Sunanda Datta-Ray: “Driven by Self-interest”

Did Mother Teresa cynically use Calcutta’s poor for her own ends or did she deserve her saintly reputation? “Saviour of the needy driven by self-interest” by Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, an editorial consultant to The Straits Times. From “The Australian”, 11th September, 1997.

SISTER Nirmala, the new ethnic Indian head of the Missionaries of Charity, the Calcutta-based order that Mother Teresa set up, may find it difficult to operate in the shadow of a legend whose white skin and skilful public relations — “Without the media she would still be a little nun working with a few other nuns,” said Father Edward le Joly, the order’s former spiritual director — enabled her to overcome Indian wariness about missionaries.

Without either advantage, the new superior must ask herself whether her predecessor’s unyielding opposition to contraception helped a country that groans under the burden of an additional 17 million mouths — Australia’s entire population — to feed every year. Also, how much impact the missionaries actually made on Calcutta’s pain and poverty.

CALCUTTA’S party circuit used to bubble with stories about the stooped woman in the blue-bordered sari, the strong features and intense stare. A European diplomat talked ruefully of stamping visas for a dozen nuns, then being told that God would pay the fees. She offered (threatened?) to become an Air-India hostess whereupon the airline gave her a complimentary pass. There was the titled Englishwoman who did not disclose her rank, but whom Mother Teresa tracked down when her order needed a house in London. There were whispers of secret deathbed conversions to Christianity. She kept curious company, being photographed with Haiti’s Michele Duvalier and Washington’s mayor Marion Barry. The missionaries accepted $1.7 million from Charles Keating, the California businessman who was jailed for embezzling $346 million in savings funds, and Mother Teresa wrote to Los Angeles Judge Lance Ito to intercede for Keating while he was being tried in Ito’s court.

But only Westerners spoke of such matters. The star-struck city tamely offered up its poor and dying to be stepping stones in her relentless ascent to sainthood. For, though she expanded into Europe and America, Africa and Australia, it was the misery of Calcutta that built up and sustained her reputation, inducing the rich and the powerful to give her money and patronage. She owed Calcutta everything. Calcutta gave her a halo. It received little in return. Sister Nirmala can repay that debt by repatriating to India the vast undisclosed fortune that Mother Teresa apparently invested in missions worldwide, and use it to set up schools and centres to educate adults, train women to earn, look after orphans and feed the under-nourished.

Calcutta needs comfortable homes for the aged, and, above all, a fully equipped free hospital where the poor are guaranteed world-class doctors, nurses and treatment. Only this can atone for the ultimate paradox of Mother Teresa going to elite clinics whenever she fell ill while idealising pain for the poor.

“I THINK it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ,” she said. “I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.” In 1991, Dr Robin Fox, the then editor of The Lancet, scathingly dismissed the order’s rudimentary medical facilities. Souls, not bodies, were grist to the mills of her faith.

I learned this in 1971 when Indian television, Doordarshan, wanted me to interview her in celebration of a papal award. During a preliminary chat, I asked what distinguished her from other social workers. Mother Teresa was horrified. She was not doing social service. She was “helping the poor” because “our Lord” had told her to do so for her salvation.

“So, the good work that you do is for your own sake?” I asked. “The beneficial effect is only incidental, the real purpose is your personal salvation?” Mother Teresa did not disagree.

As I spent the afternoon in her homes — she wanted me to see her work before the interview — I dwelt on what she had said.

It would be central to our discourse before the cameras, for I realised that it revealed her and her mission, as well as her relationship with Calcutta, in a new light. So did Mother Teresa. Doordarshan telephoned early next morning to say that the interview was off. She would talk only to Desmond Doig, a British journalist in Calcutta who had written a book about her.

Abroad, she did not conceal her contempt for secular labour to relieve poverty. Yet, what Mother Teresa had confided to me was then a secret only in India. Abroad, she did not conceal her contempt for secular labour to relieve poverty.

“There is always the danger that we may become only social workers or just do the work for the sake of the work” she told another British biographer, Malcolm Muggeridge, whose 1969 BBC documentary, Something Beautiful for God, launched her internationally.

Many years later, Navin Chawla, Indian author of her “authorised biography”, asked if there were fewer destitutes as a result of her efforts. Mother Teresa laughingly said she did not know. “But those who die with us, die in peace … for that’s for eternity.”

Millions of Indians, for whom her mission’s only raison d’etre is its secular achievement, do not want to die in peace but to live in dignity. The here and now matters more than the hereafter. Struggling to escape hunger, disease and homelessness, they will expect the less saintly Sister Nirmala, to redress the past by providing tangible evidence of concern and commitment, to replace charisma with credibility. Her missionaries will now have to succour the living, not just “save” the dying.

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray was born and raised in Calcutta, and is a former editor of The Statesman, the city’s oldest newspaper.

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