Mother could soothe, but not cure

Peter Popham explains why the brahmins and people of Calcutta took to a Catholic Westerner who flaunted their caste system
Click to follow
The Independent Online
In death, Mother Teresa has been clasped warmly to the bosom of India, her adopted home. In the chancel of the neoclassical St Thomas's Church in the heart of Calcutta, the small Albanian woman whom her family called "Gonxha", "flower bud", because she was so pink and plump, has lain yellowing on her bier, draped in a large Indian tricolor, while tens of thousands of Hindus, many Muslims and a handful of foreigners and Indian Christians trooped past to obtain darshan, the merit that comes from clapping eyes on the holy. She has been guarded by senior officers of the Indian Army, and early this morning she will be buried by India with all the pomp and circumstance the state can muster.

The throngs of Indians, nicely got up in clean shirts and best saris, most carrying bouquets, few betraying much emotion but solemn, quiet and patient - these are one measure of how closely India has taken Mother, as she is always called, to its heart. For another indication you can take the metro two stops south to Kalighat, the site of Kali Temple, the holiest in the city, which is devoted to one of Hinduism's more frightening deities - Kali, the black-faced goddess of destruction, with three red eyes and a tongue like an elephant's trunk. But today, in the stalls selling religious paraphernalia that line the shabby street, portraits of Mother vie for space with posters of Kali, while outside the temple itself, mounted on a rickety pedestal and sheltered under a beach umbrella, stands a large, beaming plaster statue of Mother in her inevitable blue-fringed sari, garlanded with jasmine, hibiscus and marigold. "All the brahmins of Kali Temple are deeply shocked by the death of our beloved Mother," Brahmin Bapi Chakravorty told me, "and we pray to God to let her be born again and again in our country."

All this week, comparisons have been drawn between Mother Teresa and Princess Diana, when on the face of it two more different human beings or careers are hard to imagine. For the world at large, a world bereft of belief, both offered vicarious satisfaction: for the wavering royalist, Diana restored the glory and voltage of monarchy; for the hapless agnostic, Teresa became a totem of religious faith. These similarities, far more than their obvious compassion, united them as public figures.

But the case of Mother Teresa and India is a little harder to plumb. She was after all a foreigner, the representative of an alien faith. She achieved no miracles of conversion: Calcutta and India were as overwhelmingly Hindu at the end of her life as when she arrived, in 1929. Dying destitutes are no longer so frequently to be tripped over in Calcutta's streets, but this remains a city of staggering poverty. No miracles there, either.

So why do they love her? What do Indians love her for?

One answer is that India is repaying the warmth and devotion that Mother Teresa gave to her adopted home. She did nothing to separate herself from the people she worked among, and much to merge with them. When she began her mission, she adopted the homespun sari as her uniform. At her first makeshift school for the poor, the letters she scratched in the dust were the Bengali alphabet. Braving the disgust of other foreigners, she taught herself how to beg. And it is no insult (in Indian terms) to say that by the end of her life she was the world's most successful beggar.

In other ways, however, her work with the order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity, was a shocking attack on Hinduism. A respectable foreigner, she did what no Hindu of caste could bear to do, handling dead and dying outcastes, and persuading respectable Indian women to do likewise. The Indian indifference to people dying on the pavement is explained by Hinduism's unconcern with the material body: all that matters is the soul, migrating endlessly down the generations. By her work and example Mother Teresa eloquently condemned this attitude as barbaric, and relentlessly drew the world's disgusted attention to it.

She heard the call to start her mission in 1946, just as the struggle of India's freedom fighters was nearing success, and though she never met Gandhi, her zeal had much in common with his. She named one of her leprosy centres in his honour, and her biographer, Navin Chawla, says that "she recognised a kindred spirit in him." And at the outset, like Gandhi, she courted the fury of traditionalists. When she opened her first home for the destitute and dying next to the Kali Temple where her statue now stands, the brahmins were outraged, and did everything in their power to get it removed.

The brahmins were won over when she took in a dying Hindu priest and nursed him. And in other ways down the years, she took pains not to estrange Hindus or Muslims. On her trips to the West, she was happy to embarrass her audiences with her hard-line opposition to contraception and abortion. But in India, though she talked incessantly of God and Christ, hellfire for the unbeliever never got a mention. In her acceptance of the idea of "many paths to the top of the mountain", she was as dripping wet as any pantomime Anglican. Yet the fact that she could be so uncompromising about one aspect of her faith (the sanctity of life), and so casual about another (the preconditions for entering heaven) is never remarked upon.

In the end, Mother Teresa made a pact with India. She got on with her chosen work (no-one ever bested Indian bureaucracy more brilliantly), she loved God, she performed as "a little pencil in God's hand" as she put it, and the pencil skittered over the pages. In return she accepted limitations. She did nothing to fight the evils of caste injustice whose worst symptoms she alleviated. The stagnation of Indian society, the negligible self-esteem of those at the bottom, their abjectness and resignation, none of these came within her remit. And because she did not challenge India, India embraced her. In her asceticism and simplicity and dedication, she fitted readily into the mould of the Hindu saint. Drawing back from the reformer's tasks, she was enfolded in the great Indian stasis. And the beggary and waste and indifference go on.

The strongest criticism of Mother Teresa is that she did nothing to redress India's fundamental ills. A senior government official in Calcutta puts it like this: "Mother Teresa's work has not made any impact in Calcutta. To make an impact you have to make people economically independent. Indian people don't need to be told about God - they are already the most spiritual people on earth! India doesn't need believers, we need achievers. Bringing belief to India is like bringing coals to Newcastle."