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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 24, New Delhi, May 29, 2021

Saving Mother Teresa. . . | Sujit Chakraborty

Saturday 29 May 2021

by Sujit Chakraborty

This is the real-life story of how one single newspaper report had saved Mother Teresa when she was fighting for life in a Calcutta hospital in 1989, down with Plasmodium falciparum. It is an intriguing story of medical games, first by a team of doctors who could do nothing to bring her back from the jaws of almost sure death, and then a second round of end-game by a top doctor in replacing that team by his own team headed by his wife

A deep, sinking feeling gripped my heart as I decided to take the elevator one last time that evening at the Woodlands Hospital in South Central Calcutta. It was 9.30 pm. Mid September, 1989. All I knew was that I would lose my job within the next 24 hours. For I had no clue why Mother Teresa was ill, due to what, and what was her true condition at the moment.

“So Sujit, what are the stories you are working on?”

That was Mr Shenoy, my editor, the Editor-in-Chief of Sunday Mail.

Actually, Sunday Mail was a grand experiment at the beginning of the 1990s. The Indian media scenario was bursting with new, highly paying newspapers coming up.: Sunday Mail I was to be a four-metro weekly broadsheet, functioning out of Delhi, and Mr Shenoy was the editor in chief. The title of the paper had been bought over from the Kapoors by Sanjay Dalmia, scion of the Dalmia Group, though formally, the publisher was one Mr Shams-uz-Zaman.

It is important to mention here that though the Dalmias had bought the title from the Kapoors in Delhi, the work on actually publishing four simultaneous editions had not yet started. We were still running an old, Delhi version only.

To coordinate the work of the four editions, Mr Shenoy, who was a globally connected editor of major repute, would hop over from Delhi to the three other metros every month. And as was his usual routine, in Calcutta, he would meet me for breakfast at around nine in the morning. Later, he would meet our Calcutta edition Bureau Chief Barnali Mitra for lunch; and finally, the entire team including circulation and marketing teams would have a jamboree in the evening. So that is why I was there for breakfast with Mr Shenoy that morning at the Oberoi Grand.

***

“So Sujit, what are the stories you are working on?”

Very excited, I told Mr Shenoy of all the nasty things happening in politics in the state; how the CPIM had been destroying the state, giving instances and informing him of all the brilliant sources I had who’d give me the evidences... “Sir, every government everywhere uses the underworld, as and when needed; but it is only in Bengal that the CPIM has integrated the underworld into the body-polity,” I said, feeling rather self-important.

Mr Shenoy, with his fabled smile hanging from his lips and that sparkle in his eyes, listened on, seeming (at least to me) to be suitably impressed.

Meanwhile, breakfast had arrived, and I was sure I would regale in the eggs, bacon, sausage, butter and jam, washed down with coffee, that morning at the Grand.

Instead, the next moment onwards, I realised that it was I who’d be had for breakfast! 
Mr Shenoy had a unique quality: he never, almost never lost his temper, and he served the severest stricture smilingly, making it seem like a joke. But that, in fact, put people on tenterhooks: was he happy, or was he annoyed?

“Very good,” he smiled at me... “in fact, wonderful”, he said... “your work on politics, I mean, sounds great”. Then he sat his knife and fork on his plate, leaned back into his sofa, smiled and asked me: “And what about Mother Teresa?”

Mother Teresa? Yes, of course, I had read she had been unwell and all that... and she was in Woodlands Hospital and all that... and daily medical bulletins about her latest health status had become part of TV news and all that... All that I knew, but Sunday Mail was a political newspaper, so what about Mother Teresa? Why Mother Teresa, when the rotten, underworld-infested body-polity of the CPIM was begging to be exposed.... Where did Mother Teresa fit in?

“This is nice, Sujit, very nice that you think Mother Teresa is not worth a report,” Mr Shenoy smiled again. “Do you know that all the five-star hotels in the city `are packed with reporters from across the world for the last fifteen days, and that when I flew in last night, I did not find a room anywhere, and I got this room here because I am a personal friend of Rai Bahadur Oberoi (Mohan Singh Oberoi, the owner of the Oberoi chain of hotels and resorts)? Do you know the absolute gap in news even to the Pope on what is happening to Mother?”

I did not. As flat as that. And I said so. I had no idea that it was a much bigger prize for a reporter than the underbelly of the corrupt ‘Marxists’.

So the next words of command were that he needed to know what has happened to Mother, from when, who all were treating her (along with their credentials as well as photographs), what is her heart condition, along with a drawing of the progression of her angina’s latest state, what is the treatment going on, what is the prognosis...

A legend of journalism laid out before me the manner in which the reporter needs to ask unending questions and seek answers to all of them.

And then the Mohammed Ali punch, smiling, though: “I am sure if you have so many good contacts in politics, you will be able to find all this out. I give you 36 hours. If you can file the report, that is fine. If you can’t, then look for a job from day after. And that,” he blessed me with his terrorising smile again, “is final.” Wham!

Before I could cursingly finish my breakfast, though, Mr Shenoy said: “I also do not know what is wrong with her. Just that my sources tell me that she had been touring some Latin American countries before falling ill, and probably in Peru she had contracted some virus. I do not know if this is true, and even if it were true, I do not which virus, so you better find out, and I want as detailed a report as possible... if you can, that is...”

As I shut the door of his hotel room behind me, I felt that I was shutting the doors on my career. Thirty-six hours... just thirty-six hours on an investigation I had never even considered till then. A medical investigation in which I had not a single contact in town.
I had never known the word ‘impossible’, but this seemed to be like it.
***
From that afternoon onwards, my daytime was spent in the corridors of Woodlands, with a sling bag containing a camera, a pen and a notebook. That’s all. Up and down the corridors I went, for the floor in which Mother had been put up was out of bounds. I had managed to go up there too, on the sly during lunchtime, but that was as good as a walk in the desert sands. That floor was a fortress. Every single cabin had been vacated. Somewhere at the end of that long, empty passage was a certain cabin with Mother in it.

As that day went by, and all the while, the bacon-and-eggs-and-sausage churned in my stomach. I took a taxi to reach my Salt Lake home late at night. Eight hours gone.

The next day, I reached Woodlands by 11 am, the usual Visiting Hours, and on Mother’s floor, I saw two Indian and two foreign doctors coming out after checking out on Mother.

Four poker-faced medicos, one of whom I remembered: he had treated me in my childhood, changing his diagnosis every month from bone tuberculosis to rheumatic arthritis, to rheumatoid arthritis... And he was experimenting with steroids, which had first hit the Indian shores in the late 1960s.

He had nearly destroyed my muscles, injecting me with steroids he knew nothing about, and with extraordinary high doses of Penicillin. Finally, he said it was bone TB and had started pumping the cortisone group of medicines, which — again he knew nothing about. By the end of his extra-medical affair with me, he had managed to destroy my entire muscle growth. Now, as the news reports said, he was heading the medical team treating Mother Teresa.

Two of the other doctors were white firangs, and I was told that they had been sent by the Pope himself to be part of Mother’s medical team.

The doctors refused to answer any questions and handed us over the daily medical lentil soup: the daily health bulletin. But though they would not answer any question, I had managed to take a photograph of the four walking out of the ward.

Twenty hours gone.

And almost in all DD News, the doctors read out that health bulletin on Mother.... The medical lentil soup: fever high, fever low, fever not so high, fever not so low. And the regularity of that kind of vulgar medical bulletins left my investigator’s mind in absolutely no doubt: these guys were hiding something. Why were there no other details? What was the diagnosis?

I was sure the doctors’ team was hiding something. But I had no proof, and I had just sixteen hours left to save my job!

That evening too, I returned home empty-handed. Twenty-four hours gone. Just twelve left for my job to go to someone else.

***

The next evening, dejected and sure that I had lost my job, I went back to Woodlands in the evening. That evening, along with my camera in my sling bag, I carried a pint of Old Monk. In my pocket were two hundred rupees.

With no better option or plan of work, I walked up to the lift to Mother’s ward. As the lift door was about to shut, two men walked inside, one short and slightly pot-bellied, in a set of white shirt and trousers; and the other man, slim and tallish, in a grey safari suit.

The lift started climbing. The men immediately started talking about the angina’s progress, without naming anyone. I jumped, my instinct racing away.

“Excuse me, are you a doctor?” I asked the shorter of the two.

“Why?”

“I just thought that you could be talking about Mother Teresa,” I threw a wild guess.
The shorter doctor gave me his name, which astounded me: he was one of the most famous cardiologists in Calcutta.

“Why” he asked me in turn.

“You see,” I was just short of tears... “You see, I am a reporter, and I have to find out about Mother’s exact condition and write about it. Otherwise, I will lose my job by tomorrow night,” I said. As flat as that.

The lift started crawling to a halt.

“Come,” the cardiologist told me. The three of us walked out into the lobby. “You go down to the nurse’s cafeteria and wait for me,” the famous doctor commanded. “I will come and fetch you.”

***

It was mighty embarrassing entering the all-women nurse’s cafeteria, but I told them that the doctor had asked me to, so they were kind enough to let me in an offered me a cup of coffee.

The clock went on at its own pace, the minute’s hand looking like a sabre. But there was no sign of the doctor. Naturally, I thought, that he had ditched me. With all this secrecy enveloping Mother, who would want to talk to a reporter?

But just about the time I thought of going home and get drunk, the door opened, the short doctor entered and told me: “Come.”

We went down and sat in his fairly new maroon Premier Padmini car. Once inside, he said: “Uff, I am hungry, let’s get something to eat.”

It was nearing eleven at night. I just had a camera, which one could not possibly eat; I also had a bottle of Old Monk, which I doubted would be to the doctor’s taste. And I had just two hundred rupees in my pocket. Was he suggesting that I feed him for information?

“Peiping chalo,” the doctor told his driver. One of the exotic and iconic restaurants on Park Street, the costliest entertainment joint in Calcutta. Peiping I thought... with just two hundred rupees in my pocket? My knees started knocking, but the cardio seemed absolutely unmoved.

“So, dear,” he started off as the Padmini pulled out of the parking bay, “you want to know about Mother Teresa’s condition, do you? And what, by the way, do you know?”
It was a huge gamble: “Sir, I just know two things. First, that Mother has contracted some infection, some virus during her tour of Latin America; and two, the doctor in charge of her medical treatment is a killer... he almost killed me because he does not know basic diagnosis. This is why he has not said anything over the past ten days excepting ‘fever high... fever low’,” I said.

A longish silence followed, after which he asked: “Son, do you know what you are saying?”

“Sir, I do not know anything more than this, but of these two facts I am absolutely certain.”

The car stopped at the gate of Peiping restaurant.

***

Over the next hour or so, four or five dishes were ordered, and the good doctor said finally: “Plasmodium falciparum.”

He asked me if I knew what it is, and without waiting for my answer, as he took my ignorance for granted, he said: “It is the killer malaria, and she had contracted it most probably in Peru, where she had visited some impoverished communities in forested areas.”

He then drew a picture of the heart and explained what angina pectoris is and drew an exact diagram of how far it had affected Mother. He gave me the names of the doctors treating her, including the one sent from Rome by the Vatican.

I remembered Mr Shenoy: “I also do not know what is wrong with her. Just that my sources tell me that she had been touring some Latin American countries before falling ill, and probably in Peru she had contracted some virus. I do not know if this is true, and even if it were true, I do not which virus, so you better find out, and I want as detailed a report as possible... if you can, that is...”

At the end of the dinner, it seemed to me that I had all the elements in my briefing from my editor. As dinner ended with some ice cream, the cardio announced: “My driver shall drop you home... where do you live?”

Salt Lake.

“Great. I too stay in Salt Lake.”

***

We drove out through the brightly lit Park Street... Blue Fox... Moulin Rouge all whizzed past... then we crossed the dark EM Bypass, then into Salt Lake. It was 1.00 in the morning. “Leena... Leena... look who is here,” he called out to his wife and asked me inside the house. That “look who is here” was startling... I was a complete stranger and the cardio made me feel as if I am a long-lost cousin just back from the Kalahari.

“Leena, this is Sujit. You remember your article Desh magazine had published on heart attacks? Well, well... he needs it for reference, so just get along and bring it for him, will you?” She did. And after a few pleasantries exchanged, doc set me out for my home, asking his driver to drop me off.

Before seeing me off, the cardio told me: “Meet me at the hospital before this noon. I will even give you the latest platelet count of Mother.”

***

It was around two that morning. Back from Peiping Restaurant, via the worthy doctor’s home, I sat on my old Olivetti typewriter: three leaves of A-4 size papers with two carbon papers in between, and I typed each detail that I had gleaned from the doctor. It became a 12-page report, divided exactly as Mr Shenoy had wanted me to do... each of the issues in a separate sheet.

Mother Teresa goes to Peru... returns with some strange disease... falls ill in Mother House near Maoulali, Central Calcutta... starts vomiting blood... Mrs Agarwal, a very rich devotee is called... she brings an ambulance and takes Mother to Woodlands... Mother is put on drip... doctors start emergency attendance... it is later found to be Plasmodium falciparum... treatment goes on... two top Vatican doctors are sent by the Pope... serious, progressive angina condition prevails, but no one has any clear idea of what were the set of malaises affecting Mother, so the medical bulletins ran daily: fever low, fever high... and even those bulletins were being dished out simply because by then, the international media had packed Calcutta.

***

Later that morning, after a short nap on completing my reports, and once the shops opened, I dropped off a courier with the reports, the diagram of the state of angina pectoris, and the cassette of the film with the photographs, and dispatched it by express service that would reach my Delhi office the same evening. Then, I had four large pegs of Old Monk and finally, I fell off to sleep, with mother grumbling about me not having had dinner. “Mamma, I had dinner at Peiping, Mamma, don’t worry,” I said as the lady of somnolence took me away to my own temporary death.

Groggy, I received a phone call at six that evening. “Sujit, excellent job done.” Mr Shenoy’s voice floated in from outer space, it seemed to me, and I guessed he was still smiling. “You can buy a bottle of Glenfiddich and I shall stand for it,” he said.

I had no idea what else happened that Friday night. As far as I remember, I had some khichudi and fell off to sleep again, only to wake up again just as Father was leaving for the vegetable market.

What did happen, I realised only on Sunday early morning.

***

Sunday being Sunday, I got up late, at around 7.00 in the morning. Tea with mother and father was always a delight. Doordarshan was on and our black-and-white EC TV was playing.

That was about the time I got a call. It was Jayanta Sahu, the photographer from Bartamaan newspaper.

“Sujit-da, tumi to jaliye diyechho go,” he blared (Sujit-da, you have set things on fire).
I was shocked: “Ki holo abaar,” (now what?).

Oi-jey, Mother Teresa go,” (your Mother Teresa report).

I was befuddled. What about my Mother Teresa report?

“There is a press conference today at Woodlands... I am sure you know, so are you coming or not?”

I had not known of any impending press conference. Sunday Mail till then did not have a proper office in Calcutta, so even if a press meet had been organised, I would not have been sent a proper invite, like those sent to other mainstream newspapers.

Just about the time I wanted to visit the ‘grand room’ after tea, I got a second call from Jibananda Bose, also from Bartamaan. But Jiba was angry: “Sujit-da, why did you have to do this to us? Why could you not share the Mother story with me, at least. My editor is after my blood. He says, ‘how come a puny reporter from Delhi got the biggest story on earth and you, Calcutta guys could not’?

***

At around 8.30 that morning, refusing mother’s request for having the breakfast, I took a taxi to Woodlands. Something had gone wrong somewhere, and I needed to find out as early as possible.

As the vehicle drew close to the portals of the hospital, I could see a crowd of reporters, television cameras and so forth. The moment I alighted from the taxi, Jayanta Sahu embraced me and said aloud: “Here is Sujit Chakraborty.”

I do not remember how many foreign newsmen were there that morning at Woodlands hospital, but there was soon a surge around me, and their responses were varied. Quite a few of them congratulated me for my report, but at least two of them, one among them an Italian reporter, pounced on me in anger.

I could not fathom the goings on, so I called Jayanta.

Ki hoyechhe ray?” (What has happened?)

Jayanta then told me that my report had been circulated worldwide, and editors across the world were furious with their reporters who had been staying Five Star for the last fortnight and were still not able to do a modicum of a report that a Calcutta “boy” did. At five-feet-ten, I did not really feel like Tintin, the boy reporter, but to the white-skinned western media man, every Indian was a midget. And they had failed where a midget had succeeded. And their editors from across the world had called them to complain about this.

But that still left me puzzled: how come editors across the world got to know by Saturday of a report that I had filed only the previous day, just for the survival in my job in an Indian newspaper. How had I become an internationally acclaimed scribe in such a short time?

***

Soon, there was an announcement for the press conference to start, and we all went up. The hall was packed, and I could find just enough space to stand at the rear end of the hall.

There were four doctors, including the one who had played ‘I-spy’ with my hormones decades ago.

For the first time over the past fortnight, the doctors did not get into the usual, eye-wash medical bulletin of fever-up-fever-down, but what they were saying was basically a read-out of exactly what I had sent as my report to Mr Shenoy... Plasmodium Falciparum, angina pectoris, platelette count dropping.... Soon, I found no reason to keep jostling with the national and international media crowd only to hear the words of my own report...

Mother Teresa went to Peru... returned with some strange disease... fell ill in Mother House near Moulali... started vomiting blood... Mrs Agarwal, a very rich devotee is called... she brings an ambulance and takes Mother to Woodlands... Mother is put on drip... doctors start emergency attendance... it is later found to be Plasmodium falciparum... treatment is going on... doctors sent by the Pope... serious, progressive angina condition...

I slowly walked out of the hospital compound, all alone, while the international media lapped up the report I had filed. I left for home for a good Sunday lunch. I told Mother that I had suddenly become a celebrity of sorts, a claim which she naturally brushed aside: “Now, don’t you start getting ideas.”

***

Later that day, after some phone calls to Delhi, I came to know what really had happened.

After I had filed the report with Mr Shenoy to save my job, my company, in a brilliant marketing move to get advanced global publicity for its upcoming Sunday newspaper, had sent the full report to newspapers and television channels across the world. They did so by a global wire service, so that by Saturday, the world knew what everyone had been searching for but no one had known till then.

And that is why the editors — across the world — US, Australia, Italy, England, France, Spain, Germany... were mad with their own reporters having spent millions on Five-Star luxury but not getting the actual issue of Mother’s health, and had been just carrying the daily medical lentil soup from the doctors till then leading the treatment.

***

On the following Monday came the report that the entire medical team so far looking after Mother — including the doctors sent by Rome — had been sacked.

A new team had been appointed. It was headed by Dr Leena, the wife of the cardio who had spilled the beans to me!

“Leena... Leena... look who is here,” I recalled from that late night at the worthy doctor’s Salt Lake home, back from Peiping restaurant, after he had spilled all the beans on a global secret: Mother Teresa’s health! Now Leena had got the old team junked and was leading the new team.

Shortly thereafter, authentic medical bulletins started coming out about Mother’s health status, and she had been saved, soon to be back in Mother House.

***

But that was not the end: there was a bone-chilling “Epilogue”.

Before I had left his home that night, however, the “worthy doctor” had invited me: “Come to my chamber on Thursday next and I shall give you more details on Mother.”

I went to meet the doctor the next Thursday. At around 8.00 pm, when there were no more patients left in his chamber, he still kept me sitting in the waiting room.

Out of irritation, at around 8.15, I barged into his chamber. “Good evening... you had asked me to come today,” I said as I parked myself in the chair opposite his.

He looked at me, apparently bemused, and then said: “Did I? I do not recall that... but in any case, who are you?”

“Leena... Leena... look who is here,” I recalled, as if welcoming home a cousin back from the Kalahari. But now, exactly a week later, it was slightly different. “... but in any case, who are you?”

I left his chamber.

He had gotten my job done, saving Mother Teresa; and he had gotten his prize too!
NOTE: This piece is dedicated to my father, late MK Chakraborty, who always felt that no other investigation I had ever done — before or after could hold a candle to this one

(The writer is a former investigative journalist, currently author of a few stray books. All details in the report are based on facts, albeit without any intention to belittle anyone. The names of the doctors who helped me get the report have been changed out of respect that they deserve. Email: sujitnti1[at]gmail.com)

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