Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Should we blame Mother Teresa for perpetuating the image of "poor Calcutta"?

Yes, says Chitrita Banerji in her provocative op-ed in the NYT.

“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,” Banerji argues. She then concludes, “Mother Teresa might have meant well, but she furthered her mission by robbing Calcutta of its richly nuanced identity while pretending to love it.”

I guess she has a valid point about the interest for propagating a destitute image of Calcutta. The more desperate it gets, more stellar would the Missionaries of Charity’s work seem to be. After all, would MoC be as popular as it is today if it were based in, let’s say, Bombay (which according to Banerji has more poor than Calcutta)? I wonder why Banerji does not mention “City of Joy” (the book and the film) in her article. Together with Mother Teresa, City of Joy has sealed an image of Calcutta that centres much around life in poverty. That is paired with the idea of Calcutta as a yesteryear city and a city that seemingly revels in living in a world gone by. This persists even as other cities, including smaller ones such as Hyderabad, Pune or Bangalore, have moved ahead.

That is not going to change till benefits of development and economic liberalisation reach all segments of the population in eastern India. Traditionally eastern India has had some of the poorest states which send migrant labourers to Calcutta. (In 2004-05, Bihar had a per capita GDP of Rs 5,772 and Orissa had Rs 13,601. Delhi’s neighbour’s, on the other hand, fare better: Punjab (Rs 30,701 and Haryana (Rs 32,712) – Source 2006 National Health Profile). And I guess the governing political parties in West Bengal are largely responsible for this decay since they have convincingly failed to provide the necessary jobs or the conducive environment required for private enterprise to flourish and provide the jobs that the government doesn’t. Ironically, the Catholic MoC has to thank the "atheist" Communist government for providing it with the necessary destitute conditions to work and progress in.

But then I don’t have the necessary credentials to pronounce a judgement on Teresa or Calcutta. Neither can I call myself a philanthropist nor have I lived long enough in Calcutta to call it home.


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