Halo, goodbye?

Mother Teresa - The Missionary Position
December 15, 1995

In 1969, Malcolm Muggeridge created a saint. In the 1960s, the decade of dope and Hare Krishna, charities, especially Christian ones, hardly enjoyed the kind of popularity they do today. Having looked far and wide, Muggeridge found somebody doctrinal enough for his tastes, who, when he was instrumental in steering a few hundred £ in her direction, "astonished (me), and I must say, enchanted me by expending it on the chalice and ciborium for her new noviciate". That he found her "not particularly clever" only enhanced his devotion.

Lucinda Vardey has achieved the difficult task of editing Mother Teresa's plangent echolalia into a coherent volume. There is little of the rambling quality characteristic of Mother's sayings. I was surprised that her favourite expressions, "beautiful death" and "beautiful poverty", do not feature. Or were they deliberately left out ? - after all they do not make good PR.

While explaining the "balance between Mother's prayers and her work", Vardey cannily does not examine the share of each. She, I understand, has been to Calcutta and has therefore seen how the mythology matches up to reality. Unlike many before her, she does not make extravagant claims about Mother's "work". She does slip up when quoting Mother or one of the sisters, but I presume the fault lies with the informant. Mother, being almost a saint, cannot, of course, lie, so we will call these slip-ups apocryphal truths. For instance, Mother mentions her soup kitchen at Shishu Bhavan feeding "over 1,000 people daily". Not only is the real figure a fraction of that, anybody who queues up must possess a "food card" - and new cards have not been issued for a year. Also, where is the "school on the roof" of Nirmal Hriday? I know of a chapel there, when downstairs the hammock beds jostle within millimetres of each other for want of space. Mother has claimed she worked during floods "near Calcutta" (no other detail supplied), so will she explain why she has not lifted a divine finger during the devastating floods near Calcutta this October? Mother also describes Shishu Bhavan as comprising "a number of tall buildings" when the structure is a single two-storied one (a third is currently being added). I would not however expect Vardey to know that, for all Mother's tall claims on leprosy, she does not participate in the National Leprosy Eradication Programme in Calcutta, or that, what Mother calls "slum schools" are in fact occasional classrooms. Mention is also made of the "men's and women's shelter in Kilburn in London", when this happens to be a temporary shelter for around ten women.

Vardey has large tracts of interviews with volunteers who have worked with the Missionaries of Charity. I happen to know (as I have interviewed many) that for each satisfied volunteer, there are at least five disappointed ones.

From Mother's public relations to Christopher Hitchens's public aggression. Ever since he was asked to script last year's TV documentary, he has squeezed the materials supplied to him beyond their last drop. There are some original bits such as Teresa's letter to Judge Ito expressing strong sympathy for the megaswindler Charles Keating. In a style reminiscent of his bete noire, Hitchens has embellished his work with lofty quotes from Confucius to Conrad. He takes his conspiracy theory too far when he smells a rat at Teresa's "making her homage" to the Albanian Stalinist Enver Hoxha - surely this was just an old Albanian woman coming home after 60 years.

As a ninth-generation Calcuttan I was delighted to see Hitchens's defence of Calcutta as a seat of "great flowering of culture, nationalism and internationalist politics", but would have liked him to examine what kind of impact Teresa makes there. He is of course more caught up with her international role. He does not know Calcutta: he mentions Teresa's negative role on Calcutta's population problem, implying her influence there. Little does he know that within walking distance of "Mother House" exist scores of (licensed) abortion clinics. On the whole, Hitchens has some disturbing things to say, and these should not be dismissed as polemic. However, with exponential greatness thrust upon her over half a century, Mother Teresa remains inviolate - it will take more than a Hitchens to bring her down.

Aroup Chatterjee is a general practitioner registrar in London, who first proposed the documentary on Mother Teresa to Channel 4.

Mother Teresa: A Simple Truth

Editor - Lucinda Vardey
ISBN - 0 7126 7452 7
Publisher - Rider
Price - £9.99
Pages - 192

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