A few months ago, a couple of researchers in Canada produced a report entirely critical of Mother Teresa and her work, which predictably found its way into the media. Some of the issues they raised were her “questionable” contacts with dodgy characters such as the Haitian dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier, her overly dogmatic views on contraception, abortion and divorce, and that she offered rudimentary medical care to the sick and dying in her hospices, instead of setting up a proper hospital in Kolkata. Here, there was a cruel twist to the tale — that when she herself fell ill, she benefited from the best medical attention on offer.
Putting down roots
Before I answer these accusations, let me encapsulate her life and her work. She was only 18 when she was convinced that her life’s vocation lay in her becoming a missionary in far-off India: Skopje, where she was born on August 26, 1910, was so far removed from Bengal that, barring a few Yugoslav Jesuits who fired her young imagination, no one in the small Catholic community would even have known where India lay. Yet, the early seeds of her faith, determination and compassion, nurtured by her widowed mother, impelled her to leave her close-knit family, first for Ireland to join the Loreto Order of teaching nuns, (and also to learn some English), and then by boat to faraway Calcutta, which she would grow to love so much that it would become indistinguishable with her own name. She lived and worked as a Loreto nun for close to 20 years before her true calling once again propelled her to find a way to the street, not as a lay woman but continuing to be an ordained nun. The Vatican itself gave her permission, fantastically for the first time in Church history, to step outside her secure convent into a huge and bewildering city. In 1948, Calcutta’s pavements were swarming with teeming millions uprooted by Partition, who now joined the hapless sufferers of the Great Bengal Famine of 1942-43. Here stepped in a 38-year-old nun, now dressed not in the recognisable nun’s habit, but a sari similar to what the municipal sweepresses wore, with no companion, no helper and no money.
Confronted with disease, destitution and death all around her at a time (1948) when there was hardly any health-care service to speak of, she did what was to become her hallmark. Finding a man dying in the street, she took him to a public hospital, which refused to admit him, precisely on the grounds that since he was about to die, they would not waste a hospital bed on a life they said they could not save! It was only when she sat before the hospital in a dharna that they relented. The man died a few hours later. It was at this point that she began her search for a place where she could take those people whom hospitals refused; where she could nurse them — she had some medical training — and they could at least die being comforted and with some dignity. She begged various authorities and finally, an officer in the Calcutta Municipality gave her a pilgrims’ hall adjacent to the Kalighat temple, where she requested the police and municipal authorities to bring her all and any of those dying whom the hospitals refused.
I have been so many times to this hospice at Kalighat, that I did not need to ask Mother Teresa why she had not set up a hospital instead, because I knew that a hospital would tie down all her Sisters to a single establishment, and then who would care for those who fell by the wayside? The infant abandoned on a street, the sick and elderly turned out of their homes, often enough by their own families, the leprosy sufferers or AIDS patients that no one wanted to even go near — who would look after them? How many of us actually do anything about the desperately poor we see on the streets? We only have to look within us to know that those who are quick to criticise Mother Teresa and her mission, are unable or unwilling to do anything to help with their own hands.
Although staunchly and devoutly Catholic, she reached out to people of all denominations irrespective of their faith, or even the lack of it. She did not believe that conversion was her work. That was god’s work, she said. So while she lifted the abandoned baby off a street full of prowling dogs for the sanctuary of her Shishu Bhawan, she would never convert her, because that child would probably be adopted into a nice Hindu household, and such a conversion would then have been a cardinal sin which she would never commit. That is why people of all faiths were so accepting of this diminutive Catholic nun. In my 23 years of close association with her, she never once whispered that perhaps her religion was superior to mine, or through it lay a shorter route to the Divine. Which is also why, when I asked Jyoti Basu, that redoubtable leader of West Bengal, what he, an atheist and communist, could possibly have in common with Mother Teresa for whom god was everything, he replied simply that “we both share a love for the poor.”
In the course of researching my biography on Mother Teresa, I asked her why she took money from dodgy characters like Duvalier. Her answer was concise. In charity, she said, everyone had a right to give. How was this different from thousands of people who each day feed the poor? “I have no right to judge them, God alone has that right.” And again, “I accept no salary, no grant, no government or church funds, nothing. I do not ask for money. But people have a right to give.”
Meanwhile, I researched the Duvalier story. She had set up a small mission in Port-au-Prince, one of the world’s most desperately poor places. A day after Mother Teresa visited and left, Duvalier’s daughter-in-law went to Mother Teresa’s mission and donated 1,000 dollars. It was not, as was reported, a million dollars, but Mother Teresa’s reply would still have been the same: if that gives peace to the giver, so be it.
Let me now illustrate a true story of one of Mother Teresa’s actual hospitalisations. In 1994, Mother Teresa fell ill in Delhi when she had come to receive an award. She developed high fever and possibly gastro-enteritis. Against her will (“I will be all right by tomorrow”), I rushed her to a large, public hospital, where she was hospitalised for over a week. I stood vigil. She was known to have a cardiac history, and it was up to the cardiology department or the gastro department to “take charge.” The sad truth is that no one wanted to, frankly scared she might die on their hands. She sensed this too, pleading with me to take her back to her beloved Kolkata. But she could not possibly have been moved. In those days when there were no mobile phones, the switchboard at the hospital was jammed with enquiries. I not only took almost daily calls from Rashtrapati Bhavan and the Prime Minister’s Office, but also from the White House, the Vatican, and chancelleries all over Europe. Ambassadors called frequently. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao offered her treatment anywhere in the world. Finally, not quite recovered in my view, her Sisters took her back to Kolkata. I have to say that the cardiac team was relieved to discharge her! There are other cases of her hospital treatments that I am aware of. If only the Canadian research team had known the reality about her hospitalisations, perhaps they would not have been so uncharitable.
At the Vatican
In her lifetime, Mother Teresa was sometimes described as a “religious imperialist,” a handmaiden of the Church’s doctrinaire policies on abortion and birth control. These were indeed her views and she was undeterred by such criticism. Yet, she gently but unmistakably left her imprint on the heart of the Vatican itself. Finding in Pope John Paul II a kindred spirit, she cajoled him into literally and metaphorically opening a small door to set up a tiny soup kitchen adjacent to the Pope’s grand audience chamber. At 6 p.m. each day, Rome’s homeless and hungry continue to be fed by Mother Teresa’s Sisters, just a few metres away from the grand Basilica of St. Peter’s. At a stroke, this frail nun, indisputably the world’s most decorated person, helped to demystify the Vatican’s aura of wealth and privilege, serving a daily reminder to the Vatican where its true vocation lay.
(Navin B. Chawla is a former chief election commissioner of India and biographer of Mother Teresa’s.)