Mother Teresa

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BHARATI MUKHERJEEThe Bengali chauvinist in me got a thrill: This is Peter Jennings, tonight live from Calcutta. For the first and only time in my life, the great city I was born and raised in hit the big time. Bengalis love to celebrate their language, their culture, their politics, their fierce attachment to a city that has been famously dying for more than a century. They resent with equal ferocity the reflex stereotyping that labels any civic dysfunction anywhere in the world another Calcutta. And why were the American media in Calcutta? For the funeral of an 87-year-old Albanian immigrant by the name of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu.

In this era of ethnic cleansing, identity politics and dislocation of communities, it is heartening that one of the most marginalized people in recent history--a minority Albanian inside Slavic Macedonia, a minority Roman Catholic among Muslims and Orthodox Christians--should find a home, citizenship and acceptance in an Indian city of countless non-Christians. She blurred the line between insider and outsider that so many today are trying to deepen.

Bojaxhiu was born of Roman Catholic Albanian parents in 1910 in Shkup (now Skopje), a town that straddled the ethnic, linguistic, religious and geological fault line in the then Turkish province, later Yugoslav republic, now absurdly unnameable independent state of FYROM (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). When she was seven, her father was murdered. Bojaxhiu chose emigration over political activism and at the age of 18 entered the Sisters of Loreto's convent in Ireland as a novice. The Sisters of Loreto, a teaching order, sent her to Bengal in 1929. She spoke broken English and had yet to take her first vows.

I first saw Mother Teresa in the summer of 1951, when I started school at Loreto House in Calcutta. The school was run by the Sisters of Loreto according to directives sent from its principal convent in Ireland. During the British raj, Loreto House had admitted very few Indians. By the time I became a student there, the majority of students were Hindu Bengalis, the daughters of Calcutta's Úlite families, but the majority of teachers continued to be Irish-born nuns. Mother Teresa was no longer affiliated with the Sisters of Loreto, but she came around to our campus every now and then. She had left teaching at another of the Sisters' schools three years before in order to, as she put it, follow Christ into the slums. The break, as far as we schoolgirls could tell, had not been totally amicable, at least not on the part of the Loreto nuns.

The picture of Mother Teresa that I remember from my childhood is of a short, sari-wearing woman scurrying down a red gravel path between manicured lawns. She would have in tow one or two slower-footed, sari-clad young Indian nuns. We thought her a freak. Probably we'd picked up on unvoiced opinions of our Loreto nuns. We weren't quite sure what an Albanian was except that she wasn't as fully European as our Irish nuns. Or perhaps she seemed odd to us because we had never encountered a nun who wore a sari. There was only one Anglo-Indian nun in our school, and she wore the customary habit. The government had made antimissionary noises but hadn't yet cracked down on missionaries' visa applications.

In the early '50s, we non-Christian students at Loreto House were suspicious of Mother Teresa's motives in helping street children and orphans. Was she rescuing these children to convert them? Her antiabortion campaigns among homeless women were as easy for us to ignore as were the antiabortion lectures our nuns delivered twice weekly. The government had made even very young women aware of the consequences of population explosion.

But the project of Mother Teresa's that confused us most was her care of the terminally ill destitute who came to the Kalighat Temple to die near a holy place. She wasn't interested in prolonging their life. What she railed against was the squalor and loneliness of their last hours. Her apparent dread of mortality and her obsession with dignified dying were at odds with Hindu concepts of reincarnation and death as a hoped-for release from maya, the illusory reality of worldly existence.

It wasn't until she had set up a leprosarium outside Calcutta on land provided by the government that I began to see her as an idealist rather than an eccentric. Lepers were a common sight all over India and in every part of Calcutta, but extending help beyond dropping a coin or two into their rag-wrapped stumps was not. As a child I was convinced even touching a spot a leper had rubbed against would lead to infection. The ultimate terror the city held had nothing to do with violence. It was fear of the Other, the poor, the dying--or to evoke a word with biblical authority--the pestilential. And so I could no longer be cynical about her motives. She wasn't just another Christian proselytizer. Her care of lepers changed the mind of many Calcuttans. Young physicians, one of them the uncle of a classmate, began to sign up as volunteers. It all made Mother Teresa seem less remote. The very people whom she had deserted when she broke with the Loreto nuns were now seeking her out.

I left Calcutta as a teenager and did not return to live there for any length of time until 1973. The Calcutta I went back to was vociferously in love with Mother Teresa. The women I had been close to in Loreto House, women who in the '70s had become socialite wives and volunteer social workers, were devoted to Mother Teresa and her projects, especially the leprosarium. Years later,

I learned that the volunteer Mother Teresa came to rely on was a Loreto House graduate.

It is the fate of moral crusaders to be vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy or have the arbitrary selectiveness of their campaigns held against them. Mother Teresa's detractors have accused her of overemphasizing Calcuttans' destitution and of coercing conversion from the defenseless. In the context of lost causes, Mother Teresa took on battles she knew she could win. Taken together, it seems to me, the criticisms of her work do not undermine or topple her overall achievement. The real test might be, Did she inspire followers, skeptics and even opponents to larger acts of kindness or greater visions of possibility? If the church demands hard evidence of a miracle for sainthood, the transformation of many hearts might make the strongest case.

Bharati Mukherjee's novels include Jasmine, The Holder of the World and Leave It to Me