Ever since its doors first opened in 1952, Nirmal Hriday has received much attention and, arguably, not enough scrutiny. The flagship home, located in Kolkata’s Kalighat, marked a beginning for Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity (MoC). On beds that resemble World War I stretchers, the sick, dying and destitute still lie. Their distress is hard to measure. Having just received his afternoon medicine from a dedicated pillbox, Richard Martin hobbles across the room, his arm around the shoulders of a volunteer. “I have now spent one Christmas here,” says the 62-year-old, who was brought here by a nephew last September. “I fell from a bus. I first needed a walker. Today, I stand on my two feet.” There’s achievement in the smile he flashes.
For those who wish to justify Mother Teresa’s canonisation on Sunday, Martin’s recovery might well be corroboration enough. But the practising Catholic, for his part, has little idea that his benefactress will now be a saint. “I wasn’t told about her sainthood, but I do know that I was given medicines, food, clothes and shelter, and for that I only have Mother Teresa to thank,” he adds. Nuns at Nirmal Hriday believe that canonisation might be too intricate a ceremony for their residents to fathom, but their other omissions over the years have been hard to dismiss as similarly benign. Since the 1990s, doctors and volunteers have returned appalled by the medical conditions they found at the hospice.
After a short visit to Nirmal Hriday in 1994, Dr Robin Fox, the then editor of the medical journal The Lancet , wrote, “Along with the neglect of diagnosis, the lack of good analgesia marks Mother Teresa’s approach as clearly separate from the hospice movement. I know which I prefer.” Hemley Gonzalez, an American volunteer, found that even in 2008, MoC sisters — many of whom had little medical knowledge — were reusing barely sterilised syringes. This practice has since been discontinued, but Gonzalez and other volunteers like the author Mary Loudon have decried the paucity of anaesthetics. Accused of furthering a cult of suffering, Mother Teresa’s own words do little to absolve the MoC. “Pain and suffering have come into your life, but remember pain, sorrow, suffering are but the kiss of Jesus — a sign that you have come so close to him that he can kiss you,” she had said.
Sister Nicole, who is now in charge of Nirmal Hriday, confesses that when she first arrived here nearly four decades ago, she found the work difficult. “But I had blind faith in Mother.” Sitting on a hard wooden bench, she continues, “Usually there’s doubt when someone tells you something, but I fully believed whatever she taught.” Faith, by its very nature, is perhaps always blind, but it may also be contentious. Speaking at the Scripps Clinic in California, Mother Teresa told its doctors in 1992, “Not one has died [in Nirmal Hriday] without receiving a special ticket for St Peter, as we call it. We call baptism a ‘ticket for St Peter’. We ask the person, ‘do you want a blessing by which your sins will be forgiven and you receive God?’ They have never refused.”
Susan Shields, a former member of the MoC, had talked about secret baptisms she witnessed. While pretending to cool their heads with wet cloths, sisters in fact baptised patients.
“Secrecy was important, so that it would not come to be known that Mother Teresa’s sisters were baptising Hindus and Muslims,” reported Shields. For some, these criticisms and claims are familiar — they have been oft-repeated in the years since Mother Teresa died on September 5, 1997 — but her canonisation is again forcing many to ask: How saintly was the Saint of the Gutters? Has the Catholic Church, as Christopher Hitchens suggested, surrendered “to the forces of showbiz, superstition, and populism”?
Possibly Mother Teresa’s harshest and most public critic, Hitchens believed she was “a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud”. The irony is telling, but the iconoclastic author of The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice now finds himself in the company of India’s far-right. In February last year, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat said, “It’s good to work for a cause with selfless intentions, but Mother Teresa’s work had an ulterior motive, which was to convert the person being served to Christianity.” Last June, BJP MP Yogi Adityanath parroted the same assertion. Mother Teresa, he said, “was part of a conspiracy to Christianise India.”
On August 28, Prime Minister Narendra Modi used his Sunday radio broadcast ‘ Mann Ki Baat ’ to say, “All her life she [Mother Teresa] worked to serve poorer sections of the Indian society. When such a person is conferred with sainthood, it is natural for Indians to feel proud.”
The radio tribute seemed intended to put to rest speculation that he had buckled under RSS and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) pressure when deciding to stay away from the Vatican on September 4. Rahul Sinha, national secretary of the BJP, told us he wouldn’t like to comment on the PM’s itinerary, but soon went on to add, “Mother Teresa has certainly benefited society, but the publicity the MoC has received exceeds its work.”
According to Hitchens, “MT was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty .” When speaking to Jishnu Basu, the general secretary of RSS’ South Bengal office, one can’t escape the impression that he’d only recently seen Hell’s Angel , Hitchens’ scathing anti-Teresa documentary, on YouTube. “The MoC has marketed our poverty. There are other organisations that do more work in the city — the Ramakrishna Mission, Bharat Sevasram Sangh — but their leaders don’t get nominated for the Nobel because they don’t market their sustainable work.” Basu concedes that canonisation is an article of faith and cannot be contested, but he does openly challenge MoC’s sisters, “I want one of them to say that Christianity isn’t the only path to salvation.”
Attacking Mother Teresa for her views on contraception (“turns attention to self and destroys the gift of love”), Basu then recounts what she’d told survivors after Bhopal’s 1984 Union Carbide tragedy. “Forgive, forgive, forgive,” she had prescribed. In his 1996 review of Hitchens’ The Missionary Position in the London Review of Books , author Amit Chaudhuri had cited that same utterance and written, “Not even the stupidest banality can cancel the importance of real action and real work done for the poor.” Today, he says, “I find the hijacking of any discussion by nationalist elements abhorrent. There are a lot of people doing charity work and I’m sure Mother Teresa would’ve wanted them all to be canonised, but this isn’t to say one can’t discuss her legacy.”
On the ground floor of Mother House, the MoC headquarters, Mother Teresa’s tomb looks austere. The St John epitaph is in keeping with the simplicity she had come to be identified with — “Love one another as I have loved you.” A Bengali choir can be heard in the distance, and on a blackboard, you read on a list, “We pray for peace in the world, especially the Middle East and Yemen.” In March this year, four sisters of the MoC were shot dead by ISIS fighters in Aden. The prayer isn’t gratuitous. Assistant General of the order, Sister M Lysa, reads from a script she has before her. “This canonisation will inspire people from all over the world to give their hearts to love and their hands to serve. Mother’s messages will again be brought to the world more fully.”
The one-liners she ascribes to Mother Teresa sound more trite than pithy. “We are created for greater things, to love and be loved.” “Peace begins with a smile.” “Love begins at home.” When asked about how the MoC has grown in the past two decades, the mild-mannered nun quotes a few figures.
In 1997, the MoC had 594 homes globally. Today, there are 758. Since Mother Teresa’s death, 46 homes were added in India and the order, which was 3,900-strong in 1997, now has 5,100 nuns. Sister Lysa believes “Mother helps us from heaven.”
Rita Faro, a 22-year-old Portuguese national, was only three when Mother Teresa died, but growing up, she was apprised of the MoC. She says, “I really wanted to experience and see what the sisters do for the poorest of the poor, so I could try and do the same wherever I go.” In Kolkata for three weeks, she admits, “It’s impossible not to be shocked by the circumstances of the people whom these sisters help.” A volunteer at Shanti Dan (a rehabilitation centre for abandoned women), Faro found among the mentally ill patients, a girl who appeared relatively saner. “She didn’t look comfortable there. She kept speaking in Hindi. She was exasperated since I didn’t understand her.”
Tasked with the daily medical care of the residents, foreign volunteers often find themselves stymied by a language barrier. The perspective of an outsider, however, can prove transformative. In 2005, journalist Donal MacIntyre went undercover in Daya Dan, an MoC orphanage in Kolkata. He found children malnourished and tied to beds.
By 2014, when Amy Gigi Alexander sat to record her volunteering experience at Daya Dan, the practice of tying children had been done away with. But Mother House, she writes, “did not pay for things that would improve the quality of life, extend life...” For a charity that’s perhaps one of the world’s richest, such parsimony is confounding.
In The New York Times in March this year, Geneviève Chénard’s opinion piece opened with a line that could well have been contentious in the lands of the faithful — “I’m not convinced we should be so quick to canonise Mother Teresa.” Chénard, a professor in the department of psychoeducation at the University of Montreal, wasn’t simply being contrarian. The co-author of a 2013 research paper called ‘The Dark Side of Mother Teresa’ had found out that Mother Teresa had raised almost $100 million before 1980. Strangely, only five per cent of these funds was used for MoC’s social work.
Though Mother Teresa had publicly stated she had no trouble taking money from dictators and the corrupt — “Everyone should be given the chance to show his compassion — even a beggar on the street” — her support of convicted frauds such as American financier Charles Keating seemed to make impossible a Robin Hood comparison. In 1981, she received the Legion D’Honneur in Haiti from its brutal dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier. She took a wreath when visiting Enver Hoxha’s tomb in her native Albania. A communist leader, Hoxha was a known abuser of human rights.
At home, Mother Teresa saw a silver lining in the Emergency. “People are happier. There are more jobs. There are no strikes.”
This, though, is not the history that Abdul Karim identifies with. For the 94-year-old, Mother Teresa’s interventions were nothing short of divine. During the Sino-Indian War, he found refuge at Nirmal Hriday.
After a mosque was destroyed in his neighbourhood during the riots that followed Babri Masjid’s demolition, he recalls Mother Teresa coming to the area in a wheelchair. Sitting near the feeding enclosure at Prem Dan, another MoC home for the dying and destitute in Kolkata, Karim removes his glasses to show an eye that is hollow. “I don’t have vision in one eye. My family rejected me after I took to alcohol. I was reduced to begging. In 2001, the sisters took me in.”
Standing nearby is 51-year-old Dipankar Mandal. Brought to Prem Dan after being diagnosed with colon cancer last year, Mandal says the MoC paid for an operation which caused his cancer to go into remission. “Mother Teresa was a Nobel mother and a noble lady,” he gushes. The grounds of Prem Dan are swarming with foreign volunteers who have ‘heard the call’. Peter Helow is still finishing school in Jacksonville, Florida, but felt he had to take a fortnight to “serve the poor”. The 23-year-old tries to contextualise the soon-to-be-saint’s rigid stance on matters such as abortion. “She was a practising Catholic. We are pro-life. No one should have the choice to murder children.”
Serving destitute women a staple of rice and dal, Uma Singh finds it hard to hold back her tears. The journey from California to Prem Dan has been an emotional one for the 64-year-old volunteer. Seven months pregnant, alone after her husband left to work on a cargo ship, she was taken in by the MoC’s sisters in Rome. That was 35 years ago, but her gratitude hasn’t dimmed. “I didn’t want to go to Rome for the canonisation. I wanted to come here and meet my Mother.” In a voice that remains choked, Singh talks about holding placards outside abortion clinics in the US. When receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace, Mother Teresa had said that the “greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion” and Singh says she is only trying “to fulfil the wishes of Mother” through her protests.
Having also volunteered at MoC’s homes for mentally challenged mothers and their children, Singh sees no contradiction in a pro-life stance. For Dr Aroup Chatterjee, author of Mother Teresa: The Untold Story , Singh’s views only further the kind of “Catholic dogma” that the MoC’s founder had helped popularise.
Raised in Kolkata and based in London, Dr Chatterjee challenges many of the claims made by the beatified Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. “She said her nuns went around Calcutta 24/7, picking up the destitute. This was a grotesque lie. Nuns are not allowed to go out after 6.30 pm.” Supporters like Usha Uthup have rebuttals ready. The singer speaks of the day Mother Teresa was travelling with her to bless her studio in Kolkata. “As we passed by the Entally Police Station, she asked the driver to stop the car. This diminutive figure got off, picked up a man from the road, sat with him in the backseat and gave him care. Even while she lived, she was a saint for us all.”
Speaking from Rome, journalist and photographer Kounteya Sinha talks of a city where, much like Kolkata, the colours white and blue have become conspicuous. “Every shop has every possible book ever written on Mother Teresa. At the MoC’s home, which is right next to the Vatican, you’ll see hundreds of people lining up. The whole of Rome is basking in Saint Teresa fervour.” Sinha has travelled to Vatican City with his ‘Sainthood Project’, a novel photography experiment that will see 45-50 pictures of Kolkata being exhibited all around the Italian capital. “People will hold the ends of clotheslines and these photographs will hang from pegs for people to see. One-and-a-half million people are expected to be in Rome for the canonisation.”
While Calcuttans like Dr Chatterjee believe that Mother Teresa “had driven coach and horses through the city’s reputation”, others like Sinha point out that the Calcutta of Mother Teresa’s time was indeed a “poor place”. The Partition, famines and migration had left the city ravaged. The photographer says, “I want people to come see how that Calcutta coexists with a Kolkata of glass buildings and BMWs.”
Trinamool Congress secretary general Partha Chatterjee insists that Mother Teresa will always be integral to Kolkata’s landscape. “The iconic Park Street has been renamed after her. There are statues of her all over. You now even have the Mother Teresa Wax Museum... ” Chatterjee says he had spent 24 hours at Mother House just before she passed away in September 1997. The state’s education and parliamentary affairs minister says he felt electrified when he once touched her feet. He believes that his right-wing political opponents are “shaming themselves” by criticising a saint.
Amit Chaudhuri prescribes a tempering that’s clearly absent in a politics which is intent on polarisation. “I hope we find a way of recognising good work, but also the problematic nature of that work when it gets connected to publicity machineries which have their own agendas,” he says.
In 1969, the BBC first aired Michael Muggeridge’s pious documentary about Mother Teresa. The British journalist claimed his Something Beautiful for God was suffused with a miraculous “divine light”. The attention given to the Kolkata missionary by the British media in later years was similarly hagiographical. Witnessing this frenzy first-hand in the 1980s, Chaudhuri remembers thinking, “How sad that not only are the poor in a way secondary to all this, but how sad also that the troubled cosmopolitan history of such a great city should suddenly come to be defeated in this manner.” The author of Calcutta: Two Years in the City feels the West doesn’t necessarily talk about Mother Teresa and Kolkata in the same breath now, but Punam Singh remains privy to “Mother’s influence”.
Running a guest-house in south Kolkata, Singh says she still hosts foreigners who brave the city’s “heat and dust” to serve at MoC’s centres. “Living in Calcutta, Mother Teresa was hard to escape. You heard about her from people you met, you read about her in the papers all the time.” She recalls a chance encounter at the airport. “I noticed her luggage was being given priority because of who she was, but no one grudged her that.” Mother Teresa gave Singh a picture of hers with a quote about love. She keeps it safe. The theatre actor says a friend who once worked in ITC’s legal department, “is today a nun with the MoC”.
Teacher and singer Rita Roy says pictures of Mother Teresa’s Kolkata sadly receive the same reaction the Patrick Swayze-starrer City Of Joy once did. “The film made everyone complain about how the city’s poverty was visually depicted for the whole world. But if the media is looking for ways to enlighten people about the good work Mother Teresa has done, they would have to look at the reality of the impoverished worlds she reached out to.”
Back at Prem Dan, the nun in charge of its male ward, Sister Apoline hints at the fact that Mother Teresa never wanted to be appropriated by the publicity machineries that Chaudhuri mentions. “People called her a living saint, but Mother always wanted to be a hidden saint.” With the likes of Princess Diana, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, the Clintons and Yasser Arafat wanting to borrow her virtue in countless photo-ops, being out of sight was hardly ever a possibility. For the modest nun who was born in Macedonia on August 26, 1910, as Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, even her private moments of doubt were made public after her death. In a 1959 letter, she wrote, “What do I labour for? If there be no God — there can be no soul — if there is no soul then Jesus, You also are not true.”
The uncertainty Mother Teresa felt would likely bolster her critics. If God can be questioned, surely His saints mustn’t be above scrutiny. But since the dead can’t answer for themselves, it becomes the job of Sunita Kumar, spokesperson of the MoC, to “talk on behalf of Mother.” Kumar says, “When she was criticised for conversions or for accepting money from dubious sources, she’d never react badly because she said her critics needed her prayers. Even when Christopher Hitchens criticised her, she said, ‘He needs help. We should pray for him.’” Forgiveness, perhaps, is divine.
Shreevatsa Nevatia is a freelance writer