Dead hand of Mother Teresa still guides her Calcutta nuns

A year on, the Sisters of Charity do themselves - and the poor - no favours by their refusal to face change
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The Independent Online
THE ANSWER was clear. No, I could not interview Sister Nirmala, Mother Teresa's successor as head of the Missionaries of Charity. People had been applying for interviews for months, and the list was closed. And no, I could not interview Sister Christie, the small Japanese nun deputed to fend off the press, either, because she was too busy.

Petty matters: what is one interview more or less? But those two nos say much about the change that has come over the Missionaries of Charity since their founder's death one year ago next Sunday.

"When I think back on the five years it has taken me to write this book," Mother Teresa's biographer, Navin Chawla, wrote, "I realised that, not once, did she refuse me anything... She only gave."

Mother Teresa never said no to anybody, yet she always got her own way. That beggar, pounding on the door downstairs, demanding to see her? Let him in. This shy local youth, fidgeting into her room in the unlikely company of two Swiss businessmen? Let him have his say! Even at the height of her fame she was reliably available after 10pm at the end of the telephone. "She would invariably lift the receiver on its first or second ring," writes Mr Chawla, "with the words, 'Yes, Mother Teresa speaking'".

Everyone in her order understood that Mother Teresa was irreplaceable; that's why, throughout her declining years, despite serious illness and her own protests, she was over and over again re-elected as head. (The only dissenting vote was her own.) And since her death a year ago, the strategy has been as far as possible to make believe that she is still in charge.

At the "Mother House" the order's stark concrete headquarters on a busy road in Calcutta, her name is still up there in paint by the entrance, and the sign underneath reads "in". Her successor is styled Sister, not Mother. And when, despite the nos, one gets to meet her (piggy-backing on another journalist's interview), she doles out the same cards Mother did, with the same motto - "The fruit of Silence is Prayer, The Fruit of Prayer is Faith..." - and the autograph "Mother Teresa MC".

Nothing has changed. Mother Teresa is still "in", though what she is "in" is a hulking concrete tomb, adorned with garlands and with nuns frequently kneeling in prayer around it. Sister Nirmala seems resolved to perform merely as her proxy, her vicar, if you like, on earth.

But as the Missionaries of Charity are discovering, life goes on. Yes gives way to no. And in Calcutta the mood of shared grief and loss which might have been expected to mark the death anniversary has been curdled by one particularly stentorian no from Sister Nirmala which has landed the order in the city's High Court.

Arun Biswas, a prominent Catholic and retired schoolteacher, is just the sort of energetic person to whom Mother Teresa was careful to say yes. Mr Biswas has many hats. He is the president of the All-India Minority and Weaker Sections Council, president of his own political party, the All-India Christian Democratic and Backward People's Party (no parliamentary representation), former secretary of the All-India Catholic Union, and president of a social organisation called Love Thy Neighbour. Last year he also became chairman of the Mother Teresa Memorial Committee, which he set up to devise ways in which the city's most famous nun might be publicly remembered.

"Nine months passed after her death," he says, in his cramped but spotless government flat, replete with pictures of Jesus and the Last Supper and a Mother Teresa calendar, "and no one - neither the government nor the Missionaries of Charity nor anyone - came forward to chalk out a plan to mark her first death anniversary." So the committee took the initiative.

"We wanted to install a large bronze statue in the city where people from all the over the world would come and pray. In June we met the mayor, who agreed to the place we had selected and gave us permission to proceed, so we started work." Executed by a sculptor named Gautam Paul, the 6ft high work depicts Mother Teresa clutching a small child. Mr Biswas also went to see Sister Nirmala who, he says, "appreciated and welcomed" the project. It was three weeks later when he announced the committee was setting up an office ("We could not just sit down in the road...") that alarm bells rang.

Sunita Kumar, who was a close friend of Mother Teresa's and who still handles the order's public relations, explains: "Sister Nirmala had no objection to the statue or the proposed renaming of a street after Mother Teresa, but objected to the raising of funds in her name." This was a long-established policy. "After Mother won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, people began taking advantage of her name unscrupulously," she says. "So in 1984, a legal document was drafted which banned all fund-raising in her name." Sister Nirmala sent Mr Biswas a fax instructing him to stop everything. But he faxed back a reply saying, in effect, mind your own business.

She then played one of the best cards she had inherited and turned to Jyoti Basu, the veteran communist chief minister of West Bengal, with whom Mother Teresa was on terms of intimate friendship, who told Mr Biswas to stop the project "for obvious reasons". He responded by taking the matter to the High Court, where it will be considered over the next few days - a sour sort of anniversary gift.

Mr Biswas claims to have no animus against Sister Nirmala, but says she is the wrong person for the job. "She is not an administrator, she is a contemplative person. How can she administer this huge organisation?" She is indeed from the contemplative as opposed to the active branch of the order, and gives the powerful impression that she would much rather be off somewhere contemplating. Tiny like her predecessor, she blinks anxiously behind thick glasses at tricky questions then breaks gratefully into a winning smile when the reporter says something pleasant.

Last year, at her first press conference, she committed a terrible gaffe, saying "We want the poor to remain poor" - in order (the implication seemed) that the Missionaries of Charity could continue to rake in funds. Now she avoids saying anything so crass. But the poor, inevitably, are still on her mind. "We want to be poor so that we may trust in God more," she says.

"When we are poor we are humble. God loves the poor very, very much. In touching the poor we are touching God." Mother Teresa's death "left a gap, but her spirit is very much alive... My motivation is to quench the thirst of Jesus."

The momentum she built up continues for the time being to carry the order forward. There are now 602 homes of various sorts in 125 countries: 17 have been initiated in the past year. Money, volunteers and novitiates continue to pour in.

In Calcutta, as elsewhere, the homes continue to fulfil the same urgent functions for which she set them up, in the same way, with the same strength and weaknesses. At the first and still most famous, the Home for the Dying, nearly all the cots were taken last week; on 28 August there were 50 men and 45 women; there had been one admission, three discharges and one death. Medical care for inmates is absolutely basic, as Andy, a German volunteer who has kept this place in good spirits for a heroic nine years, freely admits (in between massaging a sufferer from Parkinson's disease and tickling a clamorously senile former policeman).

The lack of medication has in fact long been controversial. The place is clean, food is regular, attention is thinly stretched but often warm and kindly; the contrast with the filth and wretchedness outside is great. But instead of continuing to expand its unwieldy global empire, might not the Missionaries of Charity provide effective painkillers and more sophisticated treatment for the sick - many of whom are shockingly young TB victims? It could be readily done; but it would take a personality more commanding than Sister Nirmala to achieve such a break with Mother Teresa's traditions.

"The Missionaries of Charity has already started cracking," says Arun Biswas, unable to suppress the note of glee in his voice. "In 10 years you will find it has come down to the level of all the other orders."

Alternatively, some powerfully inspired figure may emerge to give the order a shove in another and distinctive direction. My advice to such a person would be, don't leave it too long.