City defends its angel

Click to follow
The Independent Online
CALCUTTA is a city seething with 10 million people, a cauldron of volatile temperaments and political currents, yet even among hardline Marxists or Hindu extremists, it is nearly impossible to hear a bad word uttered against Mother Teresa.

This ``Hell's Angel'', as the frail, 84-year-old nun and Nobel Peace laureate was portrayed in a controversial Channel 4 documentary, has graced the lives of many Calcuttans.

Trapped by a taxi strike at Calcutta's Dum-Dum airport once, I asked one of the cafe waiters if he happened to know if Mother Teresa had returned from one of her many overseas trips. ``One minute. I'll ask the dishwasher,'' he replied. ``Every time he gets his pay cheque, he spends it on drink. So many times, Mother Teresa has found him lying in the street and carried him home.'' Sure enough, the dishwasher knew.

A teacher, Meenakshi Dutta, said that three times she had rung the convent where Mother Teresa lives, and each time the nun had answered the telephone herself.

``We found a beggar woman dying outside our house once. We tried taking her to the hospital but they wouldn't accept her. So finally we called the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Teresa sent an ambulance.''

Many prominent Calcuttans have rallied to Mother Teresa's defence after attacks in the British documentary, which accused her of being ``a publicity-crazy egotist'' under her ``saintly facade''. She never proclaimed herself a saint; others have, and they have turned around to dismiss her for being too human, after all. Mrinal Sen, a progressive film director, fumed: ``The whole bunch of charges are the ugliest attempt at character assassination. Unpardonable. Organised protest needs to be made.''

Although Mother Teresa rarely gives press interviews, she broke her habitual silence to answer some of the film's charges. In an interview with the daily Anandabazaar Patrika, she defended her work with the city's dying and neglected. ``It is for you to decide how you want to live. As far as I am concerned, I know that I have to keep doing my work.'' She said she had ``forgiven'' the programme's producer, Tariq Ali.

In Calcutta, it is difficult to find someone whose life has not been touched, directly or indirectly, by Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity, who wear the distinct white and blue-trimmed sari of the Untouchable sweeper caste who muck out the city's toilets. In Calcutta, she runs a dozen hospices for beggars found dying in the streets, clinics for lepers and homes for abandoned and handicapped children. Navin Chawla, her biographer, has claimed that in Mother Teresa's 460 centres every year she feeds more than 500,000 families, teaches 20,000 street children, and treats 90,000 lepers.