Mother Teresa’s sainthood means little today to the city she called home

Kolkata has moved on.
Kolkata has moved on.
Image: Reuters/Deshakalayan Chowdhury
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It’s the Roman spring of Mother Teresa and we are feeling it here in Kolkata.

The last time the city received such overwhelming attention from global media was probably when she died. That was almost 20 years ago.

Much has changed since then: Calcutta has become Kolkata; the Communist government has fallen after 34 years in power; there are still slums and homeless people living in ragged tents on the sidewalk, but five-star hotels and posh gated communities, too, are now commonplace.

But the big question on everyone’s mind is what the city thinks of its newly-minted saint. Does it have Mother Teresa on its mind?

The short answer is, not really.

For, Mother is gone. Didi (big sister) Mamata Banerjee, the state chief minister who will be in the Vatican to watch Mother Teresa become St Teresa, rules here now.

Mother Teresa still has her passionate devotees who span all faiths. They come to her tomb in Mother House with garlands and candles on her birthday. Sunita Kumar, a long-time friend who became the spokesperson for the order at Mother’s request, is one of them.

“As far as all of us are concerned, Mother is still here,” she says. “We don’t feel she is gone.”

But Mother Teresa also has critics, those who say her fame is ill-deserved, the service her order provided sub-standard, and her figures inflated. Aroup Chatterjee, a physician who wrote Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict, is one of them. He testified against her during the hearing leading up to her fast-tracking into sainthood.

“The whole canonization is a celebration of superstition,” he says. “The problem with these miracles is they are too puerile to discuss. Even if you love her, you could say, as a rational person, that this does not add up.”

But most Kolkatans are just not bothered one way or the other. Twenty years is a long time and while all the homes Mother Teresa started are still in operation and still receive volunteers from all over the world, the city has moved on.

In reality, her canonisation means more to the Catholic Church than it does to Kolkata. For writer Ruchir Joshi, it is a “massive PR exercise” at a time when the church is struggling to overcome sex scandals and their cover-ups; the sisters in Kolkata are “a PR outpost” of one of the wealthiest institutions in the world.

Mother Teresa is part of Calcutta’s history, but not really a part of Kolkata’s present.

Except perhaps as a tourist attraction.

Anindita Das shows up at Mother House with a tour bus. “It’s very peaceful,” she marvels after the visit. She is from Kolkata but she admits that this is her first time to Mother House, thanks to visiting colleagues who brought her along to see Mother Teresa’s tomb.

Indeed, the state government is already planning a tourist circuit of places associated with the saint, from Darjeeling in the Himalayas to her convent in Kolkata. The tourism minister is expecting “an increased flow of foreign tourists” to the state.

While New Delhi is a city studded with historical landmarks that mark waves of conquerors and invaders, Kolkata has a different allure for tourists. Joshi has a phrase to describe the city’s melancholic appeal: “decay tourism,” best captured in black-and-white photographs of a city faded by its summers, stained by its monsoons, mouldering picturesquely into the night.

And Mother Teresa fits that silver print nostalgia to a T. In the imagination of the world, what better patron saint could a “decaying” city ask for than the woman who housed the destitute, bandaged the lepers, and held the hands of the dying?

“Her legacy goes without thinking,” says Kumar, “It is to serve the poor.”

Thomas Martin from Denver, Colorado, walks out of mass at Mother House saying, “It’s awesome to be on the other side of the world and sharing the same faith. Her legacy lives on in the sisters and brothers who follow in her footsteps. I take back a sense of joy and accomplishment that I was able to come here and volunteer.”

However, Kolkata lives in Kolkata. It cannot “take” the Mother Teresa experience “back” anywhere.

“Why is it not standard for young people coming out of schools here to volunteer for the Missionaries of Charity?” wonders Joshi. “Why after so many years of work and so much attention were the missionaries not able to galvanize the city?”

Instead, Kolkata remembers Mother Teresa in the way it remembers all its faded heroes—with garlands, speeches, and statues. Mother Teresa now has a life-size statue at the Archbishop’s house.

On her birthday, local politician Idris Ali shows up with an entourage of earnest students and delivers a speech at her tomb for the benefit of television cameras. He demands that the central government name a railway station and an airport after her. Ali also seeks a hospital in her name because her life was devoted to serving the sick and the destitute. That, he says, would be a fitting memorial.

The irony is that if Mother had wanted that to be her legacy she could have easily built a state-of-the-art hospital with all the money she had collected. That was not her intent, though, and Kumar says the order has no intention to “diversify” from its focus on simple living, prayer, and serving the poor.

With Mother gone, her successors are not as visible in Kolkata anymore. When an overpass collapses in the city, no one expects the sisters in their white and blue saris to rush to the scene to minister to those trapped under the mangled steel and concrete.

Outside the house, Mother’s halo is fading like the graffiti on the walls. Even the souvenir shop a few doors down from Mother House, with its Mother Teresa paperweights, bracelets, and figurines, is doing slow business. The proprietor has stocked up for the big day but most of those who stop by on hot summer afternoons are more interested in his cold sodas.

When Mother Teresa becomes St Teresa, will it change the city that made her famous? Will it become a bona fide pilgrimage spot?

Already, a nondescript church near the airport in Dum Dum has been renamed St Teresa Church. The Catholic Association of Bengal has made St Teresa its patron saint.

In the end, her legacy in Kolkata might be a more personal one.

“What I used to really love when I went to see her was how she would ruffle my hair,” says Kumar. “You know how you feel when you’d just combed your hair and then she’d ruffle it. I just loved that.”

For those whose lives she touched, St Teresa will always remain Mother Teresa.