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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 August 2005, 16:54 GMT 17:54 UK
Debating Teresa's legacy to Calcutta
By Irena Luto
BBC Albanian Service in Calcutta

Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979
Mother Teresa's association with Calcutta was only brought to the mind of the Western world in Malcolm Muggeridge's 1960s film Something Beautiful For God. But what do present-day Calcuttans think of her - and is the city still in need of rescue?

Mother Teresa is a national icon in Albania, the most famous Albanian who ever lived. But nearly eight years after her death, her name is still shrouded in controversy.

The Kalighat Home for the Dying, the first mission house that Mother Teresa established back in 1952, is still full.

Many are suffering from malnutrition. Others have cirrhosis of the liver, or cancer.

But Catholic sisters from all over the world are there helping them, following the creed of the woman known as the Saint of the Gutters.

Some local Calcuttans, such as Gitanath Ganguly, acknowledge Mother Teresa's legacy with gratitude; he drew particular attention to her work with people with mental illness.

"Had there been no Mother Teresa providing her assistance to the legal aid institutions, these women would have been languishing in jail - for 40 years or more in some cases," he told BBC World Service's World Stories programme.

"They would not have been rehabilitated in society."

Canonisation controversy

But Calcuttans also bring their own Indian perspective to the Catholic nun.

"We are all Hindus - we believe in God, and we always worship the mother, in the sense of the lady God in our life," Mr Ganguly said, describing Mother Teresa as a "Goddess who we worship, and who always wants to render help."

If you have any consideration for the poor in our country, do not make up and spread the stories of miracles
Prabir Ghosh, Rationalist Association of India
However, the fact remains that Mother Teresa is a fixture of a city which has long prided itself on its character of independent thought, reason and logical deduction.

As a result, some Calcuttans object to the Catholic Church's current process of making Mother Teresa a saint - in particular as the process of canonisation requires that a miracle is confirmed to have occurred.

"Our only request, with respect to the Pope and Vatican, is that please, if you have any consideration for the poor in our country, do not make up and spread the stories of miracles," said Prabir Ghosh of the Rationalist Association of India.

"This may help you to spread Christianity, but will do immense harm to the uneducated masses of our country.

"It would be a crime to send the wrong message to them, that modern medicine is ineffective, and it is possible to cure illness through medallions, talismans and herbs and threads tied to their arms and legs.

"The Pope must realise that."

But Calcutta's Archbishop Lucas Sarkar, in charge of the beatification committee and who chaired the many interviews on the process, adapted an old Latin proverb to explain Mother Teresa's work.

"A Westerner sees everything through Western eyes, and an Indian sees everything through Indian eyes," he said. The original proverb is from St Thomas Aquinas - "what is received by any subject is grasped according to that subject's capacity to understand."

Infinite need

Meanwhile debate also continues over the city that Mother Teresa will forever be associated with.

Throughout her life, the list of people she helped kept increasing - including orphans, lepers, and mentally-retarded women - but so did criticism that she was not doing enough.

Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II began the process of beatifying Mother Teresa
Calcutta seemed, especially to Western journalists, to be beyond help. And for some, this remains the case today.

"The need is infinite in Calcutta," said British doctor Jack Preger.

"You get all kinds of migrants coming in - some are without any work, some have been evicted from the squatter's colonies, the slums."

Dr Preger has run Calcutta Rescue, a charity for street children, for more than 30 years.

"There is no one organisation that could possibly manage the health care of that population in Calcutta," he said.

"There are estimated to be a million people on the streets in Calcutta... the actual medical needs of most of those people cannot be met, either by the government or a charity or NGO."

'Surrounded by grief'

But another part of Calcutta's shifting population is the tourists - and one part of the tourist map is Mother Teresa's house, outside which great lines of buses queue.

Over 50 years ago, Mother Teresa used Calcutta to build her work. Now the city is using her as a tourist attraction.

"It's really a very moving experience," one visitor from the US told me.

President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are greeted by Carmelite nuns
Mother Teresa's order of Carmelite nuns is now well-established
"Not only to see how the sisters care for the children, who have been abandoned, but also how the volunteers come here from all over the world - we've seen people from Japan and Italy and the UK, so many countries.

"It's almost that for each child there's a volunteer. That's very inspiring, that in the modern world people can still be selfless."

This continues the tradition Mother Teresa established herself. She called on anyone with skills in Calcutta to help.

Ultimately, Mr Ganguly said, she became "part and parcel of Calcutta."

"There is this great quality in Bengal, to make someone who is distant your own relative," he added.

"You go past here and you see a poster that says 'welcome to Calcutta - city of Teresa'. Teresa is no longer saint of gutters, she is one of Calcutta... anybody who had a problem went to Mother.

"So when she came out in the morning, there were people waiting: 'Mother, my husband's beaten me up', 'Mother, my sister's got cancer, pray for her.'

"If you can take 66 years of that, without a holiday, and work, you are a special human being."

Celebrations in Calcutta
19 Oct 03 |  South Asia
Profile: Mother Teresa
10 Oct 03 |  In Depth


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