Poor Calcutta

One morning in January 1997, I walked into my office at a nonprofit group here after a visit to my hometown, Calcutta. A very senior colleague, whom I would have, until then, characterized as being the “sensitive” sort, greeted me: “Welcome back. And how is everyone in Calcutta — still starving and being looked after by Mother Teresa?”

At first I thought this might be a bad attempt at humor, but I soon realized that my colleague was seriously inquiring about my city’s suffering humanity and its ministering angel — the only images Calcutta evoked for him and countless others in the West. When Mother Teresa died eight months later, 10 years ago today, foreign dignitaries and the Western news media descended on the city. The reports on the funeral portrayed a city filled with starving orphans, wretched slums and dying people abandoned on the streets, except for the fortunate ones rescued by Mother Teresa.

They described a city I didn’t recognize as the place where I had spent the first 20 years of my life. There was no mention of Calcutta’s beautiful buildings and educated middle class, or its history of religious tolerance and its vibrant literary and cultural life. Besides, other Indian cities also have their share of poverty, slums and destitution, as would be expected in a country where a third of the population lives on $1 a day — for example, more than half of Mumbai residents live in slums, far more than in Calcutta. Why were they not equally damned in the eyes of the world?

The answer was that none of them served for seven decades as the adopted home base for a saintly European crusader whose work could succeed only if it was disproportionately magnified. It was an instance of spin in which the news media colluded — voluntarily or not — with a religious figure who was as shrewd as any fund-raising politician, as is evident from the global expansion of her organization. For Calcutta natives like me, however, Mother Teresa’s charity also evoked the colonial past — she felt she knew what was best for the third world masses, whether it was condemning abortion or offering to convert those who were on the verge of death.

After the funeral, I comforted myself with the possibility that Mother Teresa’s death might redress the balance of perception. Calcutta, once called the second city of the British Empire, would again be seen as a pulsing metropolis of 14 million that has survived despite being twice slammed by huge influxes of refugees, once after the partition of 1947 and again during the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971. In the absence of a missionary who had never allowed her compassion to be de-linked from Catholic dogma, I hoped the world would recognize that Calcutta has not merely survived, it has battled tremendous odds without losing its soul.

Ten years and one beatification later, however, the relentless hagiography of the Catholic Church and the peculiar tunnel vision of the news media continue to equate Calcutta with the twinned entities of destitution and succor publicized by Mother Teresa. With cultish fervor, her organization, the Missionaries of Charity, promotes her as an icon of mercy. Meanwhile, countless unheralded local organizations work for the needy without the glamour of a Nobel Prize or of impending sainthood.

Charity need not be inconsistent with clarity. Calcutta is a modern Indian city where poverty and inequality coexist with measurably increasing prosperity, expanding opportunities, cautious optimism and, above all, pride in its unique character. Mother Teresa might have meant well, but she furthered her mission by robbing Calcutta of its richly nuanced identity while pretending to love it.

Chitrita Banerji, the author, most recently, of Eating India: An Odyssey Into the Food and Culture of the Land of Spices.