Why Calcutta?

Amit Chaudhuri

  • The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice by Christopher Hitchens
    Verso, 98 pp, £7.95, October 1995, ISBN 1 85984 054 X

Among the welter of images and mythologies that constitute the middle-class Bengali’s consciousness – P3 and Ganesh underwear, the Communist hammer and sickle, Lenin’s face, fish and vegetable chops outside the Academy, wedding and funeral invitation cards, the films of Satyajit Ray, the loud horns of speeding state transport buses, Murshidabadi and Tangail sarees, the daily Ananda Bazar Patrika, the songs of Tagore, the destitute outside Grand Hotel, Boroline Antiseptic cream, Madhyamik school examinations (to name just a few of the constituents) – Mother Teresa, too, is present. Not only is she undeniably a part of the contemporary history of Calcutta, but she is, to the ordinary middle-class Bengali, only a segment in a reality that is complex and constantly changing, and is composed impartially of the trivial and the profound. In contrast, to the average middle-class European or American Mother Teresa is Calcutta, or certainly its most life-affirming face. The rest of Calcutta is impossibly ‘other’, romantically destitute and silent; the ‘black hole’, unsayable. It is interesting that the poor whom Mother Teresa attends never speak. They have no social backgrounds or histories, although it is precisely history and social background, and the shifts within them, that create the poor. Instead of speaking, the poor in the photographs look up at her silently, touch her hand, are fed by a spoon. The ‘black hole’ of Calcutta, figuring as it does an open, silent mouth, no longer refers to the historical event that took place in the 18th century in which English men, women and children were trapped by Indian soldiers in a small, suffocating cell in the city. It refers to the unsayable that lay, and still often lies, at the heart of the colonial encounter, the breakdown in the Western observer’s language when he or she attempts to describe a different culture, the mouth open but the words unable to take form. In Western literature, the unsayable is represented by ‘The horror! the horror!’ in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and ‘ou-boom’, the meaningless echo in the Marabar Caves in Forster’s A Passage to India, the complexity of both Africa and India reduced to hushed, disyllabic sounds. In history and the popular imagination, another two syllables, ‘black hole’, have come to express the idea that, for the Westerner, Calcutta is still beyond perception and language.

Silence is a strange attribute to ascribe to the noisiest and most talkative Indian city. Calcutta, capital of India and second city of the Empire for 138 years, until 1911, was the crucible of Indian nationalist politics, and the home of its chief instrument, the Indian National Congress – and of modern Indian liberal consciousness itself. Nehru thought that if, in a sort of metaphorical laboratory, you were to mix, in a metaphorical beaker, an equal amount of Western rationalism and science on the one hand, and ancient Eastern values (a vague and largely unexamined ingredient in the experiment) on the other, you would produce a new compound that was the modern Indian personality – an idea that was actually prefigured by the beliefs and works of people such as Raja Rammohun Roy in Bengal in the early 19th century and Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, the Anglo-Portuguese poet and lecturer at the Hindu College, Calcutta, and his fervent Bengali followers. The metaphorical laboratory turned out to be the Indian middle classes.

Bengal had the earliest printing presses in India; during the 19th and early 20th centuries more books were produced in Calcutta, the capital, than in almost any other city in the world. This was not surprising given that Bengal was the site of perhaps the most profound response to the colonial encounter; and in the middle of the 19th century began what is sometimes called the Bengal, and sometimes the Indian, Renaissance: an aspect of it being the flowering of one of the richest modern literatures – Bengali – in the world.

Bengal’s history has also been one of political unrest and even tragedy. In particular, there were the famines, the last of which, in 1943, was not caused by a real food shortage at all. It was partly created by the unscrupulousness of local traders and by the diversion of staple foods, such as rice, to the British Army; the largest share of the blame must be apportioned to British rule. With the famines came an influx into Calcutta of the rural poor, who arrived in the city to die. Many of the poor to whom Mother Teresa would have ministered when she opened her first slum school in Calcutta on 21 December 1948 (she had been teaching geography in a missionary school in the city from 1929) would have been victims of the famine or their children. The number of poor people in Bengal is always being added to, and in 1948 Mother Teresa would also have encountered a huge insurgence of homeless refugees from East Pakistan, newly-created after the ‘stupid’ (to use Hitchens’s adjective) partitioning of Bengal by the British at the time of Independence. Partition would permanently alter, even disfigure, Bengal (or West Bengal, as it had now become) and its capital. The backbone of Bengal’s heavy industry would be broken and a huge homeless, rootless population of East Bengalis would be added to the population of Calcutta. Leave alone the poor, even the middle-class or upper-middle-class Bengali, bereft of ancestral property, has had to struggle to make a home in the city. (One of my mother’s closest friends from her childhood in Sylhet, Bangladesh, a retired schoolteacher, still lives with her older sister in North Calcutta in a small rented flat. My father’s ancestral house languishes in Bangladesh and is at last, we hear, to be torn down; but he has been luckier than most other ‘refugees’ – he rose to a high position in the company he worked for, and bought his own flat in Calcutta in his middle age.) After Partition, the constitution and nature of the Bengali middle or bhadralok (literally ‘civilised person’) class changed significantly: once associated with privilege, education and genteel values, it now became increasingly beleaguered, both culturally and economically.

In 1971, millions of refugees – a large number of Muslims among them – began to flee from East Pakistan to Calcutta. The reason for this was a political impasse between East and West Pakistan, resulting in the genocide of the largely Muslim East Bengali population by (West) Pakistani troops, a project backed by American and Chinese diplomacy and arms. India intervened and went to war with Pakistan; East Pakistan was liberated and a new country, Bangladesh, created; but, in Calcutta, the number of the poor and homeless increased substantially. Areas like the Esplanade and Gariahat in central and south Calcutta respectively were to change forever; colourful pavement stalls selling T-shirts, woollens, trousers, kabaab rolls, sprang up in these parts to provide a livelihood for the new jobless and homeless. Families began to live in abandoned bus-stops and under partially constructed bridges; the smell of rice being cooked in a pot would occasionally surprise the passer-by. Add to this the daily migration from villages in Bengal and the neighbouring states of Orissa and Bihar (for Calcutta continues to be the major metropolis in Eastern India), not to speak of the continued migrations from poverty-stricken Bangladesh, and one begins to get some idea of where the destitute that Mother Teresa lifts up from the pavements come from. Two facts should be mentioned in this context. First, there have been no more famines in West Bengal since Independence. Second, in contrast to other, richer cities like Bombay, and even certain Western cities, Calcutta, despite unique pressures, has been free of Fascist or right-wing politics. The only chauvinist party, Amra Bangali – ‘We Are Bengalis’ – has almost been laughed out of existence. A Marxist government has ruled the state for the last twenty years (which has brought about a special set of problems associated with long-running governments, as well as a constant neglect of the state by central government, where the Congress Party has almost always been in power).

My own mixed feelings about Mother Teresa were born some time in the early Eighties, when I was an undergraduate in London. There was a film about her on television (not Malcolm Muggeridge’s Something Beautiful for God, which apparently first turned Mother Teresa into an internationally known figure, and about which Hitchens writes extensively in his book); the only things I recall about the film are the large number of affluent, admiring British people in it in close proximity to Mother Teresa, and the latter smiling and saying, more than once to the camera: ‘We must sell Love.’ Both these memories irritated me for some time; I couldn’t see in what way, except the most superficial, these affluent and photogenic Europeans had anything to do with the poor in Calcutta. Nor could I see how ‘selling Love’ was going to help the poor.

One of the things that has struck me ever since about the publicity concerning Mother Teresa is that it has less to do with the poor than with Mother Teresa. The poor are shown in a timeless, even pastoral, light: Muggeridge even claims that the interior of the Home for the Dying appeared in his film in spite of insufficient light because of a ‘miraculous light’ that emanated from Mother Teresa. Hitchens and the cameraman Ken Macmillan believe that it was the new improved Kodak film that did it. Whatever really happened, the ‘miraculous’ light seems to be a metaphor for the ahistorical; it fixes the Bengali destitute in a timeless vacuum; it further uproots from community, background and identity those who have already been uprooted from community, background and identity. In blocking out history, the ‘miraculous light’ also blocks out one’s proper empathy with, and understanding of, the poor. While it may be true that the poor are people like you and me because we were all created by God, it is only through an understanding of a country’s history, and the history of the poor, that we can begin to appreciate that, indeed, the poor were people like you and me before something happened to them. Mother Teresa herself, too, is always represented out of context, as an angel of mercy who descended on Calcutta to pick the dying off the streets. If Muggeridge’s film made Mother Teresa a ‘star’, as Hitchens puts it, in 1971 (the year of the Bangladesh war, of which Muggeridge seemed blissfully unaware), it still leaves unaccounted for the immense stretch of time between 1948 and 1971, during which her Order must have established and entrenched itself in Calcutta. This was a time when there were no Reagans, Clintons, Thatchers, Queen Elizabeths or Duvaliers to give her their largesse or approval. Could she have worked, then, during this most crucial time, without the support of the local people or local government? After all, she was working, not in a desert, but in a major city which provides a context and parameters for everything working within it, including organisations that do social work, among which Mother Teresa’s is only one. (For instance, the Ramakrishna Mission and the Bharat Sevasram Sangh are only two of the most active and well-known organisations doing social and charity work here for the poor.) If Mother Teresa worked for the poor in Calcutta, then it goes without saying that this work was made possible in fundamental ways by the support of Bengali people and the West Bengal Government. And in the flood of publicity and photo-opportunities that have followed Mother Teresa’s celebrity, in which various world leaders have basked in the reflected light of her virtue (and her gratitude), it would seem that only the people of Calcutta and the West Bengal Government have missed out, even been blanked out, to be represented only by the solitary destitute at the Mother’s hand. This is somewhat unfortunate because the Marxist West Bengal government, whatever its other limitations, has done more work in land reform and land redistribution than almost any other Indian state, immensely benefiting the poor and less privileged in rural areas. The positive aspects of this on the alleviation of poverty would certainly be more profound than the work done even by the most well-intentioned charity.

And yet, whatever reservations one might have about the media projections of Mother Teresa and her work (done with her tacit endorsement or not), however banal her occasional utterances might be (several examples are provided by Hitchens, including her exhortation, ‘Forgive, forgive, forgive’ after the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal), not even the stupidest banality can cancel the importance of real action and real work done for the poor. And so far, this much seems to have been undeniable: that Mother Teresa and her Sisters do pick up the poor from the pavements of Calcutta, give them shelter, food to eat and, if need be, the possibility of a dignified death.

Hitchens has much to say about this aspect of her work in his book (which is really an extended essay of about 25,000 words), giving information that would be new and even shocking to most readers. If there is a slight Eurocentric quality about The Missionary Position this is because Mother Teresa and her reputation in the West, the workings of the Western media, and Mother Teresa the Roman Catholic proponent of anti-abortion dogma are central to Hitchens; Calcutta and its history and people are mentioned sympathetically, intelligently, but briefly, and remain in the background.

Hitchens’s Introduction examines, with the acuity of a literary critic, a portfolio of photographs, printed in the middle of the book, each showing Mother Teresa with a dubious character – either with people known to enrich themselves at the cost of others and to terrorise the powerless, like Michele Duvalier, wife of Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti, or big-time crooks like cult leader ‘John Roger’, ‘a fraud of Chaucerian proportions’. These people have donated money, at one time or another, to Mother Teresa’s organisation. Indeed, there is something Chaucerian about the world explored in this short book, with its range of tricksters and frauds and their close proximity to the holy and to absolution. Two-thirds of the way through the book, we come across Charles Keating, who is ‘now serving a ten-year sentence for his part in the Savings and Loan scandal – undoubtedly one of the greatest frauds in American history’.

At the height of his success as a thief, Keating made donations (not out of his own pocket, of course) to Mother Teresa in the sum of one and a quarter million dollars. He also granted her the use of his private jet. In return, Mother Teresa allowed Keating to make use of her prestige on several important occasions and gave him a personalised crucifix which he took everywhere with him.

During the course of Keating’s trial, Hitchens adds, ‘Mother Teresa wrote to the court seeking clemency for Mr Keating.’ Her letter elicited a response from a Deputy District Attorney for Los Angeles, Paul Turley, who pointed out that, in all fairness, the stolen money Keating had donated to her Order should be returned to its original owners. Turley has still not heard from Mother Teresa.

For all that, there is no evidence in The Missionary Position to suggest that Mother Teresa has used any money from donations for her personal material benefit – in this much, at least, she stands apart from most modern godmen and television evangelists, as well as from Chaucer’s Pardoner. Money might have helped her operations in Calcutta to expand into a ‘missionary multinational’, but conditions in her ‘homes’ are hardly opulent – indeed, if anything, they are unnecessarily austere. This is precisely Hitchens’s point – much of the money she receives remains unspent and unaccounted for. Hitchens’s contention is that Mother Teresa’s ambitions aren’t material at all, in the ordinary sense of that term; her aim is to establish a cult of austerity and suffering. The most disturbing section of the book, the first part of the chapter entitled ‘Good Works and Heroic Virtues’, does something to support this contention. Among the testimony of others (former nuns, social workers), we are given an account by Robin Fox, editor of the Lancet, written after a visit to Mother Teresa’s ‘operation’ in Calcutta. Dr Fox, although favourably disposed towards Mother Teresa’s work, found that medical facilities for the ill and the dying were not only woefully inadequate, but even prohibited or deliberately circumscribed beyond a certain point. Sterilised syringes, antibiotics and choloroquine for malaria were unavailable. Blood tests were seldom permitted. According to Fox, ‘such systematic approaches are alien to the ethos of the home. Mother Teresa prefers providence to planning; rules are designed to prevent any drift towards materialism.’ Moreover, ‘how competent are the sisters at managing pain? On a short visit, I could not judge the power of the spiritual approach, but I was disturbed to learn that the formulary includes no strong analgesics.’ Hitchens comments:

Mother Teresa has been working in Calcutta for four and a half decades, and for nearly three of them she has been favoured with immense quantities of money and material. Her ‘Home for the Dying’, which was part of her dominion visited by Dr Fox, is in no straitened condition. It is as he describes it because that is how Mother Teresa wishes it to be. The neglect of what is commonly understood as proper medicine is not a superficial contradiction. It is the essence of the endeavour, the same essence that is evident in a cheerful sign which has been filmed on the wall of Mother Teresa’s morgue. It reads: ‘I am going to heaven today.’

The charge of deliberately curtailing medical care, of promulgating ‘a cult based on death and suffering and subjection’, is a serious and substantiated one, and it cannot be ignored. Surprisingly, although Hitchens gets his information from authoritative sources – such as Dr Fox, among others – the facts about Mother Teresa’s neglect of the poor are not widely known: certainly not in Calcutta. Most Bengalis have viewed Mother Teresa’s work with admiration (there seems to be little doubt in most people’s minds that she does do valuable work for the poor), although rumours that her main aim is the conversion of the poor to Christianity have circulated from time to time. Not long ago, she was embroiled in something of a controversy, when the BJP, the Indian right-wing nationalist party, accused her of demanding job reservations for Dalit (low-caste) Christians. It is not unusual for caste-structures to persist among Indian Christians, Sikhs, and even Muslims, bringing all kinds of problems to the already problem-ridden matter of ‘quotas’ and ‘reservations’ – for jobs, and places in schools and colleges – kept aside by the government for the ‘backward classes’. This time, unusually for her, Mother Teresa decided to answer her detractors. At a press conference at the headquarters on A.J.C. Bose Road, she denied not only the BJP’s allegations but also it seems, Hitchens’s accusations. According to The Statesman of 25 November, ‘she said she would like her detractors to come to the Missionaries’ home for the sick and dying in Kalighat and see how “the sisters serve the suffering humanity irrespective of their religion, nationality, caste or colour.” ’ Moreover, ‘she also admitted that in her mission for the “salvation of the poorest of poor” ... she would not mind taking charity from “dictators and corrupt people. Everyone should be given the chance to show his compassion – even a beggar on the street,” she said.’ (It has to be said here that Hitchens’s book, which is now being sold and reviewed in India, and from which an extract was published recently in a Calcutta newspaper, seems to have been generally received in this country without rancour and with equanimity.)

In the climate of tremendous political and popular support for Mother Teresa, especially in the West, it is obvious that Hitchens’s investigations have been a solitary and courageous endeavour. The book is extremely well-written, with a sanity and sympathy that tempers its irony. In spite of this, Mother Teresa remains an enigma even after we have finished reading it. According to Hitchens, she is ‘a religious fundamentalist, a political operative, a primitive sermoniser and an accomplice of worldly, secular powers’. She might be all these, and yet one feels that there is more to the complex personality of the Albanian Agnes Bojaxhiu, who arrived in Calcutta from Yugoslavia one day in 1928. Hitchens’s Mother Teresa, at times, is in danger of assuming the one-dimensionality of the Mother Teresa of her admirers. As drawn by him, she becomes something of a wizened but powerful machine of single-minded intentionality. Hitchens quotes Freud towards the beginning of the book, and as a reader of Freud he would know that the genesis of, and reasons for, actions are never clearly revealed to the protagonists themselves, let alone to others.