Atanu Dey On India's Development

Deposition: “Mother of All Myths”

Deposition submitted by Aroup Chatterjee before the committee for beatification/canonization of Mother Teresa February 1998.

The Mother of All Myths

Being a lay person not versed in ecclesiastical procedures, I am not eminently suited to make a formal or technical deposition before the Committee. However, I have had a keen interest in Mother Teresa for the last few years and have researched her operations, perhaps more thoroughly than anyone else in the world. And, as somebody born, brought up and educated in Calcutta, I feel I am in a unique situation to offer evidence to the Committee. The Committee may summon me at any time to appear personally before it to offer evidence. I also put my audio visual evidence at the disposal of the Committee should it want to consult them.

Over the years I have been dismayed at the discrepancy between Mother Teresa’s words and her deeds, and here I present some of them. Mother Teresa had said many thousands of times in her life that she “pick[ed] up” people from the streets of Calcutta. She expounded on it at length in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Her order did (and does) not “pick up” destitutes from Calcutta’s streets. They do not provide an ambulance service for the city’s poorest of the poor. If one rings the Kalighat home for the dying destitute, one is told curtly to ring 102 (the Calcutta Corporation ambulance line) so that a Corporation vehicle would bring the destitute to Kalighat.

I believe that Mother Teresa had deliberately misled the world in her assertions about “picking up” destitutes from the streets of Calcutta in order to bolster her own image and that of her faith. Her failure to provide vehicles (whilst continually claiming to do so) is even more significant because she had been donated a number of ambulance vehicles. These are used mainly (though not solely) as vans to ferry nuns, often to and from places of prayer. I believe that this constitutes an abuse of other people’s trust in her.

Mother Teresa is on record in various publications (written by her friends and followers) as having said that her order fed 4000, 5000, 7000 or 9000 people in Calcutta everyday (the figures are not chronologically incremental). I do not know what she meant by feeding that number, but the fact remains that her soup kitchens (numbering between two and three) in Calcutta did (does) not feed more than 300 people daily (a generous over- estimate). The Committee should also take into account the “food cards” that poor people must possess to obtain ration in at least one soup kitchen. The Committee should note that such cards are not easy to come by for the poor, and that virtually all Christians in a particular slum have food cards, when hardly any of the poor from the other religions have them. This policy gives the lie to Mother Teresa’s assertions that she treated the poor from all faiths equally. On the issue of bias toward Catholicism, I would also like to tell the Committee that worship inside Mother Teresa’s homes is solely Catholic, and non-Catholic worship is not at all permitted therein. This practice should be judged in the context of a minute proportion of the residents in her homes in Calcutta being of the Catholic faith. I would like to draw the Committee’s attention to Mother Teresa’s frequent pronouncement: “I help a Hindu to become a better Hindu, a Muslim to become a better Muslim…..” etc. The practice of denying poor people under her care the right to worship their own god(s) can be judged as harsh and demeaning.

Mother Teresa once said, “If there are poor on the moon, we will go there.” She said many times that she never refused anybody who needed help. In reality however, her order operated strict exclusion criteria in their selection of who to help and who not to. Mother Teresa’s order did (does) not help anybody, no matter how poor or helpless, who had a family member of any kind — what they term a “family case”. (That is one practice he doesn’t like which I agree with. The family should take care of their own first. Too bad we don’t do that here with welfare)

One of Mother Teresa’s slogans had been ,”Bring me that unwanted child.” In her Nobel Prize speech she said, “Let us bring the child back. …….What have we done for the child? ………..Have we really made the children wanted?” If the Committee examines what Mother Teresa had done for street children (in Calcutta), it may find that she fell short of optimal standard. Despite her assertions, she did not operate an “open door” policy at her homes for the poor, including for poor children. A very poor and very ill child would not be offered help unless the parents signed (or thumb-printed) a form of renunciation signing over the rights of the child to her organisation. I have video evidence of such a case happening on the doorstep of Mother Teresa’s orphanage.(Is that charity? “Sign over your child to us or we let them starve!!!”?)

The Committee may also want to interview street children from around Mother House who were repeatedly reported to the police by Mother Teresa’s nuns for “pestering” foreigners who came to visit the “living saint”. I have video interviews with such children, which the Committee may like to consult.

In her famous letter written in 1978 to the then Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai in protest against the curbing of Christian missionary activities, Mother Teresa mentioned that she operated “102 centres” of natural family in Calcutta. The Committee should heed that such centres do not exist. The Committee should also note that in her Nobel Prize speech Mother Teresa had said that in 6 years in Calcutta there were “61,273 babies less” born because of her organisation’s natural family planning activities. There is no basis whatever for this statistic, and it was disingenuous of Mother Teresa to mention it in her Nobel Prize speech.

In the April 1996 issue of the US magazine Ladies Home Journal, Mother Teresa said that she wanted to die like the poor in her home for the dying destitute in Kalighat. This is a very outrageous statement indeed. By then she had had numerous in-patient medical treatments in some of the most expensive clinics around the world. This includes the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, California and the Gemelli Hospital in Rome. She also had numerous treatments at Calcutta’s Woodlands and Belle Vue Clinics, which are outside the reach of 99% of India’s population. She also received (on numerous occasions) sophisticated and expensive cardiac treatments at Calcutta’s Birla Heart Institute.

When Mother Teresa died, she was surrounded in her bedroom by sophisticated and expensive cardiac equipment, which had been specially fitted for her. Such privilege is usually granted to kings, presidents and dictators. Whether such exclusive facilities befit a future Saint is for the Committee to decide, but I would ask it to take note of the wide discrepancy between Mother Teresa’s deeds and her pronouncements. In 1984 Mother Teresa (publicly) declined the offer of cataract surgery from the St Francis Medical Centre in Pittsburgh, USA, telling the media that she could not possibly accept the £5000 treatment; but the very next year she had the same surgery (which cost even more) in St Vincent’s Hospital , New York.

I think Mother Teresa (or anybody else) should receive the best possible medical treatment, but she utterly failed giving her residents (at least in Calcutta) the minimum dignity and treatment — despite her vast resources. The residents at Kalighat were denied beds — they were forced to lie on hammocks, known by her order as “pallets”. They were not allowed to get up from their pallets and stretch themselves. They are denied visits from friends and relatives — indeed they would not be admitted in the first place if they had any relatives. They are forced to defecate and urinate communally. They are given only the simplest possible treatments, such as simple painkillers for the intractable pain of terminally ill residents. Gloves and more importantly, needles are routinely re-used when deadly diseases are rife within this population. It has to be borne in mind that the home for the dying in Calcutta is a very small operation, catering to less than 100 people — is it not legitimate to expect a minimum decent standard for these few people? What does the Committee think?

Except for adequate and simple food, the regime in the home is very harsh indeed — some would call it dehumanising; apart from the above points mentioned, I would like to draw attention of the Committee to the compulsory shaving of the heads of residents, including of female ones. The Committee should take cognisance of the particular importance Indian women (however poor or destitute) attach to long hair.

One could perhaps overlook the medical facilities at Kalighat (although the Committee should not perhaps ignore such dismal standards from a woman with such resources) but where Mother Teresa failed was in providing minimum “Love” and dignity for her residents, despite her numerous claims that she did so. Mother Teresa’s motto had been “You did it to me”, implying the suffering of Jesus; she said many times how “beautiful” suffering and pain were. However she had one standard for herself and another one for her residents. She herself had never declined painkillers or anaesthetics.

Mother Teresa, although protesting to live a life of utter humility and suffering, frequently travelled the world in the luxury class of aeroplanes, which is outside of the reach of all but the super wealthy. Granted she did not pay for her travels (the airlines usually did), but I believe her travels were a waste of resources, undertaken as they were mostly for religious purposes. The majority of her journeys — including the last foreign travel of her life that began in May 1997 — were to oversee the vow taking of her nuns. She would also travel frequently to the Vatican to meet up with the pope — indeed on most of her international travels she would break journey at the Vatican, sometimes twice — onward and return. Can the Committee justify such frequent and expensive travels for reasons of religion by a woman who always claimed that she was utterly devoted to the cause of the poor? Occasionally when on board the first class section of an aeroplane, Mother Teresa would ask for food to be given her so that she could take them to the poor. This would impress those around her and would imply that she never did anything that would detract from the cause of the poor — thereby she would manage to camouflage the real purpose of her luxurious travels which were unnecessary, at least for the interests of the poor. I would urge the Committee to take into account Mother Teresa’s affectations which were adopted (perhaps unwittingly) to cause deception and bolster image.

Although always protesting that she knew nothing about politics, Mother Teresa voted in elections in India, as acknowledged by the Catholic author Eileen Egan in one of Mother Teresa’s official biographies Such A Vision of the Street. She also made sure that her nuns all voted. Here again, we are getting a discord between words and deeds.

In the matter of politics, the most serious issue that can raised about Mother Teresa’s actions was over her support of the State of Emergency in India (1975 – 77). This was a time when democratic rights were suspended in India and thousands of activists (both social and political) were detained without trial. Other crimes, much more heinous, were committed by the erstwhile government. The Committee should take particular note of the forced sterilisation programmes (of poor men) that were undertaken during this period. And yet, Mother Teresa issued the State of Emergency a certificate of approval (acknowledged in the above official biography) to help her friend the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The Committee should decide if such action befits a potential Saint. The Committee should particularly consider the way Mother Teresa intervened in politics in this instance and compare it with her (political) intervention during the passage of the Freedom of Religion Bill in the Indian parliament in 1978. In the first instance when human rights were threatened, she aided and abetted the powers that were threatening them; in the second instance when Catholic rights were threatened she made a strident protest. One could not have criticised her if she had remained silent on both occasions.

The Committee should also take into account Mother Teresa’s wooing of the media, which was often selective. There are a lot of media persons (primarily in India) who may testify to that effect. I have interviews with such people which the Committee may like to consult. I am aware that the help of the media is essential in the running of an international organisation such as the Missionaries of Charity and I certainly do not think it was unreasonable of Mother Teresa to enlist such help, but she always publicly maintained that she detested publicity.

The word “saint” in the broad sense implies a person who is uniquely kind and charitable; somebody above meanness and pettiness, somebody who does not publicise their own deeds and achievements, at least does not exaggerate them. Mother Teresa was a kind and charitable person, but whether she was an exceptional in this regard is a matter for the Committee to decide. I strongly urge the Committee to not simply be guided by what she said, but look beyond that. She was an exceptional Catholic — indeed much (if not most) of the resources of her organisation was spent on religious activities, such as in the training of nuns, novices, Brothers and priests, and in the upkeep of establishments which are exclusively nunneries and Brothers’ houses. When Mother Teresa told journalists (as she did very often during her life) how many establishments she ran around the world, she never made it clear that a large number of these housed nuns and Brothers and were not homes for the poor.

In this context, Mother Teresa’s fund raising from people of dubious reputation needs to be mentioned. To give an example, in 1991 she received a very large sum of money from Charles Keating, who had stolen most or all of it from the American public, many of them people of modest means. After Keating’s arrest, Mother Teresa steadfastly refused to even acknowledge requests from the authorities to return the money. Did she think that she was above earthly laws? If the money had been returned, some of Keating’s poor investors who had been deceived could have been repaid. Mother Teresa’s logic was that she was using rich people’s ill-gotten money to help the poor. Such logic is perverse, not only because she was knowingly handling stolen money, but also because much of that money was being spent not on the poor but for the nurturing of her faith.

If the Committee wants to confer sainthood on Mother Teresa for being an exceptional Catholic, then no doubt such honour is deserved. If on the other hand, sainthood is something the Committee would confer on somebody who is also more than ordinarily honest, “humble”, dedicated to the poor, free of falsehoods and above all a person of unique integrity, then in my opinion Mother Teresa falls short of a being a shining example.

Finally I would ask the Committee whether it would do justice to the memory and spirit of Mother Teresa — who had such visceral opposition to abortion in any circumstance — to be called “Saint Teresa of Calcutta”, for Calcutta is one of the world’s most pro abortion cities, where hundreds of institutions (one of them not that many yards from Mother House) offer abortion (virtually) on demand.

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  • Irish Shilelegah

    Interesting. Hitchens didn’t think she was saintly either. I think the author raises many good points here. She could’ve invested in hospitals and education to help raise the poor out of poverty. However, she saw poverty as a ‘blessing’ … while not fully engaging in it herself. While hypocrisy is human to be sure (so no one ought to say she was wicked) nevertheless, I don’t think it befits Saints.