Friday, May 1, 2009

The unblessed of Calcutta

The unblessed of Calcutta
By Sarmila Bose

It is not necessary to put down all other social workers in India, and in Calcutta in particular, to highlight the good work done by Mother Teresa

I hate to spoil Mother Teresa’s big day — but then, I can’t spoil it anyway. The few voices of dissent have been drowned out by the great beatification bandwagon. A handful of rationalists, a few doctors in a district in West Bengal, India, the lone voice of Christopher Hitchens, who penned the no-holds-barred attack Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. That’s about it. Oh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad have called Mother Teresa’s ‘miracle’ a fraud — but they have their own miracles to tout. 

Indeed, giving organisations like Vishwa Hindu Parishad another issue to go to town about might be added to the list of the harm laid at Mother Teresa’s door. For she has done harm, just as she has done great good, and especially as a Calcuttan I would be failing in my duties if I did not speak up about it on the occasion of her fast-track beatification by the Pope.

Anyone who spends her life in the service of some of the poorest people on earth is a ‘saint’ anyway as far as I am concerned. So I appreciate whatever service Mother Teresa provided to the poor and destitute and accept her as a fellow-Calcuttan. How pathetic, then, that the Catholic Church clings to regulations that needed to record a ‘miracle’ — some kind of super-natural feat, to be conjured up at any cost — before the Vatican could officially bestow beatification on her. 

This has forced her Order to come up with the story of a woman in West Bengal whose tumour was allegedly cured miraculously by the magical powers of a locket of the Mother long after Mother Teresa had died. The story has been called a hoax by the doctors who treated the woman as well as by her husband, tainting Mother Teresa’s beatification with the smear of fraud.

I don’t mind the Pope making Mother Teresa a ‘saint’ — this is something internal to the Catholic Church and none of my business. But I do have a problem when recognition of Mother Teresa by her own Church has to be based on a lie. Why couldn’t her work be enough to merit recognition? The very process of making her a ‘saint’ has further encouraged superstition and obscurantism. Perhaps many other poor people will now decide to go for a Mother Teresa locket when they are ill, instead of going to a medical clinic. That certainly does not serve the cause of humanity.

Perhaps the greatest harm she did to the very poor she said she served was her total opposition to both abortion and contraception, in accordance with her orthodox Catholic faith. She worked in a sea of poverty that is India, yet opposed one of India’s most important anti-poverty policies — its population control programme. When I visited her orphanage I was grateful to her for taking in babies abandoned in the streets of Calcutta, but there would be fewer abandoned and unwanted babies all around if India’s family planning programme were more successful. She had the right to her own faith, but her public work based on that faith collided with what was better for society.

For someone about to become a saint, Mother Teresa was cosy with nasty dictators like the Duvaliers of Haiti and notorious swindlers like Charles Keating of the USA. She did not hesitate to declare that the Duvaliers loved the poor, and did not care that Keating had stolen a lot of money from people who weren’t rich, just because he gave her some. In fact, she received lots of money from lots of people and it is worrying when Christopher Hitchens reports that none of it is accounted for through any public audit. It is also true, as Hitchens points out, that her institutions offer only simple, rudimentary service, so the vast funds do not seem to have been used to upgrade and modernise the care provided.

Some people have criticised Mother Teresa for proselytising in the guise of caring for the dying and destitute. Frankly, if a sick man died with dignity in her home having technically become a Catholic, it is infinitely preferable to his dying a non-Catholic in the gutters of Calcutta. More important is the question, how many of the ‘dying’ would have benefited from modern medical care available in Calcutta? 

If Mother Teresa did not provide medical care to those who needed it when it was readily available, that would be reprehensible. In her last years Mother Teresa herself received some of the best medical care in modern facilities with whole teams of doctors and nurses looking after her every time she was taken ill. Her critics say that the destitute who died in her institution were not afforded the same option.

Those who criticise Mother Teresa have been accused of trying to hide their embarrassment at the reality of a foreign woman spending her life caring for desperately poor people about whom so many of their countrymen do nothing. This is the most grotesquely unjust insult to the many individuals in Calcutta who serve the poor and disadvantaged throughout their lives. Some of them are associated with religious orders, some are not. Some are foreign too, but most are Indian. 

Unlike Mother Teresa, many other social workers seem motivated towards helping eradicate poverty. Most are limited in scope, constrained by limited budgets. It is not necessary to put down all other social workers in India, and in Calcutta in particular, to highlight the good work done by Mother Teresa. Nor should it be necessary to be blind to the harm caused by the rigidly orthodox faith of Teresa, the Blessed of Calcutta. 

Sarmila Bose is Assistant Editor, Ananda Bazar Patrika, India & Visiting Scholar, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University

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