Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Mother Teresa: A Tainted Saint?

Kolkata, or Calcutta as it was formerly known, is a total melting pot of people, lifestyles and cultures with everybody going about their business in whatever manner it needs to be done. Some eking out a living shining shoes, shaving people on street corners, hawking, repairing and servicing items that look like they’ll never work again, washing, sweeping.  Some dressed to impress,  straight off the set of the latest Tollywood (Calcutta’s film industry is known as Tollywood) film.  The list goes on and on.  All sorts of people, all sorts of wealth, all states of health, all shapes and sizes and yet, all smiling.  A big city with a big heart but a with small-town, friendly feeling.  It’s a heaving cosmopolitan city which, at first glance, is most obviously apparent in the hairstyles of the women!

Going to Calcutta was never meant to be about volunteering, for me.  It was the one place in India that I thought might be ‘too much’ for me.  I thought it might be better visited with company, rather than alone.  But, it was my second time in India and I felt it was a must, so I plucked up the courage and booked a train ticket.  After being there a few days though, I was inspired to do something useful with myself.  The atmosphere in the city was so welcoming, so warm and there appeared to be endless opportunities to help the thousands who needed it, so I decided to stay a while and get stuck in.

I ended up staying in a guest house called Modern Lodge.  Modern it was not!  But that wasn’t what was unusual about it.  What was unusual, was that almost all the rooms were occupied by semi long-term volunteers at the ‘Mother House’, the commonly used name for Mother Teresa’s Charity body in Calcutta, called the Missionaries of Charity.  It seemed so strange that all these young people were volunteering at such a religious organisation.  Were they all devoutly Catholic? Surely Not.  Maybe the attraction was the ease with which you could get involved.  You can volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity for whatever time you choose, one day or one year. You sign up and start immediately.  You don’t pay anything, nor are you asked for a monetary contribution.  It suits backpackers.  You can breeze in and breeze out.  Although I would’ve preferred to volunteer at a secular organisation, I was intrigued by the Mother House and wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

As a volunteer, your day starts at 7:25.  Everyone meets at the Mother House.  This is where Mother Teresa’s body in entombed.  The nuns lead a few prayers and a hymn or two, dish out a banana to everyone and then you head off on your way.  There are eight different parts to the organisation. Some are for adults in varying degrees of ill-health, some are for children and some are for the mentally disabled.

I volunteered at Premdan, a home for men and women who have nowhere else to go and nobody else to help them.  They are not quite on their death beds, but they aren’t too far off them either. Kalighat, which at the time was closed for renovations, is known as the ‘home for the dying’ and Premdan seems to get their overflow.  With Kalighat closed, both lots of patients were in Premdan.  My first impression of the place was ‘This place is a bit odd’.  Men and women are completely seperated, and therefore so too were the volunteers.  The seperation is to such an extent that it has a slight prison feel to it.  The men and women are not just on different floors, they are in different buildings, with different staff.  Not that I was surprised by this, but it also has a very convent type feel to it.  Lots of nuns, lots of statues and lots of prayers being mumbled under peoples breath.

The women,or Masis, who work there year round are from neighbouring slums.  They are employed to cook, clean and generally keep the place going.  They are typical Indian women, in that they are tough and they can be quite harsh with the patients.  They show very little compassion to these sick women and are happy to let them drag themselves, often naked, along the floor to get to the bathroom rather than helping them get there.

A volunteer’s day starts with washing.  Washing sheets and hospital gowns to be more specific. Hand washing.  The Masis wash the sheets to begin with, before they are given over to the volunteers.  Then the volunteers wash them three or four more times, in cold water.  They are carried up to the roof by the bucket load and hung out to dry.  I have no problem hand washing clothes but given that these garments are more often than not covered with urine, feces and blood, surely a industrial washing machines would do a better, more sanitary job.  However, the Missionaries of Charity refuse to buy them.  Washing sheets by hand is god’s will, didn’t you know?  He did not intend us to have machines to do it for us.  Washing sheets is the main job done by volunteers, even those who have medical backgounds who would be better put to use in multiple other ways.

The washing takes the guts of two hours.  Then there’s a tea break, for the volunteers.  Tea and bananas all round.  The patients lunch time is next and this is the first real exposure, as a female volunteer, that you have to any of the women in the facility.  There are always men out in the court yard, lying on the ground or sitting awkwardly on the walls, so you see some of them each morning when you arrive.  There are never any women out there with them though.  They never leave their beds.  There is no physical rehabilitation provided nor is there any mental stimulation for these women.  They spend all day, everyday, inside with nothing to do to.  They come in sick and they get worse.  Most never leave.

On my first day as a volunteer, I wasn’t too sure what to expect, but what I saw shocked me.  I was well out of my comfort zone.  Some of the women were just old.  Some had an injury of some sort (a head wound from being pushed onto train tracks for example), some seemed close to death and others were indescribable, their conditions indecipherable.  The few women who can walk, do, while the others are dragged or pushed out onto the balcony for lunch.  The really sick ones stay in bed.  I was called inside to help feed one of the women still in her bed.  She couldn’t sit up, with or without help.  Her legs were just skin and bone, her head lolled to one side and when she tried to eat, a horribly haunting grinding noise came from her throat.  She ate some of the food but a lot when down her chin.  I did my best to help her but I was well out of my depth.

After lunch time you’ve to help get the women back to bed.  Meal time is the only bit of movement they get.  They spend the rest of each day lying helplessly in bed.  Some of the women are so wretched, so desperate.  It was unnerving to see.  One woman in particular will stay with me forever.  When I saw her, I honestly thought she was dead.  I did a double take.  I couldn’t speak and my eyes welled up.  She was skin and bone.  She had been burnt.  Most likely by her in-laws, a dowry burning of some sort.  One of her eyes was gone, there was just a hollow socket where it should have been.  The other was burnt pink and raw.  She had no hair.  Her nose, top lip and ears had melted off.  Her arms and legs were covered in severe burns.  How she was alive I don’t know.  How long she lived there without proper medical treatment I don’t know either. It can’t have been very long.  I could go on and on about the people I saw and the conditions they were in but, this isn’t so much about them, as it is about the Missionaries of Charity.

During the first few days I spent at Premdan, I had such a feeling of helplessness.  I was completely overwhelmed by it all, shocked and constantly on the verge of tears.  With a bit more time though I started to question lots of things.  I got no answers, or none that satisfied me anyway.  I overheard a volunteer, a middle aged British nurse, saying that she had been to Mother Teresa’s beautification in Rome and had received a piece of her sari.  She said she rubbed it on a dying man’s body in whatever hospital she was working in at the time, and he miraculously recovered.  She wasn’t joking! She really believed that a piece of sari had cured him.  It was scary to hear.  The power of ‘The Mother’ is well and truely alive and kicking!

The amount of full time staff working for the Missionaries of Charity, who are skilled in any capacity, is minimal.  Very few of the sisters working on the varying wounds and infections, doing the dressings etc, have any formal medical, or even first aid, training.  Skin diseases and infections are rife among the patients, yet the staff don’t wash their hands or change their gloves from one patient to the next.  Is that the result of ignorance and a lack of education or is it a matter of blind faith and belief that ‘the mother’ is watching over everyone.  I fear it is the latter.

The amount of volunteer traffic through the organisation every year is massive.  But are they really any use?  Using volunteers to wash sheets and wash the dishes after lunch probably isn’t getting the most out of their time.  Would it not be better to have them interact with the patients, providing some much needed mental and physical stimulation?  And what about the medical workers who volunteer there?  Surely using them to wash sheets, when they could be helping with dressings and medications, is counter productive?  

It’s impossible to come to a place like Calcutta and force our western views on it.  It is different to the places we are used it, its works differently, it survives differently.  Life in Calcutta can seem at times to be survival of the fittest at its most elemental.  People do what they have to in order to survive.  If that means abandoning a disabled family member to keep everyone else alive then that’s what’s done, in much the same way as a weak buffalo calf will be left behind by the herd if it can’t keep up.  Some of these marginalised people end up in the care of the Missionaries of Charity.  It cannot be denied that providing a refuge for these people is a good thing.  However, the charity has received millions of dollars in donations over the course of its life, and continues to do so.  They cannot account for the money they receive.  They have been questioned on this by many, and still they refuse to account for it.  The level of care given to these people, the fact that very few are ever rehabilitated enough to leave, just doesn’t seem acceptable for a charity with such spending power, western outlook or no western outlook.  Buying washing machines and disposable latex gloves, such simple things that would improve sanitation and hygiene beyond belief, are not beyond their means and I cannot imagine god would be too put out about it!

You could probably use every adjective known to describe the Mother House and its various branches, and all would be at least partially correct from someone's perspective.  The staff may be rough at times but they give their lives, day in and day out, to these people.  Volunteers often seem to feel that criticising that, and they way they do it, their methods, coming from a cosy western background is hugely hypocritical.  However, basic human needs are being denied to these patients and not because of a lack of funding, but because of a blind trust in god and his will.  Mother Teresa is revered world wide as one of the greatest do good-ers of modern times.  A selfless individual who devoted her life to helping people who needed it most.  However, delve a little deeper and the smell of roses fades rapidly.

If you would like to read more about this, these links are a good place to start.  However, they are not the only places you’ll find information like this.

A ‘Big Think’ article written by Hemley Gonzalaz:

Hemley Gonzalaz’ corresponding Facebook Page:

Mother Teresa at a glance:

A Channel4 Documentary narrated by Christopher Hitchens:

Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict by Aroup Chatterjee.  This book inspired the above Channel4 documentary.


  1. very good stef. what about the finger nails ???

    1. I forgot all about the finger nails. The women used to grap on to you as you walked past and beg for you to cut their finger nails. The masis never did it for them.

  2. interesting stuff... good food for thought Stef, glad to have read it. Cheers. Susan.