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After a few years of following each other’s work online, Hemley Gonzalez and Aroup Chatterjee finally met in person in Calcutta. This is the transcript of their candid conversation about Mother Teresa, The Missionaries of Charity, Christopher Hitchens and the case of medical negligence and financial fraud by the Albanian Catholic nun in India.
Hemley Gonzalez: How and why did you become an outspoken critic of Mother Teresa and her charity?
Aroup Chatterjee: In February of 1993 I approached a film company called Bandung Productions, which was owned by Tariq Ali, a well-known writer and broadcaster in England. I spoke with Vanya Del Borgo, his associate producer at the time. I was angry and agitated about the fact that Mother Teresa was causing generations to grow up with a false and extremely negative image of our city.
Vanya Del Borgo listened to my proposal to make a short documentary about what was being falsely advertised to the world by Mother Teresa. I then sent her a one page document with the basics of the proposal. A month later, Channel 4 agreed to make the film which eventually became Hell’s Angel.
HG: How far along at this point were you with your book, The Final Verdict?
AC: Had not yet started. The general idea was to do an exposé. Vanya took the proposal and sent it to Channel 4 and Channel 4’s commissioning editor at the time green lighted the project.
Vanya did most of the research. I gave her some contacts, my thoughts and ideas. Once the research material was in place, she asked if I knew of anyone who could present the film. I told her I wasn’t a media person. I didn’t know anybody at that point who could present it.
Vanya told me she would think of somebody and a day later she rang to tell me that she had found someone. “He is a man called Christopher Hitchens” she said. I must admit I hadn’t heard of him. She explained that they had worked together when she was at The Nation in the US. Apparently she called Hitchens and he immediately agreed to do the film. We gave all the research material to Hitchens. He didn’t do any material collection. He collated the material we produced; I believe he wrote most of the script for the documentary and then presented the film in his own fashion.
Later on he claimed or implied that the film was his idea and he did all the work, which is absolutely untrue. He also said that he was in the editing studio when the film was being edited and that he was involved in the post shooting. He wasn’t there at all. He flew back to the U.S immediately after he presented. Because of this, I have reservations about his integrity. The way he behaved since 1993, as he did his best to take every credit about this whole exposé.
HG: I was personally surprised to find that your work pre-dated a lot of the information that was shown in the film. But let’s face it, Hitchens received most of the attention because he was the acclaimed journalist.
AC: Yes, the journalist who also deliberately tried to cut me out. If anyone doesn’t believe me, then ask Tariq Ali. He would tell you what actually happened at the time. He is well aware. And Vanya Del Borgo as well.
HG: He was a major conduit for the information and now it’s becoming clear that the origin of the information wasn’t all researched or generated by him; but at the end of the day, the profile of your book, The Final Verdict, was raised, which I have read by the way, and yes, it’s quite the eye opener. Let’s move away from the journalistic piracy issue for the sake of progressing.
AC: Absolutely. Well put. Obviously, it did raise the profile and the issue.
HG: And for the record, I didn’t know about you and I didn’t even know who Hitchens was either until I returned home from Calcutta in early 2009 and started researching for other cases and examples similar to the negligence I had personally witnessed. Needless to say it’s a real pleasure to be here with you and be able to discuss this with somebody who has known about it for so long.
AC: And who has grown tired of it! (Laughs)
HG: Your book gets hashed and rehashed every time that journalists and researchers want to discuss Mother Teresa and The Missionaries of Charity; often neglecting to site fresh and new information which has surfaced since its publication and the documentary in the nineties. Because of my interview with Forbes in August, 2010 The Missionaries of Charity were forced to shut down the very first house opened by Mother Teresa (Kalighat) and the organization spent two years renovating it. A minor concession in the grand scheme of things but still not enough to bring about significant change.
AC: I think we are learning a lot from each other. I knew nothing of how they disposed the bodies until you talked about it. I have always wondered what they do with the bodies of those who die.
HG: When we all share information about the process, the larger picture continues to emerge.
AC: Absolutely. I only worked there for a couple of shifts. You worked there for two months. And I have always been curious as to what happens with the deceased because Teresa continually said to millions of people all over the world that she was very respectful of people’s individual religions and as soon as somebody died she disposed the bodies in accordance with each respective faith.
HG: Categorically untrue. Their ‘process of elimination’ as I like to call it is perverse and self-righteous. There was no consideration whatsoever for the person’s faith once they ended up in one of these houses of horror. More often than not, people in these places are not properly and medically treated. Many patients that come to Kalighat, even today, after the renovation, are still suffering unnecessarily. There are no permanently staffed doctors or nurses. There is no system in place for automatic testing and diagnosis of everyone who walks in or is wheeled through the door.
During my time there, a so called doctor would come in on Wednesdays in the afternoon, for about fifteen minutes max. With his hands behind his back he would walk from cot to cot then whisper something into the nun’s ears on his way out and that was the medical check-up for 75-100 patients.
I was assigned to take the bodies to the crematory, I guess this type of work was too gruesome for some of the other volunteers so I ended up being picked for it regularly. I am sure there were many other bodies but during my time there I took twelve bodies to the crematories. One time I basically grabbed the papers for the patients off the hands of the driver of the van. It was not really an ambulance. There was nothing in it that would qualify it as an ambulance, not even a first-aid kit inside. Anyway, all the names in the papers were made-up western names and all the ages were guessed and the cause of death for every single patient was heart failure.
AC: Why do you think they were western names?
HG: I think it was just easier for the nuns to process them. Who knows if there was some convoluted logic to that. And even when I tried to create basic medical charts for each of the living patients, the nuns refused it each time I suggested it. They really weren’t interested in acknowledging the identities of the patients, sometimes it felt like they just wanted them dead as soon as possible. But going back to what you said about her claims that she gave everybody a proper rite and all that, well, I witnessed several times when baptisms were being performed on dead Hindus and Muslims right before they were put inside the cold room where they were kept until ready for the crematory. I had a huge argument with one of the nuns over this particular issue right before I left.
AC: In 2008?
HG: Yes, end of 2008 – beginning of 2009. The escalating fallout with one of the nuns finally erupted one day when she didn’t get the opportunity to perform the catholic rites they normally do to those who die. A man was dying in my arms, when I signalled for her to come, she was busy with something else; by the time she came I had arranged the body back in the cot and had covered him with a sheet. That sparked a huge argument between us, she was scolding me for using a stethoscope to try and detect a heartbeat, claiming I was trying to act like a doctor. I screamed back and said “Well, if you had actual doctors here, we wouldn’tt have to try to figure it out, would we?!?” I think I also called her a hypocrite and a cow, I was fuming. The entire room in Kalighat went silent, volunteers were shocked, no one knew what to do, I saw rage in her eyes, and her teeth were clenched, as she walked away quietly but visibly angry. Certainly not the picture of love and compassion people have of these women. Her name was Anila, a corpulent eastern European woman. There is real evil inside that human being.
I also caught a couple of nuns washing needles in the basin with tap water and then going back to inject other patients with the same needles. I snucked into the storage room once (which is off limits to volunteers) but no one was around and I had a minor emergency in my hands. I had two patients that kept defecating themselves and every time they were soling themselves with diarrhea we couldn’t make it quickly enough to the bathroom. The nuns made us put on a fresh new pair of cotton pants each time, what we needed were diapers or something similar. I had heard that there were diapers in storage so I just walked in and sure enough there they were. Boxes of them. Also stacked up, boxes of medicines, lots of them. I was in the room alone for a few minutes, so I had opportunity to look around a bit, I noticed that many of the medicines were expired. I saw some bottles for the pills we were handing to patients with serious diseases, they were just vitamins.
And then there was the issue of the water heaters that I lobbied to get installed because I was in charge of bathing the patients in the mornings in the middle of winter, so a lot of patients with upper-respiratory diseases were getting even sicker with the cold water and the nuns insisted on everyone being bathed daily regardless of their ailment. You don’t have to have a medical degree for common sense to tell you that this something you just don’t do.
AC: Absolutely shocking.
HG: Another horrible situation I’ve come across is the issue of Shanti Dan, a psychiatric house for about two hundred female patients. One of the volunteers, a young Indian nurse from London was horrified of what she saw. She witnessed patients being administered electroshock therapy as a way to punish them for their behavior if they were unruly. This goes on every Tuesday.
AC: Oh my gosh!
HG: A day after publishing my interview with her on Facebook, volunteers were not allowed to go to the second floor and the electroshock room was off limits from then on. So they are obviously watching what we are doing.
AC: I’m speechless.
HG: You and I discussed earlier that they probably behave differently in developed countries. With seven hundred houses in over one hundred countries, in places where they are watched more carefully, they cannot operate this way. But they get away with things like this in India. Why is that?
AC: Indians are generally not interested in anything unless it concerns them personally or it has to do with money. I don’t want to discuss the Indian mindset too much because I will become both sad and angry. It’s impossible to involve Indians in anything that doesn’t offer them some sort of reward.
HG: You mean if there is no financial benefit?
AC: Yes. So I remain despondent. If an Indian tries to do a genuinely good deed, then the suspicion starts, “There must be an ulterior motive”, “Why is he is doing it?”, “Why is she doing it?” and so on.
HG: In that case Aroup, how exactly have you benefited from being an outspoken critic of Mother Teresa?
AC: I suppose the small psychological satisfaction of being one of the very few Indians with the courage to speak up against this corruption.
HG: What is being done inside of India to change these practices?
AC: Nothing! Even when you have evidence of children being sold through so called adoption houses. Look up Shanatan Powel in YouTube for example. He was sold off to a Belgian couple, his papers were falsified, and he wasn’t even an orphan. Teresa was alive then and even after his case was shown on television here a couple of times, people didn’t do anything. They were afraid to question anything that a foreigner was doing. In the last bit of that television program there was an interview with somebody from the West Bengal government adoption bureau and he was asked how he would classify this situation, he said something to the effect of “child trafficking” and still nothing happened. If this took place inside an Indian organization they would close it down and arrest them but because it was Mother Teresa’s organization, not only did she get away with it but it was allowed to continue. So even today, India is not an independent nation of mind or spirit.
HG: In all fairness, I also have a problem with a lot of the westerners that come to India; particularly those who return to their homes and continue to glorify the organization.
AC: They have not seen the obvious.
HG: Some refuse to see the obvious. Some just want to go home with a few photographs they can show around and have some of Mother Teresa’s popularity rub off on them.
AC: Also, for many college students it counts as school credit. The main criticism and protests should come from Indians not foreigners. This is why sometimes I find it disturbing that even the westerners are noticing it but Indians remain quiet. I also understand in part why also so many westerners remain quiet, they plan these trips for years, save money, it’s hard to get here then they arrive and are completely disappointed and don’t want to tell that story.
HG: Do you think that Indians don’t consider looking into this matter because they have other problems going on or is it because they just don’t care about others?
AC: India has a law for everything. Not one law but twenty (laughs), and I can tell you this much, that the amount of laws that this organization has broken, the number of laws they have breached and broken, any other organization by now would have definitely been on the radar.
HG: So essentially, this is an ideal environment for somebody who just wants to capitalize on the apathy and submissive mentality that some people have here.
AC: People at the Vatican must be laughing their heads out, thinking they really struck gold in Calcutta, and in this country also. That we would take them at face value. Whatever they say will be believed because they’re from the west and automatically perceived as influential.
Any Indian organization would come under the microscope but The Missionaries of Charity get off because of the huge support base outside of India, a support base that is very unlikely to actually come here and see the reality for themselves. Indian is a nation of cowards and collaborators.
HG: The Vatican is a huge machine and people fail to realize the extent as to which the Vatican’s financial powers and influence can reach. They created this brand, Mother Teresa has been manufactured out of Calcutta and sold to the masses.
I always try to explain it to people this way: The Vatican is like Coca Cola. A multinational corporation with many brands under their financial umbrella. You have Minute Maid, Sprite, Gatorade, Fanta, etc; all these products around the world and they sell well in different markets. So the Missionaries of Charity would be like, say, Sprite, very popular, consumed all over. Coca Cola would be the Vatican itself. And people drink it all up, these mixtures full of additives and chemicals and artificial sweeteners and such. A seemingly pleasant fix, but in the end a terrible product.
AC: But don’t blame the Vatican for bribing Indians. You see, they are laughing, they are giggling their hearts out. They are saying to themselves “look in other countries we actually have to bribe people but in India, we don’t have to do anything. If we say sit, they lie. If we say stand, they jump.”
HG: Is this behavior a result of the western adoration factor?
AC: Must be.
HG: You were born here in Calcutta, The City of Joy, which according to the Missionaries of Charity is a slum infested hellhole. How do you feel about that when at this moment you and I are actually having a lovely gathering sitting in a very nice apartment located in a very nice suburb?
AC: I am not saying Calcutta is a perfect place but it’s nothing like Mumbai for example. And it is quite a pleasant place to live and although the job market is tough it is still a pretty pleasant place.
HG: The last time I checked Mumbai is comprised of 55% slums while Calcutta has less than a third of its residents living in similar conditions.
AC: If that! Also, Mumbai has the largest slum in Asia and probably the world right now. Calcutta has its good and bad areas but is not a place where there are only sewers and gutters with people in them half-eaten by rats which is how Teresa repeatedly described it to the world; with the Missionaries of Charity as their only salvation, waiting by the roadside in their ambulances.
Calcutta according to the world’s imagination doesn’t have any proper buildings and houses, all the structures apparently are shacks in slums. This is the we’re perceived by those who don’t know any better. When I was growing up here, I never saw any involvement by the Missionaries of Charity in the lives of the destitute. I was living in the south of the city, they are a little bit on the center but if you called them they wouldn’t get involved. They have a very small presence in the city. I started my project because I was shocked that the city of my birth and youth was given such a terrible image by this organization. When I delved deeper into the documentary I truly realized how much fraudulence and deception was being carried out by this woman.
HG: What do you say to the people who say that some help is better than no help?
AC: If people are stupid enough to continue to donate millions of dollars and don’t ask about the way the money is being used, then what can I say? I do have to say though, that if the organization was actively preaching against contraception, then they must leave India.
HG: They are not doing it publicly, but they don’t offer birth control options either. And besides, you must understand that the head office of the organization, the Vatican, does in fact preach against contraception and abortion all over the world, and also financially funds anti-abortion/contraception campaigns. So therefore, they are part of the problem as well.
AC: I think in India at least, they keep quiet on that issue. But interestingly, one can talk to some of the so called ‘educated Indians’ about the problems inside Mother Teresa’s organization, and they would just shrug it off as a western problem.
HG: And therein lies one of the many ironies and hypocrisies, because this is very much an Indian problem.
AC: I am a little bit more liberal on that than you. I will say let them stay even if they are doing a little bit of help, but let them not insult Calcutta at all. Let them retract their statements about all these sewers and gutters and millions of people lying on the streets being eaten by rats. I think they should make a public apology. I personally think there should be financial compensation to the city for causing harm, financial damage, and damage to business and tourism; some retribution is due.
HG: I think you’ve grown far too naïve to think that it’s even a remote possibility.
AC: You can demand it. It won’t be a possibility but I can ask for it.
HG: I think we are beyond asking for it. At this point it is an absolute requirement.
AC: If it’s a requirement for them to stay here then fine.
HG: They will probably do it only if they were forced to leave Calcutta but they still wouldn’t create what is expected of them, which is some of the best hospitals in the city with the millions of dollars that they receive. Why aren’t they doing that?
AC: I don’t know. It’s not in their philosophy. But they could at least do a very average hospital, I am not expecting too much. I was brought up in India and I do not have a huge expectations of NGOs or our society in general. Unlike you, you have high expectations of them and of yourself. But I do think that with their resources they can be a better organization than they are now, no doubt.
HG: Well, fair enough, but we can’t evaluate what an NGO can do or cannot do if we don’t have access to their financial information. We are starting to prove that they are in fact receiving millions of dollars yearly which they refuse to use properly or publish where the money is actually going for everybody to see, so the questions become valid. Why won’t they build a proper hospital? Why won’t they have proper clinics around the city? Why won’t they provide even basic and constant tests and diagnosis with all that money?
AC: Teresa’s warped mentally which promoted that “suffering is good” is primarily to blame. Ironically she suffered very little herself when ill, getting some of the best healthcare treatment money could buy.
HG: I’m aware of the woman’s hypocrisy. She had all sorts of doctors flown in to Calcutta and she herself visited some of the best clinics and hospitals around the world. Laughable to hear her say once that she wanted to die in Kalighat.
AC: Yes, she said it to journalist Daphne Barrack in an interview for Ladies Home Journal. “When my time comes I want to take a bed and die in Kalighat” — and even the impressionable young American journalist was appalled at the lie. Complete bullshit. So obviously whenever she had any chest pains, stomach pain, she needed a scan or an MRI scan she went to the best clinics in Calcutta and abroad. And she had no expenses spared for her, while telling the world the completely the opposite.
HG: I am encouraged actually, by the many friends that I have made in India, who are Indian, who are interested in the subject, and have no ulterior motives other than to actually right the wrongs. They are starting to pay attention and they are asking the right questions. After almost twenty years of you talking about it and Hitchens and other folks. And now you and I are discussing the subject again. What should happen next?
AC: I am too old for a new revolution. I leave it to you. I just took on a project many years back and keep it up as best as I could. I am still driven by the fact that such a deception goes on, that Calcutta still hasn’t shaken off this terrible image, not in the sense that there is some actual poverty, but the perception of a seemingly innocent woman, an agent of an atrocious religious organization who was allegedly feeding and clothing every citizen and looking after our every need. That bothers me deeply. So, obviously I support you in your investigation and in your charitable endeavors going forward.
HG: Aroup, it’s been a pleasure. A lovely afternoon. Thank you for your candid sincerity, for a wonderful lunch and for opening your home to me. I am happy to finally have met you after all these years.
AC: Thank you very much as well. Yes, it was nice talking to you and I am sure we will see each other many more times.