Of The Mother
By Tishani Doshi
24 November, 2003
Mother Teresa was voted India's greatest
citizen in a recent poll conducted by Outlook magazine. The Mother,
of course, did not have to compete with the Father of the Nation, as
he is above such general voting procedures, but she easily slid past
Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Sachin Tendulkar, to bag the top
spot. India, historically, has always revered her mothers and there
have been many ammas in the political, spiritual, and religious pantheon,
but a female has always embodied her highest office when she fulfils
the simple, traditional role of "mother." This is because
the female is the origin of all creation; she is the primeval force,
prakriti, shakti; all that is divine and abundant.
Tracing her development from the Indus Valley terracottas which fashioned
women of full-breasts and eager, wide hips, to the depiction of goddesses
who transcended mythology and graced the carvings of temple walls, many-armed
goddesses who were mothers of a hundred sons, right up to present day
portrayals, we see that this role of "abundance" has not abated.
Blame it on art, blame it on literature, blame it on the movies. But
the mother has been venerated precisely because of her capability of
giving life, her war-like fertility.
And yet India, for all her Oedipal fascination, has never had a mother
of the nation. The nation itself has always been mother. The entire
topography of the country is dominated by the feminine; every tree,
river, mountain, stream, language, claims a feminine descent. We have
an ongoing love affair with the word mother. The very word mother, uttered
in any Indian language, comes packed with such powerful intonations,
that if used in the right circumstances, could make the grizzliest of
men sink to his knees and weep. Women too, for they are the greatest
propagators of their own myths.
Following this line of thought then, Mother Teresa remains somewhat
of an enigma because aside from being distinctly un"Indian,"
she was also categorically celibate. How could our greatest mother not
fulfil her basic reproductive role? Waste her womanhood, as it were?
Agnes Bojaxhiu came to India in 1948, following a calling from God.
She became the phenomenon that is Mother Teresa, Angel of Kolkata's
gutters, thanks largely due to a combination of her angular, uncompromising
personality and the West's need to assuage their own sense of guilt
towards the "Third World".
Mother Teresa was successful in attracting many self-sacrificers to
help her in her cause. But her greatest coup de grace has been her fundamental
stance against abortion and the use of contraception. This has added
hundreds to our already staggering balance sheet of millions, and, for
this green signal towards unrestrained productivity, perhaps she can
be given her due as surrogate mother.
In her Nobel Peace prize speech in 1979 (She is the only Indian to have
this honour), she deemed abortion as the greatest threat to world peace.
Holding a religious, moral, ethical stance against abortion is one thing,
but equating that with the use of contraceptives is another thing entirely.
Seen in this context then, the very act of sex is deemed necessary only
when aimed at procreation. This calls into question some integral issues:
our views on sexuality, relationships, love. In a country with the largest
growing population in the world, this kind of militant view against
contraception is not just alarming; it is heretical. To dismiss hungry
mouths as sufferings from God, which we must eagerly embrace and bear,
is difficult to stomach. Of course, it is not entirely new. The Father
of the Nation also famously asked us to think of a child, not as an
extra mouth to feed, but as two extra hands to work. This, in direct
opposition to Indira Gandhi's (also a "great" mother) e!
nforced sterilisations in the 1970s, implies that we are clearly looking
for a balance, a centre around which to hang our ideas. There are other
implications as well: the problems of rape, prostitution, female infanticide,
adultery, and the spread of AIDS.
The President of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family, Cardinal
Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, recently went on record stating that the Vatican
had scientific proof that condoms had holes in them through which the
AIDS virus could pass. This is the message that is being spread by missionaries
in churches all across the world. In a recent documentary by Steve Bradshaw
of the BBC, he examined these devastating effects in Asia, Africa, and
Latin America. In a village in Kenya, one in every three persons is
dying of AIDS and the church expressly forbids condom distribution;
in the Philippines, a mother of seven never contemplates using contraceptives
because it is deemed a "sin" by the Catholic church; in Nicaragua,
you can be excommunicated from the church for abortion, even if you
are the parents of an eight-year-old girl who was the brutal victim
of rape. But Mother Teresa has not been without her detractors. British
columnist, Christopher Hitchens, has possibly been her most vociferous
critic. In his documentary "Hell's Angels", and in his book
The Missionary Position, he accuses her of exploiting her fame, accepting
funding from questionable sources such as the Duvalier dictatorship
in Haiti, and refusing to give any account of the money she received
in donations. He deeply criticises the mass media, saying that he has
seen a "collective hallucination occur" with regard to Mother
Aroup Chatterjee explores her life in his book, Mother Teresa: The Final
Verdict. His issue is not so much that she did not address suffering,
but that there was a "stupendous discrepancy between her image
and her work," which he also believes to have been helped along
by a "culture of deception." And one year after her first
death anniversary, the German magazine Stern, published a searing critique
of her work in an article titled, "Mother Teresa, Where Are Your
Millions?" An article that took a year's research in three continents
and concluded that her organisation did not deserve to be called a charitable
For all this criticism, Mother Teresa has done one thing. She has irreparably
changed the idea of "Mother" in India. She has raised the
bar of expectation. Already, we have been trained to think of mothers
as ultimate sacrificers.
Mother Teresa offered something far more mysterious and appealing than
the Mohenjodaro girl: she offered purity. This further solidifies the
expectations that Indian society already places on its young women.
On October 18, 2003, India gave up her most famous mother to the world.
She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in the Vatican in conjunction
with his celebrations of 25 years in the papacy. She is now on the fast
track to become the first Indian ever to be canonised as a saint despite
the pooh-poohs about the validity of her one miracle, and will from
now on be known as "the blessed Mother Teresa."
We have had many god men and women, many saints, many sadhus, but none
have been formally recognised or sanctioned by the western world. The
whole phenomena has left Indians clamouring, wanting to reach out and
claim. Because this is the other thing: we love our sentimental stories.
We love them better if they come packed and gift-wrapped by somebody
else, because we don't have to think about it, we just accept it whole-heartedly,
as a given, as a universal, as an absolute truth.
The high moral ground that the institutional Catholic Church treads
is a dangerous, beautiful ground. It appears wonderfully flat, idealistic
and undented, barring a few glaring eruptions of scandals involving
altar boys and women who have come forward with lusty tales in the last
few years. Somewhere, the whole murky territory of sexuality and morality
has gotten mixed up, and this is where the ambiguity lies. There is
a division in thought and action, what we say we think and what we actually
think, and this division has caused tremendous conflict in how we view
our women and our mothers, and the relationships we have with them.
Women need to be released from the myth of the mother. Only when a woman
is empowered with her own reproductive rights, when she is emancipated
from the various myths that surround her, when she has the freedom to
explore the full range of her abilities and energies, will she realise
what is feminine, what is mother, what is beyond simple procreati!
Mother Teresa provided easy formulations. She gave the West an ointment
to soothe their guilt; she gave Indians a legacy, which they could claim
was of their own making. But the essential thing to note is that the
role she played could never have been played by a man. It would not
have captured the world's imagination as it did. A man would have lacked
the necessary grace and eloquence. Central to the idea of Mother Teresa
is this idea of womanhood, of the feminine, of selflessness, calling
and sacrifice. Central to the idea of myth, is power. The power to propagate,
the power to defend, the power to alienate.