By Melvil Pereira
Virtue stings the hearts of all: in some it provokes adoration and in some it provokes a sour Newtonian rejection. When faced with extreme goodness, some feel the need to find fault so as to distract others and themselves from their own imperfection.
An event like a canonisation provides an occasion to paint a complete picture of persons with their virtues and vices. That’s what has happened on the occasion of the canonisation of Mother Teresa. Scores of articles praised her works, while others tore into her good works. While Gopalkrish Gandhi (The Telegraph) made one aware of the profound persolity of Mother Teresa and her incomparable contribution to India and to humanity at large, others like Aroup Chatterjee and Justice Katju launched a frontal attack on her and seemed to take delight in their attempt at shattering her lifetime of work into smithereens.
I write this piece in defence of Mother Teresa and respond to the barbs thrown at her by her detractors. Let me begin with the accusation levelled by Dr Robin Fox in the Lancet, a medical jourl published in London. This piece, written 21 years ago, has been prolifically quoted by her detractors. Dr Fox was right when he wrote about the ‘haphazard’ approach to care by nuns and volunteers. Mother Teresa’s army of nuns were not health care experts. They had minimal training in taking care of patients, but what they did, they did with the utmost dedication. They were well aware of their limited capacity and worked within those parameters.
In the same article Dr Fox also wrote about the inmates in the hospices “eating heartily and doing well” and that the sisters and volunteers focused on cleanliness, tending wounds and sores, and providing loving kindness. His was a well-balanced piece which appreciated much but also pointed out some lacus. But the critics of Mother Teresa mention only his negative observations and intentiolly forget the accolades showered on her and her hospices. This selective picking of negativities and generalising it and later rubbishing all the works of Mother Teresa and her sisters smacks of prejudice, wilful character assassition and deliberate distortion of truth. The latent bias in this radical misappropriation of another’s words, ignoring his primary sentiment, is truly shocking, deceptive and wholly unjust. The judge, I fear, had come to a verdict before hearing the case.
One of the critics attacked Mother Teresa’s words on abortion while receiving the Nobel Prize. Well, she did not mince words in condemning abortion. She did not shy away from wearing her faith on her sleeves when talking about crucial issues like right to life of an infant and the defenceless foetus. Respect for life emerged from her Christian faith and convictions, and was intrinsically linked to her work. This matter of abortion has, of late, become a stick to malign and beat Christians with. It might be good to recall what the venerable Jain monk, Tarun Sagar, said to the legislators in the Harya State Assembly recently. He castigated what he termed the massacre of female foetuses and infants, condemned this practice and stood by the right of the unborn to life. To me, the words of the Jain monk and the stand of Mother Teresa on respect to life of the yet-to-be-born is absolute, non-negotiable and a fundamental pillar upon which a just society is built.
Globe-trotting in private jets was another amusing accusation. She certainly crossed the oceans by plane but that she did so in private jets is certainly not true, nor is the implication that she owned a private jet: she owned a bucket and two sarees. Her travels across the world were necessary for her more than 4,500 sisters who setup hospices across the world in 123 countries. She had a motherly duty of care for these sisters, to guide them along the right path, whether those paths led to Kalighat or California.
Another condemtion came from her accepting dotions from all, the rich, the poor, the sinner and the saint. Was raising funds from the wealthy and sometimes from persons of ill-repute wrong? Who has the right to say who is allowed to give money for charity, and who does not? When someone dotes money, would it not be wrong or prideful to reject the good intention of that person, regardless of whatever wrong that person might have done in the past? Let he who is without sin cast the first penny. Only the most humble of hearts can reject one’s own dignity for the greater dignity of others by going from house to house with a begging bowl. It takes courage to achieve what she achieved in one life time. Justice Katju wrote “I am prepared to do the same [what Mother Teresa did] if I am given 10 million dollars”. I doubt whether I would be able to succeed in doing one tenth of Mother Teresa’s work even if I were given 10 trillion dollars. So perhaps we have another saint in the making in Justice Katju… time alone will tell!
Some found it hard to comprehend the ‘dignified death’ of thousands of less fortute people who died a ‘dignified death’ in the arms of a fellow human being and on the lap of a caring sister instead of in the gutter, cared for by none and forgotten by all. Their death was dignified because they breathed their last with the knowledge that there are human beings who love and care. The critics should read what the Chief Minister of Delhi, Mr Kejriwal, wrote about his ‘beautiful moments’ of having a less fortute person breathe his last on his lap in one of the hospices of Mother Teresa.
Two authors, Christopher Hitchins and Aroup Chatterjee, have made it their profession to write about the life and works of Mother Teresa. Both of them suffer from the syndrome of reasoning from the particular to the general. They take a few isolated experiences (short stories from short-staying foreigners, and hasty scribbles of jourlists with deadlines) and arrive at grandiose and extravagant conclusions based on those weak foundations. They build grand mansions on shifting sand.
It is important to note that Mother Teresa’s humanitarian assistance was grounded on her unflappable commitment to her religious beliefs and convictions. She saw the face of Christ in the face of every human being – Hindu, Muslim or Christian – and she did not hide this fact from anyone. But she also respected the right of inmates in her hospices to hold on to their faith, however different it was from hers. While condemning her for conversions, the detractors should note that she respectfully fulfilled the desires of those who wished to be buried or cremated according to their religious customs and traditions.
Mother Teresa’s critics sound much like the armchair professors who depend on secondary sources and third party stories to write books not based on their own experience. A powerful antidote for them could be to spend at least a week in the hospices run by the Missiories of Charity and experience the truth firsthand. The vitriol and venom of the critics, notwithstanding, her virtue and verve will keep shining. St Teresa of Calcutta and her works will live on through the many who were inspired by her and have given their lives to the service of the downtrodden and the dying. The Hitchins, Chatterjees and Katjus come and go but works of Mother Teresa will remain etched on the hearts of millions.
The writer is Director, North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati. melvillesj @gmail.com