The crime rate was through the roof, mugging was mere routine, ugly, unsettling graffiti shrouded the subway (metro, underground, as you will), sidewalks were littered with cardboard boxes housing the meagre, grimy belongings of the swarming homeless, slovenly panhandlers you crossed the street to avoid, not to deny them your nickels and dimes but for fear of catching the lice crawling over them. That was Manhattan for you in the early 90s.
The Washington Post carried an editorial bemoaning the wretched state of affairs, exhorting the city fathers to get their act together and fast. Its headline read: Calcutta on the Hudson – Hudson being one of the rivers flowing through Manhattan, the heart and soul of New York. This city, the editorial signalled, had hit rock bottom, it couldn’t get any worse, it was turning into, shudder shudder, Calcutta!
That is the undying portrait of Kolkata, or Calcutta, to the world at large – a city of decline and deprivation, pestilence and putrefaction, painted in the colours of dirt, misery, hopelessness, death. Where the sick went unattended, babies lay abandoned, the dying were denied any human dignity. Until Mother Teresa came along, wiped their brows and gave them succour. Which is really why she’ll be sainted this Sunday, whatever the nature of her so-called “miracles”.
Kolkata’s first citizen, Mamata Banerjee, will be there to witness and rejoice in the elevation. By refusing to be part of the official Indian delegation, by not attending the foreign minister’s banquet in Rome on the eve of the canonisation and holding her own private dinner party instead, she could well be milking the event for all it’s worth in her war of words against the Centre.
She may even hope to earn some “secular” brownie points from those opposed to the Narendra Modi government’s creeping majoritarianism. But truth be told, it is Mamata Banerjee’s sincere, undiluted, unrestrained admiration for Mother Teresa that will have her glued to her seat on the front row in the Vatican, very likely wearing the trademark blue-bordered white sari that the nun turned into a brand.
Mamata sported one last Friday when she unveiled a life-size statue of the Mother in Kolkata. When she also announced that she was going to the canonisation not as part of any government delegation but “as a guest of my sisters from the Missionaries. So I will not sit in the front seat, but will be very happy to sit beside my sisters and brothers from the Missionaries.”
The Archdiocese of Calcutta knew better. “Didi, if you go to Rome wearing this sari,” remarked Father Rodney Borneo, “they will think you are from the Missionaries of Charity and you will surely get a front seat.”
Nothing would delight Mamata Banerjee more. She is genuinely proud, she has often said, that the woman who dedicated her life “for the downtrodden people” and was awarded the Nobel Prize and Bharat Ratna for her toils, chose Kolkata as her playground. Maybe she sees herself as the Mother Teresa of politics.
They are so alike, the Didi and the Mother, with the same single-minded devotion to their mission, identical indomitable spirit, similar faith in palliatives as against more enduring, systemic solutions. If Mother Teresa preferred low-maintenance hospices to setting up hospitals, Mamata Banerjee opts for sops and giveaways to institutional changes.
Serving the needy, the stated objective of both, has not meant being soft or sentimental for either. Rather, a flinty will, at times manifested in sharp, angry outbursts, a ruthless exploitation of every available resource at hand, a calculated use of the media to project their, often self-serving, actions in a grandiose light mark their lifelong devotion to the cause of the dispossessed.
Trinamool MP Idris Ali knew what he was talking about when he told the Lok Sabha on July 25, “I am deeply grateful to our honourable chief minister, who is in our eyes like Mother Teresa.” There is no greater work than social service, Mamata Banerjee told the assembled media after the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment on Singur on Wednesday.
Yet, Mamata Banerjee has a heavy cross to bear on this trip to Europe and that is thanks entirely to her chosen idol. For she has the onerous task of battling Mother Teresa’s signal contribution to her adopted city, namely, the dark, dismal image of Kolkata that the Mother’s untiring labours have wrought.
Unlike, say, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj who may be taking team India in Vatican City to offset her party’s anti-Christian stigma that attacks on churches have generated, or Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal who may just want a break from his “hell of a city”, the chief minister of West Bengal is going to, literally, mix business with pleasure, or, as we say in Bengali, combining rath dekha with kala becha, ie heralding the chariot while selling bananas.
Mamata Banerjee leaves today for a four-day trip to Italy and Germany “to attract foreign investment” to her state. In this, her second term in power, job creation tops all else. The concern manifested itself even in Wednesday’s triumphant press conference called to express her “happiness in tears” over the Supreme Court’s Singur verdict. “Mark my words,” she said, “Bengal is the final destination for investment.”
It’s not clear who the chief minister is meeting in Rome. The Italian Consul General in Kolkata called on her four days ago and was told to request Italian companies to participate in the next Bengal Global Business Summit. “Since there are a large number of companies in Italy, that country’s participation in the summit here early next year would be very important,” the chief minister announced. Maybe she will follow up on this in Rome.
The more hard core business interaction is reserved for her next stop, Munich, where she’ll be joined by a 29-member business delegation and her finance minister, Amit Mitra. (In Italy she’ll have her MP Derek O’Brien, singer Usha Uthup and sundry others by her side).
The chief minister has meetings with chambers of commerce in Munich on 6 September. According to Mitra, “Two leading German chambers of commerce — BVMW and the Association of German Chamber of Commerce and Industry (IHK) — have invited her.”
But Didi will have her work cut out. Attracting investment won’t be easy. Not just because of the global economic slowdown but because the image of her capital city will precede her, all the more refreshed by the hoopla over the fast-track sainthood of “Mother Teresa of Calcutta”.
Not that much refreshing was needed. Calcutta may have become Kolkata, Kolkata may have booted out the communists, the new chief minister may have declared a jihad against the state’s bandh culture, but to the rich and mighty West it is still the hell-hole that moved Mother Teresa to a lifetime of sacrifice, the big gutter that became the famous backdrop for her very special charitable work.
Boston-based food writer and novelist Chitrita Banerji recalled how an otherwise “sensitive” co-worker queried, on her return from a visit home in early 1997, “And how is everyone in Calcutta — still starving and being looked after by Mother Teresa?”
As Banerji wrote in the The New York Times on the occasion of the Mother’s tenth death anniversary in September 2007, “At first I thought this might be a bad attempt at humour, but I soon realized that my colleague was seriously inquiring about my city’s suffering humanity and its ministering angel — the only images Calcutta evoked for him and countless others in the West.” The city’s “beautiful buildings and educated middle class, or its history of religious tolerance and its vibrant literary and cultural life” could well not have existed.
Even ten years after the Albanian nun’s death, Banerji lamented, Calcutta was still being equated “with the twinned entities of destitution and succour publicised by Mother Teresa.” No one appreciated that the city, which had been twice slammed by huge influxes of refugees in 1947 and 1971, “has not merely survived, it has battled tremendous odds without losing its soul.”
Not much has changed since.
The suits in the West may readily make a donation that will also earn them a tax break (funds continue to pour into Mother House unabated), they might even support their children’s desire to “do good” in their gap year by serving time at Shishu Bhavan or Nirmal Hriday (short-term firang volunteers are still ubiquitous at the various outlets of the Missionaries of Charity), but set up a modern business in a city that even Mother Teresa couldn’t quite save from itself? Their imagination will boggle.
Will Didi be able to dispel this image of Kolkata that is the creation of a lifetime’s ceaseless efforts by her beloved Mother? If so, she will be the true inheritor of Mother Teresa’s legacy: Getting the world to see what she wants them to see.