Bengali culture, calcutta, France, religion, Travel

Bong Connection 2.0 : Rediscovering Calcutta in Lisieux

As the summer time approached, we were engaged in another holiday search; the destination was as usual France, so it wasn’t too far to drive, and we could enjoy the freedom of going anywhere we wanted, and anytime. We booked a camping site in a small village in Normandy called Le Brévedent. Normandy evokes a lot of familiarities, the most significant of them is, of course, the D-day landing sites. So our choice was made, that D-day beaches will definitely be the place not to miss. The first item sorted on the list, we were gazing through TripAdvisor and Visit Normandy websites to look for other attractions. There were many places to choose from — historic Caen and its patrimony related to William the conqueror, the famous Bayeux tapestry and other museums, the Riviera of Normandy Deauville-Trouville and Honfleur, picturesque small villages in Pays d’Auge region. Amongst all these difficult choices, almost by chance, I came across Basilique St. Thérèse de Lisieux, one of the most important places in France for Catholic pilgrimage. Our penchant for religious architecture made me tentatively put it on our list, although apart from looking at an elegant edifice almost reminiscent of Basilique de sacré-cœur in Montmartre, I had no idea about the place, its significance in Catholicism or what I’ll soon be discovering — an arcane connection between a remote catholic monastery in rural Normandy and me!

Spending most of my youth in Calcutta, the city is in my veins. A place I still call home, the city I’d not replace with any other place. In a world rapidly transforming at a lightning speed, it still didn’t bother me how Calcutta dug its heels in and held on to the character it portrayed for over last 300 years. The rickety facades along the bylanes of north Calcutta leading to an ocherous swathe we call Ganga, the fish markets of Gariahat where you desperately want to look close at the fish but don’t want the mud splatter on your new sandals, the central Calcutta with its confluence of nationalities and religions living in harmony and camaraderie, and to the swank South City shopping mall or affluent Alipore mansions — Calcutta has a vibe about it that I seldom found anywhere else. A perfect example of adopting a multilingual and multicultural personality without banishing its own inherent cultural roots and character, Calcutta is indeed a fatal attraction. And that attraction, or familiarity, is not just limited to India, but across the world. Apart from being known as the pearl of the British Empire in its heydays, and the perceived cultural capital of India, there is one person whose reputation has made the City of joy known to people from far corners of the world, not just amongst the intellectual circles, where most of the renowned Calcuttans belonged. That person is Mother Teresa, who’d soon be canonised as the Saint of the gutters. I don’t believe she cured the unknown Brazilian man long after her death, but she had nevertheless made miracles happen while standing by the poor and distressed population of Calcutta, who we never thought of while pontificating about the cultural richesse of our beloved city. Shadow under the lamp was a term we often used during our school years; Mother Teresa was the light to that darkness in a city where, despite old money from the Raj reigned, there were more and more people in poverty and destitution, especially during the war and after the partition.

It was during searching for her early life that I came across the name of Lisieux. Agnes wanted to be named after St. Thérèse de Lisieux, the patron saint of the missionaries; and through her life she followed the footsteps of Thérèse, devoting her life to the service of thousands, and inspire millions. So as the opportunity came to visit Lisieux drew closer, it was no longer a tourist destination – marvelling at the awe-inspiring architecture of Basilique St. Thérèse de Lisieux, but it was a pilgrimage for me as well, of a different kind, of witnessing the place where the journey began for Thérèse, and therefore for Teresa, one of the greatest ambassadors of the city I always call home.

The surprise didn’t end there. Lisieux highlighted another connection to Calcutta that I never thought existed. Carmel school for girls in Jadavpur is one of many high echelon missionary schools in Calcutta that boasts of excellent educational standards and alumnae. My friends, ex-colleagues, relatives — I knew many Carmelites. In fact, my own cousin is a teacher there, the familiarity is that close. I often heard their alumnae be referred as Carmelites but the term never made me delve further into its origin. Not until I learned that Thérèse joined the Carmelite order in Lisieux, a thirteenth-century order originated from monasteries in Mount Carmel near Haifa. Voilà! It was the Carmelite missionaries who were inspired by the success of the order in Lisieux, and travelled the world and opened new convents. Carmel in Calcutta is one of them. Now, there were two reasons that Lisieux became a must see place, as a place that popularised the Carmel convents across the world, and above all, pay visit to the Basilique St. Thérèse de Lisieux and the shrine of Thérèse, and understand who this young lady was, who made a profound inspiration on young Agnes, beckoning her to come to Bengal. I almost felt a sense of belonging to Lisieux without even being there, through the connections it has with Calcutta.

Our travel to Normandy was a nightmare involving a broken down car, rain, lost day stranded in a hotel with the entire week in jeopardy…so on the second day, when we were told that the car won’t be looked at until another day, our decision was made. With a replacement car, when we crossed the Seine on the bridge of Normandy, our holiday had suddenly become a reality again! The closest resemblance I could think of is when you wait for a cricket match and it rains, the pitch and outfield were all wet and you keep hoping that the match doesn’t get cancelled and after a long wait the sun suddenly makes an appearance, and although curtailed, it’s all ready to go ahead again. We had to shorten out plans to fit all the things we wanted to see in three days rather than four, but Lisieux was only 16km away, and en route the nearest McDonald’s; hence, our plan to visit Lisieux didn’t change.

After our trip to the nearest shopping our first day in Le Brévedent, on our way back to the camping site that I first noticed the Basilica. It was getting dark and the sky was overcast as it only stopped raining a while ago, and I had no clue where we were. But just as I looked around our car, the silhouette suddenly jumped out into our view. In that dim background, on the hill on our left situated the structure I already felt familiar, yet it looked like a surreal dream. There are moments when you see something remarkable and wished you had a camera in hand, and all I had in my hand then was the steering wheel. Yet, that view will be stored in my mind for a long time, if not forever.

Basilique St Thérèse de Lisieux

Basilique St. Thérèse de Lisieux

Two days later, on our way back from historic Caen, we decided to come to Lisieux. The eerie silhouette finally gained its shape, a shape that was familiar yet the size and grandeur was out of proportions from what was seen on a TripAdvisor page. The off white neo-Byzantine edifice was awe-inspiring, just as were the breathtaking intricate designs at the interiors and the crypt. The description of the building stops here as this is not a travelogue, and the rest can be found in any travel guide. On the contrary, it was my attempt to connect the dots in my mind, with a young Albanian nun starting her life of sacrifice and charity, her becoming an inseparable part of the persona of Calcutta, and therefore my existence and identity, and me standing there in the suburbs of a quaint town in Calvados country looking at the shrine of Thérèse, where this all began about 125 years ago. And another set of dots following the footsteps of the Carmelite monks, which would throw me much further back in history, at least 900 years and up to the genesis of Abrahamic faiths thousands of years ago.

And there I was, teleported to the daily life of Thérèse in Alençon, to her life in the monastery in Lisieux…walking along the sections in the crypt detailing Thérèse’s life, it started to cast more light on the early life of Agnes, and a striking similarity between the aspirations of the two women, to serve the most deprived and forlorn strata of the population…

If I ever become a saint, I will surely be one of “darkness.”  I will continually be absent from Heaven–to light the light of those in darkness on earth.” – Blessed Teresa of Calcutta

“I love the night as much as the day…I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth. Yes, if God answers my desires, my Heaven will be spent on earth until the end of the world.” – Saint Thérèse of Lisieux

That was the revelation for me. My circle was complete. It became evident that these two extraordinary women took the same trajectory of life, making small changes to people’s lives that led to phenomenal transformations. I felt like Robert Langdon standing in front of the inverted pyramid in Louvre. I was standing at the place that spiritually inspired Agnes to come to Calcutta, the city she gave all her life to, and in turn transfused the traits of her self into the character of Calcutta that I imbibed. My pilgrimage was complete — the answer to “why of all saints, Thérèse de Lisieux?” had been found, as was the answer for who the Carmelite missionaries were.

I think the natural curiosity would set me on the course for the Carmelites monks all the way to Mount Carmel in Israel. But let’s not go that far yet…let’s first wait for a discussion on Palestine!

Disclaimer:


I thought that this post would need a few disclaimers on my motivation for writing this, and here they are…
 
1. Is this religious post?
No, it is about nostalgia with me searching for the influences on Calcutta and its image outside West Bengal.
 
2. Does this make me feel more religious?
I’m as raving an atheist as I ever was. I have a hate-hate relationship with religion where I don’t know religion thinks of me but I’m all in to send it away to somewhere like Azkaban, banished forever from human contact.
 
3. Less religious then?
No, I never was religious to become any LESS religious.
 
4. Why then I still visit religious sites?
Because despite their religious origin, I see them as brilliant examples of architecture and craftsmanship, erected by ordinary men for the extraordinary greed and hunger for power for their rulers. The same applies to my interests in religious texts as well.
 
5. So, do I support Sainthood of Mother Teresa?
Yes and No. No, because her deed didn’t need a convoluted story to establish her miracles. She made miracles happen to the lives she transformed. Perhaps Vatican needs to reassess their policy what they treat as a miracle. Yes, because if she did this for her religion, she deserved the highest acclaim the church could proffer. And her contribution meant actually life changing transformations through care and humility, not phoney cures with lights passing through a photo or any such trash.

Advertisements
Standard
religion

Canonisation for Mother Teresa and Vatican’s Saint factory

I remember the autumn of 1997, when Princess Diana and Mother Teresa passed away within a span of five days. The world poured over condolences for the royal princess and obituaries were boundless. Princess Diana was still on the headlines, when on the 5th of September, Mother Teresa took her last breath. Needless to say that her demise made a worldwide news as well, but the loss of the octogenarian was not as widely mourned as was the people’s princess, who rebelled against the Royal family, her face with the famine stricken African children melted the heart of millions and made her an ambassador for humanity. I too was one of the admirers saddened by her untimely departure, but looking back in time, I just think what a petty soppy crush it was, that loss of a Royal heiress — on her all paid philanthropy missions when she wasn’t too busy spending taxpayer money shopping — overshadowed a life sacrificed to helping the lives of millions of sufferers in a far flung land, not by photo shoots but by living amongst the people she wanted to help. Princess Diana was a cover page celebrity, whilst Mother Teresa was an epitome of sacrifice, care and humanity. However, last month, when Pope Francis declared that Blessed Teresa of Calcutta will become a saint, I could not but smirk at the hypocrisy and connivance of Vatican even on the 21st Century over the recognition of miracles and conferring sainthood.

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa by Photographer Marie Constantin
Source: TheInd.com

As I grew up in Calcutta, Mother Teresa was an inseparable part of the city’s identity. Mother House on AJC Bose road, which is the headquarters for her Missionaries of Charity institution, stood tall in a part of Calcutta known for its multicultural spirit. When she won the Nobel peace prize, it added another jewel on Calcutta’s claim to the Nobel connections. The Missionaries of Charity nurses in their white outfits with blue borders would become a regular feature in the slums and other backward areas. With time, Mother Teresa started to appear more gaunt and her face looked to have developed more creases than before, yet she continued spreading the worlds of love and peace in Calcutta and to the outside world.

It is amazing how young Anjeze in present day Macedonia came to know about the miseries of the people in Bengal and decided to move to Calcutta to care for the sufferers — and during that time, there weren’t many of them helping the poor. Palliative care was almost non-existent and leprosy was a social stigma, and the sufferers were ostracised, and therefore died of maltreatment of a condition that perhaps could have been cured. From the early 1950s, when she started MoC with only a handful of volunteers, until her death when it had become a large organisation operating in countries outside India — the transformation Mother Teresa brought about to millions of lives can only be termed as a miracle.

Miracle is an interesting word. On one hand, it represents an act out of the ordinary, but taking the meaning further, it could also be connoted as phenomena beyond human capabilities. For years Mother Teresa had became an influential figure, not just in Calcutta and India through her humanitarian work, but also amongst the vast number of Catholics spread across the globe. To them, she was an icon, a shining beacon of sacrifice and care. She spread the message of peace and love, and due to her popularity in the catholic world, Mother Teresa had developed a strong tie with the Vatican and the Pope. In 20th century, where people were denouncing religion, Mother Teresa was the ideal ambassador for the Catholic Church to help believers retain their faith in the church.

And thus began a process to canonise Mother Teresa following her demise. According to the current rules, Vatican had to confirm two miracles before one can be anointed with sainthood. The first miracle acknowledged was a woman from West Bengal, who was apparently cured after wearing a talisman. However, there was no proof that the tumour was cancerous after all, and it was the medicine that cured her. Yet, against all objections, Mother Teresa was beatified for this miracle under the papacy of Pope John Paul II. This year Vatican has confirmed that they recognised another miracle as a Brazilian man was cured of multiple brain tumour when his priest asked intervention of Mother Teresa with God. Following this recognition, Mother Teresa will become the Saint of the gutters later in 2016.

I won’t waste many words for the sheer ridiculousness of the tales of miracles and Vatican’s equally ridiculous assessment process. Her first miracle subject saw a light beaming from the picture of Mother Teresa and cured her cancerous tumour, which the doctors and the hospital that treated her claimed was not cancerous at all. One of the biggest critics of Mother Teresa was Christopher Hitchens regarding the malpractices at MoC and he presented all evidences how Mrs. Besra was treated medically. Despite all such evidence, Pope John Paul II approved her beatification in 2003. The subject of the second miracle is yet unknown as the Vatican will not disclose his details before Mother Teresa was canonised as Saint.

This debate is more about whether Mother Teresa should have been nominated for sainthood by Vatican. The answer to this question has nothing to do with spirituality or religion, but with money and power. With the growing influence of the Protestant church, Catholic Churches have been losing their relevance due to failure in embracing the changing tides of time. In this time, grappling to cope with the dwindling affiliations and funds, Vatican needed strong role models. The role model needed to be someone who people could identify themselves with, not someone like Pope Benedict XVI. With the majority of Catholic supporters from the developing countries, Mother Teresa, who dedicated all her life treating the poor and diseased in dire living conditions characteristic of an undeveloped part of the world, in a far away land from her own country, was the epitome of Catholic sacrifice and spirituality. This was needed to bolster the faltering image of the Catholic Church around the world and thereby secure the fast disappearing donations. Needless to say Vatican succeeded in projecting Mother Teresa as an iconic ambassador, yet they wanted to do more so that the faith instilled in people by Mother Teresa continues to thrive and the funds keep coming. A recent graph showed the rate of Sainthood in the Catholic Churches since the Middle Ages. The trend showed that the number of sainthood recognitions have been increasing at a surprising frequency, which I’m sure is directly correlated to the discoveries in science. Pope John Paul II signed off decrees to reduce the number of miracles to be canonised from three to two. During his tenure he alone carried out nearly 500 beatifications, higher than all other number of saints combined. Pope John Paul II purportedly made Vatican a saint factory. The pomp of Vatican required the Catholic Churches carry on their collection and deposit their share to Vatican’s coffers. Also, how Pope John Paul II fast tracked the beatification of Mother Teresa, questions may be asked on church’s desperation to confer the beatification within one year of Mother Teresa’s death. It was rather expected that with medical sciences making phenomenal progress, lesser number of occurrences would be there that could be attributable as miracles, due to present extent of human knowledge failing to explain such occurrences. On the contrary, the attempt of the Vatican to acknowledge more acts of miracle and more number of saints is not only ludicrous, but also tantamount rendering the Catholicism as blind and backward as other other religions they deem inferior.

Apart from the laughable instances deemed as miracles, there are other allegations raised against Mother Teresa as well. First, that rather than helping and curing the suffering people, she was a missionary evangelist, with a motive to convert as many people to Catholicism as possible. It was instructed to the MoC sisters to baptise the dying secretly. Also, the number of branches in MoC outside India was found to be having no entity at all, apart from working as baptising centres. Sadly enough, this argument is hijacked in India by the right wing Hindu fundamentalists, who criticised Mother Teresa of converting backward class Hindus to Christianity and after her death, the state’s decision to arrange a state funeral to her. Secondly, there were numerous allegations regarding mismanagement of the funds received by MoC and their source. The financial reporting of the MoC’s funds were poor and at times non-existent, and it was alleged that the funds raised for caring the suffering people were grossly mismanaged. Also, Mother Teresa was known for her political clout in India as well as receiving money from right wing leaders across the globe, yet praising them at the same time despite knowing that at least for some, the money came from unethical sources. The apologists say that it didn’t matter how she raised the funds if the money was spent on charities, but that “end justifies the means” is not a plausible argument by any means. Thirdly, Missionaries of Charity was severely criticised by the poor living conditions of their homes and mistreatments of the inmates. It was claimed that the patients were not offered enough painkillers and the hygiene was non-existent. Finally, Mother Teresa was a staunch Catholic missionary, her views were seen being far from liberal and representative of the present times, especially on abortion, contraception, poverty etc. In the latest controversy MoC shut down their adoption centre in Calcutta after the government of India changed the adoption laws enabling unmarried, divorced or single persons be eligible for adopting a child. Also, rather than eliminating poverty and sufferings of the humankind, Mother almost condoned the poverty and sufferings as if that was gods decree. We do not know how many of these allegations were true and to what extent, but this definitely provides another perspective to the life of Mother Teresa, the saint of the gutters — saviour of Catholicism in the world.

So, do these allegations make Mother Teresa a vamp — a racist evangelist who laundered embezzled money and supported dictators and mistreated the people she was supposed to be caring for? No, that is not the objective of this writing and that is not the unilateral truth, as isn’t the unblemished saintly image projected by Vatican. Mother Teresa came to Calcutta a long time ago, and devoted the city her care, her life’s work, her heart and soul. Many strains of Calcutta’s character as we now see it, is attributable to Mother Teresa’s unrelenting work. She had done a lot more for Calcutta than any other individual has ever done, clouded with their notion of caste, religion, hygiene. She has firmly put Calcutta in the world map for the common people across the world. They don’t know Ray, or Tagore but definitely Mother Teresa of Calcutta made a place for Calcutta in their hearts. I was often asked about Mother Teresa by many South American friends and colleagues immediately knowing Where I come from. And my response to them was always the same — she was one of the greatest treasures Calcutta was lucky to have, but her supposed miracles were untrue and debatable, the true miracle is her service for nearly half a century to the lepers, the destitute, the orphans, who no one else cared for. She was awarded most of the highest civilian awards from India and abroad, culminating in her Nobel peace prize. The entire world — believers and non-believers, Christians and non-Christians alike, revered for what she had done for humanity, albeit in the name of God. It was a miracle how she set up and ran MoC  — her greatness did not need to be ratified by phoney miracle cures. Also, contradicting the allegations on living conditions at the hostels, the majority of the claims were made by ex-sisters or journalists from the developed nations. For them, it was easy to establish that the western standard of care and treatment is not extended to the patients whilst the money is sourced from the west — or the bulk of it. However, such reports require to be accepted with some pragmatism, as the practices there was followed everywhere else in contemporary Bengal, and perhaps the level of care was still better than the state run hospitals. So instances such as food being processed on the floor, only reflected the ignorance of the media/ care workers in judging MoC practices without putting it into perspective the local culture and custom. When Mother Teresa set up MoC, the stigma around leprosy, lower class people and poor was commonplace and it took the nurses working relentlessly with these communities to reintegrate them into the society. This effort in itself is worth declaring a miracle.

These arguments and counterarguments above only looks at the life of Mother Teresa  from different perspectives, and none alone is adequate to highlight her achievements. The criticisms and allegations perhaps taint her image to some extent; however, they only add new dimensions to the contradictory nature of her life without diminishing her lifelong sacrifice for the poor and distraught amid abject unfavourable living conditions and distrust.The debate here is not to question her greatness but to criticise the decision of the Vatican to fabricate stories to demonstrate it, through fabled miracles. The decision is unequivocally ridiculous, including the entire process of canonisation and the concept of miracle. So from that respect, to be brutally loyal to my thoughts and ideas, Mother Teresa should never be given Sainthood based on the claims of miracles, it should have been as an acknowledgement of her lifetime of work for the church and the world. However, looking at from another perspective, repeating words of Karl Marx “Religion…it is the opium of mankind…”. The vast majority of the Catholic followers are still from developing and undeveloped poverty stricken countries in Africa, Latin America and Far East. Perhaps in their despairing life, religion is the only solace and recognition of Mother Teresa as Saint would rekindle hope in their minds that miracles do happen and luminaries like Mother Teresa can transform their banal existence into an enlightened experience and beyond life a paradise will await them on the other side. To them, Mother Teresa would be God’s own Angel. Here the intent of religion and realism becomes blurred by what people believe, and whether to shatter the idea of a spiritual placebo that religion is. The millions of lives Mother Teresa helped dream, transform and will continue to, or the hundreds of thousands of lives she directly influenced through her Missionaries of Charity — thinking of them, however absurd the process might have been, the declaration of sainthood for Mother Teresa perhaps would be a fitting tribute for her lifelong dedication to serve the suffering. To me, she will always be Mother Teresa, not Blessed or Saint, but as one of the greatest icons of Calcutta whose life will remain a shining example of sacrifice, humility and empathy. I am proud that I lived in Calcutta at the time of Mother Teresa, and for the miracles she carried out for over 50 years, Vatican’s seal of approval was not necessary to vouch that.

Mother House in AJC Bose Road, Calcutta

Mother House in AJC Bose Road, Calcutta

Standard