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Maggots, Miracles and Mother Teresa

Mumbai.

I met Mother Teresa above an antique mantelpiece in the living room of a celebrity. Her image shared equal space with Husain’s horses on the walls. The ‘saint of the gutter’ seemed anachronistic in that high-ceilinged room. For many of those ‘touched’ by her, she had transformed into a collection, an investment, even a penance providing absolution for guilt.

On Sunday, September 4, when Pope Francis canonises Mother Teresa, there will be many walking around with the halo of samaritans in the cause of the saint. Sainthood does not depend on ideology but the ability to produce miracles, and Mother Teresa has had two to her credit. Canonisation is a religious matter. Yet, it becomes political, because the miracles infringe on society and mores.

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In 1998, Mother appeared in a paddy field – as a vision to Monica Besra, a tribal woman with a cyst in her stomach. She says she got miraculously cured when she held a medallion that had been blessed by Mother: “I tried many doctors, lots of medicines but nobody could really heal me. On the death anniversary of Mother Teresa, I prayed to her and I could see Mother herself.”

Sister Nirmala, Mother’s successor at the Missionaries of Charity, had said then, “It has been investigated scientifically and it has been proven it’s a miracle.” Aside from the verifiability claims, does not the stature of an ecclesiastical event get reduced if science is brought in to confirm it?

Anne Sebba, associate producer of ‘Mother Teresa: The Making of a Modern Saint’, wrote, “There is an especially strong paradox in Mother Teresa’s case, since she did not devote her efforts to effecting miracle cures. Doctors and nurses, even those who wished to join her order, had no particular role to play there. She said many times that she was, quite simply, demonstrating Christ’s love in action by helping people die a beautiful death, not by helping them live an extra few years. So why the need for a miracle? Because it is the only way to insist that God, not man, has directly and specifically intervened in the process.”

Faith can move mountains, but it was too pat for a simple villager to have prayed to Mother and even remembered her death anniversary. That she converted to Christianity after the miracle and her family was provided for by the missionaries of charity, and that some years later she would accuse them of neglecting her, seems to suggest a transaction. The sudden cure should have been boon enough. Why would the nuns take charge of the family?

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“I never forget when I brought a man from the street. He was covered with maggots; his face was the only place that was clean. And yet that man, when we brought him to our home for the dying, he said just one sentence: I have lived like an animal in the street, but I am going to die like an angel, love and care, and he died beautifully. He went home to God, for dead is nothing but going home to God. And he having enjoyed that love, that being wanted, that being loved, that being somebody to somebody at the last moment, brought that joy in his life.” (Nobel acceptance speech on December 10, 1979)

There can be no beauty in a death where you have to watch other sick people defecate and throw up, and have foreigners bathe and feed you.

For many from the West, doing something in India has some religious connection. They could be taken up with Buddhist spiritualism, Hinduism’s colourful route to karma or the Christian concept of charity, best manifested in the Mother Teresa brand.

Upon receiving India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, she said: “This publicity is also a form of humiliation. I accept this, as I did the Nobel Prize, only as a recognition of the poor.”

A couple of years ago, there was a photograph of a young boy, a pre-teen, being bathed in the open by a white woman who was a “follower of Mother”. The boy’s identity was not mentioned; he was just a torso and limbs attended to by fair hands. Street kids are accustomed to diving into muddy waters where they revel in some carefree moments. But the public act of washing by one considered better – and the cleansing further imbuing her with moral superiority – makes even the young and agile appear helpless.

This is perhaps the do-gooder’s ‘ticket to heaven’, just as there have been whispers about such tickets promised to those who were baptised on their death bed. Miracles, apparently, are secular, so there have been attempts to distance the to-be-saint from any slur of proselytising to the infirm and the dying.

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There is no evidence of mass conversion by the Kolkata group, although voluntary conversions have taken place, the ability of the very sick to make these choices being questionable. The problem gets complicated when such conversions acquire political dimensions, as they’ve done in India. The Hindutva groups have always objected to Mother Teresa and now that the rightwing ruling party has decided to send a delegation headed by the foreign minister for the canonisation ceremony, there is some dissonance.

Both are playing politics. Prime Minister Narendra Modi praising Mother is doing his global statesman act, ensuring his ministers get enough visibility at the Vatican. The RSS and other Hindutva parties need to trash missionary conversion tactics to justify their grandiose and forcible attempts at reconverting the converted Christians and Muslims.

Missionary work gets embroiled in politics, sometimes due to its own acts. During the Iraq War, Pope John Paul II said he’d station his ministers of the Vatican in Baghdad. Mother Teresa wrote letters to George Bush to end the war. Both got the Nobel Peace Prize. Is urging the world not to use condoms or to abort babies truly a vision of peace?

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“If you don’t want a child, give it to me,” was Mother T’s response to abortion. The idea is not that life is precious but that every orphan is stimulus for guilt. Even a rape victim can only be permitted to use a douche bag to clean out the semen from the vagina. If she lacks the presence of mind, then she is burdened with the ‘sin’ of murder, or of being an unwed mother or the cause of a burgeoning orphan population.

Mother’s attitude towards ‘lesser women’ buffers the male stereotype. As feminist Germaine Greer wrote, “They (Mother’s nuns) don’t see prostitutes as poor women who are enjoying free enterprise in the world’s most ancient profession, but as sinners. The punishment for these women is to teach them embroidery.” (A sex worker who sought forgiveness for her sins from the Pope was granted it because, after all, Christ had been kind to Mary Magdalene.)

The holy version of dignity has been to take a woman out of the gutter and put her in an airless room. The moral certitude of ‘messengers of god’ weighs heavy on good and evil that could both be momentary lapses.

This is particularly disturbing when we discover that the PR machinery has ensured that the Mother Teresa of doubting thoughts is scotched like a rumour. Her emotional and spiritual frailty in the confidential letters reveals a woman tormented by “emptiness”. She said her public smile was a mask, “a cloak that covers everything”. Did she continue to live the lie because of her avowed commitment to the church or to protect the interests of the organisation she headed?

Greer contended that were she not so holy, her worldwide expansions would be considered an ego trip. “On ‘His’ behalf she totally lacks humbleness. All care for the dying, all salvation of prostitutes, etc., happens for ‘Him’. On top of this Mother Teresa is ‘His’ special friend who knows what ‘He’ wants. This megalomaniac attitude makes me furious.”

I was never filled with such rage, but I do believe that Mother Teresa beyond her hallowed role was not exactly what the doctor and contemporary living ordered. As regards sainthood, it is such a pity that you’ve got to work even after death to attain it.

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Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections

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