There’s a cacophony outside Nirmal Hriday, Mother Teresa’s ‘home for the destitute and dying’ in Kolkata’s Kalighat area, right next to its famed Kali temple. A ragtag bunch of children are clamouring for what they call chhoto coupon (small coupons). These prized scraps of paper make them eligible for an ‘outing’ the next day.
It is the morning of Mother Teresa’s 100th birth anniversary, and apart from the much-discussed outing, the children are also being treated to cakes and juice, consumed at lightning speed. In case we have missed the point, one of the kids gravely points to the photograph of the ‘saint of the gutters’ at the building’s entrance and says, ‘Boro ma’r janmadin’ (roughly, ‘it’s the senior mother’s birthday’).
As a beleaguered Missionaries of Charity (MC) nun tries to keep them under control and smile enquiringly at us at the same time, a shriek suddenly goes up: “Laash aschhe (corpse coming)!” In a trice, the doorway is forsaken, the children dispersing in all directions as one of the home’s inmates emerges from it for the last time, on a stretcher, mercifully shrouded, but still forcing us to shrink against the wall of the narrow passage.
As soon as the body disappears inside a van, though, the children are back. Business as usual. Inside, it’s business as usual, too, though there has been some effort to brighten the gloomy interiors with blue and white balloons, and the destitute and dying are dressed in colourful new clothes. Two nuns and a volunteer are in charge, and permission to speak to them or to the inmates is politely but firmly refused.
On the previous evening, at Mother House on AJC Bose Road, the mood is quiet, too. There’s almost nothing to indicate the significance of the day after. Near Mother Teresa’s deserted, unpretentious, nearly unadorned tomb, two Spanish volunteers shred marigolds and collect the petals in a carton, for “tomorrow’s decoration”. Lawyers from Madrid, the two women are also volunteers at an MC centre there.
Every day, between 1 pm and 3 pm, all MC centres take a break. At Mother House, nuns take it in turns to police the otherwise wide-open gate during this period, sifting through the constant stream of visitors — camera-wielding Japanese tourists, a chattering group of Anglo-Indians, bemused Americans, an argumentative journalist from Delhi — to decide whom to let in. The routine never varies, and the rigid sense of discipline and abhorrence for pomp is uniformly striking.
Emmanuel Biswas, a Bengali man in his mid-50s, limps in, takes off his shoes, heads for the tomb and prays audibly, almost weeping.
He’s a Protestant, he tells us later, but has been praying at the Catholic nun’s tomb ever since a debilitating stroke robbed him of normal movement. “What can I say about her? My sins are great, but she will forgive me,” he says.
On the official Missionaries of Charity website — operated by the California-based Mother Teresa of Calcutta Centre — there are 195 entries in a section that invites users to “report any favours or miracles received through the intercession of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta”.
Of course, 13 years after her death, Mother Teresa is an overwhelming presence at the institutions she founded. Both Mother House and Nirmal Hriday are overflowing with reminders of the woman who evoked love and distaste in almost equal measure during her lifetime.
Critics, led by Christopher Hitchens, accused her of accepting money for her mission from gunrunners, smugglers, fraudsters, and mass murderers. They demanded explanations about what she did with that money, ridiculed the Vatican’s rush to canonise her (a process that remains unfinished, hence ‘Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’ instead of ‘St Teresa’), accused her of abetting poverty rather than alleviating it, and were scathing about her decision to be treated at a California hospital rather than one of her own “primitive” medical facilities, where the caregivers supposedly depended on love and faith rather than medical training.
Today, in private conversation, former associates confirm what many suspect: despite her critics, Mother Teresa’s personal charisma went a long way in drawing attention to her order. That is not to say that the MC has stopped its work, or that there are any visible signs of decline (MC accounts have never been audited anyway), but, as one former donor says, “They won’t admit it, but there has been a 200 per cent drop in public interest in the MC.”
In similar vein is a comment by a young woman whose livelihood indirectly comes from Mother House —she ‘guides’ all the ‘lost’ foreigners who come in to the house as volunteers, and finds accommodation for them nearby, for a fee. Did she ever see Mother Teresa? No, her husband did. “Mother used to look after him and his brothers when they were children. She used to give them baths, meals…the sisters now are nothing like her,” she says.
Really? “Look at that pagla (lunatic),” she says dramatically, pointing to a homeless man lying on the pavement. “He’s been asking for some clothes for months now, and they won’t give him any. You think Mother would have tolerated it?”
Unfair, probably, given the rate at which the MC’s workload has gone up over the years.
And there’s nothing to show that the order minds the diminishing attention levels. A nun, who declines to give her name, says they love nothing better than to be left in peace. “We are only letting people in because of Mother’s centenary. All this attention is very distracting,” she says.
Nonetheless, attention from all corners of the world made the MC what it is. Today, its founder’s iconic status hasn’t eroded, but in death as in life, she seems to be surpassing the order that she founded, and the cult of the Blessed Teresa is alive and well. Is her life’s work as secure?