8 September 1997
Joy and God in the slums
SHE could have taken an easier path, a life of relative comfort as a Catholic Mother Superior in a mouldering Calcutta convent, but Mother Teresa chose a harder road, and when she set off she was alone.
By the time her journey was over, she had achieved her singular aim of placing the plight of the poor once more at the heart of the Christian faith.
On August 17, 1948, she took her first fateful steps outside the Loreto Convent at Entally, in Calcutta, on a mission which deeply disturbed the Catholic hierarchy.
For two years since receiving what she felt was a direct order from God, she had been petitioning to leave her secure and happy convent life for the Calcutta slums to minister to the poor.
The divine inspiration came as she was travelling by train to the then British hill station of Darjeeling. "It was an order. I was to leave the convent," she told biographer Navin Chawla. "I felt God wanted something more from me. He wanted me to be with the poor and to love Him in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor."
Clutching a bundle containing a single spare sari, (one to wear, one to dry) she entered Kipling's "City of Dreadful Night" looking for the poor. She didn't have far to go.
She began by organising schools, without money for blackboards or chalk, picking up a stick and drawing lessons in the dirt.
She would camp on the steps of Calcutta's overcrowded Campbell Hospital, refusing to move until they accepted another patient, carried from Moti Jheel with the aid of a few volunteers. It was perhaps her greatest talent - to cajole and mobilise others to help the poor and sick.
Within two weeks she had established a school and a functioning dispensary, cadging the books and medicines for these and all the other institutions which would follow.
She taught herself to beg, and like all beggars felt the sting of scorn and rejection. Her journal written in those first months, records her fear and isolation, "Coming up Camac Street, tears often filled my eyes," she wrote. But such was her resilience in the first month that she could also write: "There are so many joys in the slums."
Not many people, neither her colleagues in the church, nor the often confused beneficiaries of her charity, nor lately her critics, found it a message that could easily be understood.
Yet as India begins what will be a period of official mourning leading to a state funeral for the Albanian-born missionary nun, it is clearly a message which has found a home.
From the lowliest rickshaw puller, to the old trading families and latter day Communist rulers of Calcutta, the 1979 Nobel Prize winner who came to India in 1929, is now firmly regarded as one of the city's own.
No matter that her work made this once grand capital of the British Raj the epitome of human degradation for millions of people around the world. Mother Teresa won their trust and admiration with her consistency and hard work.
The Missionaries of Charity has never offered a solution to poverty. They leave that to the political and religious leaders, preferring themselves to dress the wounds of the lepers, and provide what physical comfort and spiritual solace they can to the terminally ill.
In the spartan corridors of Nirmal Hriday (Pure Heart), the Home for the Dying, near the festering banks of the Hooghly River in Calcutta, among the thin mattresses and tin bedpans, many a fresh-faced Western volunteer has come face to face with the truth known by all nurses - that the dying need love and care.
A British journalist Christopher Hitchins in his book The Missionary Position pilloried her as receiving tainted money and lending legitimacy to frauds and dictators like the former Haitian military ruler Baby Doc Duvalier.
The young backpackers who flocked to the home for the dying at Kali Ghat may have been motivated by celebrity worship or by genuine commitment, but their energy could be put to a good cause, even if only for a few days and even if they would return to nascent careers as lawyers and businessmen, their time spent scrubbing the floors worn as a badge of moral superiority ever after.
Mother Teresa herself was unruffled by such criticism. "All I can do is pray for them," was her customary reply.
As a woman of 87, Mother Teresa held to some deeply unfashionable opinions, opposing abortion and women in the priesthood. Her willingness to toe the Vatican line won her enduring trust and admiration from Rome.
Mother Teresa's hands-on help defied the age-old caste system. Her example led many a caste Hindu to abandon Durga and accept Jesus. But when it came to the needy, the sick and the dying, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Christians were all helped equally. For most Indians, that was enough.
She was selfless, yes, but also possessed a steely determination which made her firmly economical with her time.
I remember meeting her in Calcutta in the early 1990s hoping to record a few words for an ABC interview. She blessed me with a pat on the head instead, and gave me a prayer card, rationing her presence to cope with the numbers of people wanting her attention. You never got what you wanted unless you wanted what she wanted. The pity is, so few of us really do.
-- THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD