Images of compassion

Print edition : January 30, 1999

Mother Teresa of Calcutta by Sunita Kumar; Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1998; pages 120, pound 14.99.

WHAT is it about Mother Teresa that evokes inspiration and assault, hosannas and a hail of brickbats? She is reviled by the extreme Right in India for everything from alleged conversions to capitalist/international/Christian conspiracies, and by the hardline Trotskyite Left in Britain as "Hell's Angel", as in the documentary produced by Tariq Ali for Channel 4 with Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens then padded his script to publish what is essentially a hatchet job - The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (Verso 1995 and Indus 1996). Why are all this passion and acclaim, vituperation and helpless fury being directed at someone who began and ended her mission with quiet humility?

Two years ago The Times Literary Supplement took a neutral stance, juxtaposing the review of Hitchens' book with a review of Mother Teresa's own unadorned apologia for her life. The reader was asked to judge for himself or herself.

Sunita Kumar, who has worked with the Missionaries of Charity for several decades, has opted for Mother Teresa's approach in this authorised pictorial history published on the occasion of the first anniversary of Mother Teresa's death. The photographs and the commentary in spare prose illustrate the contradictions of power and powerlessness, excess and deprivation, commitment and callousness, pain and its alleviation, which compelled Mother Teresa to leave her convent and venture into the streets of Calcutta to pursue her vocation. A frail, waif-like figure who has inhabited the consciousness of many people round the world and conscientised them by her deeds, Mother Teresa and her persona are etched in the minds and imagination of millions of people - as sharp as the lines on her wrinkled face. The power of this iconic image, which continues to be reproduced, as recreated by M.F. Husain in his vision of "Goodness and Beauty", is revealed in this photographic tribute put together by Sunita Kumar.

Mother Teresa has described to her biographer Navin Chawla how she was divinely inspired while on a train ride from Darjeeling in September 1946 - a "call within a call" urged her to leave the convent. "The message was very clear. I must leave the convent to help the poor by living among them. This was a command, something to be done, something definite. I knew where I had to be but I did not know how to get there." She must have sensed during her years as a teaching nun in Calcutta the experience of a population ravaged first by famine and then by Partition. The divine voice urged her "to work in poverty and cheerfulness in the streets of Calcutta - no institutions - for the abandoned, those who had nobody." Faith then was to be expressed as an alleviation of pain within the community in terms of its most basic needs, as a realisation of humanity.

So it came about that Nirmal Hriday, the first hospice in the country to give comfort and dignity to the dying, was started in a room in the slums of Taratolla in 1948 when Mother Teresa, of Albanian descent, took Indian citizenship. The word 'missionary', not to mention 'foreign missionary' has come to acquire pejorative accretions; indeed it has become a dirty word in the diatribes of extremist political leaders and academic pundits who are engaged in discussions of post-colonial culture and society and who write about Christianity without any awareness of the history of Christianity in India other than vague allegations of tribals being converted in the northeastern States, or of the 19th century Christianisation of some of the educated elite in Bengal. It is as though there are no Christians at all in South India where Christians existed much before they did in Europe, and where Christianity arrived without the sword of empire. Nor is there much awareness of the whole process of Christianisation in Goa, which was violent, induced through coercion relating to the loss of land and payment of taxes, all this enforced by the state/colonial power, which, as in Kerala, reconverted Christians because they held on to local traditions. The process of Westernisation was inherent in the conversion rituals of the Portuguese empire, just as it was part of the process of education in British India.

A review of a book on Mother Teresa at a time when violence against the Christian minority has led the Prime Minister to call for a debate on conversion cannot but address itself to the manipulation of public perception that has been increasing steadily in the past decade. The complex history of Christianity in India, which includes the development of various streams, each of which began at a different point in time and which together represent no more than 20 million people in a nation of 950 million, is now projected as a threat to the integrity of the nation. Mother Teresa's work and her aims and motives are being distorted within the propaganda mills of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bajrang Dal, and indeed by the likes of Hitchens and Tariq Ali, as being part of a global conspiracy to sustain Christian proseletysation and/or Western capitalism. Few people pause to think that the selfless work of the Missionaries of Charity has engaged the dedication of workers, writers and photographers, most of whom are non-Christians within India. (There are also many lapsed Christians in the case of those from the rest of the world - remember the celebrated encounter of Malcolm Muggeridge and Mother Teresa.)

Overtones of political correctness underlie debates on missionary activity and conversion. Therefore, before assessing Mother Teresa's work in this context, it is only fair to inquire about her own motivation and aspiration even if one does not agree with her. The motivation was simple, and some people would call it simplistic. Sunita Kumar's quotes from Mother Teresa have a constant refrain of love, peace and works of love as works of peace: "...doing something beautiful for God... to serve the poorest of the poor with love and care." Above all, "don't only give your care to the poor and dying but give your heart as well."

It was such motivation, simplistic though it may be, which brought Mother Teresa from Albania to Calcutta. Her motivation rose from her burning sense of brotherhood and humanity, which was tangible and effective because she saw each individual, whether a newborn infant picked up from a gutter or a dying man abandoned by his family, as a living temple of God and a reflection of the truth in each of us. It is the principle enshrined in all the great religions - tat tvam asi. For Mother Teresa, religion, the tie that binds an individual soul to God, was one, and hence her endeavour was, in her own words, to "make a Hindu a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim and a Christian a better Christian." All those who have been involved with the Missionaries of Charity have been drawn by Mother Teresa's charisma, which seemed to reach out and touch a chord of humanitarianism in them and not, as Hitchens suggests, their "vaguely religious sentiments."

Sunita Kumar's text is understated yet sensitive to all aspects of Mother Teresa's personality - her practical sense in which her own faith and will were the chief instruments of action in the immediate alleviation of pain and hunger, the touch of warmth and cheer no matter what the circumstances, and above all, the zeal of her mission in which the love of God manifested itself in her various projects, projects that are a part of her work that is accorded near-mythical status in many parts of the world. The pictorial documents, beautifully produced yet reasonably priced, record moments of reflection, work and prayer in which the nuns are seen mainly in the starkness of black and white - a counterpoint to a life of self-denial which captured the attention and involvement of the powerful and the powerless as seen in the colour spreads of the state funeral accorded to Mother Teresa.

There has been much criticism of the Mother's methods and her refusal to use her considerable power and influence to help eradicate poverty. Often such criticism has come from within the Church. Her outspoken condemnation of birth control and in particular abortion and her orthodox views on matters in which the Church itself is trying to liberalise arose from the cardinal principle of her motivation - the sanctity of life and the practicality of her faith according to which importance had to be given to saving individuals rather than developing socio-economic theories which had their own place but which were outside the regenerative scope of her mission.

In the current debate on conversion, the accepted principles that conversion should be an act of faith, should be voluntary and should not be related to socio-economic or materialistic considerations would have been accepted by Mother Teresa. Is it conversion to pray to comfort the dying? On the other hand, the political correctness and bigotry of the anti-conversion brigade do hold the dangers of the fascist or Nazi position that one culture, whatever that means, is the exclusive repository of truth, and that there can be no debate or any enlargement of one's own perception. It is also a fallacy to consider any humanitarian action for the poor and the helpless as "Christianising", as could be seen in the bracketing of Amartya Sen with Mother Teresa, both Nobel laureates who in their own ways have drawn attention to work for the poor and the helpless.

Granted her motivation and mission, the other questions are about Mother Teresa's tactics of using questionable means to achieve her ends, such as consorting with the likes of the Duvaliers of Haiti and also rich capitalists, and asking for special favours from governments and other authorities. There are also allegations that the medical care should have been more sophisticated given her access to funds. Many of these accusations beg the question. Granted Mother Teresa had nothing to start with and she, with her own powers, developed the organisation and raised the funds for her great works of charity, it is churlish to carp about the quality and extent of her work when organisations that are more well-endowed shut their doors to and did not care for those whom Mother Teresa rescued and restored dignity to. She had disregard for the so-called rules and regulations, as is illustrated by an anecdote: when Indian Airlines refused to give her nuns complimentary tickets when they were required to accompany invalids for emergency operations in metropolitan hospitals, she and the nuns volunteered to be recruited as temporary airhostesses. The argument may not have been logical, but the airline had no option but to allow the nuns to accompany the invalid. It is ironic that Mother Teresa's childlike disregard of the trappings of political power had, as it were, its own comuppance when the government gave her a state funeral, placing her body on a gun carriage.

Sunita Kumar's book should be read and reread. The photographs and the captions provoke reflection and should help the fairminded reader arrive at his or her own conclusion about the real worth of Mother Teresa. Three photographs (pages 21-23), all taken within a space of four months between September and December 1928, follow each other. The first shows a beautiful and pensive young woman with eyes that appear to be in search of a transcendent faith. In the second photograph the eyes are large, staring into a vastness - she has joined the convent. In the third photograph she has embarked on her mission to India. Here the eyes are at peace, and there is a fierce determination. She has found the path of her quest and faith sustained by the simple truth of love and salvation in God. These are essential verities that should carry conviction to people of any faith and religion.

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