Peddlers Of Poverty

“It is to Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s credit that her soup kitchens feed three times as many people in New York as they do in Calcutta.”

Some years ago, I picked up a book by Dominique Lapierre called The City of Joy at a library. The author’s name was familiar because a chapter from his semi-fiction Freedom At Midnight was in a English reader in school. But what really caught my interest were the quotations on the blurb of the book. On further examination, I found that the publishers had devoted several pages exclusively for the comments – comments from literary critics, celebrities, religious figures, and even lay people. All of them mentioned how deeply they were moved by the book and how life in Calcutta was sad and miserable. I was very puzzled and decided to borrow the book.

The book was set in a slum called Anand Nagar, which the author translated as City of Joy. When people in foreign countries read the book, the boundaries of the entire city of Calcutta and this slum merged into one. Don’t believe it? Just check the Amazon page for the book: In Dominique LaPierre’s book, “The City of Joy” we learn of the struggles of every day families trying to survive in the abject poverty of Calcutta, India.

So, who do we blame? The author or the reader? When I was a kid, I thought people in English countries did not wear clothes, as the film posters of English films always showed nudes. That idea changed when my father took me to a real English movie. Unfortunately, I was left with the impression that everyone in English countries had helicopters in their homes. For some time after that, I tried in vain to persuade my father to sell his cycle and buy a helicopter.

Foreigners are like that. They believe what they see. Page after page, Dominique LaPierre dished out mind-numbing accounts of poverty, insanitary conditions, diseases, starvation, deprivations, hand-pulled rickshaws, lepers, riots, murders, etc. It convinced a new generation of Westerners that one could go to Calcutta and see people dying in the streets. Probably prompted by this, the image-conscious Marxists changed the name of the city to Kolkatta. But the city of joy appellation still continues to be used, mostly by idiots in Indian media.

The City of Calcutta went into disrepute because of Mother Teresa. She rose to fame overnight when the BBC released a hagiographic documentary in 1969 called Something Beautiful for God. The film had a huge impact in the west. The book (of the same name) that followed it became a bestseller. There was no stopping her after that. Awards were heaped on her. Celebrities visited her Home For The Dying. Heads of state played host to her.

An unfortunate casualty in all this was city of Calcutta. When people from Calcutta or West Bengal went to North American or Europe, they were asked about the poverty and the starvation in the city. The word Calcutta became synonymous with the worst of human suffering and degradation. It was totally different from the Calcutta that we know of. In their minds, Calcutta was the ultimate hellhole in the world.

Meanwhile, the order established by Mother Teresa prospered, as lots of money poured in as donations. According to Christopher Hitchens, all the millions that she receives is parked in bank accounts in foreign countries because the Indian government requires disclosure of foreign missionary organizations’ funds. While Mother Teresa solicited donations by touting her service for the poor, very little money was spent. The nuns are never paid and other workers were volunteers who had taken vows of poverty. Rest of the expenses were always waived or borne by charity-minded citizens. But, the money in the bank accounts was rarely touched. It was touched only when a new branch had to be opened in a country. After that, the branch managed itself.

According to the German Stern magazine:

In Calcutta, there are about 200 charitable organisations helping the poor. Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity is not amongst the biggest helpers: that contradicts the image of the organisation. The name “Mother Teresa” was and is tied to the city of Calcutta. All over the world admirers and supporters of the Nobel Prize winner believe that it must be there that her organisation is particularly active in the fight against poverty… The fortune of this famous charitable organization is controlled from Rome, from an account at the Vatican bank. And what happens with monies at the Vatican Bank is so secret that even God is not allowed to know about it. One thing is sure however – Mother’s outlets in poor countries do not benefit from largesse of the rich countries. The official biographer of Mother Teresa, Kathryn Spink, writes, As soon as the sisters became established in a certain country, Mother normally withdrew all financial support. Branches in very needy countries therefore only receive start-up assistance. Most of the money remains in the Vatican Bank.

The magazine interviewed a former official who had worked in their New York office. She had left the order disillusioned after working there for several years:

The money was not misused, but the largest part of it wasn’t used at all. When there was a famine in Ethiopia, many cheques arrived marked for the hungry in Ethiopia. Once I asked the sister who was in charge of accounts if I should add up all those very many cheques and send the total to Ethiopia. The sister answered, No, we don’t send money to Africa. But I continued to make receipts to the donors, [marked] For Ethiopia… Mother Teresa taught her nuns how to secretly baptised those who were dying. Sisters were to ask each person in danger of death if he wanted a ticket to heaven. An affirmative reply was to mean consent to baptism. The sister was then to pretend she was just cooling the person’s forehead with a wet cloth, while in fact she was baptizing him, saying quietly the necessary words. Secrecy was important so that it would not come to be known that Mother Teresa’s sisters were baptising Hindus and Muslims.

The magazine alleges that the order is so tightfisted that the orphans in their care do not get the money that was donated for them.

The nuns run a home in Delhi in which the orphans wait to be adopted by, in many cases, by foreigners. As usual, the costs of running the home are borne not by the order, but by the future adoptive parents. In Germany the organisation called Pro Infante has the monopoly of mediation role for these children. The head, Carla Wiedeking, a personal friend of Mother Teresa’s, wrote a letter to Donors, Supporters and Friends which ran: On my September visit I had to witness 2 or 3 children lying in the same cot, in totally overcrowded rooms with not a square inch of playing space. The behavioural problems arising as a result cannot be overlooked.

When the magazine asked Sr. Pauline, head of the German branch of her organization, they received the reply, It’s nobody’s business how much money we have. She then corrected herself, I mean to say how little we have. The financial dealings of the order is shrouded in secrecy. The size of donations or how they are spent are not released to the public.

During her foreign sojourns, the lady used to solicit funds in the name of her hospital in Calcutta but in reality she runs no hospitals in Calcutta. Her hospitals are actually hospices, providing care to destitute and terminally-ill people. In her Nobel Price acceptance speech, she said:

We have a home for the dying in Calcutta, where we have picked up more than 36 000 people only from the streets of and out of that big number more than 18 000 have died a beautiful death.

Aroup Chatterjee, a native of Calcutta, did some undercover work at her facilities. He writes in his book:

Shahida was swiftly turned down by the Missionaries of Charity, because she was not destitute enough, i.e., she was a family case, a clause regularly applied during the vetting of indigents by the Missionaries of Charity in India; the organisation is ever watchful that family cases do not slip in…
When the plague struck India in 1994, Mother Teresa arrived at the Vatican on one of her frequent visits. As she arrived at Rome airport, she was ceremoniously quarantined there. Pictures of her being taken away for quarantine were circulated all over the world – the natural assumption was that she had been working knee deep with plague sufferers. She had had no involvement whatsoever either during or after the plague with treatment or prevention…
But she herself was the source of serious and continuous misinformation… Let us take for instance her comment that on the ground floor of Shishu Bhavan [her orphanage in Calcutta] there are cooking facilities to feed over a thousand people daily. That there are, but are the facilities used for the purpose of a soup kitchen? The soup kitchen at Shishu Bhavan feeds about 70 people a day, and that too 5 days a week. The daily turn out is about 50 people for lunch and 20 for dinner, but charity does not come easy for the poor – they need to possess a ‘food card’ in order to get their gruel… Mother’s soup kitchen runs on a far stricter regime at Prem Daan, her other home in Calcutta. The production of food cards is mandatory here, possibly because Prem Daan sits in the middle of Dnarapara slum and there is the likelihood of getting overwhelmed. Here the number of beneficiaries is around 50 a day, 5 days a week, but only one meal is served daily… Now, how does one obtain a food card? – The process is shrouded in mystery, like most of the functions of the Missionaries of Charity. New ones have not been issued for some time… It is to Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s credit that her soup kitchens feed three times as many people in New York as they do in Calcutta…
She once said, Today there is a modern school in that place [in Motijheel slum] with over 5000 children in it. This appears in a book published in 1986… In 1969-70, Mother Teresa’s primary schools catered for not more that 200 (a generous overestimate) in Calcutta – the figure is not much more today…
Mother Teresa frequently said that her nuns pick[ed] up people from the streets of Calcutta… The sad truth is, Mother Teresa’s organisation does not pick up people from the streets of Calcutta… It is not true that they do not provide a ‘pick up’ service at all for destitutes – they do in Rome… no arrangement exists… in Calcutta…
The Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta possess a small fleet of ‘ambulances’, many of them donated by businesses and individuals. These vehicles are painted to appear as ambulances and are fitted with red beacons; they are exempt from traffic regulations. But their main or sole function is to provide a taxi service for the nuns…
She said in Carmelite Church in Dublin in 1979, she said, The Sisters go out at night to work, to pick up people from the streets. They do not… Sisters retire early – about 8 p.m., and a major earthquake will not bring them to the doors, at least not in Calcutta. I have numerous recorded telephone conversations where I was trying to have somebody admitted to the home for the dying in Calcutta in the middle of the night, and the Sisters kept insisting that I brought the person at 9 a.m. the following morning… Indeed, until a few years back, the home for the dying did not even have a nun staying there overnight – the building was left to the mercy of sweepers and local anti socials. Mother agreed to provide two nuns for the night after intense agitation by some volunteers…
I cannot say that Mother Teresa was continuously callous and calculating about misrepresenting her charitable activities – from time to time she became extremely agitated, especially with people who were close to her, that she should be represented in such an extreme charitable light. When, for instance, Edward Le Joly, first wanted to write a book on her, she erupted: Do it, do it. We are misunderstood, we are misrepresented, we are misreported. We are not nurses, we are not doctors, we are not teachers, we are not social workers. We are religious, we are religious, we are religious… Mother Teresa herself was the most responsible for the misrepresentation of her activities. She did get periods of guilt and remorse that she should be cast as such a figure of charity, but she would soon lapse into her usual mode: ‘If there are poor on the moon, we will go there,’ etc.

Mary Louden had spent time as a volunteer worker in one of the mission’s homes. She wrote in May 3 1992 issue of The Guardian that the home at Kalighat consisted of two rooms, each with around 40 patients in stretcher beds, sandwiched between pieces of green plastic and small, scratchy blankets. She reported that on admission the patients’ heads were shaved, their clothes and any possessions removed. Patients wore only a knee-length western-style overall that tied at the neck and was open at the back. Louden described the food as nutritionally inadequate and unvaried, the water disease-ridden, and the volunteers largely unable to speak Bengali, the local language. Patients were left with nothing to do and nowhere to go. My initial impression was of all the photographs and footage I’ve seen of (Bergen) Belsen and places like that, because all the patients have shaved heads. No chairs anywhere, there were just these stretcher bed… There’s no garden, no yard even.

Dr. Robin Fox, the editor of The Lancet, visited the Calcutta operation in 1994. He expected to be impressed but was disappointed. He scathingly dismissed the order’s so-called medical facilities: Souls not bodies are the grist of her mill of faith. He found that the sisters did not utilise modern technology (notably study of blood to determine such common ailments as malaria from other illnesses). The sisters used no procedures to distinguish the curable from the incurable. Wrote Dr Fox in The Lancet in 17 September 1994: Such systematic approaches are alien to the ethos of the home. On the question of pain and its alleviation, the sisters offered no relief for the dying. I could not judge the power of their spiritual approach, but I was disturbed to learn that the formulary includes no strong analgesics. After the publication of the article, the entire British journalistic community descended on Dr. Fox like a ton of bricks.

In 1996, the Ladies Home Journal sent Daphne Barak to do a story about Mother Teresa. When she asked Do you think about death?, Mother Teresa replied, When my time comes, I will just take a bed in the house in Kalighat and wait for the end. By some mistake the Journal published Ms. Barak’s astonished remark, In that terrible place? Why?. Shortly after this, she had some close encounters with death. On these occasions, she checked into the city’s Woodlands Clinic and Birla Heart Institute.

Criticisms of Mother Teresa were slow to emerge. Aroup Chatterjee asked BBC’s Channel 4 to create a program on Mother Teresa. The program titled Hell’s Angel was made by Christopher Hitchens and Tariq Ali. Hitchens later summed up his arguments in his pamphlet The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.

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