Mother Teresa once made me cry. The year was 1988 - I was on one of my frequent holidays or visits to Calcutta from Britain, where I had moved to in 1985. I was standing by the kerb-side in Gariahat Morr, munching on a famous 'mutton roll'. I was looking at scenes I had grown up with - pavements almost obliterated by shops, people having to weave their way through hawkers peddling their fares; buses tilted to one side by the sheer weight of passengers and belching out black diesel smoke, trams waiting for a manual change of tracks before they could turn, the familiar neon sign of an astrologer.
In the midst of all this I remembered the 'Calcutta' of the West - Calcutta the metaphor, not the city. In my three years in the West I had come to realise that the city had become synonymous with the worst of human suffering and degradation in the eyes of the world. I read and heard again and again that Calcutta contained an endless number of 'sewers and gutters' where an endless number of dead and dying people lay - but not for long - as 'roving angels' in the shape of the followers of a certain nun would come along looking for them. Then they would whisk them away in their smart ambulances. As in my twenty-seven years in Calcutta I had never seen such a scene, (and neither have I met a Calcuttan who has), it hurt me deeply that such a wrong stereotype had become permanently ingrained in world psyche. I felt suddenly overwhelmingly sad that a city, indeed an entire culture should be continuously insulted in this way.
I am Calcuttan born and bred, and our family has lived in the city for as long as can be traced. I know Calcutta well, and many people who matter there, and many more who do not. I do not have Calcutta 'in my blood', but the place has definitely made me what I am, warts and all. My mother tongue is Bengali, the language of Calcutta, but I speak Hindi passably, which is spoken by a large number of the destitutes of Calcutta.
I had no interest whatsoever in Mother Teresa before I came to England. Difficult it may seem to a Westerner to comprehend, but she was not a significant entity in Calcutta in her lifetime; paradoxically posthumously her image has risen significantly there - primarily because of the Indian need to emulate the West in many unimportant matters.
I had had some interest in the destitutes of Calcutta during my college days, when I dabbled in leftist politics for a while. I also took a keen interest in human rights issues. Never in the course of my (modest) interaction with the very poor of Calcutta, did I cross paths with Mother Teresa's organisation - indeed, I cannot ever recall her name being uttered.
After living for some time in the West, I (slowly) realised what Mother Teresa and Calcutta meant to the world. It shocked and saddened me. In India itself, to say you come from Calcutta is considered trendy, as Calcuttans are considered, wrongly, 'brainy and dangerous'. The Bombayite Gokhle is still widely quoted, 'What Bengal [Calcutta's state] thinks today, that India thinks tomorrow.' In India, Calcutta is - not entirely wrongly - stereotyped as a seat of effete culture and anarchic politics. There is an Indian saying that goes thus: 'If you have one Calcuttan you have a poet; with two you have a political party, and with three you have two political parties.'
The Calcutta stereotype in the West did not irk me as much as did the firmly held notion that Mother Teresa had chosen to live there as its saviour. I was astonished that she had become a figure of speech, and that her name was invoked to qualify the extreme superlative of a positive kind; you can criticise God, but you cannot criticise Mother Teresa - in common parlance, doing the unthinkable is qualified as 'like criticising Mother Teresa'. The number of times I have heard expressions such as 'So and so would try the patience of Mother Teresa', I have lost count. Such expressions would cause amazement and curiosity in Calcutta, even amongst Mother Teresa's most ardent admirers.
Why I decided to do 'something about it' I cannot easily tell. As a person I am flawed enough to understand lies and deceit. Why certain people, themselves no pillars of rectitude, decide to make a stand against untruth and injustice is a very complex issue. Also, my wife, brought up (a Roman Catholic) in Ireland on Teresa mythology, felt angry and cheated when she went to Calcutta and saw how the reality compared with the fairy tale; she has encouraged me in my endeavours.
In February 1994, I rang, without any introduction, Vanya Del Borgo at the television production company Bandung Productions in London. She listened to my anguished outpourings and, to cut a long story short, eventually Channel 4 decided to undertake Hell's Angel (shown on Britain's Channel 4 television on 8 November 1994), the very first attempt to challenge the Teresa myth on television. Ms Del Borgo chose Christopher Hitchens as the presenter, knowing him as she did from their days together at The Nation in the United States. I am not happy with how Hell's Angel turned out, especially its sensationalist approach, such as Mr Hitchens's calling Mother Teresa 'a presumed virgin'. The film however caused some ripple, in Britain and also internationally.
Mother Teresa, one could argue in her favour, is dead and therefore would be unable to defend herself against my charges. Criticisms of her however peaked during her lifetime; apart from the November 1994 documentary, there was a stringent (and quite detailed) attack on conditions in her orphanages in India that was published in The Guardian of London (14 October 1996) - charges of gross neglect and physical and emotional abuse were made. The article alleged her own complicity and knowledge in the unacceptable practices that went (go) on in her homes. During January 1997, a documentary - entitled Mother Teresa: Time for Change? - critical of her working methods and accusing her of neglect, was shown on various European television channels.
It was up to Mother Teresa to have defended herself against such criticisms during her lifetime. She did not. Her supporters (and others) would of course say that she was like Jesus; that she would not demean herself by protesting against muck raking - she would merely turn the other cheek. Notwithstanding her image, she was a robust protester whenever she had a case. Shortly before she died she got involved in legal wrangles with a Tennessee bakery over the marketing of a bun; and more seriously, with her one time close friend and ally, the author Dominique Lapierre, over the script of a film on her life.
On both occasions her Miami based solicitor got properly involved. And then, there is that well-known letter of protest she wrote to Judge Lance Ito protesting at the prosecution (she perceived it as persecution) of her friend Charles Keating, the biggest fraudster in US history.
After her death, her order continues with the litigious tradition - less than a year after her death it was involved in a court case with the Mother Teresa Memorial Committee, a Calcutta based organisation.
The German magazine Stern (10 September 1998) published a devastating critique of Mother Teresa's work on the first anniversary of her death. The article, entitled 'Mother Teresa, Where Are Your Millions?', which took a year's research in three continents, concluded that her organisation is essentially a religious order that does not deserve to be called a charitable foundation. No protest has been forthcoming from her order.
To the charges of neglect of residents, indifference to suffering, massaging of figures, manipulation of the media and knowingly handling millions of dollars of stolen cash, Mother Teresa never protested. Her responses were 'Why did they do it?', 'It was all for publicity.' She was perturbed by the criticisms - so much so that after the 1994 documentary she cancelled a religious mission to the Far East.
During her lifetime I wrote to Mother Teresa numerous times asking for a formal interview with either her or one of her senior deputies. I had agreed to meet her in Calcutta, or at the Vatican - mindful her frequent trips there - or indeed, at any other place in the world. Despite her image - carefully nurtured by her own self - of one who shunned the media and publicity, she had always bent over backwards to give interviews to sympathetic world media (in other words, all the world's media). In 1994 she spent a whole day talking to Hello! magazine; the same magazine ran a lengthy interview with her successor in 1998. She however never even acknowledged any of my many requests for an interview. I had met her briefly on occasions in the company of a roomful of worshipful admirers, but I did not feel that was the time or the place to ask uncomfortable questions.
After two years of trying, when I failed to elicit any response from her or her order, I contacted her official biographers to ask whether they would answer some of the serious question marks hanging over her operations. All of them, bar one, replied, but only to turn me down. All of this happened while Mother Teresa was alive.
Many people tell me that Mother Teresa should be left alone because she did 'something' for the underprivileged. I do not deny that she did. However her reputation, which was to a good extent carefully built up by herself, was not on a 'something' scale. More importantly, that 'something', at least in Calcutta, was quite little, as my book will show. Even more importantly, she had turned away many many more than she had helped - although she had claimed throughout her life that she was doing everything for everybody. My brief against her is not that she did not address the root or causes of suffering and I am not for a moment suggesting that she ought to have done so, as I understand the particular religious tradition she came from - I am saying that there was a stupendous discrepancy between her image and her work, between her words and her deeds; that she, helped by others of course, engaged in a culture of deception.
On a superficial level, I need to tell the truth about Teresa because I feel humiliated to be associated with a place that is wrongly imagined to exist on Western charity. Perhaps the main reason why I want to tell this story is because, I believe, each of us has a duty to stand up and protest when history is in danger of being distorted. In a few years' time Mother Teresa will be up there, glittering in the same galaxy as Mozart and Leonardo.
I wish to convey my thanks to the some of the world's most powerful publishing firms who put up obstacle after obstacle in the path of this book. Indeed, the British arm of a multinational publishing house signed me up and then cancelled the contract nine months later by sending me a half-page fax. My resolve to get the book published grew all the more stronger by such obstacles.
I know I cannot change 'history' as pre-ordained by the powerful world media, but I can attempt to put a footnote therein.
I would disapprove of my book being called 'controversial', as I see it as a book of hard facts, albeit disturbing sometimes.
Calcutta has recently been renamed Kolkata by its rulers and a section of its citizens. The new name, which is politically correct and is closer to the vernacular pronunciation, has caught on faster than expected. In this book, I have exclusively used 'Calcutta', partly because to me it makes more historical sense, and also because to tell the story of Mother Teresa, 'Calcutta' to me seems more appropriate.
London and Calcutta, 1996-2002
by Joe Winter
Calcutta has recently renamed itself Kolkata, in line with the Bengali pronunciation and with a renaming in the case of two other Indian metropolises. The touch of colonialism, still felt after its death, is shaken off a little by the gesture, many would say, shrugged free of; but it is only a gesture. The battle for internal independence for India is a deadlier business, the touch of the past still a dead weight, and a new nationalism beginning to take a very ugly form. Kolkata's acquiescence as a passive player in the charity charade, the part it continues to take in the Mother Teresa phenomenon, makes a mockery of the symbol of self-determination in the change of name. It is only too clear to a resident that the city is thrilled by the approaching sainthood. Its victimhood itself is to be canonised. It is a form of Western recognition, that elusive holy grail of the Indian psyche. By comparison, Asian recognition is a non-starter. It is in this perspective that Dr Chatterjee's illuminating analysis appears. Here are the hard facts behind the phenomenon. What did Mother Teresa really achieve?
A lot less than she said, that much is clear. But does it do any harm for her memory to be cherished, this indomitable old lady bent with devotion? Bengal has its saints - Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Rabindranath. Why not a woman too, in the capital of mother worship, the great spiritual home of the goddess Durga? Why not indeed? - but in the marketplace of values to be set on display for the eyes of later generations, let not an affinity for purity, that so charges the popular mind, blind its gaze to the mixing-in of a baser metal. There was something wonderful in Mother Teresa - and something not so wonderful.
Princess Diana died a few days before her, to an extraordinary if short-lived global reaction. The world it seems needs fairy tales. The came the Mother's death and a myth was sealed. We need our myths too and not only in literature; but where there are facts to be stated alongside them they must surely be stated. There is a syndrome in the West's thinking about the less economically developed world; one might call it the sincerity syndrome. It relies on not looking too closely at whatever myths and legends are spun by those with a vested interest.
How much 'conscience money' has been paid out, in the last hundred years, by the affluent in their blind sincerity, to what used to be known as the Third World! Yet there is an alternative to misty-eyed shelling out, and it is not to turn one's back. First and foremost let us open our eyes. There is a story behind the popular version of Mother Teresa's life - the story of facts - from which we can all learn.
(Joe Winter is an English poet who lives in Calcutta)