2013-03-13 08:25:00

City of Doubts: Kolkata’s Uneasy Love for Mother Teresa


When Mamata Banerjee,Chief Minister of West Bengal, decided to paint Kolkata blue and white, local wags quipped that Didi wanted to become Mother.

The blue and white paintjob unleashed on the city's railings and bridges, public toilets and police stations, have indeed left the city looking like it is haunted by the ghost of Mother Teresa. She died in 1997. That year I remember visiting Durga puja pandals in the city. Outside some of them were little hunched and wrinkled images of the old Catholic nun - co-existing peacefully with ‘heathen' idols for a few days but at arms length.

Billboards in homage to Mother Teresa at a Kolkata bus stop. Sandip Roy/Firstpost
That measured distance was symbolic of Kolkata's wary embrace of its Nobel laureate. While the intelligenstia cringed somewhat about the permanent pall of decay, death and poverty she cast over the city, they also could not turn their backs on her.

The dark side of the Holy Mother

That's why Outlook says media in the city have largely ignored a new report in the academic journal Studies in Religion that professes to explore “the dark side of Mother Teresa”. (Please read the entire story here.) "It's the work of mischief makers out to seek publicity for themselves," says one unnamed editor of an English daily. The report's findings, while not as scurrilous as Christopher Hitchens' diatribe about the woman he called “a leathery old bat”, aren't that explosive or new - secret accounts, taking money from dictators, being treated in private hospitals in the US while the patients at her home died without painkillers.

Mother Teresa had raised almost $100 million before 1980. The report laments that with all that money she could have easily built the most technologically advanced hospital in India at that time. “(But) they didn't really treat sick people,” says Genevive Chenard, one of the authors of the report. “She was just having them over there, because, for her, suffering makes you feel like Jesus was feeling on the cross.”

The report admits she did a lot for the Church. How much she actually did for the poor of Kolkata is another question.

However Outlook finds few in Kolkata willing to openly embrace the report either. Mother House spokesperson Sunita Kumar dismisses it by saying, “There are always people who try to bring down someone who is doing good work, someone who is great.” It does not help their case that the writers of the report have not visited Kolkata.

The doubts of Teresa

That's not to say all Kolkatans have bought into the sainthood of Mother Teresa. Kolkata-born doctor Aroup Chatterjee wrote an entire book trying to puncture her halo. His The Final Verdict is full of his sting operations and he painstakingly tries to prove that her statistics of service are overblown. His book tries to debunk her claims that the Sisters cooked for 7,000 people a day. It claims it's more like 500.

Contrary to popular belief, her ambulances don't roam the streets of Kolkata to pick up the dying. They rely on the Kolkata corporation ambulances for that. The order does have donated ambulances but Chatterjee writes they are used as a taxi service for the nuns. Other religious-social orders like the Ramakrishna Mission and Bharat Sevashram have far more impact on the ground, especially in times of natural disaster, than the Missionaries of Charity.

But the Mother Teresa that is the most interesting is neither infallible Holy Saint nor the jetsetting Dark Mother. Another aspect of Teresa came out in her letters that were released by the Vatican though she had wanted them burned. Those show a woman afflicted with great doubt and misgivings. “It seems to me what Teresa was looking for in the face of suffering was the face of God,” said essayist Richard Rodriguez in an interview with New America Media when those letters were published.

“It's very moving to me that she did not find it but kept on doing it. It's an example of great heroism.” In a world where people are killing each other in the name of their God all the time, that doubt-ridden image of Mother Teresa is a more important saint than the cancer-curing one. “The world of religion is in chaos, not because there is too little faith in the world, but because there is too much faith… It seems to me the world is afflicted with people who have no doubt,” said Rodriguez who has a forthcoming book on religion. “I think the value of these documents is that they teach us that certitude is not what we want in the world.”

Bound to each other

Kolkata has two bona fide Nobel laureates and while it's proud of both, Tagore puja is far more uncomplicated than Teresa puja though the latter is the one really on the fast track to sainthood.

Kolkatans understand Mother Teresa is not the best brand ambassador for the city yet they cannot let go of her either. A promotional video of the city showing its landmarks through hand shadows included the Howrah Bridge, Durga, Tagore and Mother Teresa. While Tagore is a local, and national icon, Mother Teresa is an international one. Tagore's allure outside the Bengali-speakers of the world is limited. Mother Teresa, who barely spoke any Bengali in her seventy-plus years in the city, has a fan following that knows no linguistic boundaries.

Mother Teresa and Kolkata are inexorably bound to each other. “No other city of India would be as suitable for her teleology: that Calcutta's abject poverty was divinely ordained to prove the spiritual value of her mission,” writes Krishna Dutta. “She knew that horrendous images from a city of bygone colonial wealth and power would make a strong impact on a guilty western psyche."

But while one might quibble about the quality of care her order provided, Kolkata cannot deny the fact that she did care about a vast mass of wretchedly poor people most of the city ignored. She might not have been the miracle-working saint her hagiographers want her to be. But there is no evidence she led a secret hedonistic lifestyle dripping with gold, diamonds, Rolex watches and sex scandals like some of our other famous godmen. So Kolkata tends to forgive her for her failings like the ones alleged by this new report.

Ultimately Mother Teresa transcended the one barrier that we are terribly squeamish about - touch. Bengal IPS officer B.D. Sharma tells Outlook he was a skeptic who thought she was overrated. But when he saw her at a leprosy home, it completely changed his view. “She was embracing the lepers, whom I couldn't imagine even touching, as much as I am ashamed to admit it,” he said.

It does not matter to her believers whether or not she made optimal use of the donations she raised. She was true to her calling which was being a nun, not a philanthropist. “She was an example of something that is all too rare: someone who devotes their life to the care of others,” said Richard Rodriguez. “She washed the sick. She touched the untouchable. She sat with the dying. That is not what most people do with their lives.”

Poor box saint on a pedestal

As a boy going to a Jesuit school in Kolkata, I grew up both close to her order, but in no particular awe of it. Instead of trips to museums and zoos, we would be taken to her orphanages and homes for the aged to distribute biscuits and powdered milk. We saw her occasionally but were much more transfixed by the story of the wild woman who older boys said had been raised by wolves (or was it bears?) before Mother Teresa found her.

The “wild woman” never spoke though I think she tried to cadge cigarettes off the priests who accompanied us. I cannot say Mother Teresa glowed with any special radiance, like the saints in school with their perfectly circular haloes. If there was any miracle, it was that her homes were our only exposure to the poverty and disease that swirled around our very insulated middle class lives. Our 25 paisa weekly contribution to the “Poor Box” probably did not make that much of a difference in our lives or the lives of the poor. But I am thankful that in the middle of our dogged pursuit of medals and marks, at least we paused every week to acknowledge those who had nothing.

Now 15 years after her death, a new report might try to puncture her halo. But she has already receded from public consciousness in many ways. The new head of her order does not show up in newspaper photographs the way Mother Teresa did. Teresa herself has been put on a pedestal and turned into statue. Pigeons perch on her shoulders. During the recent anti-rape protests I came upon a group of young people protesting in front of Mother Teresa's statue on the street named after her in the middle of Kolkata.

It was almost Christmas and a carol festival was in full swing at the park next door. The street was festooned with twinkling lights and electrical Santa displays with reindeer and sleds. In the middle of it stood the statue of the old nun looking down on posters, as if blessing their demands for “Crime like Rape… Punish by Death!!!” and “Hanging too less a punishment.” The passionate protesters had chosen the spot because of the aura of her goodness. But that they had in the process turned the fiercely dogmatic Catholic nun into a patron saint for capital punishment was an irony that was completely lost on them.

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