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Halo goodbye - The Telegraph

Sunandra K. Datta-Ray ()
1 February 1997

Title : Halo goodbye
Author : Sunandra K. Datta-Ray
Publication : The Telegraph
Date : February 1, 1997

For the Missionaries of Charity this should be a time of renewal.
For Calcutta, a time of sober stocktaking. Indissoluble though the
bond between the two might seem, it must be forged again so that
the city can derive more visibly tangible benefits from the driving
zeal and firm global reach of the stooped Albanian born woman in
the blue bordered sari, with her strong features and intense stare,
whose life's work has made Calcutta the metaphor for deprivation,
destitution and degradation in much the same way as earlier
generations abroad linked the city with the black hole of imagined

Internationally, Mother Teresa is the symbol of Calcutta. But how
much reason does the city really have to be grateful to her? What
public works, institutions and general charities do we owe to her
devotion? The new superior's credentials will be judged by what
she does to fill this gap and redeem Calcutta's image for its
people and posterity.

Her piety must not thrive on poverty her sacrifice need not be
rooted in suffering. Calcutta must be able to say with pride that
the Missionaries give succour to the living, not only solace to the
dying. That is the challenge of the future. It cannot be shirked in
the name of faith.

It will not be easy to adjust to this new role in the shadow of a
legend, "a living saint" who is compared with St Francis of Assisi.
Whoever succeeds her will find it difficult to separate the order
from its founder Yet, the time has come to ask how much of an
impact she really made on pain and poverty even in the wastelands
of Tiljala and Motijheel where she became such a vibrant presence.
Perhaps, with missions in 105 countries, excluding India, Mother
Teresa spread herself out too thinly to alleviate distress in any
one place. Perhaps even she was not able to raise enough money to
lighten Calcutta's burden of misery. But these are only incidental

The real reason lies elsewhere. Souls, not bodies, are grist to
the mill of her faith; the saving of a heathen for the hereafter
seals that "bond of love a thousand times stronger than those of
flesh and blood", which is how her Missionaries describe their
commitment to Christ.

This insight into Mother Teresa's personal ethics was vouchsafed me
in the early Seventies when Doordarshan asked me to interview her
in celebration of yet another award. I had not met her before, and
asked, during our preliminary discussion, what distinguished her
from other social workers.

Mother Teresa was horrified. She was not doing social service.
She was "helping the poor" because "our lord" had told her to do so
for the sake of her own soul. She stressed the difference between
social service as an end for those who are helped, and service for
the helper's spiritual welfare. "So the good work you do is for
your own sake?" I asked. "The beneficial effect that it has is
only incidental, the real purpose is your personal salvation?"
Mother Teresa did not disagree.

As I spent the evening talking to her workers at the Nirmal Hriday
home - Mother Teresa had wisely advised me to become familiar with
her work before the interview - I could not help dwelling on what
she had told me. It would be central to our discourse on
television, for I realised that it revealed her and her mission, as
well as her relationship with Calcutta, in an altogether new light.
So did Mother Teresa. Doordarshan telephoned early next morning to
say that she had called to tell them that she would not be
interviewed by me. She had chosen her own interviewer: my friend
and colleague, Desmond Doig, her biographer. If Doordarshan
refused, there would be no interview.

Doordarshan, being Doordarshan, had already capitulated. Calcutta
was the ideal setting for an European in search of salvation.

Others confirmed my impression. When Navin Chawla, the Delhi civil
servant who leapt into fame during the Emergency and later wrote
Mother Teresa's "authorised biography", asked her if there were
fewer destitutes as a result of her efforts, she replied
ambiguously that dying in peace ("for that's for eternity") was
preferable to living in prosperity.

She was contemptuous of secular labour to relieve poverty "There is
always the danger that we may become only social workers or just do
the work for the sake of the work..." she told Malcolm Muggeridge,
the British writer who did a stint in The Statesman in the
Thirties, and "got religion" in his old age when he was known in
some derision as St Mugg. "Without our suffering our work would be
just social work," she told him.

Christopher Hitchens, the only biographer whose book is not
outright hagiography, says that once she smilingly consoled a
patient in the agony of terminal cancer: "You are suffering like
Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you." The dying man
summoned up enough spirit to retort: "Then please tell him to stop
kissing me." The sense in which ordinary mortals understand
suffering - hunger, disease, pain, homelessness - does not exist
for her.

Suffering is an elevating spiritual experience. "I think it is
very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with
the passion of Christ. 1 think the world is being much helped by
the suffering of the poor people," Mother Teresa told rich
Americans. Too much curing would drive candidates for canonisation
out of business. It might make the poor discontented with poverty.

According to the iconoclastic Hitchens, her intervention on behalf
of the Dalits was not her political debut. He notes her crusade
against abortion and the reputation of some of the people with whom
she hobnobs. He mentions secret baptisms of the dying who are
asked if they want a "ticket to heaven", and concludes that she is
"a demagogue, an obscurantist and a servant of earthly powers".
She works, he says, for "a very determined and very politicised

Some of her associations would have aroused comment in a less star
struck society It was the Western, not Indian, media that dwelt on
the fact that Charles Keating, the Californian banker who was
jailed for swindling small investors out of $ 252 million, had
given her $ 1.25 million. Mother Teresa wrote an extraordinarily
disingenuous letter during his trial to the Los Angeles judge - who
later presided over the O.J. Simpson case seeking clemency for
Keating. Since she had Judge Lance Ito's name, exact designation,
and address, this was no sudden act of charity She had been
properly briefed. Haiti's egregious Jean-Claude Duvalier and his
celebrated bride Michele, Washington's corrupt and depraved Mayor
Marion Barry and Robert Maxwell, the media magnate with an
unsavoury reputation, were other associates. Presumably, she could
not afford to be finicky when it came to donors.

Though she expanded into Europe and America, Africa and Australia,
it was the misery of Calcutta that built up and sustained her
reputation, that induced the rich and the powerful to give her m"
and the benefit of their patronage. In return, the order's new
head can ensure that the vast fortune that Mother Teresa
accumulated and, according to Hitchens, salted away worldwide is
repatriated to India, and invested in schools for Calcutta's
bustees, in a feeding programme for the undernourished, in clean
and comfortable homes for the aged, and, above all, in a fine and
fully equipped free hospital where the poor are guaranteed world
class doctors, nurses, medicines and treatment. Or at least of
Woodlands standard.

It would be a small price for a halo. No other city would so
gladly offer its dying to be stepping stones in a relentless ascent
to sainthood. Calcutta deserves compensation.

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