Draped in a red silk sari, an ordinary village woman who can speak only in Bengali gave dozens of interviews to American and European print and television journalists in Calcutta's Mother House earlier this week. The woman, Monica Besra, faced even more attention on Wednesday, when she flew to Rome, escorted by nuns from the Missionaries of Charity (MOC), the order Mother Teresa founded. The countdown for Mother Teresa's beatification by Pope John Paul, scheduled for next Sunday, has begun. And the international spotlight is not only on her but also on Ms Besra, the tall and wiry 35-year-old Bengali tribal woman who is said to have been miraculously cured of a stomach tumour in 1998. The miracle is attributed by the Vatican to Mother Teresa's divine healing power and its recent confirmation by Rome paves the way for this weekend's declaration that the Albanian-born nun is 'blessed'. The declaration is a step on the road to sainthood for the woman who was arguably the world's most famous Christian until she died in 1997. As a visibly excited Ms Besra - wearing a gold necklace with Mother Teresa and Mother Mary pendants - poured her heart out to scribes through interpreters, Sister Christie, the Missionaries of Charity deputy spokeswoman, warned journalists not to overtax her. 'Please don't make her talk too much. You will make her sick. If she is not well, how will she go to Rome?' admonished another nun. But Ms Besra was irrepressible. 'I will tell the Pope how Mother Teresa saved my life. I owe everything to her. She is my saviour,' she declared time and again. Mother House, where the famous nun lived from the mid-1960s to 1997, is now the MOC's international headquarters. It also houses Mother Teresa's tomb, which is being scrubbed, cleaned and freshly painted for the big occasion. Even while the work continues, countless devotees troop in with marigold garlands and incense sticks to pay homage at her grave. MOC arranged not only a brand new passport but also the air tickets to fly Ms Besra to Rome, where more than a million people are expected to assemble for the beatification. The event will also be celebrated by tens of thousands across India, in particular Calcutta, where Mother Teresa worked among lepers and the desperately poor. Mother Teresa's successor, Sister Nirmala, will be in Rome for the grand ceremony, along with Ms Besra. The claim that Mother Teresa cured Ms Besra has always been contentious - it is persistently questioned by leading doctors and rationalists in India and abroad. But the Vatican and MOC have clearly decided to ignore the controversy over the 'miracle'. 'I have no doubt whatsoever that the miracle was real. Those who don't believe, no matter how much you explain, will never believe,' said Sister Nirmala angrily before heading to Rome. And shrugging off sceptics' accusations, Calcutta archbishop Lucas Sarkar, said: 'Beatification, in which a person is declared blessed, is a key step towards sainthood, which itself is attained following the Catholic Church's approval of two miracles. 'A second miracle attributed to Mother Teresa would be needed after the beatification for her to be declared a saint,' he said. After the October ceremony, Mother Teresa will be formally known as the Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and followers will be able to seek her intercession for blessings and other prayers. Theoretically, sainthood can still take years, but the process is nonetheless moving faster than it has since the 13th century, when the church laid down its rules for anointing saints. The Pope brushed aside well-established conventions to put Mother Teresa on the fast track to sainthood in 1999, two years after she died, bowing to requests by devotees that the Vatican speed the process of canonising her. Normally church rules require five years to pass following a person's death before the process of sainthood begins. Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, a Calcutta-based priest appointed by the Vatican to prepare Mother Teresa's case, said: 'I think it is no secret that Pope John Paul wanted to have the joy of beatifying her.' According to Archbishop Sarkar, the Pope was willing to go to any lengths; he was apparently ready to even travel to distant Calcutta for the beatification but it was ultimately ruled out because of his fragile health. 'Fast-tracking was inevitable,' Anne Sebba, associate producer of the documentary Mother Teresa: The Making Of A Modern Saint, wrote recently in The Spectator, 'given the close rapport between the present Pope and Mother Teresa. Both came from parts of eastern Europe that saw the full horrors of communism. 'Also, his pontificate coincided with her award of the Nobel Prize, and both preached the same unyielding conservative message of Catholicism. And her mission - mostly tending to the dying in a predominantly Hindu country - strikes a particular chord for this ecumenical Pope.' Not surprisingly, preparations in the Vatican are now steaming ahead at a breathtaking pace. Factories are working round the clock to produce tens of thousands of Mother Teresa crucifixes, rosaries and key-chains before the October 19 deadline. And there was a virtual stampede to buy a set of five stamps issued by the Vatican to honour the nun. Besides films, musicals, cartoons and exhibitions celebrating Mother Teresa's life, a major attraction for devotees will be her relics, which MOC has made arrangements for displaying at Rome's St John Lateran basilica. Sister Christie said that the nun's blood and hair samples, along with some items of her clothing, have already been despatched. In Albania, October 19 will be observed as a national holiday and 2004 has been declared Mother Teresa Year. Massive celebrations are also planned in Calcutta and elsewhere in India where a national survey by Outlook magazine last year voted Mother Teresa the greatest Indian since independence in 1947. But even her staggering popularity among the masses - and in high places - has not silenced critics who accuse the Vatican of trumpeting a routine medical cure as a miracle. Doctors who treated Ms Besra - a mother of five living in a remote West Bengal village - at a government-run hospital in Siliguri town from June 1998 to May 1999 insist that her abdominal tumour was diagnosed, treated and cured by modern medical science. But according to the Vatican's investigation, medical treatment was ineffective and the tumour disappeared overnight after nuns kept a Mother Teresa medallion on Ms Besra's stomach in Mother House and prayed on September 5, 1998 - the first anniversary of Mother Teresa's death. 'The moment I felt Mother's presence around me, my body started feeling so much lighter,' she said. 'I began to sweat and my heart started beating much faster. It was overwhelming.' She contended that she was alive because of Mother Teresa's divine intercession. Otherwise, she said, the malignant tumour would have killed her. The recognition of the miracle came last year after a closed-door meeting at the Vatican in which a team of doctors led by Professor Bonomo, head of the Vatican Medical Board, explained to a congregation of cardinals, bishops and priests how the tumour vanished. After the hearing, the congregation declared the healing and recovery of Ms Besra a miracle that was 'scientifically inexplicable'. The Vatican's seal of approval sent shockwaves through the medical fraternity. Ranjan Kumar Mustaphi, one of the doctors who treated Ms Besra, said that he offered her complete medical dossier - which he claimed proved that she was scientifically cured - to MOC, but that the nuns were not at all interested. Another Siliguri doctor, M. Masud, said: 'Mother Teresa should be recognised as a saint for all that she did for the poorest of the poor. Attributing miracles to her is belittling her extraordinary contribution to mankind.' And leading Indian rationalist, Probir Ghosh, with an impressive record of exposing self-styled religious gurus, said: 'We are absolutely sure there is a medical reason for the tumour's disappearance. There's no such thing as a miracle cure.' Mr Ghosh, who has spent a lifetime fighting superstitions and promoting rational thinking, went so far as to urge the government to take legal action against MOC for encouraging illiterate people to seek miracle cures instead of going to doctors. Ms Sebba, who documented Mother Teresa's life, sees an 'especially strong paradox' in attributing a miracle cure to the nun. 'She said many times that she was quite simply demonstrating Christ's love in action by helping people die a beautiful death, not by helping them live an extra few years.'