Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Published : Sep 20, 1997 00:00 IST

With its steady focus on those who live in poverty and dispossession, the Missionaries of Charity addresses a special need of the modern world.

IT is work as usual for the group of seven Sisters and 30 volunteers on a Tuesday morning at Nirmal Hriday, the Home for Dying Destitutes established in 1952 by Mother Teresa at Kalighat, one of Calcutta's most congested areas. Four days have passed since Mother Teresa's death. Her familiar fragile figure, draped in a white sari with blue border - the livery of her congregation, the Missionaries of Charity - lies in a glass casket in St. Thomas' Church. Thousands of mourners file past for a last view of her. Preparations are on for a state funeral and public Mass.

But in Nirmal Hriday, there is no time to pause and consider this, nor indeed to allow it to delay the urgent tasks at hand. "Mother longed to be here in Nirmal Hriday," said soft-spoken Sister Dolores, who is in charge of the centre. "It was her first love and her heart was here. But work must go on - birth and death are part and parcel of life."

And work proceeds, in a brisk and no-nonsense fashion, as it would on any other morning. The acrid smell of disinfectant on human excretions fill the high-ceilinged wards where lie the emaciated, skin-and-bone inmates of Nirmal Hriday. They are the desperately poor, victims of malnourishment and illness, those who inhabit the crevices of the big city of Calcutta. Nirmal Hriday has offered them a place of repose, where they can get free basic medical attention, often for festering body sores and gangrene, or for infectious diseases like tuberculosis; where they are given nutritious food; where they, unimaginably, are the guests of honour, caringly ministered to.

There are 50 men in the male ward and 87 in the female ward, numbers that vary every day. "Most of them have been picked up in a sick or even dying condition," said Sister Dolores. "Many get better and leave, knowing that they can come back. Some are here for their last moments but die here with dignity, love and care." As she speaks, she makes way for two young women volunteers who carefully manoeuvre a stretcher on which lies the slight figure of a corpse wrapped in white that they are taking to the mortuary. There is a flurry of quiet but purposive activity. Inmates are being fed (some nasally) and bathed; beds are being cleared of linen, blankets and rubber sheets that are changed and taken away for washing; plates, dishes and trays are removed; cooking starts for the afternoon meal. By half past ten, dressing trays are ready, medicines are administered, and intravenous drips started for those who need them.

"Mother gave us our fourth vow - to give ourselves to the poorest of the poor," said Sister Dolores. "For us this is not just social work; we see Jesus in each person we care for, we see Him in our work."

All priests and nuns must adhere to the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, but it is the fourth vow, to give "Wholehearted and Free service to the poorest of the poor", that is unique to the congregation of the Missionaries of Charity, and which is its foundational principle. This mission came to Mother Teresa in 1946 as a special inspiration, described by her as a "Call within a Call."

THE range of activities carried out by the Missionaries of Charity includes child welfare and adoption centres, educational instruction, family visiting, day creches, feeding programmes and soup kitchens, homes for alcoholics, night shelters and 'natural' family planning centres. Medical-cum-social activities include dispensaries, leprosy clinics and rehabilitation centres, homes for the abandoned, crippled and mentally retarded children, for unwed mothers, for sick and dying destitutes and for AIDS patients.

With a steady focus on those who live on the periphery of society - in poverty and dispossession, those who fall outside any social support mechanism, be it a job, personal assets, the public distribution system, or in many cases, the family as well - they address a special need of the modern world. It is the 'poorest of the poor' focus that has galvanised her dedicated workforce and spurred the rapid worldwide expansion of Mother Teresa's mission.

According to Navin Chawla, Mother Teresa's biographer, 476 centres had been established by 1990 in more than a hundred countries, including Cuba. That year, there were 4,000 Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity.

Seven years on, the numbers have swelled. According to Sister Nirmala, the new Superior-General, there are now 580 centres around the world and 4,000 Sisters.

Securing precise information on the Missionaries of Charity is not an easy task. Although the organisation does not shun publicity, it does not seek it either. Nor does it consider publicity necessary for its work or for the purpose of fund-raising. The Missionaries of Charity has no brochures or pamphlets describing its work or recording its achievements, so information must be gleaned the hard way, by visits to the centres and interviews with the inmates and the Sisters who run them.

After Mother Teresa's death, Mother House, the administrative heart of all the centres or "houses" of the Missionaries of Charity, virtually shut itself off as an information source, and Sisters were under strict instructions not to talk to the media until the funeral was over. In a centre this correspondent visited, the sister-in-charge firmly sent a television camera crew from Argentina out, unmoved by their pleas and promises to "tell the people in our country of your good work."

IT is upon charity that all of Mother Teresa's work for the poor depends. Most of the centres she has started are not self-supporting, neither is self-sufficiency an aim in most of these centres - except at the level of encouraging, even assisting, cured individuals to get on with the business of life. One of the many criticisms levelled against Mother Teresa's kind of charity-dependent work is that it institutionalises - even glorifies - poverty. Charity blinds the poor to the real causes of their poverty and reduces their sense of self-worth, just as it salves the conscience of the rich.

But so long as iniquitous societies and economic systems generate appalling levels of poverty, the centres that have been the focus of Mother Teresa's work answer to an objective need, regardless of how small they are and where they raise resources. This idea has, in fact, been supported by the Left Front Government. Jyoti Basu, West Bengal's Marxist Chief Minister, in his condolence message, made particular mention of how Mother Teresa helped the State by her work with the destitute; but for her, he noted, many street children would have turned criminal.

The knowledge and conviction that her work responded to a real need allowed Mother Teresa to justify donations from the most dubious and repressive of individuals and organisations. "Money," she told her biographer Navin Chawla, "I never give it a thought. It always comes."

And yet, as is well known, she laid down strict conditions on the acceptance of charity. She did not accept government funding or Church maintenance. This was not because of any ideological objection, but, according to Chawla, for the rather odd reason that it would involve keeping detailed accounts and distract at least one Sister from "real work" - that of giving herself to the poor.

Mother Teresa specifically forbade her order and her supporters from fund-raising activities. She also did not allow charity money to be invested. Coming from a person whose entire set-up was run on donations, these strict rules may appear surprising. However, far from discouraging donations, they have proved to be sound strategy, as the Missionaries of Charity has not been short of funds.The Missionaries of Charity, according to one account, received donations of Rs.392 in 1951. There are no estimates of the volume of donations to the congregation today, but the donations are known to run to millions of dollars.

"I think Mother Teresa never believed in fund-raising because she believed work was important and that money should come only from people who want to give," said Bill Canny, a representative of the St. Thomas' Church, Calcutta.

A visit to her centres also make clear why self-sufficiency cannot become the avowed goal of many of them. To Nirmal Hriday or Prem Dan, yet another of Mother Teresa's homes, come persons broken in body and spirit, who, even if they live a few more months or years, are beyond rehabilitation. For them such a centre is a last resort, an indication that they have given up or have lost the fight.

BUT this is not the picture in all her centres. The Gandhiji Prem Nivas Leprosy Centre, which stretches across a narrow 10-km strip along the Titagarh-Khardah railway line, was set up by Mother Teresa in 1958. It began as a mobile clinic under a tree in the midst of an ostracised, crime-ridden community of the leprosy afflicted. In 1960, the Titagarh Municipality donated the land on which the buildings now stand. Very early in her mission to work with destitutes, she was drawn to the plight of the leprosy-afflicted amongst destitutes because of the social stigma attached to leprosy. The disease is easily treated, but battling the stigma was an uphill task.

There are more than 1,000 persons in Prem Nivas, according to Brother Prashanto Sarkar, the Assistant Director of the Centre. Of them 750 are cured and work in various departments of the centre, at tasks such as spinning and weaving, carpentry, making artificial limbs and tailoring. Around 300 of the inmates are ward patients, under treatment for leprosy. Brother Prashanto said that there were also about 35,000 outpatients on Prem Nivas' registers, people who came for medication and to have their wounds dressed.

None of the activities in Prem Nivas is geared to the market. The saris worn by the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity are woven here, as are the sheets, bedspreads and cloth used in the various centres. There is an artificial limb and crutch-making centre, and a tailoring section where rubber and plastic sheets are stitched, all for in-house use. Workers are paid a wage of Rs.20 a day, but are also provided with food, clothing, housing, medical care and medicine. "We have no particular source of income to run all this," said Brother Prashanto. "The average monthly expenditure is Rs. 10 lakhs and Mother House provides us with the money we need."

Prem Nivas has truly transformed lives. Swapan Lal, 31, who now looks after the weaving section, came here with leprosy in 1987. His family was very poor and his sister soon joined him. He was treated for five years and cured. He decided to stay on in the centre and work, as did his sister after she was cured. He married a woman who is also a cured patient of leprosy. "I intend to live here," he said. "I am happy and can serve others."

MOTHER TERESA categorised the work of her mission on the basis of the type of service each centre demanded from a Missionary of Charity. She was firm that Sisters had to go to the streets, slums, villages and into homes. It was only in respect of special centres - such as leprosy centres, the homes for children (like Shishu Bhavan), the centres for the dying and destitutes, and centres for the mentally retarded and sick like Prem Dan - that she allowed Sisters to remain in residence to run these centres with the help of novices and volunteers.

Volunteers are indeed an important part of the life of such centres. Drawn by what they have read, seen or heard of Mother Teresa and her work, they come from all corners of the world, at their own expense, to work in her centres. In political Calcutta, many people view the work of volunteers with some cynicism. Tenderly soaping down a dirty street urchin at Howrah station may send a foreigner on a high, but it does not make a dent on general levels of hygiene - so the criticism goes. The reasons that draw such volunteers to work in Mother Teresa's centres are usually intensely personal and complex. Insofar as the Sisters are concerned, volunteers provide a ready army of willing hands to work.

Silvia Del Conte, a law student from Italy, and her friend Giorgia Masini, an architecture student, have come for just 15 days, but have thrown themselves into the work, whether it is playing with disabled children at Sishu Bhavan or washing soiled sheets at Nirmal Hriday. "I am not very religious but I believe in humanity," said Sylvia. "You have to do what you feel you know."

THERE are some basic rules laid down by Mother Teresa for the Missionaries of Charity. The first is the Rule of Two - Sisters have to move around in pairs, as it offers some protection to them when they are in physical danger - in war and riot situations, for example. Secondly, no one is allowed to eat or drink outside the convent or workplace and each person must carry her water along - a practical way of not putting the burden of hospitality upon those who cannot afford it, and of keeping healthy and free of infections. The Sisters must travel as the poor do - walk, or if the distance is far, use public transport. And finally, the Sisters and Brothers must own only three sets of clothes, which must be darned and patched before they are replaced.

THE Shishu Bhavans established all over India have become the symbol of Mother Teresa's work. Hers has certainly been a very important influence in breaking the prejudices surrounding adoption that exist in India. But although adoption remains an important part of the activities of these centres, many of them provide continuous care and a permanent home for hundreds of mentally retarded and severely handicapped children. At the Shishu Bhavan in Calcutta, there were 138 such children on the day I visited. They were all in a nursery-cum-ward full of light and toys and with bright pictures on the walls. Many of these children are taken in adoption. The children on the adoption track are in a large adjacent house with several rooms-turned-nurseries. On the day of the visit, there were 300 of them, infants and toddlers, dressed in royal purple, and together making an ear-shattering racket.

Sixty-five Sisters and novices run Prem Dan. It was started in 1973 in a godown donated by ICI. "We have nearly 350 inmates here right now," said Sister Denisa who is in charge of the centre. "They suffer mostly from malnutrition, tuberculosis, various kinds of physical handicaps, mental problems; some have cancer. We have a doctor who looks in once a month." Like all Mother Teresa's centres, Prem Dan is clean, and enveloped with an air of calm. But it is perhaps here that the limitations of the philosophy of service that characterise Mother Teresa's centres make themselves most apparent.

Mother Teresa has been criticised for not making high-quality medical treatment available to the poor, using the considerable influence she has. It is a point that Christopher Hitchens raises in his book on Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (Verso, 1995; Indus, 1996). In the chapter "Good Works and Heroic Virtues", he refers to the visit of Dr. Robin Fox, Editor of the medical journal The Lancet, to one of Mother Teresa's centres in Calcutta in 1994. Fox, astonished at the absence of simple testing procedures, which could distinguish an incurable from a curable disease, later wrote: "Such systematic approaches are alien to the ethos of the home... Along with the neglect of diagnosis, the lack of good analgesia marks Mother Teresa's approach as clearly separate from the hospice movement. I know which I prefer."

While Hitchens' own conclusions from this are not convincing (he writes that she runs a "haphazard and cranky institution" as part of a deliberate agenda, that is, "the promulgation of a cult based on death and suffering and subjection"), the lack of medical expertise does indeed strike most visitors to Mother Teresa's care centres.

Medical treatment in Prem Dan, for example, is rudimentary and inadequate for a centre of 350 inmates who suffer from a range of medical disorders. A doctor comes just once a month. With a little extra organisational effort, a centre like Prem Dan could have linked up with a network of specialised medical institutes in the city and even outside, giving patients with curable ailments access to advanced medical care.

WITH Mother Teresa's death, an era has come to an end. Her successors in the Missionaries of Charity are well aware of the void that she has left behind, but are not perturbed by what lies ahead. There has been no mourning period as such for the Sisters, and if Sister Nirmala, Mother's successor, has been unavailable to the media (except for one press conference) it is because she believes that work is more important than public relations, even at a time like this. Mother Teresa had prepared her congregation for her death and used to say: "As long as we are faithful, and go where God's work has to be done, we will be all right".

There is little doubt that Mother Teresa's legacy will endure. She will be missed, not just by her colleagues in the congregation, but by countless others - by Roma Ghosh and Mira Adhikari from Titagarh, cured of leprosy, who thank Mother "for making it possible for us to work, not beg"; by Tamal, a young Bengali volunteer for whom "Mother was like a magnet" and who continues to go to Nirmal Hriday even though she is no more; by ancient, bleary-eyed, senile Bhalu, an inmate of Prem Dan, who, clutching her rubber doll in her arms, waits for Mother, the only person in the world she recognises, and in honour of whose visits she always wore a red dress. They will be the poorer for her loss.

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