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A Quiverful Of Arrows
Key allegations against Mother Teresa in the Canadian report:
“So what if she’s Mother Teresa?” journalist Tarun Ganguly remembers barking at the officer in charge at Calcutta’s Park Street police station. “I still want to lodge a formal complaint.” It was the mid-’80s and Ganguly was the chief of bureau at The Telegraph. He was driving back home one evening when a truck, loaded with cartons full of medicines, rammed into his brand new car, a Maruti Suzuki he was rather proud of in those days. Seeing a huge dent, he was livid. “As I was scolding the driver of the vehicle, I suddenly noticed a frail old woman sitting next to him, looking very concerned. It was Mother Teresa.” Though taken aback for a few seconds, Ganguly nevertheless took down the licence number and decided to file an FIR. “But the police refused,” Ganguly recalls. “They told me, ‘How can we? After all, she’s Mother.’”
Though incensed by the partiality accorded to her, Ganguly, who at that time identified with what he refers to as “the undercurrent of cynicism” that prevailed amongst Calcutta’s intellectuals about Mother Teresa’s so-called saintliness, nevertheless was to dramatically change his mind a few years later. He tells the story: “One of our neighbours, an elderly Muslim woman, had been abandoned by her family. She was ailing and lonely and we would hear her weep every night. We felt helpless and didn’t know what to do to help her. One day we heard that Mother Teresa had taken her away. We later enquired and learnt that she had died a happy woman, loved and surrounded by others like her.”
“An elderly Muslim neighbour, alone and ailing, was taken away by Mother. She died a happy woman.”
In Calcutta, the city that the Albanian nun came to in 1929, it is hard to find many voices of criticism against her. Certainly not of the kind that have been raised in the recent study published in a Canadian religious journal in which researchers from the universities of Montreal and Ottawa cast serious aspersions on everything from the character of Mother Teresa to what they call her “dubious” dealings. They raise questions even about her compassion for and commitment to the poor, to whom she dedicated her life. The study says, among other things, that Mother Teresa had no qualms about receiving donations from notorious sources, including world leaders like Haitian dictator Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier, whose enormous wealth was later traced to the plundering of his impoverished country.
Not that these criticisms are entirely new. In the early ’90s, Mother Teresa had come up for criticism when she accepted a generous donation of 1.25 million dollars from American banker Charles Keating—known for his role in a ‘savings and loans scandal’—for Missionaries of Charity. She faced further flak for receiving a large sum of money from British publisher Robert Maxwell. But the Canadian study doesn’t stop at that, going to the extent of accusing her of not utilising the funds entirely for charity but keeping them stashed away in some “secret” account. This, coupled with other allegations like her glorification of the suffering of the poor and denying them proper medical care or keeping them in unhygienic conditions, rattles the fairly unchallenged view that Mother Teresa was by and large a good human being if not an angel incarnate.
Indeed, in an attempt to find takers for the ‘findings’ of the Canadian scholars, Outlook stumbled upon a great many stories about how people had been “converted”—not to the Christian faith—but from positions of extreme suspicion to boundless admiration. Unlike the Canadian researchers, all these people had come into some sort of contact with Mother.
There is, for instance, Bengal IPS officer B.D. Sharma, whose encounter with Mother Teresa at a leprosy camp turned him into a worshipper overnight. In the mid-’80s, as the Additional SP of North 24 Parganas, where the Missionaries of Charity had set up Bengal’s first home for patients of leprosy, Sharma was asked to visit the Gandhi Prem Niwas, as the ashram is called. In his own words, “I was not particularly looking forward to the meeting as I regarded Mother Teresa to be hugely overrated and that I attributed to her being a foreigner working for India’s poor. But I completely changed my view when I saw her at the leprosy home. She was embracing the lepers, whom I couldn’t imagine even touching, as much as I am ashamed to admit it. She was running her fingers over their open wounds to soothe them, cleaning the oozing blood with her bare hands. This was a show of genuine compassion that cannot be faked. If this isn’t saintly, I don’t know what is.”
“While I don’t discount Mother Teresa’s efforts at helping the poor, giving alms is not the solution.”
What then of the Canadian scholars’ assertion that Mother Teresa was “anything but a saint”? Can we entirely dismiss the long list of allegations that they cite in support of this claim without reasonable scrutiny just because Mother Teresa was not squeamish about physical contact with lepers or perhaps because she gave a home to the homeless and her heart to the heartbroken? In fact, there are those—even in Calcutta—who see these qualities more as “human” than “divine”.
And who is more likely to think so than the diehard atheist brigade, the Communists, who ruled Calcutta for over three decades, the same time in which Mother Teresa flourished. It was while she worked in Communist-ruled Bengal that she got world recognition for her work amongst Calcutta’s poor and financial assistance from across the globe, not to mention the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
While not entirely endorsing the Canadian researchers’ dismissal of Mother as a myth, CPI(M) leader Mohammed Salim does provide some perspective on the “other” view—that Mother Teresa was not always all that perfect. For one, the Roman Catholic nun’s help to the poor was not a poverty alleviation scheme at all, as far as the Marxists are concerned, but a way to perpetuate the dependence of the poor on charity and the magnanimity of the rich. “The unequal distribution of wealth is the root cause of poverty. While I am not discounting Mother Teresa’s efforts to help reduce the suffering of the wretched, the giving of alms is not the solution. Ninety per cent of the world’s assets are held by 10 per cent of the world’s population. Unless this concentration of assets is dealt a blow, you are not even addressing the basic problem.”
Of course, Christopher Hitchens and his book The Missionary Position remain the original blasters of the Mother Teresa ‘myth’, asserting hers was an image created assiduously in the eyes of the media. Celebrated author Amit Chaudhuri had given the book a positive review then, and as he says, in a column here, has had no reason to change his view about Mother’s rendering of the poor of Calcutta as a nameless, faceless entity where only she stood out.
“It was not Mother herself who chose to get admitted to high-end clinics but her doctors’ decision.”
There have been other stray voices as well, like that of the photographer who found Mother surrounded by media personnel and “therefore inaccessible”. But criticism of her is generally few and far between in Calcutta, since she is deified in the city. Even now, none of the main local Bangla or English dailies except one carried a report on the Canadian research. “It’s the work of mischief-makers who are out to seek some publicity for themselves,” says an editor of an English daily that ignored the story. “We think talking about it will give the report undue importance.”
There are also few takers for a critique of Mother by people who have never even visited the city or the places she had run. Staunchly defending her against the charge that she sought expensive treatment for herself, cardiologist Dr Tarun Praharaj, who had treated her when she was admitted to hospital in 1993 and 1996, says “it was not Mother herself who chose to get admitted to the high-end clinics but rather it was the decision of her doctors”. Photograpaher Raghu Rai, who met her over decades, says he always saw the same local Bengali doctor treating her (see column on next page). And challenging the Canadians’ claim that the conditions of the homes were unhygienic, P.N. John, who runs the Missionaries of Charity’s mental hospital, says, “Why don’t they just come and check it out?”
In the interview at the beginning of this package, one of the researchers, Genevieve Chenard, has admitted that she has never visited Calcutta or Mother House but would like to. “They are most welcome,” say the sisters at Mother House. As far as the followers of Mother Teresa are concerned, it could perhaps result in a more ‘honest’ critique.
By Dola Mitra in Calcutta and Dakshin Dinajpur