Book Excerpt: Mother Teresa: The Untold Story by Aroup Chatterjee
About the book:
Author Aroup Chatterjee was visiting his birth city Calcutta in 1988 when he had an epiphany. “Calcutta,” he writes, “had become synonymous with the worst of human suffering and degradation in the eyes of the world.” After living in the West, the author realised that “an erroneous stereotype” about his beloved city, for which he places the blame squarely on the shoulders of Mother Teresa, “had become permanently ingrained in the world’s psyche.” This book is his attempt to correct that stereotype. Chatterjee undertook several years of extensive and painstaking research to try and untangle the myth from the woman. His objective, he says, is to “stand up and protest when history is in danger of being distorted.”
‘She rushes in to places where we would never go. . .’
On 11 October 1995, prostitutes in north Calcutta came out in force; they cajoled and coaxed passers-by for money, but did not offer usual services. They made a strange and surreal impact in the midst of the hectic Calcutta street. The sex workers were collecting money for flood victims. In September, devastating floods had struck large areas of West Bengal state. The floods could not have come at a worse time because this was just before Durga Puja, the biggest festival of 70 million Indian Bengalis. Although in Indian terms, the number of casualties was small, with 200 dead and more than 3 million homeless, in villages surrounding Calcutta. In financial terms, the loss was estimated at Rs 1,050 million.
The stories of loss and suffering moved millions, including the sex workers. One of them, Uma Mandal, said to newspapermen, ‘How can we call ourselves human if we don’t come to the aid of suffering people in their hour of need? Those who have lost everything could easily be our family members.’ Sankari Pal, who could not read or write, but had come to know of the devastation through television, said, ‘Although I don’t personally know anybody who’s been affected by the floods, we are very much part of a wider community, and so, it was almost natural for us to come out to help.’1
The sex workers’ collection was only one of the many hundreds of collection efforts and relief measures organised by the citizens of Calcutta; schools, colleges, offices, businesses, restaurants and individuals all chipped in. Operations started in September and lasted almost six months. The only organisation that did not feature was the Missionaries of Charity (hereafter abbreviated as MC, which is how Mother Teresa called it), the multinational charity headed by the late nun, who has become synonymous with Calcutta in the eyes of the world. Mother Teresa’s absence in the relief operations was not conspicuous in Calcutta. Strange though it may seem to a non-Calcuttan, her order is not known to throw its lot in these circumstances. In Calcutta, she was known to undertake small niche activities, for which she was liked and her order is well-regarded.
When the floods were raging in and around Calcutta, Mother Teresa was in the US like in most years, as she did not take kindly to Calcutta’s summer and monsoon. On 15 June 1995, she was touring the neonatal unit at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Centre in Brighton, Massachusetts. Parents could not believe their luck when she left their babies her blessings and her hallmark, an oval aluminium ‘miraculous’ medal. She told the media, ‘I have 200 small babies in my hospital in Calcutta. This is a beautiful place.’2 She however does not have any hospitals in Calcutta, nor for that matter anywhere else in the world.
Floods returned later in September and made 200,000 more homeless near Calcutta. Mother Teresa was still abroad. She returned to Calcutta for a brief period, but duty called her back to the US soon. During the aftermath of the floods, in December, when West Bengal was still reeling from the effects, Mother Teresa made a highly successful visit to Peoria, Illinois. Catholic women of Peoria had donated at least $300,000 to her causes over the years. She said her usual lines, which she had said hundreds of times before:
I was hungry and you gave me to eat,
I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink,
I was naked, and you clothed me,
I was homeless and you took me in,
I was sick and in prison and you visited me.
This is exactly what the Missionaries of Charity are doing, 24 hours.
Mother’s stopover at Peoria was to oversee the renewing of vows by seven nuns of her order. After her speech, she made an announcement that she would present one of her oval medals to each of the 750 people in the cathedral. All were reduced to tears. Shortly after the medal ceremony, Mother Teresa left by a private aeroplane, as she had arrived, presumably to visit ‘places we would never go’.
Disastrous floods struck West Bengal once again a year later, in August 1996, this time crippling the northern districts particularly. Yet again, MC were inactive; predictably relief was brought to the victims by other organisations, primarily the Ramakrishna Mission and the Bharat Sevashram Sangha.
Although she never lifted a finger during the 1995 or 1996 floods, in an interview with Lucinda Vardey, Mother Teresa mentioned working flat-out during floods in Calcutta. Characteristically, she did not provide any specifics. ‘For instance, when a large area near Calcutta was flooded and washed away, 1200 families were left stranded with nothing. Sisters from Shishu Bhavan, and also brothers worked all night, taking them supplies and offering shelter.’3 This could have been true on a specific and rare occasion, but this is definitely not the usual nature of the work of Teresa’s order. The world, however, would assume from reading her interview that Mother jumped in headlong in natural disasters in and around Calcutta.
During the fifty odd years that Mother Teresa was doing charity in Calcutta, there were about a dozen very major floods in the region with hundreds to thousands dying on each occasion. The city itself was flooded quite a few times, paralysing urban life, and badly affecting the poor of the city; only during one of those floods, did Mother Teresa offer some kind of help.
On 13 July 1995, Shahida, the 16-year-old mother of an infant, got badly burnt. Shahida lived in Dnarapara slum, which surrounds Mother Teresa’s Prem Dan centre in Calcutta. After a lot of effort, she managed to get admission to NRS Hospital, a state hospital; she was thrown out in three weeks. She could not afford private medical care, so she picketed Calcutta Corporation in protest. She put up in a tent in front of the Victorian red brick building and lay there a few weeks, while infection was seeping into her burns. While her husband was at football matches and her father was busy selling fruit, her mother sat with her, cuddling the baby.
Shahida failed to move the hearts of the Calcutta Corporation officials. During her various representations for assistance, she approached Mother Teresa for financial help, so she could buy private care. Shahida appealed to her not because she was a natural port of call for helpless Calcuttans, but because she was one of many she approached. The appeal went up to Mother directly who asked her nuns ‘to look into the matter’.
Shahida was swiftly turned down by MC, because she was ‘a family case’, a clause regularly applied during the vetting of indigents by the MC in India; the organisation is ever watchful that ‘family cases’ do not slip in.
Finally Shahida’s fortunes turned. On 30 August, she was accepted by the Islamia Hospital, for free. The Rotary Club of Calcutta also made a financial contribution towards her treatment. She improved, and within days was throwing tantrums like any other 16-year-old. By this time, she had begun to make headlines, and the entire city breathed a sigh of relief.
On 21 October 1995, Shahida died, leaving behind a baby. Her death made the headline news in Calcutta, where pavement dwellers and slum dwellers are dispensable. Everybody blamed the government and the corporation, for their heartlessness and lack of facilities. Nobody pointed a recriminatory finger at Mother Teresa, as she was not seen in Calcutta as a saviour. The world however saw her as such, and Mother Teresa did a great deal over the last few decades to make the world think that way.
Shahida’s tragedy continued after her death, as she left behind her baby daughter Marjina. Marjina caught TB following year. The charity HEAL helped but MC were nowhere in the picture.4
Mother Teresa herself was far too busy for such mundane happenings in Calcutta, for the United States was preparing for presidential elections; in May 1996, she again found herself in Washington DC. On 1 June, she met the Republican candidate Bob Dole (US Catholics’ consensus candidate) to exhort him to run on an extreme anti-abortion platform. The intimate details of this private meeting is not known, but Mr Dole found the ‘living saint’ ‘inspirational’ and in possession of ‘a good sense of humour’, and of ‘not a bad business card’. Mother Teresa gave the Dole family ‘miraculous medals’ and also her signed business card.
Though frail and quite ill by now, she crisscrossed the globe at a moment’s notice for the cause of abortion. But during her long career, she was remarkably uninvolved in disasters in India.
In December 1984, 3500 people died in Bhopal when toxic gas was accidentally leaked by the Union Carbide factory. It remains the world’s worst industrial accident whose health repercussions continue to this day.
Mother Teresa, whose post-Nobel reputation within India was then very high indeed, rushed in to Bhopal like an international dignitary. Her contribution to the Bhopal disaster has become legendary: she looked at the carnage, nodded gravely and said, ‘I say, forgive’. There was a stunned silence in the audience. She took in the incredulity of her audience, nodded again, and repeated, ‘I say, forgive’. And left. Her comments would have been somewhat justified if she had sent in the MC to help in any way. But what she did was crass, insensitive and a gratuitous insult to the dead and suffering all of whom were poor slum dwellers.
MC do have a small and decent home in Bhopal, but their role after the tragedy was minimal. Mother did visit patients in hospitals and offer them flowers, while posing for international media.
The earthquake of 30 September 1993 in Latur is one of the biggest natural disasters in the history of India. Eight thousand people died and five million lost their homes. Two hundred NGOs rushed in to help, many worked on for a decade. Many charities rebuilt entire villages from rubble. The government put in a special grant of Rs 8 billion. The world obviously thought Mother Teresa had put her heart and hands into the operation, as it instinctively assumes that in any disaster in India, especially of that magnitude, she would have a presence, if not the biggest one. But MC never came to Latur. Mother kept herself busy with an American legal loophole. She came to Washington DC. to file a ‘friend-of-the-court’ brief for one Alexander Loce, who was convicted of trespassing into an abortion clinic to stop his ex-fiancée from having an abortion; little did he know that he would have a ‘living saint’ as a character witness.5 While in Washington DC, Mother also took the opportunity to appear before the American people on television with the President and Vice President for the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast. She mesmerised millions by expounding on charity, and on the evils of contraception and abortion. Latur was a world away.
Although Latur is a thousand miles from Calcutta, the Calcutta-based Hindu charity the Ramakrishna Mission and numerous Christian charities worked there ceaselessly. Indeed, the Calcutta Statesman did an intensive donation drive and collected more than Rs 10 million from its readers which it handed over to the Ramakrishna Mission. In case one is thinking that MC would have helped if they had been given the funds, the truth is they do not do rebuilding or ‘development work’. On 18 December 1995, when the editor of Malayalam Manorama handed over the keys to 163 reconstructed houses to the villagers of Banegaon at a ceremony at Killari, the epicentre of the earthquake, it did not even make headline news in India.
On 11 September 1995, 22 children died and a further 18 injured in an explosion hardly 60km from Calcutta in West Bengal’s Howrah district, where MC Brothers have a largish centre. The children as young as 9 years old were making fireworks for the forthcoming festive season in an illegal factory. The factory solely employed children (1500 of them) who worked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. for an average weekly wage of Rs 65 per week. In this particular instance, the children were making ‘chocolate bombs’ (so called because the individual crackers are wrapped in aluminium foil like pieces of chocolate). The explosion destroyed the large factory building and rocked the region. Children’s bodies were tossed up in the air and landed in a nearby pond. The village of Haturia happens to be half an hour’s drive from Mother Teresa’s Howrah centre, where a large number of her Brothers learn to be good Christians. But MC had no involvement in the aftermath of the explosion.
As Mother Teresa spent such a large part of each year outside India, it was impossible for her to help out in India’s problems and calamities. From 1978 till the year of her death in 1997, she spent all but one summer and monsoon in Europe and the US. Most of the subcontinent’s problems and pestilences occur in summer and monsoon; Mother’s schedule would be to leave India in June to return end-September or early October as the downpours of monsoon would give way to the mellow autumn sunshine.
If there was an emergency in Europe or the US, she would travel earlier than the usual June although ‘emergency’ for her did not mean the succour of suffering. For her emergencies meant abortion. In the springs 1981 and 1982, Mother was worried that the Japanese were getting too blasé about abortion and went to Japan to lobby with politicians. In April 1982 she met up with 230 members of the Japanese parliament (the Diet) and was almost successful in making abortion extremely difficult for Japanese women to access; a popular revolt in Japan prevented the change of law she wanted.
To give an idea of how infrequently the ‘saint of Calcutta’ was around in Calcutta, I quote two passages from her spiritual adviser Father Edward Le Joly:
MT: I am going to New York, Father.
ELJ: What Mother, again to the US? You were there only a few weeks ago.
MT: Yes, but I must go again. The first two priests of the Missionaries of Charity family are taking their first vows. They have finished their novitiate. The Archbishop has accepted to look after them.
ELJ: So your family is expanding and once again the US shows the way.5
In the same book in a different place Le Joly writes:
ELJ: Sister, is Mother in?
S: No, Father, she is out. She has gone to Rome.
ELJ: What again to Rome, but she was there a few days ago!
S: Yes, she is continually away.6
It is known that Princess Diana desperately wanted to meet Mother Teresa in Calcutta; nine times her office tried to bring the two together in Calcutta but nine times it failed because the nun was rarely there. Finally, when Diana came to Calcutta in February 1992 they did not meet as Mother got held back in Rome. The two human symbols of hope and charity met twice, in Rome and in New York.
During her long stays in Europe and the US, she lost no opportunity to tell people that she hated every second of the time she spent away from the ‘streets of Calcutta’. Peter Dalglish, the Canadian charity worker, found her addressing ‘VIPs and luminaries’ in New York: ‘They hoped she would end her sermon with a smile, but she was glum during her entire stay in New York and announced she longed to return to Calcutta.’7 In actual fact, she returned to Rome.
For me, born and bred in Calcutta, it does not come as surprise as I know her order has no infrastructure. Indeed it had never been her intention to create an infrastructure for meaningful work, as she had frequently said, ‘I’m not a social worker.’ But what I find disturbing is that she remained inactive when children were hurt or killed; this did not sit comfortably with her ‘Child First’ philosophy. But then, for her, the ‘unborn child’ was far more important than the actual child. Having gone through hundreds of her speeches I have wondered, when compared to the unborn child, if the actual child mattered to her at all:
Many people are very, very concerned with the children of India, with the children of Africa where quite a few die of hunger, and so on. . . These concerns are very good. But often these same people are not concerned with the millions who are killed by the deliberate decision of their own mothers. And this is what is the greatest destroyer of peace today – abortion which brings people to such blindness.8
Mother’s inaction was not due to old age and exhaustion from hard work. She had her own priorities. When the Vice President of India came to Calcutta on a two-day visit in July 1996, Mother Teresa delivered him a letter. It was to protest against the demolition of a wall in Bandel Church and to urge the government to rebuild it.
The inaction of her order continues after Mother Teresa’s death. In the 1999 Orissa cyclone (10,000 dead, 275,000 homes destroyed), the 2001 Gujarat earthquake (20,000 dead, 400,000 homes destroyed), 2004 Indian tsunami (20,000 dead) the order had nil to negligible presence. Unbeknown to the world, a Hindu ‘holy’ woman, Amritanandamayi Devi (popularly known as Amma) donated $46 million to the tsunami relief efforts; she also gave $1 million to the US after Hurricane Katrina (2005) and same amount to Japan after Japanese tsunami (2011).