I was too young when two iconic figures and bearers of peace and love passed away. While one’s death was enshrouded in veritable mystery, the other died a natural death at the ripe age of 87.
Two women who set out to affect the world in their own ways, two, whose paths crossed, both whose love and nature of giving set unparalleled examples and both having garnered their fair share of criticism and scepticism.
Interestingly, while researching on this well-known connect between the two women, Princess Diana of Wales and Mother Teresa, I found an old video from 1997 when the two met in the New York, Bronx branch of the Missionaries of Charity; the same year both breathed their last only six days apart from each other. The world mourned; so did my country and my city Calcutta.
As a child, I saw the fading grey rooftop of the Nirmala Hridaya (Pure Heart) establishment every day.
It was on my way to school; which is why it wasn’t uncommon to see sisters from the Missionaries crossing the traffic every other day, in their white saris bordered in that familiar indigo. This way of wearing the sari was where the Bengali drape fused with the conventional dress code of Catholic nuns.
My innocence revelled at the sight with wonder; their philanthropy, as it is still widely propagated, enthused my ethos; and admiration was naturally what I learnt to shower the Missionaries with.
Yet I don’t intend to speak about the history of who Mother Teresa was, how she travelled to Calcutta as a beacon of hope to the dying, the destitute and the orphans and how that won her a Nobel Peace Prize.
Watching Mother Teresa’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech brings the figure of absolute piety that is common to Catholicism.
“…To be able to understand the poor, I choose the poverty of poor people”.
She said so. With conviction. The poorest of the poor, those shunned by the society, those built by the same loving hands of the God.
Mother said they are beautiful people, people who don’t deserve pity or sympathy. Eloquently put, the virtuosity of Mother’s charity was garlanded with words that probably touched the audience in that ceremony.
In a recent report prior to the heralding canonisation of the Mother, a relevant point was raised against her very method of philanthropy; she helped through the terminal travails of the poor but never addressed the root of poverty.
Vehement criticism was stifled even before, when she travelled to countries, shook hands with many exploitative rulers, spread the word of peace and accepted homages from people embroiled in depraved controversies.
The Mother was influential; in a world riddled with religious fanaticism, her touch of love, peace, benevolence and the apparent service towards the needy had catapulted her to peaks of collective popularity.
I wouldn’t have questioned the legion she has left, being content with the knowledge I have had since childhood had it not been for this nagging doubt.
A pride to the city of Calcutta where she based her groundwork and eventually spread it to around 150 countries, I would not have dared question, what if all that was propagated would fall weak to the controversies which strengthened the fact that the Mother was probably not completely doing as was proclaimed.
A different take on her charity was given by Christopher Hitchen’s controversial 23-minute documentary. Ironically, it was called “Hell’s Angel“.
Before evaluating the contents of the documentary, let me share a brief example of one of Mother Teresa’s famous liaisons with world leaders.
In the year 1985, the then American President bestowed the Mother with the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom. This is what President Reagan said prior to inviting her on the stage to accept it:
“…Most of us talk about kindness and compassion, but Mother Teresa, the saint of the gutters, lives it. As a teenager, she went to India to teach young girls. In time, Mother Teresa began to work among the poor and the dying of Calcutta. Her order of the Missionaries of Charity has spread throughout the world, serving the poorest of the poor. Mother Teresa is a heroine of our times. And to the many honours she has received, including the Nobel Peace Prize, we add, with deep affection and endless respect, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”
While the Mother was providing shelters to the homeless, of the many crimes that now people have come to associate Ronald Reagan with, he was rendering mental patients of the United States into being homeless. Apparently, Reagan sought to evacuate mental hospitals in an attempt to put a curb on Federal expenditure towards mental health and treatment; with 125,000 to 300,000 patients forced to take to the streets, Reagan shook hands with the Mother and the Mother was content with the gesture acknowledging it as:
“..I’ve never realised that you loved the people so tenderly. I had the experience, I was last time here, a sister from Ethiopia found me and said, “Our people are dying. Our children are dying. Mother, do something.”
And the only person that came to my mind while she was talking, it was the President. And immediately I wrote to him, and I said, “I don’t know, but this is what happened to me.”
And next day it was that immediately he arranged to bring food to our people. And I can tell you the gift that has come from your people, from your country, has brought life -new life – to our suffering people in Ethiopia.”
Of all that Reagan did, “spreading love” was not on his agenda. During the times of Afghanistan’s positive evolution as a progressive society amidst the regressive customs of the Middle East, it was emerging as a Democratic exemplary, quite unlike how we see it in today’s times.
This was brought about with the help of the Soviet Union, much conceived as some threat to the States’ the then regime. Reagan began “funding” certain “freedom fighters” to usurp these developments, silently giving birth to Islamic terrorism in the form of the Mujahideen.
It was obvious to anyone who was sane to notice the farce of a forbearer of peace accepting an honour from the soiled hands of a perpetrator.
Reagan was one, in more than two of the cited instances. Yet the Mother didn’t raise a call against Reagan’s regime which was miles away from “peaceful” to speak of the least. Was it fitting for the Mother to stand on the same stage with President Reagan?
In the reports I came across, someone had righteously put it as the Mother’s intellect to harness the influence of world leaders to make way to her ultimate goal of love and peace. As if, the contribution that the debauched stalwarts made as a result of the Mother’s encouragement to charity “washed their paltry sins” and made them better in the eyes of the Almighty. It is how our Indian Judicial System swears by the known phrase: “Andha Kanoon (Blindfolded Law).
Religion somehow deemed crimes against humanity fit and pardonable as long as you parallelly exposed your charitable insignia. Religion turned a blind eye.
This baffles me, and it also baffled anyone who sought a pragmatic interpretation of what the Missionaries of Charity actually did in Calcutta as well.
Apart from how the Mother was successful in networking with the who’s who of the world around, scenes of the hospice/charitable haven where the terminally ill were housed resonated a dim picture in Hitchen’s “Hell’s Angel”.
The documentary was a first of its kind, visually, coherently and surprisingly telling the world of an unseen, blotched image of the Charity. This was way back in the 90s when Hitchens sought to depict a different picture of the Mother and her Sisters who claimed to tend the “poorest of the poor” in their final days.
The one information that moved me to abhor what the Charity was doing then was their practice of reusing needles to inject the patients. One of the former volunteers on the organisation claimed to have met a 15-year-old teenager, with a particular kidney ailment that could be treated with a simple surgery. Yet, the Charity refused to take that up, eventually worsening the teen’s health. I had no wish to know further what happened to him; I could only guess the impending doom on the health of a very young human.
Maybe, this gift of God had different plans. As I read more, the horrific descriptions of patients with excruciating conditions being given simple remedies like ‘ibuprofen’ made me cringe further. It is said, the Mother said to one as if his suffering was the Kiss of God. The sufferer had desperately asked her that the Almighty should stop kissing him then.
Boisterous criticism went hand in hand with the propensity of the Missionaries’ claimed brilliance. To bring balance to this imbalanced tug of war, I also found a much-complained about aspect that we Indians often harbour against foreigners who choose to depict our existent squalor to the world.
It is true; we are frequently romanticised for the poverty in our country’s nooks and corners. Dr Aroup Chatterjee, a physician practising in England, though born and brought up in Calcutta, sought to emaciate the Mother’s fertile image through a book where he evidently accused the Mother of marring his birthplace’s image.
The “The Final Verdict” was published in the year 2003, Aroup Chatterjee’s rendezvous with Tariq Ali led to the quoted “expose” named Hell’s Angel. Here is how an article put it as:
“….In the book Dr Chatterjee documented him discovering a “cult of suffering” in homes run by Mother Teresa’s organisation, the Missionaries of Charity, with children tied to beds, reusing of hypodermic needles and dying patients being comforted by aspirin.”
The criticism seeped much deeply than a superficial condemnation of blemishing Calcutta’s image to the world. And somehow, the eventual beatification of the Mother only consolidated the fact that Hitchens and Chatterjee were representatives of a minority who refused to buy the godliness of the Missionaries and the Mother.
The same year of the book’s release, the Mother was beatified as the “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta”.
Coming back to the Nobel Prize acceptance speech of the Mother, she highlighted the context of abortion being against religious performs. It surprised me that a convention with so many intellectuals silently nodding to the Mother who said;
“The greatest destroyer of peace today is the crying of an innocent unborn child. If the mother can murder her own child in her own womb, what is left for you and me, to kill each other? ….. to me the nations who have legalised abortion are the poorest nations..”
As we are quite familiar with the notions of the Catholic Church regarding birth and life, the Mother was no different in holding regressive views about life and perpetuation.
It was also in one of her speeches that she condemned the use of contraception touting it as against the natural way, again, a staunch Catholic belief.
In the context of family planning, especially if you consider India, this was unfit and perilous for development. While her words coated it in a surreal and humane garb, the practical outcome of unmitigated pregnancies, childbirth which cannot be sustained by existing economic provision, unprotected sex without contraception making it largely possible for all sorts of sexual diseases to infest mankind, I found her propaganda degenerate and obnoxious.
Yet, the world seemed to overlook these ‘minor’ passes for the greater good she achieved through her service. Even now, the Missionaries of Charity is no different in holding conformist views towards the composition of the family.
As recently CARA, the central adoption agency of India brought liberal amendments in adoption related legalities, the Missionaries of Charity went on to refuse to adhere to those rules and also opting out to act as a medium of adoption. They referred to the acceptance of single parents eligible to adopt children palpably contradictory to the Catholic platitude.
A certain interpretation of the 4th of September canonisation occasion touched me.
This article said that for a recipient to be a saint, it is important for them to recede to oblivion in the people’s memory, such that only their greatness prevails.
It is as if, the sainthood would comply with that residual image of how sacrosanct the deeds of the recipient were; how fitting it is that after years of their deeds and fables they are being promoted to a pedestal of explicit reverence with a pre-nominal sainthood.
Many would say that they lived when the Mother did. The Chief Minister of West Bengal, the Chief Minister of Delhi and some appointed delegate by the Centre are also supposed to grace the occasion at the Vatican.
Mired in controversy, in stories of the healing touch and miracles, in beliefs, proclamations, lies and imageries, I marvel at the strength with which religion prevails in times like these.
The hands that rock the cradles quash the innocent give birth to violence while showering love and benevolence elsewhere. We, at the end of the day, choose to resort to an unseen force for whatever we do; our vices and virtues alike.