The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Who needs a Saint Teresa of Calcutta anyway' The Roman Catholic Church does as much as the Missionaries of Charity does. Sceptics like Christopher Hitchens, Tariq Ali and Germaine Greer told us that Mother Teresa herself, more than anyone else, not only needed sainthood but actually exploited Calcutta and its poverty to try to attain it. Her life and work, said Greer, epitomized the “blinkered charitableness upon which we pride ourselves and for which we expect reward in this world and the next”.

The diminutive nun, whom the world had known as the saint of the gutters long before her death, would have agreed. Her faith even gave her sainthood models. When Malcolm Muggeridge asked her in that now-famous BBC interview of 1968 if she had taken her name after St Teresa of Avila, she laughed, “Oh, no. I have not called myself after the big Teresa, but the little one, Teresa of Lisieux. I am not big enough for the big Teresa.”

Those who have worked with her or known her for long say, however, that she had much in common with St Teresa of Avila who was as consumed by the holy passion but who also showed as much toughness and determination in founding the reformed Carmelite convents as Mother Teresa did to found the Missionaries and work her way through a heretical world. The Catholics would now see the other obvious similarity — when St Teresa of Avila was canonized in 1622, only forty years after her death, it was a rare break from the Vatican tradition of starting the beatification process at least fifty years after a candidate’s death.

She has actually broken all sainthood records — the beatification coming only six years after her death. But what’s there in it for Calcuttans, the Indians or the poor anywhere in the world, expect the obvious media story' She has gone her way — to beatification and possible sainthood — and we go our different ways.

Thousands of Indians were going to Ayodhya to rediscover their very own Lord Ram, even as the Catholic devout were converging on Rome for the beatification of Mother Teresa. It is impossible to miss the irony in the coincidence that the day the Vatican makes her Blessed Mother Teresa, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad observes a Bharat bandh to protest against the Mulayam Singh Yadav government’s refusal to allow the kar sevaks to have their Ramlala darshan.

So, as the world media attention is once again focussed on India on the occasion of the beatification of Mother Teresa, the images that dominate the picture will be of Ayodhya, Gujarat and the widow of Graham Staines. It is the image of the murdered Australian missionary’s widow, her dark glasses keeping the tears away from the public view but her stony face speaking of her determination, that alone could tell the story of the saffron-coloured resurgent India at the time of Mother Teresa’s beatification.

It could also be the image of the six-month-old child whose brief life was snuffed out by the collective callousness of a society, of which the insensitive staff of a Calcutta hospital and irresponsible politicians are only dark symbols. The Calcutta tragedy would be particularly relevant to the irony of Mother Teresa’s beatification because the poor, little Shabana Parveen was exactly like the children that peopled her world.

But there is a much bigger story out there — both in the VHP’s Ayodhya march and the death of Shabana Parveen — that should cause more serious concern than maudlin sentiments. That story goes beyond the Ayodhya marchers or those directly responsible for Shabana’s death.

That big story involves a far greater number of Indians who may not have marched to Ayodhya but who justify it in the name of so-called cultural nationalism. It involves all those who may not be saffronites themselves but who defy their political loyalties when it comes to saving Hinduism from enemies within and outside. One hears their voices, not on the roads to Ayodhya, but in book-lined drawing rooms of middle-class homes.

It involves ruthless politicians who exploit the poor in their relentless pursuit of power. But it also involves those who hate the politicos but also hate the poor. There were always people who knew nothing of poverty and wondered if poverty really meant not having a coloured television set at home. But there is now an expanding body of the educated middle class which, in its race for social climbing, apes the rich people’s contempt for the poor.

Let alone doing anything to reduce poverty or disseminating awareness about it, the new elite finds it infra dig to even talk about it. Crude ideas of market economy have convinced them of a perverse Darwinism that in the struggle for the survival of the fittest, the poor stand no chance and there is no need to give them a hand.

Yet Mother Teresa thought this was the most terrible thing that could happen to the poor. “It is not often they need things,” she told Muggeridge, “...I have come more and more to realize that it is being unwanted that is the worst disease that any human being can ever experience...For all kinds of diseases, there are medicines and cures. But for being unwanted except there are willing hands to serve and there’s loving heart to love, I don’t think this terrible disease can ever be cured.”

This may be a saintly Catholic’s missionary position, for the poor do need things as much as they need love. But, first of all, they need society to be aware of them, but not to treat them as political pawns or perennial subjects for seminar papers or to dismiss them as unmentionables in civilized conversations.

The irony is that it is the same people who hate to talk about the poor, let alone talking to them, who would once again make a show of lay piety. As in life, so in her death and now in her beatification, Mother Teresa will remain a glamorous icon — especially because she was a white woman — for the leisure class.

It would be unfair, though, to blame her for what the vanity fair makes of her. It would be churlish too to complain that her work had done little to reduce poverty or alleviate the sufferings of Calcutta’s poor. She never claimed to aim at or achieve that, let alone change the world. Even if she served the poor to become a candidate for canonization, it would be supercilious to dismiss its effect on the lives of the poor, no matter what their number was.

The beatification of Mother Teresa can be meaningful outside her order and the Catholic church if it helps in any way to bring the poor back to the society’s serious agenda.

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