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.
“My own mixed feelings about Mother Teresa were born sometime in the early ’80s, when I was an undergraduate in London. There was a film about her on television (not Malcolm Muggeridge’s Something Beautiful for God); the only things I recall are the large number of affluent, admiring British people in it in close proximity to Mother Teresa, and the latter smiling and saying, more than once to the camera: ‘We must sell Love.’ I couldn’t see in what way, except the most superficial, these affluent and photogenic Europeans had anything to do with the poor in Calcutta. Nor could I see how ‘selling Love’ was going to help the poor.
“One of the things that has struck me ever since about the publicity concerning Mother Teresa is that it has less to do with the poor than with Mother Teresa. The poor are shown in a timeless, even pastoral, light: Muggeridge even claims that the interior of the Home for the Dying appeared in his film in spite of insufficient light because of a ‘miraculous light’ that emanated from Mother Teresa. The ‘miraculous light’ seems to be a metaphor for the ahistorical; it fixes the Bengali destitute in a timeless vacuum; it further uproots from community, background and identity those who have already been uprooted from community, background and identity. In blocking out history, the ‘miraculous light’ also blocks out one’s proper empathy with, and understanding of, the poor. While it may be true that the poor are people like you and me because we were all created by God, it is only through an understanding of a country’s history, and the history of the poor, that we can begin to appreciate that, indeed, the poor were people like you and me before something happened to them.
“Hitchens’s book examines, with the acuity of a literary critic, a portfolio of photographs, each showing Mother Teresa with a dubious character—either with people known to enrich themselves at the cost of others and to terrorise the powerless, like Michele Duvalier, wife of Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti, or big-time crooks like cult leader ‘John Roger’, ‘a fraud of Chaucerian proportions’. These people have donated money, at one time or another, to Mother Teresa’s organisation.
“For all that, there is no evidence in The Missionary Position to suggest that Mother Teresa has used any money from donations for her personal material benefit—in this much, at least, she stands apart from most modern godmen and television evangelists, as well as from Chaucer’s Pardoner. Money might have helped her operations in Calcutta to expand into a ‘missionary multinational’, but conditions in her ‘homes’ are hardly opulent—indeed, if anything, they are unnecessarily austere. Hitchens’s contention is that Mother Teresa’s ambitions aren’t material at all, ‘in the ordinary sense of that term; her aim is to establish a cult of austerity and suffering’.”
(Amit Chaudhuri’s latest book is Calcutta, Two Years in the City.)