Mother Teresa’s Kolkata15 min read . Updated: 10 Aug 2016, 02:40 PM IST
The city continues to host and bear witness to the legacy of Mother Teresa. Ahead of her canonization, we revisit that legacy through four profiles
The city continues to host and bear witness to the legacy of Mother Teresa. Ahead of her canonization, we revisit that legacy through four profiles
With the late Mother Teresa—the Albanian-born Catholic nun who founded the Kolkata-based Catholic congregation, Missionaries of Charity (MC), in 1950— set to be canonized as a saint by the Vatican on 4 September, it is worth recalling the other sobriquet given to her by a section of the international press: Saint of the Gutters.
Any person can make the connect here to Kolkata, the city that helped her congregation grow from about a dozen members in 1951 to about 5,000 nuns and more than 400 brothers operating out of 750-odd homes across the world today. If Mother Teresa, who died in 1997, helped feed thousands of the “poorest of the poor"—as indeed she did—the poor of Kolkata also assisted in nourishing her Catholic order.
Inarguably, Kolkata made Mother Teresa, soon to be Saint Teresa.
Did the association with Mother Teresa cast any kindly light on the image of the city? No, if one refers to how the international press portrayed Kolkata while writing about her. Over the years, British newspapers like Daily Express, The Times and The Sunday Times, respectively, have described Kolkata thus: “70,000 may be dying on the pavements tonight"; “The poorest, most depressed part of India"; “City of slums, pollution and Mother Teresa", as is mentioned in Aroup Chatterjee’s book, Mother Teresa: The Untold Story.
Yet, a Google search on the “richest cities in India" will throw up startling results indicating that over the years, Kolkata (at $150 billion, or around ₹ 10 trillion) has been India’s third-richest city in terms of GDP contribution to the economy, behind Mumbai ($209 billion) and Delhi ($167 billion). At No.4 is Bengaluru with $83 billion. The city isn’t among the top 10 polluted cities in the country, and has far fewer slum dwellers than Mumbai.
What most such media coverage often fails to report is how Kolkata—especially during the heydays of the Missionaries of Charity in the 1970s-80s—accommodated the bulk of the estimated three million refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh); how, as the only major metro in eastern and central India, it has attracted an additional few millions of poor economic migrants from the hinterland. While researching this story, it was interesting to note that places from where most of the destitute men and women were rescued by the MC happened to be the city’s railway stations. Nuns and volunteers say Kolkata has been a magnet for people looking for opportunities, or merely a meal. Some succeed, many fail. And many end up at Mother Teresa’s homes.
Over the years, Mother Teresa also benefited from Kolkata’s syncretism. Hindu neighbours readily donated to her when she started the MC from a small dingy lane in Sealdah; her first establishment, Nirmal Hriday, the home of the dying in Kalighat, used to be a Hindu religious institution, and was handed over to the Catholic nun by a senior Muslim government official; the city remained indifferent to her Catholic orthodoxy. Large numbers of Hindu co-workers like Chhanda Chakraborti and Seba Bardhan, whom I met during research for this story, have volunteered their time, money and resources over the decades—a compact of liberal values Kolkata often takes for granted.
This was only possible because Mother Teresa also radiated love and charity. Despite criticism of her work and views, there can be no glossing over the love and compassion that is given to the dreadfully deprived at her homes, the wretched for whom few spare even a moment, or the innocent abandoned newborn being cradled by volunteers.
The Kolkata of Mother Teresa continues to host and bear witness to her legacy.
At Prem Dan, an octogenarian with sunken cheeks, glazed eyes and reed-thin legs that could no longer support him, had been carried in from the Sealdah railway station earlier in the morning. He occupies a bed in one corner of the hall crowded with the convalescent. The man beckons me. His voice reduced by severe asthma to an airy whisper, I can only make out that he’s trying to convey that he hadn’t eaten all of yesterday.
With space for around 200 male and 150 female patients, Prem Dan—Mother Teresa’s home for the sick and dying destitute in east Kolkata’s Topsia area—is characteristically running to near-capacity. Most of the patients are out in the balcony or the courtyard for breakfast—many of them need to be fed. International volunteers team up with the MC sisters, gently spoon-feeding the wrinkled and toothless women, their bodies formless in loose nighties. It is a sight that can move even a hardened cynic.
On 22 August 1952, a couple of years after founding the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa inaugurated her first “home for the dying", Nirmal Hriday in Kalighat, a place where the poorest of the poor can die a “beautiful death", as the nun would often say. “Those who die with us die in peace," she had told her authorized biographer, Navin Chawla. Over the decades, Nirmal Hriday and Prem Dan, established years later as a long-term care facility, have seen thousands of homeless destitute picked up from Kolkata streets by nuns and designated volunteers—most have been abandoned by families or have arrived in the big city from poorer parts of the country. “They are often brought here with wounds festering with maggots and stinking. We look after them and slowly you see the change," says Sister Antonina, head of the female ward at Prem Dan.
Over the years though, Mother Teresa’s facilities for the sick and dying have also come in for criticism. In 1991, Robin Fox, editor of The Lancet, a British medical journal, described the medical care as “haphazard", the medical conditions as rudimentary, and the care-giving nuns as ill-trained. In 1994, the documentary film Hell’s Angel, followed a year later by the publication of British iconoclast Christopher Hitchens’ polemical The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa In Theory And Practice, raised similar questions about the elementary medical administration to the terminally ill, unhygienic practices and Mother Teresa’s avowed statement comparing the suffering of the dying to that of Jesus Christ. Even now, Facebook posts of volunteers at the “house of the dying" complain of antiquated medical facilities, with even younger patients left to their fate. This is contrasted with Mother Teresa choosing upscale nursing facilities in Kolkata and outside for her own treatment.
On the way back from Prem Dan, we are allowed a ride on an MC ambulance-van. Sister Blessila occupies the seat next to the driver—she is miserly with information and, in allowing us access, has also forbidden conversation with anybody at the MC without permission.
Unmindful of the strictures, our co-passenger at the back, 48-year-old Shankar Das, starts a conversation. He works at Prem Dan, procuring raw material for the kitchen—in a week, Prem Dan requires 75kg of potatoes, 50kg of vegetables and about 100kg of fish and chicken, he tells us. He is off to the bazaar at Sealdah, not far from the railway station from where he was rescued in 2009: destitute, suffering from heart problems, diarrhoea and, as he says, “mental instability causing my family in Sundarbans to abandon me". Das is now fit enough to work for his benefactors.
Nirmala Shishu Bhavan
In Mother Teresa: The Authorized Biography, the nun narrates a joke in circulation in Kolkata to the writer, Navin Chawla—the city wonders that while Mother Teresa talks about family planning, she herself has more and more children every day. “Everyone in Calcutta knows that I’m willing to take every single child," she told Chawla.
One remembers this at the AJC Bose Road location of Nirmala Shishu Bhavan—the first of the many children’s homes Mother Teresa set up, cementing her own attachment to children. It is a connection that not only finds form in the various Shishu Bhavans—where orphans, abandoned children and children with special needs have found a home—but also in the way Mother Teresa opposed abortion, sterilization and family planning, even in an overpopulated country like India. She used every possible platform to talk about the evils of abortion and family planning, be it during her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, 1979, or at UN-organized functions—even though UN agencies support family planning and abortion in special cases.
Chawla notes in the book that even as opinion polls in the US and Europe showed that a majority of Catholics favoured contraception and abortion under many circumstances, “none of this has caused her to amend her beliefs". “I feel that the poorest country is the one that has to kill the unborn child," she told Chawla. However, the nun did advocate natural family planning.
At the special children’s ward at Nirmala Shishu Bhavan, the sisters and volunteers work hard for months and years to effect minor changes in children suffering from disorders like Down’s Syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy and epilepsy. As we sit in a room full of cribs during the evening play hour, Sister Natalie, who is in charge of the ward, cheerfully points to a 10-year-old mentally-challenged girl who is showing some signs of response after years of effort. The girl sits, looking blankly at walls, even when an autistic child comes and hugs her.
All the 60 beds at the adjacent ward for malnourished children are occupied. The sister in charge, Joan of Arc, who is of German origin and joined the order in 1998, says malnourished children are brought in from the city’s footpaths, railways stations and surrounding villages.
There are very few weeks when a child is not left at the gates of Shishu Bhavan by mothers battling poverty, violent marriages, social ostracism and alcohol- and drug-abusing husbands. “Some children come diseased and carrying maggots. We often discharge them back to their families after treatment. A pavement-dwelling mother would come daily to take back her girl child and wouldn’t return without at least touching her," says the sister.
Last year, following the Union government’s proposal to allow single and divorced parents to adopt the children, the Missionaries of Charity stopped all adoptions from its centres, ostensibly because it went against the Catholic order’s stress on family values, but also because of fears that children would be adopted by single gay parents, as a October report, in the UK’s Telegraph mentions. “I do admit that people have been missing our adoption services. We used to maintain stringent adoption procedures and that would take up a lot of our time," says Joan of Arc. “Now we are free to devote all our attention to the children."
Rita Saha, now a 68-year-old widow, was one such underprivileged child—she spent her early life in Shishu Bhavan before the sisters facilitated her marriage. Today, she is getting ready to leave for the Vatican in a few weeks to take part in Mother Teresa’s canonization ceremony as “the only member from Kolkata representing the poorest of the poor", says Sister Lynn, a senior nun at Mother House, which is a few buildings away from Nirmala Shishu Bhavan.
Sitting in her one-room tenement in a Beniapukur slum, with framed photographs of Mother Teresa, Saha seems excited by her life’s journey—from the impoverished Motijheel slum where Mother began her work in 1949, her relocation to Nirmala Shishu Bhavan, bringing up a family in Beniapukur—and now, to Rome.
Gomes’ Retreat—14, Creek Lane
Eighty-year-old William Gomes spent over two decades legally fighting tenants who refused to vacate his house, adjacent to his ancestral home, the Gomes’ Retreat on 14, Creek Lane. In the commissioning of a new lawyer, who won him the long-pending court case within a year, Gomes sees the blessings of Mother Teresa, who had moved into the top floor of their ancestral house.
Ironically, it is because of the Missionaries of Charity that Gomes has forfeited claims to his portion at 14, Creek Lane. The legal heir to the house handed over the property to the MC some years back.
In 1949, Mother Teresa, having moved out of the Loreto order the previous year, and looking to set up her own order, needed a base from where she could start working for the poor. With little other than her faith at her disposal, and armed with the recommendations of a senior Catholic priest, Gomes, then a 13-year-old, remembers a diminutive white woman in a distinctive blue-bordered white sari, carrying a small bag, arriving at their gate on the evening of 28 February 1949. “That small bag was all she had. I was intrigued, but my uncle, Michael Gomes, knew of the coming of the nun who would occupy the vacant third floor," recalls Gomes. “While climbing up the wooden stairs, I was about to follow her, but she turned around and said politely but firmly, ‘Don’t come upstairs’. My uncle did eventually go upstairs and found her sleeping on the floor."
Other than the usual daily greeting, those would be the only words Gomes would hear from Mother Teresa during the four years she stayed at the house of these devout Catholics.
Those were possibly the most critical and formative four years for the Missionaries of Charity. She was joined within a few days by Subhashini Das, her student at St Mary’s school in east Kolkata, where Mother Teresa taught geography for a few years. Subhashini, later christened Sister Agnes, would become her first postulant, followed soon by another former St Mary’s student, Magdalena Gomes, later named Sister Gertrude.
“I was a year junior to Sister Agnes and Gertrude in St Mary’s but we heard that Mother would discuss plans of starting a congregation with the senior students and ask if any of them would like to serve the poor with her," says 82-year-old Sister Tarcisia, who is from the second batch of postulants at 14, Creek Lane. She was one of the 27 Kolkata girls who would live with Mother Teresa on that third floor.
“Even back then, Mother could manage to get canvas beds for each of us and an American donor would supply us trunks of cheese," recollects Sister Tarcisia.
On her part, Mother Teresa would scour the streets looking for people to help. Gomes remembers the day when Mother carried home a frail man from the streets and ministered to him in the open space leading to the house.
The steps on which we sit talking lead up to a wooden staircase bordered by elegant cast-iron railings. Mother Teresa and her girls would scrub the floor and the common spaces right till the front gate each day.
The neighbourhood has a mix of Hindus and Christians; nobody, however, objected to a Catholic congregation on the third floor of the colonial house with its 12ft-high ceilings, arched doorways and balustrades. Nobody knew that the European nun in a white and blue-bordered sari who had arrived alone would one day head one of the largest Catholic congregations in the world.
It began humbly from 14, Creek Lane. The third floor still belongs to the MC.
The Missionaries of Charity Brothers
The global headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity Brothers, which is spread across 21 countries and has 419 members, is so indistinctive that even local Kidderpore youngsters standing right opposite the three-storeyed building fail to give directions.
This sort of anonymity underlines the founding charter of the brothers’ arm of the Missionaries of Charity. The brothers’ congregation came together in 1963, 13 years after the sisters’ congregation was established. They were led by Brother Andrew, an Australian Jesuit priest, since the rules of the Roman Catholic Church did not allow Mother Teresa, a woman, to lead a men’s congregation.
While the MC sisters stand out in public with their unique blue-bordered sari, the brothers prefer everyday clothes, a small crucifix attached to their shirt the only mark of their faith. “From the very beginning, Brother Andrew wanted us to have a different identity. Being men, we are more outgoing than the sisters. We have very few private spaces and anybody can join us at the refectory and our songs have less of the Latin influence of the sisters and more of local elements like tabla and dhol," says the current head, Brother David, sitting at a long wooden table where brothers in ordinary clothes are having their evening tea. “It is our everyday attire that has allowed us to easily mingle with people and be one of them," he says.
In the late 2000s, when anti-Christian communal violence engulfed Kandhamal in neighbouring Odisha, Brother David rescued some MC sisters hiding in villages. “Had I been in a habit, it would have been difficult to make my way through."
Brother David has only just returned from Kolkata’s Alipore Central Jail, where the brothers counsel and work to rehabilitate 150-odd drug addicts.
Mother Teresa decided to start a branch of Brothers when she realized that the sisters were unable to handle the boys growing up at Shishu Bhavan. The Missionaries of Charity Brothers have since then not only looked after the grown-up boys coming from the different Shishu Bhavans, but also Mother Teresa’s leprosy centre, Gandhiji Prem Nivas, at Titagarh, on the outskirts of the city.
Globally, they have reached out to hot spots like Cambodia and Vietnam in the 1970s, and Haiti, Guatemala, Mexico and Columbia thereafter, working with those affected by violence, drug abuse or alcoholism—areas of operation often outside the reach of the sisters. With fewer instances of people suffering from tuberculosis and Hansen’s disease (leprosy), the brothers are now shifting attention to newer areas—they are, for instance, working with the mentally-challenged who are often violent, and addicts who need psychiatric help.
Brother David claims to have been a “fatalist" early on in life, with a passion for boxing as well as a desire to serve the poor. It was while studying in St Xavier’s Collegiate School that he heard of Mother Teresa for the first time. “Instead of lepers, I heard that Mother Teresa worked for leopards and asked my mom to get something to give to her leopards. That’s how it began," he laughs.
Having joined the order in 1981, he says it’s been “an adventure with God".