Kolkata should be mourning today. The woman who burnt the stamp of "hell" into its flesh is being made a saint. And some of us are in the throes of gratitude and ecstasy for that favour.
Albanian-born Agnes Gonxha Bojahiu worked as a nun in the city for about seven decades, becoming its Mother Teresa. In the process, she also became the conscience-keeper of the West and the flag-bearer of the Catholic church in the land of the poorest and the unwashed. She received grants and awards and mingled with the world’s mightiest politicians, figureheads, industrialists and even brutal dictators.
And when thousands were gassed to death in the world’s biggest corporate massacre, the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy, she hissed in fierce determination: “Forgive. Forgive. Forgive.”
Then Union Carbide boss Warren Anderson, the main accused whom the Indian government helped escape justice till the end, must have flashed an imaginary thumbs-up at her, grinning.
But beyond all this, Kolkata has a much bigger reason to cringe in shame.
Sainthood requires at least two miracles to be established and accepted by the Pope. The first one apparently happened a year after Teresa’s death.
Monica Besra, a tribal woman suffering from a stomach tumour, went to the Missionaries of Charity, where two nuns tied an oval medallion bearing Teresa’s picture to her tummy. She eventually got cured, and Mother Teresa got beatified in 2003 because of this supposed miracle.
Some of the doctors who treated her were aghast. “This miracle claim is absolute nonsense and should be condemned by everyone,” Dr Ranjan Kumar Mustafi, of Balurghat Hospital in West Bengal, was quoted as saying in newspapers."
“She had a medium-sized tumour in her lower abdomen caused by tuberculosis. The drugs she was given eventually reduced the cystic mass and it disappeared after a year's treatment.”
The second miracle reportedly happened in 2008. Brazilian Marcilio Andrino, says the Church, unexpectedly recovered from a severe brain infection minutes before a surgery after his family prayed to Mother Teresa. The Vatican decided this was the clincher, and Teresa must be granted sainthood.
The other phenomena linked to sainthood are no less fantastic. In liquefaction, for instance, a long-dead saint’s blood miraculously liquefies on the Feast Day. A vial of Naples’ patron saint St Januarius, dead more than 1,900 years ago, liquefies every year on September 19, according to the Church.
Or take for instance the Odour of Sanctity, which supposedly makes the body of a dead saint smell of roses months after his or her death.
There couldn’t have been greater irony for Kolkata. This is the city where Ronald Ross undertook his pioneering malaria research, Jagadish Chandra Bose made pioneering discoveries on radio signals and plant physiology, and Satyendranath Bose gave the world Boson.
In 1981, Mother Teresa flew to Haiti to receive the Legion d’Honneur from dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier or Baby Doc, a man who robbed millions from the impoverished nation and topped it up with human rights abuses.
Back in Kolkata, in 1981, a 50-year-old doctor hanged himself out of humiliation and frustration. A panel of government bureaucrats had termed his lifetime’s research “bogus” and he was transferred from the city.
About 27 years later, he was credited with creating the world’s and India’s first test-tube baby, Kanupriya Agarwal, or "Durga". Mukhopadhyay’s life later inspired the movie Ek Doctor Ki Maut.
“Mother Teresa’s emphasis on 'the poorest of the poor and the lowest of the low' has served to reinforce the impression of Calcutta as a city of dreadful night,” Christopher Hitchens writes in his book Missionary Position, which demolishes the hype around her.
“Mother Teresa’s global income is more than enough to outfit several first-class clinics in Bengal. The decision to not do so, and indeed to run instead a haphazard and cranky institution… is a deliberate one. The point is not the honest relief of suffering but promulgation of a cult based on death and suffering and subjection,” Hitchens writes, adding that she herself “checked into some of the finest and costliest hospitals of the West during her bouts of heart trouble and old age”.
There have been repeated allegations of her converting those she seemed to serve. “Mother Teresa has never pretended that her work is anything but a fundamentalist religious campaign,” writes Hitchens. “'The poorest of the poor’ are the instruments of this; an occasion for piety.”
Kolkata has many resident saints, ones who did miracles within the delightful premise of reason. The city does not need to celebrate ones that showed it up as hell, only to make themselves hell’s angel.