Charity begins in Calcutta

Mother Teresa
October 17, 1997

In 1994, when Channel 4 was making a documentary on Mother Teresa, a programme researcher rang me as a possible contributor. I declined. Although born and brought up in Calcutta, I had never heard her name until I came to Britain. The only view I could offer was that Mother Teresa seemed to have perpetuated the old colonial metaphor of Calcutta as a "Black Hole". When the documentary, Hell's Angel, was shown, my phrase had found its way into Christopher Hitchens's disturbing polemic, and from there it entered Anne Sebba's interesting new biography of Mother Teresa.

I grew up in Calcutta in the years following Independence watching my mother regularly giving alms to beggars and my father dispensing free treatment and medicine to the neighbouring poor. My brother and I gave voluntary tuition to the children from a local municipal free school run by the charitable trust of Calcutta Corporation. My uncle and aunts donated books and magazines to the free reading room of a local library. Ailing parents of our domestic servants came to our Calcutta house from their native villages to receive treatment and care. Often they would die there and our family would pay for their funeral expenses. I also recall the frequent ritual of feeding destitutes in large numbers at sit-down meals. So far as I know people did not generally die on the streets: the Ramakrishna Mission and the Islamia Hospital would take care of Hindu and Muslim dying destitutes. Bengalis are known for their compassion - as shown in the writings of Rabindranath Tagore and the films of Satyajit Ray, in Bengali songs and in folklore.

And so, blissfully unaware of Calcutta's infamous reputation in the West and its guardian angel Mother Teresa, I remained immersed in my education, in music, literature, films and the other activities of metropolitan life. But in Britain it did not take me long to realise that my Calcutta did not feature in the public perception of the West. From Kipling to Louis Malle, Dominique Lapierre and Roland Joffe, the foreign image of Calcutta has been pretty negative: as Woody Allen warns a Calcutta-bound Mia Farrow, in perhaps his only known reference to the city, Calcutta has "a hundred unlisted diseases". Notions like this have entered the collective memory of the West, and are very hard to dislodge. Calcutta has now been permanently identified with acute poverty, squalor and Mother Teresa.

Reading Mother Teresa: Beyond the Image stimulated me to shake off my indifference to her and her relationship to Calcutta. Why did the young nun from Albania choose Calcutta to be her adopted home, rather than Benares or Bombay? As a geography teacher at the city's Loreto Convent from 1931, she was aware of the demographic vulnerability of the city to disaster, its oppressive climate and unhealthy environment. This knowledge must have played a crucial role in her choice. Then there were the disturbances of the 1940s. In 1943, Bengal was gripped by famine - the result of incompetent management of the food supply by the Bengal government and the viceroy. Peasants from villages poured into the city desperate for any food; some three million Bengalis died. In 1946, before the partition of Bengal at Independence, Calcutta witnessed mindless communal slaughter between the Hindus and the Muslims. Walking the streets in search for food for her 300 convent girls, Sister Teresa saw her first corpses in pools of dried blood. Moved to pity, she sought papal permission to found a new order, which was not immediately forthcoming. She waited, with time to contemplate her religious agenda and to work out her strategy.

She chose Kalighat, the site of the temple of Kali, in south Calcutta, as the place for her home for the dying because she knew she would not lack for inmates. For poor Hindus, Kalighat, on the banks of the Ganges, has always been an ideal place to die. There was added glory to be had in bringing dying Hindus to Christ.

From the first she possessed a canny understanding of the psychology of charity. She knew that images of cripples, deformed orphans, dying human beings - the appalling misery of many lives in the third world - would trouble the conscience of an affluent and complacent West. On the pavements of Calcutta she had found the key to unlock the hearts of millions of givers. She clinched this by publicly identifying herself with India, hooded in her blue-bordered white cotton sari, her hands folded in the Indian gesture of humility - namaskar.

Funds came from all corners of the globe. Human resources in the shape of foreign voluntary workers in search of worthwhile moral experience arrived in droves. Politicians and celebrities, both home-grown and international, gathered round her for reflected glory and photo opportunities. Sure in her faith she allowed the rich and powerful to witness her noble deeds in her humble abode. She shocked some of them with her stubborn anti-abortion views in that desperately over-crowded city, but they continued to send huge donations while giving hardly anything to the Marie Stopes clinics of Calcutta. With this money she founded numerous convents around the world but failed to equip her Calcutta orphanage and school with good books and stimulating toys. She trotted the globe, surrounded by the renown of her relentless service to the poor of Calcutta - yet when she was there she could hardly afford them seven hours' daily service; the rest of the day went in prayer and contemplation (Sebba's book contains a tantalising daily timetable of her order).

Mother Teresa was not part of Calcutta's life in the way that Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray (with whom she is nowadays linked) were. Calcutta did not need her - she needed Calcutta as a means to her end. I do not resent the fact, nor do I wish to belittle her role in raising the world's charity-giving consciousness - but it is the truth. The irony is that Mother Teresa wanted to take the poor of Calcutta into her church, but in reality they have taken her to their temple. Already her marigold-garlanded images are being revered as Devi, the Mother Goddess.

"Calcutta is full of male and female Mother Courages", wrote Raleigh Trevelyan. They will continue to promote dignity in life. Dignity in death was Mother Teresa's mission. The West will canonise her to express its own need for an icon of humble humanity, but for the poor of Calcutta, who witnessed her state funeral attended by Indian politicians and army officers and world leaders, she will remain a VIP.

Sebba's timely, nonjudgemental book is a "must read" for those interested in the debate between religious and secular belief, the ethics of charity and the history and culture of Calcutta, as well as for readers interested simply in an extraordinary life.

Krishna Dutta is a Tagore scholar who teaches in London.

Mother Teresa: Beyond the Image

Author - Anne Sebba
ISBN - 0 297 81677 2
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £20.00
Pages - 297

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