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It seems Mother Teresa was a Mother Teresa after all

  • 24 August 2017


I kept getting lost in Kolkata. North and south were somehow inverted in my head and I had to consciously avoid going the wrong way every time I stepped out of my hotel.

But I want to start with Christopher Hitchens, a writer that I revere and a public figure whose death I continue to mourn. I loved his prose even when I didn’t agree with him and I admired his honesty. He was, for me, a teacher who taught me to ignore the media’s tired narratives and look at each situation on its own merits.

Among his many subjects, some might say targets, was Mother Teresa. For those of us who grew up in the 70s, Mother Teresa was an otherworldly figure whose name signified such goodness so as to become something of a punchline for sitcom writers and comedians. I vaguely understood that she took care of poor people in India but was much more familiar with her name in the context of ‘well, she’s no Mother Teresa’ and so on.

I read Christopher Hitchens’ book about her with great interest. It was brief and devastating. Apparently, Mother Teresa was no Mother Teresa. Another myth demolished, another good reason to keep reading Hitchens.

So why then was I walking towards the ‘Mother House’ in Kolkata on a warm November morning?

My hotel was on Sudder St, a familiar sort of neighborhood to those who travel. The street was lined with hotels, souvenir shops, cheap restaurants, money changers, travel agents, beggars, hustlers, and taxi drivers angling for my custom. But once I turned out onto Chowringee St, they all melted away and I was in Calcutta proper.

To get to the ‘Mother House’, where Mother Teresa spent her last years, I needed to turn right, turn left, and turn right again. Something about the immersive sensory experience of Kolkata meant that maintaining those simple directions required enormous concentration. All my instincts were to turn left at the end of Sudder, something which would have led me to the surreal inner north with it’s post apocalyptic Pall Mall cityscape, abandoned synagogues, the iconic Howrah bridge, and eventually the City of Joy itself.

But I turned right, and then turned left for a walk through a neighborhood that felt like a portal to a completely unfamiliar world. Almuddin St, from Chowringee, seemed to grow poorer as I walked along it. Block by block, there were increasing numbers of