It may have been somewhat lost in the hoopla surrounding the tenth anniversary of the death of Princess Diana but this month it will also be a decade since Mother Teresa of Calcutta passed on.
There are, broadly speaking, three views of Mother Teresa. The first is the view propagated by Malcolm Muggeridge and then, more or less, unquestioningly embraced by much of the Western media. According to this view, she was a saint who worked among the destitute in the hopeless darkness of Calcutta, a sort of Albert Schweitzer without the moustache.
The second is the Christopher Hitchens/Tariq Ali anti-view which first found expression in a British TV documentary called Hell’s Angel. Hitchens followed the film up with a book (called The Missionary Position) for which he was roundly reviled. But he has often restated his position that the old lady was a bit of a fraud and a publicity hound who hung around dictators, crooks and megalomaniacs while providing only the most rudimentary medical care to Calcutta’s poor in between photo opportunities. (“She preferred California clinics when she got sick herself,” Hitchens wrote.)
There is also a third view. If you talk to most educated people in Calcutta, you will find that they have good things to say about Mother Teresa and are appreciative of the work that she did for the poor.
<b1>But — with the exception of a tiny minority that knew her personally — most of them will tell you that they are sceptical of the Muggeridge view that she was a saint come down to earth, seeking only to help impoverished Bengalis recover their health. They will argue that there are many other people in Calcutta who have done as much good work if not more than Mother Teresa and her order (the Missionaries of Charity). For instance, the monks of the Ramakrishna Mission have helped something like ten times the number of people than those who have been nursed by the Mother and her Sisters.
My own position has varied over the years. I began by questioningly adopting the Muggeridge view of her as the Albanian who went to Bengal and became a saint. Then after I moved to Calcutta, I fell in with the conventional wisdom (what I call position three above). And while I was dismissive of the Hitchens documentary (in Counterpoint) when it was first shown on TV, I have to concede that not everything Hitchens said now seems unjustified.
To understand the way in which the world responded to Mother Teresa, you need to remember two facts. The first and most important is that she was a white woman. Can you really see Malcolm Muggeridge coming to Calcutta and shouting to the world that he had found a new saint and that her name was… Mrs Chattopadhyay? The reason the West was so fascinated by Mother Teresa was because she reinforced the stereotype of the white person who came to the Third World at great personal sacrifice and took care of us less developed people.
No journalist will deny that Mother Teresa would not have been a great international story if she had been a Bengali woman or, even, a Bihari man. Her USP was that she was white and she worked in conditions that most white people regarded as being just one step removed from hell.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Just ask yourself a simple question. Given that the Missionaries of Charity continue to do the same work that they did when the Mother was alive, shouldn’t the new head of the order receive the same kind of international acclaim?
And yet, she is not even a household name in India let alone anywhere else in the world. Could this be because she is not a white person who dirties her hands in the slums of Calcutta? Could it be because her name is Sister Nirmala Joshi?
The answer is self-evident.
The second important thing to remember about Mother Teresa is that she was not a simple charity worker. She was a Christian missionary and she worked in the name of Jesus. Mother Teresa herself went to great lengths to emphasise her status as a nun. “I am not a social worker,” she once said forcefully.
Nobody can hold her religious motivation against her and we must accept that her missions offered hope and medication to everybody, no matter what religion they belonged to. Nor was there any attempt to forcibly convert them.
But once you begin to see Mother Teresa as a nun, then a very different picture emerges. She was on what we might call the right wing of the Catholic Church. She missed no opportunity (a prayer breakfast at the White House or even her acceptance speech for her Nobel prize) to lecture the world on the evils of — no, not poverty, exploitation, hunger, pestilence or disease but — contraception. And as far as she was concerned there probably wasn’t much difference between Hitler’s holocaust and abortion, which she regarded as mass murder. In fact, she told a dumbfounded Nobel audience that the greatest destroyer of world peace was — you can look it up if you don’t believe me — abortion!
As Hitchens has pointed out, Mother Teresa would willingly treat poor women in her clinics but her position on the right wing of the Catholic Church made her oppose all the things that would really have helped them. As far as she was concerned, charity was better than empowerment.
Within India, Mother Teresa walked a tightrope between her persona as a Good Person Who Helps Everyone and her identity as a Christian reactionary. I remember being appalled when she turned up at a tawdry demonstration in Delhi to demand reservation and quotas for Dalit Christians. The event was expressly political in nature, hunger strikes were threatened and a man was dressed up as Jesus about to ascend the cross.
When she was criticised for lending her name to the cause, she at once claimed that she had been misled by the organisers. Intrigued, I phoned the organisers. Had they lied to her? Not at all, they said, astonished by her disavowal of their cause, it had all been carefully explained to her.
The Christian element to Mother Teresa has now become even more complex. The last Pope was determined to declare her a saint. In the old days, this was a complex process which required the appointment of a devil’s advocate. But under John Paul II, all the Church had to do was to find evidence of a miracle that the putative saint had performed.
As Mother Teresa had never claimed to be Sai Baba, this was harder than the Vatican imagined. No problem. The nuns produced a woman called Monica Besra who claimed that a holy light had emerged from a picture of Mother Teresa and cured her of cancer.
Except that the doctors denied that Besra ever had cancer and her own husband refused to accept that any miracle had occurred. Further, Mother Teresa was not actually around when this alleged miracle occurred. So who should be canonised: the Mother or the photograph?
Worse has followed. Last month, Besra gave interviews in which she claimed that the nuns had produced her as evidence of the miracle and had then quickly dumped her without providing the assistance she required.
And finally, Mother Teresa’s own faith in the Christianity she so rigidly advocated also seems more complex than we first thought. A new book containing letters she wrote to her spiritual advisers and confessors reveals that for the last four decades of her life, she felt “no presence of God whatsoever, neither in her heart nor in the eucharist”.
Of course, she never told us that. As Time magazine pointed out last month, even as she told us that Jesus was all around, she couldn’t find him herself.
None of this is to deny her essential goodness or to downgrade the work she did. But I think the time has come to take a long, hard look at the real Mother Teresa behind the hype and the legend.