September 9, 1997 in Nation/World

Here In Calcutta, Life Must Go On Funeral For World, Not Mother Teresa’s Own


The hydrant gushes water over the man squatting in the street. He wears only a thin red wrap tied around his waist. Mintu Sintra is taking a shower after another day pedaling a rickshaw around the city.

He is not sure if he will make it to Mother Teresa’s funeral a few miles away Saturday - that would mean missing a day’s work.

“I’d like to go because she has done so much for poor people, so going to her funeral would be our way of paying her back,” he said. “I’ll say prayers for her if I can’t make it.”

It is one of the ironies of Mother Teresa’s death - tens of millions around the world will watch her funeral, and hundreds of thousands likely will turn out to see the procession. But the people to whom the Catholic nun dedicated her life, Calcutta’s poorest of the poor, will, by nature of their restricted circumstances, not be able or willing to attend.

“I have a lot of respect for Mother, but I can’t go,” said Mohammed Shafi, an electrician who lives in a slum 400 yards from the first school Mother Teresa founded. “She cared for the poor, I know, but it really didn’t reach into our lives.”

In another slum, a jobless, homeless man named Dukhram Bag asked: “Mother Teresa? Who is that?

I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

The reactions illustrate the contrasts between the literate and comparatively rich world in which Mother Teresa was idolized, and the tangle of disenfranchised, impoverished people in which she labored.

In the city’s St. Thomas’ Catholic Church, thousands of people stream past her body each day. They are of all faiths, and they all come bearing flowers and solemn expressions. Nuns of the Missionaries of Charity order, founded by Mother Teresa in 1950, pray in the background. Only hymns, repetitions of the Lord’s prayer and the whir of airconditioning units break the silence.

In the courtyard, thousands of lilies lie in the evening rain, testimonies to Calcutta’s attachment to the diminutive Macedonian-born woman who became its Nobel Peace Prize laureate and international symbol.

India’s prime minister, I.K. Gujral, has declared Saturday a national day of mourning and ordered a state funeral - remarkable considering Agnes Gonxha Bojahxiu was neither Indian, Hindu nor a political figure. She was a nun from the Balkans of southern Europe who came to Calcutta in 1929 as a teen-age geography teacher. By her death Friday, she was, for millions of people around the world, the closest thing to a saint the late 20th century witnessed.

“India has lost one of its indomitable souls,” wrote Bombay’s Sunday Mid-Day tabloid in a poster-style cover devoted to her. “Mother Teresa was the supreme spirit of the poor, the uncared for and the abandoned, not just in Calcutta but across India and throughout the world.”

Now, after the elegant funeral of Princess Diana in London last Saturday, the world’s attention will move this weekend to this densely crowded, polluted city of 11 million in eastern India that is synonymous with poverty and suffering.

After a two-hour funeral mass, the body will be borne on a gun carriage to the Missionaries of Charity headquarters, where Mother Teresa will be buried.

The western world has little but praise for Mother Teresa, but Calcutta knew her more intimately, and thus, more critically. Some have caustically noted that she built a worldwide order of nuns and gained international acclaim on the back of the city’s poor.

“Calcutta has little reason to be grateful,” wrote journalist Sunanda Dutta-Ray in the daily Telegraph newspaper. “It was she who owed a tremendous debt to Calcutta. No other city in the world would offer up its poor and its dying to be stepping stones in a relentless ascent to sainthood. Calcutta gave her a halo.”

Dutta-Ray also noted that it was the cruel and ultimate paradox of Mother Teresa “idealizing pain for the poor while herself going to elite clinics for treatment.”

But such skepticism is a minority opinion.

“I don’t know how her mission will stay alive without Mother,” said Kaushik Sartar, a 37-year-old construction worker sitting out the rain under a store awning. “I am a Hindu, but it is like Mother was a god to people here. Do you understand? It wasn’t the charitable work of the nuns. It was Mother herself who poor people respected. When they bury her, we will have lost something that cannot be replaced.”

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