Looming above the sweaty congestion of Raj Bhavan’s Durbar Hall at an Independence Day reception, a retired administrator, grey of head and gaunt of face, once told me in sepulchral tones, “I agree with every word you write but not a word of what you write about Mother Teresa!” Disinclined to hear another stern censure, I didn’t allow last Sunday’s tide of packed humanity under the chandeliers push me in the direction of his monumental presence. Nevertheless, Mother Teresa, who would have been 100 next Thursday, seemed constantly to dog my footsteps this past week.
First, there was the business of the visa. Then, someone from the distant Isle of Man emailed out of the blue to ask about my long dead colleague, James Cowley. The email arrived as I was wallowing in the delights of Malcolm Muggeridge’s stylish prose before he discovered god, reinvented himself as “St Mugg” and “discovered” Mother Teresa. He and Cowley worked together in Calcutta and Delhi, of which more later. Finally, a very pleasant young couple from France24, a round-the-clock television channel in French and English, turned up with two searching centennial questions — what was her impact? what is her legacy? — that few locals dare address lest the answers demolish a legend of their creation.
That has no bearing on the founder of the Missionaries of Charity but says much about our own society. Rudraprasad Sengupta says in Nandikar’s Football that people worship Rabindranath but don’t read him — the original Bengali’s alliterative force of puja and pora is lost in translation but not the indictment. Stop the man in the street and ask why Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is revered and you are unlikely to get a coherent answer. If the Doordarshan commentator who announced breathlessly the other day that Acharya P.C. Ray returned to India after graduating “from the University of Cambridge in London” was reading from someone else’s script, that means we have two ignoramuses instead of one inflicting their ignorance on viewers they are paid to enlighten. No light emanates when the blind lead the blind.
This is the level of public discourse. The great and the good are those who make what passes for news. Page Three is not a section of a newspaper with more commercial calculation than discernment but a way of life in which people are famous for being famous. The West hadn’t heard of Mother Teresa until Muggeridge’s Something Beautiful for God. Cowley guffawed as we watched St Mugg on the small screen oozing piety. The laughter was not at Mother Teresa, heaven forbid, but at his former partner in exploring Karaya Road’s flesh trade — as dashing young sahibs were wont to do in the Thirties, they had done jointly. Stout hearts might claim that god in his infinite wisdom marked out the reformed rake to be the instrument of his will. But had the sinner indeed reformed? Was he fulfilling a divine mission or just counting the royalty shekels from a bestseller?
Faced with France24’s two questions, I asked in turn how many people Mother Teresa had helped in or out of life. The reporters said they had seen two corpses being carried out but had no figures because the Missionaries of Charity did not believe in statistics. How, then, can one assess impact and legacy? While the reporters and I were talking in my room I remembered for the first time in many years a 19th-century French engraving of eight skeletal Indians in poses of utter resignation that I had bought in Singapore and which now hangs unnoticed above my desk. That emblematic picture could have been of the Bengal Famine. The problems here are still so humongous that it could also be contemporary.
No individual or even private organization can ever do more than offer solace to a select few. Private activists are not to be discouraged but even the most selfless among them only nibble at the edges of suffering. Only sweeping government action can create the social welfare net needed to tackle destitution on this enormous scale. Practitioners like burly Major Gardiner in his chef’s attire knew this better than blind worshippers.
A snobbish BBC man smirked he was not a major (and thus not an officer and gentleman) but a sergeant-major. But riding all one night through Calcutta’s bustees with Gardiner as he ladled gruel from a large vat into waiting pots and pans, I could not but admire his tireless energy and preferred anonymity. He told me that John Pilger, the famous Daily Mirror columnist, had asked what good his nightly feeding did. Well aware that the hunger is too great for any soup kitchen to assuage, Gardiner pointed to a child on the pavement and told Pilger, “Look at that boy in rags lying in the cold and probably urinating and defecating where he lies. A bowl of hot gruel warms him up, kills his hunger at least for the time being and makes him feel better.” Gardiner did not set his sights any higher. But Pilger’s dramatization of the exchange (“Look at that boy lying in his own piss and shit...”) upset church donors. Gardiner needed their funding.
It’s impossible for a non-Christian layman to assess Mother Teresa’s impact and legacy because India’s haunting problems of poverty, disease, malnutrition, illiteracy and joblessness did not figure at the top of — or anywhere in — her agenda. My saying so offends devotees with more faith than information, but I repeat it with the full authority of the good lady herself. She forbade me pointblank to confuse her with social workers: she did what she did not to save the poor but because “Our Lord” ordained that her soul could be saved through serving the poor. Those who thought it blasphemous to report that conversation were like the Emergency censor who recoiled in horror at my calling a Bihar politician a “chamar leader”. As a middle-class Bengali, the censor thought of “chamar” only as a derogatory epithet. Another similarly mealy-mouthed bhadralok in my office wrote of Jagjivan Ram leading “a certain caste”. It was beyond their imagination to grasp the tremendous political and financial capital canny politicians see in proudly flaunting their caste.
These blinkered apologists would be even more outraged by the tale Gerardo Zampaglione, then Italian consul-general, told so amusingly and which came back to me cooling my heels last week in a local office that handles foreign visas. Gerardo, a cultured and accomplished man of the world and a Catholic to boot, was startled one morning when his even more surprised secretary announced that Mother Teresa was approaching. Not being a head of State or even any longer an ambassador, he wondered at this honour when she walked in with a pile of passports. Some of her sisters needed visas to go to Italy. Putting everything else aside, Gerardo himself filled in the forms and stamped and signed the passports, then mentioned the fee of a few hundred rupees. Oh no, said Mother Teresa, she didn’t pay. But Mother, Gerardo, pleaded, we don’t have any provision for gratis visas. If you don’t pay it will be deducted from my salary. “God will pay,” she said collecting the passports, and walking out. It took Gerardo, a very senior diplomat who had opted for Calcutta for personal reasons, six months to obtain reimbursement from his government.
I have heard many such stories but only from Europeans. Apart from a few canny Indians who find it rewarding to climb the bandwagon, the innocent many are too dazzled by fame and too much the prisoner of their own limiting perceptions (like the censor) to attempt the objective appraisal that alone can answer the twin questions of impact and legacy those percipient TV reporters posed.