals, into clunky field radios, spiralling around a turbaned officer with a classic handlebar moustache. His word was law. A vision of cool efficiency “under fire,” it was already the third miracle I had witnessed on the day.

My quiet Anglican prayers (as they then were) carried me along. A fourth miracle was my success in bribing a fax operator to transmit my extensive hand-written copy back to a newsroom in Ottawa, in precedence over Indian state papers. (My cutting-edge laptop had fritzed, of course.)

In the next couple of days, almost entirely without sleep or food, I scrambled, wrote, scrambled. Back home, the editors of the Ottawa Citizen transcribed what was perhaps the last hand-written copy a Canadian newsroom would ever receive — one of my pieces more than twenty pages (ending mid-sentence because the last page had jammed).

When I finally was able to pass out for three hours (awakened by a bearer for a trunk call from Canada) I needed minutes to shake myself awake. All I could remember from the previous evening was a moment of pause atop page seven, when I’d turned to pray, with great urgency: “Lord, you write this, for I cannot.” The rest might as well have been an experiment in “automatic writing.” I had no memory of doing it, and only much later, reading the tearsheets, did I discover (to my relief) that it was weirdly coherent.

That was the biggest miracle. In my life as a hack journalist I had no other experience like that. It was perhaps the closest I would ever come to being in God’s active service; to knowing He had a job for me, to witness what I was meant to see, and write it all down.