Mother’s legacy17 min read . Updated: 31 Jul 2010, 12:21 AM IST
Caught between the traditional north and the snooty south, east Kolkata never stood a chance. Even a decade back, it was an area people just passed by on their way to the airport—stopping meant the additional intake of noxious fumes from the polluting tanneries around Tangra and the stench from Dhapa, which continues to serve as the city’s garbage dump. For much of the city, its occasional encounter with east Kolkata was conducted swiftly, indifferently and with handkerchief held firmly to nose.
Listen to the Lounge Podcast.
So perhaps it was natural that when Mother Teresa quit her Catholic nun’s garb for the white and blue bordered sari around 1948 and stepped out of the gates of Loreto Convent in Entally to serve the poor, she headed east. There, in the byzantine network of slums, infested with malaria and malaise, she founded a slew of charitable institutions—schools for underprivileged children, orphanages, leprosy clinics and rehab centres for mentally challenged women, among others.
Kolkata has over the years had an ambiguous relationship with Mother Teresa. While millions revered her in life and death, dyed-to-the-core Kolkatans perceived her as a Pied Piper of “poverty tourism", the kind of “come-see-the-slum" guided tours that rankled Mumbaikars after Slumdog Millionaire. From the Pope to Penelope Cruz, and Ronald Reagan and Princess Diana, they all doted on the “Saint of the Gutters"—the gutters an offhand summation of a vibrant, culturally erudite city. The fact that it survived the tragic aftermath of the man-made Bengal Famine and one of the world’s largest human migrations from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in the 1940s remained untold in the international press.
Kolkata has been torn between Malcolm Muggeridge’s kindly sketch of Mother Teresa (hagiography, if you want) in his documentary Something Beautiful for God, which firmly introduced her to the world stage, and fellow-British journalist Christopher Hitchens’ clinical iconoclasm (hatchet job, if you want) in his book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. Hitchens’ book questioned Mother Teresa’s willingness to generate funds from dubious sources such as the Duvalier family of Haiti and American financier Charles Keating, the primitivism of the medical infrastructure at her homes in Kolkata, her orthodox views on abortion and divorce, and the unaudited missionary accounts.
And on the issue of religious conversion, Mother Teresa often found the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Left-wing Bengali intellectuals on the same side.
For Kolkata, the Missionaries of Charity could well have been the Machineries of Charity.
Yet these are not questions that weigh on the minds of Agnes Maity, Frederick Marcus, Lucy Yashoda, Dipika Das and Harihar Sahu—the five people rescued by Mother Teresa and her charity from situations of acute crisis and neglect and given a new life. Through their profiles, some of the questions find answers nevertheless. All of them were prepared for futures that were neither bleak nor desperate.
At their one-room home in the festering Motijheel basti, Maity’s granddaughter squats to do her homework—yet another generation of literates since Maity enrolled as Mother Teresa’s earliest student and became the first woman in her family to be lettered. A runaway from home, Yashoda now finds her daughter giving English lessons to students, while Das’ eyes light up when she talks about the orphanage pivoted on classical dance practice that she wants to start some day.
All five agree on one point: If it were not for Mother, they would not have come this far.
Even now, each time a new flyover comes up in the city, yet another hopelessly ragged family of insolvents moves in under the flyover’s concrete shelter. Oblivious to the frailty of lives being sheltered beneath, a city zips by overhead. Had she been alive, Mother Teresa would have been busy in this neglected underbelly.
Agnes Maity | Batch of 1948
One of the first girls to enrol in the first school Mother Teresa set up, she dedicated her own life to leprosy patients
The road that turns left from Loreto Convent School, Entally, winds its way to Agnes Maity’s home.
At the turn, the transformation from the leafy and peaceful setting of the sprawling Loreto campus is immediate—there are people sleeping on narrow pavements, rows and rows of unsightly hutments, people cooking on the roadside, open baths and sewers, rising stench, and all that completes the picture of an urban shanty town.
It is this road that Mother Teresa took in 1948 when she met Maity’s mother, Philomena, in the innards of Motijheel slum in Kolkata. From the high iron gates of Loreto, it was a short walk for the Albanian nun, but it was a stride across worlds and a leap of faith.
Maity was an eight-year-old when she saw the “fairy-like lady, who seemed to have bathed in milk", walk through their lane looking for her mother, a fourth-generation Christian who would help her find non-school-going children in Motijheel and the neighbouring slums at Kamardanga, Chor Garod and No. 3 Bridge areas. Just the previous year, after their slum was burnt down in communal riots, the Maitys had been huddled in a relief camp on the Loreto campus.
“She used to serve us food and would wear black robes. But that morning, she came wearing a white sari with blue border and looked beautiful. We knew something had changed, but didn’t know what," Maity recalls.
Maity went on to become one of the first students of Nirmala Motijheel School, the first school or institution founded by Mother Teresa. The school started humbly under a banyan tree, the raised concrete platform under it fabled to have been the blackboard.
Three rooms in the slum were requisitioned for the school before the modest asbestos-roofed, single-storeyed structure came up. Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by Mother Teresa in 1950, continue to organize elementary schooling for slum children here.
We sit in one of the three rooms that initially served as a classroom for Mother Teresa. It is now the room Maity and her extended family use as living space. Maity became the first girl in her family to attend school; her nine younger siblings also got an education—most of them beginning their student life at the free Nirmala Motijheel School.
At the time, Maity was unsure of the “change" in the young Mother Teresa. Today 71-year-old Maity understands the change she saw in Mother Teresa that day.
After her schooling, Maity went on to work as a nurse at Nirmal Hriday, the home for the elderly destitute in Kalighat that Mother Teresa established in 1952. “I was earning Rs60 every month, which was enough in those days. At Nirmal Hriday, I learnt how to apply injections, dress wounds and feed people," Maity says.
This would stand her in good stead when she started working at the leprosy centre established by Mother Teresa at Dhapa, in 1963. In a country where lepers continue to be shunned, Maity learnt another valuable lesson. For after working 43 years at the leprosy centre, she retired in 2006—frail in health, but untouched by leprotic decay or the stigma surrounding the disease. “Mother made me overcome my fears and revulsion. She taught me to love regardless," says Maity.
All through, Maity refused to marry, having dedicated her life to Mother Teresa. “Mother ensured the marriage of my siblings, but in my case, I didn’t agree. She was working for God and I wanted to work for her."
Frederick Marcus | The ‘first boy’
He came to the Missionaries with a damaged eye. Today he is organizing homes for the inmates of Boys’ Town
Mother picked me up from the street when ants were eating into my left eye." Frederick Marcus says this in almost deadpan fashion, immediately drawing attention to the severely damaged eye.
Even Mother Teresa’s best efforts and connections in the medical fraternity couldn’t save the damaged eye. But Marcus isn’t complaining. What he got from her in return, he admits, is a life saved from the streets where he was abandoned as a six-month-old, and education.
As Marcus introduces us to his wife and son, he talks about a vision, one that will be achieved when all 210 inmates of Boys’ Town are allotted their quota of 5 cottahs of land and funds to build their own homes. Boys’ Town is an orphanage founded in 1964 by Father A. Vanigasooriyar with Mother Teresa as consultant and chief patron; it was her first rehabilitation initiative involving orphaned boys.
“Sixty-five boys have already been settled with land and home under the housing project, while another 65 have been allotted land. Over the years, 160 boys have also got married and now have families," says the 52-year-old project officer of Boys’ Town, located 30km south of Kolkata in lush green Gangarampur. “It might take another 15-20 years, but I have to ensure that all the boys are settled here."
Boys’ Town was born when Mother Teresa was asked: What happens to orphaned and abandoned boys. Most of her earlier efforts had focused on the girl child. In Father Vanigasooriyar’s Boys’ Town, complete with residential buildings and a now-defunct school, lay part of the answer.
The erstwhile orphanage has been focusing on housing since the mid-1980s. It stopped accepting inmates post-1986 in an effort to rehabilitate the existing inmates; the Missionaries of Charity stopped funding in 1987 to encourage the orphanage to sustain itself. In their rehabilitation, Mother Teresa’s “vision" for the orphaned boys will be met. It is a task, Marcus says, that he is now entrusted with.
From being Mother Teresa’s “first boy" and among the first group of 16 inmates to arrive at Boys’ Town from the nuns’ childcare home in Kolkata, Marcus’ pivotal position in society as well as in Boys’ Town was helped through education. Having studied in the campus school till class X, Marcus moved to the Calcutta Preparatory College and St Xavier’s College to complete his graduation. He followed this up with further studies in the Philippines and a course in community development at Coady International Institute, Canada.
Having returned to the responsibility facing him in Boys’ Town in 1987, Marcus has travelled to 23 countries since, seeking funds and benefactors. “Every year, Belgians adopt children from Mother’s orphanages. They are contractually bound to financially support Boys’ Town, while we keep track of the children’s well-being. Funding comes in from countries like Germany too," explains Marcus.
At his austere home in the vast housing area of Boys’ Town, Marcus brings out a letter written by Mother Teresa, introducing the “boy who has lost one eye" to an official in the Philippines college where he went to study. “But in spite of it, he is full of life and ambition to do well," the letter adds.
“My first memory of Mother is being hugged by her," he recalls.
Dipika Das | Dance therapy
She grew up in Mother Teresa’s home for abandoned people with special needs and found joy and recognition in classical dance
There are segments in the dance drama which are uncomfortably real for 20-year-old Julie Brown; too close, she says, to her own life. Yet she has willed herself to participate in Something Beautiful for God, which will be staged in Kolkata and New Delhi over the coming months to commemorate Mother Teresa’s centennial.
“I was eight months old when I was brought here to stay in Santi Dan," she says haltingly, standing among fellow dancers and mates at Santi Dan after a rehearsal session at the Missionaries of Charity-run home for mentally challenged women and HIV-affected children and adults in east Kolkata. “Since then, this will be my first opportunity to do something for Mother. I feel honoured," Brown adds.
Brown was born in a jail where her mother was an inmate; she died within months of Brown’s birth. Still an infant, Brown—along with some mentally challenged inmates—was rehabilitated in Santi Dan through a process initiated by Mother Teresa.
Preparing for the staging of Something Beautiful for God, the title of which is inspired by British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge’s celebrated documentary film and book on Mother Teresa, was an exacting job for Brown, says the director of the production, Dipika Das. “She opted out of a sequence that she found too difficult to portray for closely reflecting her own story," says Das, who lives at Santi Dan, learns Bharatanatyam from the senior gurus and exponents, Professor C.V. Chandrasekhar and Manjuri Chandrasekhar, in Chennai and teaches underprivileged schoolchildren at Don Bosco Nitika and Sishu Bhavan, the Missionaries of Charity-run home for orphan and homeless children, when in Kolkata.
For 32-year-old Das, the script of the dance drama is a collage of the lives of all the participants in the production—children who have been brought up in Santi Dan, “whose mothers have shared time in jail before being rehabilitated by Mother"—but who, Das adds authoritatively, are anything but in a state of destitution.
She takes time to introduce her students’ current context before their past misfortunes—Champa has taken her BA exam, Tara practises tailoring after learning the craft in Bangalore, Konica sings, Lipika wants to study nursing to serve the poor and ailing, Julie’s got a day job, and one of her HIV-infected students has started going to school.
Das practises Indian classical dance. “I feel this is what I can offer best," she says.
From her childhood days, burdened by memories of the physical torture inflicted on her mother by her in-laws, Das would dwell on more pleasant things: her mother’s rendition of Tagore’s songs, her aunt and danseuse Mamata Das inspiring her to dance, the introduction to yoga by her parents. “As a child, whenever I was alone, I would dance in front of idols of gods. That would be my offering," says the dancer, who recently completed her master’s degree in fine arts (dance) from Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata, and is now preparing for an MPhil in music.
Among the last persons to visit Mother Teresa on her deathbed, Das wants to start an orphanage where classical dance studies will be a pivotal part of the formal education curriculum.
Twenty years after her release from a mental rehab centre, Das’ mother died earlier this year in Santi Dan, the same place where her four children grew up. Says Das, “I want to live with the dignity of a dancer."
Lucy Yashoda | The Runaway Winner
Despite two failed marriages and abandonment, her education gave her the confidence to be on her own
It takes some convincing before Lucy Yashoda finally agrees to be photographed for the article. Her consent comes with a clause: Nothing will be printed that might specifically indicate her current location and allow her past to catch up with her.
For many years, Yashoda was on the run. She walked out on a bad marriage in her native Visakhapatnam and ran away from her conservative parental home, and has avoided giving away too much of her previous identity since.
“Without even blinking, I used to lie to the sisters at the Missionaries of Charity. For some time, they didn’t even know my real name or where I came from. I was afraid they will deny me and my daughter a place to stay at Sishu Bhavan and might even send me back," Yashoda says as the first of her 40-odd students appears at the door of the abacus-cum-activity centre she runs in Kolkata.
The centre is her comfort zone. In 1993, Yashoda, carrying her two-year-old daughter Christina, met Mother Teresa and begged to be allowed to stay in one of her homes in Kolkata.
“I would have had to commit suicide if Mother didn’t agree. Like most south Indian married women, I had a little gold, but it wasn’t enough. I didn’t even have the required qualifications to take up a decent job and my infant daughter was with me...," says the 42-year-old, who teaches the abacus in a couple of Kolkata schools.
In the two and a half years that Yashoda and her daughter stayed at Sishu Bhavan, Mother Teresa’s home for orphaned and homeless children, little Christina found a shelter and playmates and Yashoda got training in typing, shorthand and the English language—skills which would allow her to take up reasonably paying jobs with Christian organizations and non-government organizations. In between, she taught children at Sishu Bhavan how to sing and dance, and read out to them. “Those years opened up vistas for me. I was given food and shelter, and could live life without being judged. I was also no longer leading the self-centred life of Vizag."
Her second attempt at marriage in Kolkata resulted in a spiral of abuse and physical violence, but Yashoda kept gaining in confidence as an individual. These days, she is in a live-in relationship; a relationship, Yashoda says, that is based on respect and mutual understanding. Christina, now 18, helps out at the activity centre after school.
“I faced problems getting my daughter admitted in school because she had to mention her father’s name in the form. But I was adamant that she should write ‘Christina Yashoda, daughter of Lucy Yashoda’ and nothing else," says Yashoda, with a poise that has come after a long struggle.
Harihar Sahu | The birthday singer
He sang for Mother Teresa every year on her birthday and it was on her recommendation that he got his job
While getting into the vehicle that was to take him back to his workplace after the interview, Harihar Sahu hurt himself. The car door shut on his left palm. He winced in pain and almost doubled up in the car, but refused to stop for an ice pack or an instant pain-reliever.
“Getting hurt is no big deal for a blind man," he says.
In the canteen inside the Life Insurance of India building, opposite Sahu’s office at the Mint in Behala, the 48-year-old speaks of the one occasion that did really hurt.
That was when a thief filched some of the stock of spices Sahu used to sell on the road and in public transport. “I used to go and meet Mother often and sing for her. But that day I was quiet and she could sense my sadness. Till then, I had not disclosed my work to her, but when she asked I had to tell her," says Sahu, as the canteen help places a meal of fries, boiled vegetables, potato curry and rice on the table for his regular customer.
It was a recommendation letter by Mother to the Mint authorities that got Sahu the job. His position is that of an examiner of coins; a role that befits a person whose blindness has strengthened his sense of touch and feel.
Sahu’s tale has an unusual twist. He was abandoned as a child by his father on Nimtala Ghat Street in north Kolkata. He was adopted by erstwhile local politician Ila Ray and sent to school at the Ramakrishna Mission in Narendrapur.
But he decided he didn’t want to burden the family and left, initially joining the Salvation Army and then earning a living by selling spices on the street. That’s when he first went to visit Mother Teresa with his friends, on her birthday. It was 1986.
Today, he’s married, owns a flat on the outskirts of the city and has a well-paying job. “Being born blind, I must have been useless for him (my father) when he left me on the street. Of course, not all blind children are as lucky as me. I got shelter at Mrs Ray’s home, received proper education at Ramakrishna Mission and was fortunate to have met a person like Mother," he says. “I arranged some money for my father and sent it to him," he says, referring to the time when his father tried to get in touch with him.
With Mother Teresa, the bond was reinforced over songs. His habit of singing passionately since childhood was put to good use when, after being introduced to her, Sahu started composing spiritual songs that he would sing in her presence, on her birthdays. Since her death in 1997, Sahu often finds his way to Mother House on AJC Bose Road and sings softly near her memorial. “I will try and compose some new songs for her centenary," he says.
His wife Gauri might join him—as she often does on Sundays when the couple, who have a school-going daughter, sing at a church in Barrackpore. Sahu met Gauri—who is also blind—at a club on Elliot Road and the two connected over music. “She sang Nazrul’s songs, while I sang bhajan and film songs, especially those of Mukesh. We clicked," Sahu says, laughing heartily.
“Mother wanted to fix marriage for me, but I told her that I will marry the person I love. Some of the sisters objected for both of us being blind. But Mother gave the go-ahead, saying that two blind people will be able to love and understand each other best," recalls Sahu.
Write to email@example.com