In October 1995, while reviewing Christopher Hitchens’s controversial book on Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position, for the London Review of Books, I had said, “It is interesting that the poor whom Mother Teresa attends to never speak. They have no social backgrounds or histories, although it is precisely history and social background, and the shifts within them, that create the poor. Instead of speaking, the poor in the photographs look up at her silently, touch her hand, are fed by a spoon.” In the almost two decades since then, I have had no occasion to change my views on this subject. Let me quote a few paragraphs I’d written then.
“Silence is a strange attribute to ascribe to the noisiest and most talkative city. Calcutta, capital of India and second city of the Empire for 138 years, until 1911, was a crucible of Indian nationalist politics.... Bengal’s history has also been one of political unrest and even tragedy. In particular, there were the famines, the last of which, in 1943, was not caused by a real food shortage at all. It was partly created by the unscrupulousness of local traders and by the diversion of staple foods, such as rice, to the British army.... With the famines came an influx into Calcutta of the rural poor. Many of the poor to whom Mother Teresa would have ministered when she opened her first slum school in Calcutta on December 21, 1948 (she had been teaching geography in a missionary school in the city from 1929), would have been victims of the famine or their children. The number of poor people in Bengal is always being added to, and in 1948 Mother Teresa would also have encountered a huge surge of homeless refugees from East Pakistan.