Mother Teresa is about to become a saint and one of her fiercest critics has just missed his flight to Kolkata and also had his book launch at Calcutta University cancelled.
Dr Aroup Chatterjee chuckles after finally making it into Kolkata. After 25 years of taking on Kolkata’s most internationally famous icon, he has developed both a somewhat thick skin and a sense of humour. He’s just moved his book launch to a different venue. “I am not bothered if Mother Teresa becomes a Catholic saint,” says Chatterjee. Then he adds with shrug that the history of Catholic saints is anyway filled with “dubious characters” and “fascists” and “anti-Semites”. He rattles off a few examples. Pope Pius X banned all other religions from Rome. Josemaria Escriva was a fascist.
“I have no problems with her being a Catholic saint,” says Chatterjee . “I do have problems when people call her a saint in the secular sense or the broad sense.”
Mother Teresa did not pretend to be anything but a dogmatic Catholic nun. But the halo around her, especially the Nobel Peace Prize, sort of secularised her. Her canonisation has also led to more scrutiny of her legacy. And just as she has detractors, she has staunch admirers who truly believe in her and they are not all Catholic either.
Freddie Dickson comes to her tomb in Mother House all the way from Howrah whenever he can. A stocky man with Jesus and Mary tattoos all over his arms, Dickson says he had a troubled youth fighting addiction problems. Praying to Mother Teresa for “a second chance” changed his life. When he prayed for a friend battling alcoholism, it brought his friend back to church.
He says, as a child, he thought of Mother Teresa as just someone who got money from abroad to do some social service in Kolkata. But then he came to the Mission, saw her barebones room and really believed in her. He says long before she became famous, the Mission was struggling for money. “They literally did not have any money for food one day. She still gave away food to the disabled as they always did saying let us not think we are starving, rather we are fasting.” The next day suddenly major donations flowed in.
The problem has always been that Mother Teresa’s work overshadowed many other organisations, some religious, some secular, doing similar work or even more grassroots work than hers. But that blame cannot be laid at her door. She simply evangelised for her mission better than the others did. Anyway the Sisters are not that visible, say at a time of cyclone or catastrophe, and the order is more relevant in the western imagination of Kolkata than to Kolkatans themselves.
The other critique is that was the quality of the work says Chatterjee who documented its shortcomings in his book, Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict. He claims the figures of those being fed were hugely inflated. Her ambulances were not really picking up the dying from the streets as believed by her admirers. The order did not cremate the dead according to their own religions. They were handed over to the Kolkata corporation. “I was astonished and disgusted that this level of so-called service was being blown up as the best in the world,” says Chatterjee. He remembers how needles and surgical gloves were re-used when she was alive by her order.
That has changed now says Sunita Kumar, long-time friend of Mother Teresa who was also appointed as spokesperson for the order. Kumar has often heard the criticism that the Missionaries could have done much more with the enormous money the order raised. A state-of-the-art hospital, perhaps?
“Is that their job? Or is that the job of the healthcare department? Or is it the job of the government to provide us with education and eradicate poverty?” retorts Gautam Lewis, one time resident at her home for children.
“The vows they took were to just live simply and to serve the poor and do whatever they could for them. Her idea was not to diversify and build hospitals,” says Kumar.
“I think there is a misconception that she was a social worker. I don’t think she was,” says Lewis. She was a nun, devoted to her vows. Lewis was left at Mother Teresa’s home as a polio-stricken child. He was adopted and taken to England where he went to the same public school that Prince Charles did. Now he is back in Kolkata with his film Mother and Me showing at the Mother Teresa International Film Festival (yes, there is such a thing).
“My film is called Mother and Me, not Mother and Gautam Lewis because it’s not about Gautam Lewis. It’s about all the other ‘mes’ that have benefited because of service above self.”
In that process of service though, Chatterjee says, Kolkata and India’s image took a drubbing. He remembers how his Irish wife was fed such horror stories about Kolkata at her school in Ireland, she dreaded coming to the city after they were married. Even in 2014, the Daily Mail website did a story about the 10 worst cities in the world. It included places like the strife-torn capital of Somalia; Kolkata was the worst and it was written by someone who had never been to the city. He sees that as a legacy of viewing the city through the prism of Mother Teresa.
“As you pump up Mother Teresa, you pump down Calcutta. The two are inversely proportional,” he says. “I don’t want Calcutta to be seen as a place that exists on Western charity. It is ironic that upper class Calcuttans collude with that world view.”
Sunita Kumar disagrees. She says that Mother Teresa always maintained that it was not about Kolkata. Poverty could exist anywhere even in the affluent west. “They are poor because they don’t get love or care,” she says. A poster in the Mother Teresa museum next to her tomb echoes that. It reads “The greatest poverty is to be unloved and unwanted.”
“I can’t forget Mother telling me once she went to a hospital because she was called there. There were five new born babies left in a bucket. Mother took them home,” remembers Kumar.
As she becomes St Teresa of Kolkata, perhaps it’s time to remember her for what she really was — a Catholic nun true to her beliefs. Chatterjee is surprised the Indian Left is not a vociferous critic. “Her biggest critique should come from the Left,” he says. “Do the Left leaders know she was an opponent of contraception even in marriage and abortion even in gang rape?” Even there, he sees some hypocrisy. Mother Teresa, he says, gave a “certificate of approval” to the Emergency which became notorious for forced sterilisations.
Perhaps one good thing that will come out of her canonisation on Sunday is that St Teresa will be reclaimed by her church. She will be unquestionably an official Catholic saint now and not the unofficial “saint of the gutters”.
But there’s irony even in that canonisation. Sunita Kumar remembers going to the Vatican with Mother Teresa once. Mother looked at all its grandeur and spectacular architecture and artwork and turned to Kumar and said, “Sunita, they don’t need all that.” This after all is the woman who had once half-jokingly wished the government would give her the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata so she could house her poor.
There’s a poster in the Mother Teresa museum that seems prophetic now.
It’s a quote from Mother Teresa:
“If I ever become a saint, I will surely be one of ‘darkness’. I will continuously be absent from heaven to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”
At some level both her critics and her devotees will agree with that.