26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 19


Mercy have failed to prevent the commercial exploitation of their former leader

Calcutta A HUNCHED figure weaves his way through Calcutta's unending gridlocked traffic. Suspended from his neck is a broad tray, brimming with the usual assortment of tempting novelties with which to entice choking motorists. But instead of peddling fluorescent pink toothpicks or bottles of home-made rat-poison, the hawker is offering far more sought-after merchan- dise. His tray is teeming with the latest in Mother Teresa kitsch.

Statuettes and baseball caps, ash-trays and candlesticks, calendars, alarm-clocks and cartons of incense: all bear the unmis- takable, saintly image of a frail woman in a white sari with a blue hem. A year after her death, Mother Teresa is more strongly linked with Calcutta than ever. But, just as Princess Diana's legacy is awash with souvenir mugs and signed mar- garine tubs, Mother Teresa's memory is falling victim to her city's notorious blend of ingenuity. Everyone in Calcutta, it seems, from shoeshine boys to politicians, is clambering aboard the Mother Teresa money-making bandwagon.

In a bustling corner of central Calcutta, big plans are afoot. S.S. Gupta, the city's former mayor, is busy co-ordinating elabo- rate schemes — all with a distinct Mother Teresa bent. A bulky, round-headed man, he defines his devotion to the cause in a silky, vote-winning voice: 'I met Mother Teresa many times when I was mayor — I even had my photograph taken with her,' he says. 'Now that she's dead, I have founded an organisation called the Mother Teresa Memorial Committee.' He pauses to spit a mouthful of pan into a bucket beneath his desk. 'We want to mark Moth- er Teresa's first death anniversary in a spe- cial way. When Mother became a Nobel Laureate she became an idol of the world. As such, she belongs to us all!'

Mr Gupta's committee is striving towards numerous big-budget goals. It plans to confer an annual honour — the Mother Teresa International Award — on a person who selflessly aids the needy. It is lobbying for Park Street, Calcutta's central thoroughfare, to be renamed Mother Teresa Sarani; a decision will be taken this week. And a Mother Teresa souvenir pub- lication, replete with innumerable de luxe advertisements, is in preparation. But of all Mr Gupta's plans the last is the most ambitious. A vast bronze statue of Mother Teresa has been commissioned by the committee and is under construction. If Mr Gupta has his way, the towering effigy to Calcutta's most famous adopted daugh- ter will be installed on a plinth in the cen- tre of the city.

Across town at Mother House, the head- quarters of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, there is unease at the commit- tee's plans. The Missionaries have reason to be anxious. Within hours of Mother Teresa's death on 5 September last year, the Sisters' planned funeral proceedings were hijacked. Instead of a dignified buri- al, attended solely by the Sisters, the event was turned into a media extravaganza staged by Calcutta's Municipal Corpora- tion. Mother Teresa's casket, which was carried upon the very gun carriage used in the funeral of Mahatma Gandhi, was borne for eight miles through the streets of Calcutta. Never before had the city seen such a panoply of red-turbaned Rajput sol- diers, immaculate Gurkha warriors, cou- tured celebrities and statesmen.

Sister Nirmala, Mother Teresa's succes- sor, is too preoccupied with paperwork to pay much attention to Mr Gupta and his Committee. But 40 years of pupillage under the indomitable Teresa have taught her to be resilient and now, for the first time, she has spoken out.

`I completely disapprove of this commit- tee,' she says, 'and of its having an office and a bank account. Mother, in her life- time, depended totally on divine provi- dence and did not allow any fundraising whatsoever to be conducted using her name.'

Quiet and unassuming, Sister Nirmala appears to have all the qualities necessary to carry on Mother Teresa's work. She was born in Bihar state of Nepali parents, and only converted to Catholicism in her teens after watching the carnage of Partition. An early disciple, she joined Mother Teresa in May 1958 and has worn the uniform white and blue sari with a crucifix pinned to the left shoulder ever since. Now in her late sixties, she draws on four decades of expe- rience in missions deep in the Venezuelan jungle, in New York's slums, and in Cal- cutta. When not dealing with the adminis- tration of the charity's 559 missions spread among 120 countries — Sister Nir- mala spends much of her time praying at Mother Teresa's tomb. It is set at one end of the meeting hall at Mother House.

`Mother is not far away,' she says softly. `She might have changed her residence from earth to heaven, but I can feel her presence and guidance all around me.'

A year after her mentor's death, Sister Nirmala still seems preoccupied by the loss. 'My feelings for her death are still so fresh,' she explains. 'We knew that she could go any day, but when it happened it was a shock. She died at about 9.30 p.m. She had done a full day's work and had had dinner. We were all around her when she died. A doctor rushed in, but could do nothing to save her. She wanted to die in her house, in her room . . . in Mother House.'

Nirmala and all the Sisters are praying that Mother Teresa be canonised. 'I very much expect her to be made a saint,' she muses. 'We all pray for that. Mother want- ed to become a saint — indeed she chal- lenged us all to become saints, saying that it's a beautiful thing! For some it is a long process with many years of wait involved, but', Sister Nirmala continues with a glint of expectation in her eye, 'for some, it doesn't take too long.'

If Mother Teresa is to be canonised, some of her belongings will have to be taken to Rome as holy relics. For now, her few possessions have been left in her bed- room exactly as they were on the night she died.

Not far from Mother House, in a dingy back-street office, sits Dilip Basu, the self- proclaimed king of Mother Teresa kitsch. No one could be more desperate to lay their hands on Mother's personal chattels than Mr Basu. 'It's impossible to put a market price on these relics,' he growls, stroking his waxy beard. 'There are private collectors in Europe and America with crores of rupees to spend on such items. The Sisters could give me a few of Mother Teresa's possessions and I would auction them to the highest bidder. The money would go to charity, of course.'

While his optimistic negotiations contin- ue with Mother House, Mr Basu has much else to attend to. His desk is cluttered with prototype Mother Teresa products and typed orders. 'Look at these!' he shouts, waving a fistful of papers, 'I'm having orders from all over the world . . . you see, everyone loves Mother Teresa!'

Mr Basu is making the most of the first anniversary of Mother's death. Forty extra staff have been taken on at his factory to keep up with demand. A dozen of them are devoted to the most popular line of all — plaster Mother Teresa statuettes with Mona Lisa smiles. The ruthless commer- cialisation of Mother Teresa's image may be surprising, but, as everyone in the small plaster knick-knack business knows, Cal- cutta is a world centre. (Many Diana sou- venirs are produced in the city as well.) The future for Mother Teresa kitsch is looking rosy. Dozens of new products are being developed at Mr Basu's factory. The international market shows no signs of sat- uration. The coming year will boast a spec- tacular range of new products — including Mother Teresa soap flakes, shampoo, pen- cil-cases, lampshades, and even an embar- rassingly low-quality rendition of a Mother Teresa Barbie doll.

Tahir Shah's book on India, Sorcerer's Apprentice, will be published shortly by Weidenfeld (£20).