The White Nun’s Burden


The White Nun’s Burden

Illustration: Akshita Monga

“Who do you think you are? Mother Teresa?” This rhetorical question was frequently used as a dithering put-down in my household while I was growing up. Whenever I stepped up on the soap box to plead piety, for the friend who wanted to crash on the couch for a week, or a baby animal who needed a home, one of the parents would put an end to the conversation with it.

The meaning was clear. I should shut up and move on because I was obviously no Mother Teresa. Never had I hugged lepers and I was clearly not white – the universally recognised colour of a bleeding heart.When the venerated nun officially became a part of Jesus’s pantheon of saints in 2016, a bunch of Indian flags were waved in the crowd of tens of thousands gathered beneath the Pope’s balcony. Our country, the arena of the nun’s charitable works and one of the “miracles” ascribed to her was officially represented too, by the then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj who later tweeted a picture of herself shaking hands with the Pope. All in all, we as a country seem to be both grateful and thrilled that the poverty of our country had furthered the cause of Catholicism and given birth to a new saint.

But saints are not born, they are conjured up in the public mind by PR juggernauts funded by the Vatican’s money, or that’s what rationalists like Christopher Hitchens, Aroup Chatterjee, and Ruchir Joshi have been patiently saying for decades now.

Chatterjee, a physician who grew up in Kolkata and wrote the scathing Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict, also testified against her during the hearing, which lead up to her fast-tracked sainthood. The accusations are plenty, negligent medical care, hobnobbing with dictators, fetishising death, and using her celebrity to further the programme of the Church as she proved when she spoke of modern science and abortion as the “worst evil and greatest enemy of peace” in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

But even though we can all agree that cancer can’t indeed be cured by an oval, metal medallion, the untainted, blessed vision of Mother Teresa saving India endures.

Do we as a people love the idea of saviours or do we just love saviours of the white variety?


In “The White Man’s Burden”, Rudyard Kipling captured England’s crushing imperialist rule in seven stanzas, exhorting the reader to consider it a noble enterprise of civilisation. Weren’t the British just a friendly bunch of tradesmen who decided to stay put for two centuries because they decided that we, the natives, were desperately in need of some help?

The white man’s burden is an idea built on the derision for “native knowledge” and this prejudice continues to fuel the desire of the Caucasian do-gooder to save us lesser beings. In 2013, Harvard College Women’s Centre convened a Beyond Gender Equality task force “to offer recommendations to India and other South Asian countries” turning a blind eye to the decades of activism of Indian feminists, as they marched in on their white horses to save the hordes. And it surprised no one that they were also silent on the occurrences of sexual harassment and rape on its own campuses.

Unsuspecting do-gooders oblivious to the fact that they are not changing the world one exotic volunteering vacation at a time, will descend upon us, striving to change our world.

It’s an assumption that is stupid at best, dangerous at worst. In 2001, an American charity decided to distribute daily food ration packets in Afghanistan. The cheery yellow packets of daily rations were airdropped across the interiors of the war-struck country. What they did not know was that, undetonated cluster ammunition, which was still being used by US forces in the country, was the same colour. Each yellow BLU-97 bomblet was the size of a soda can and capable of killing anyone within a 50-meter radius, while a food package contained a 2,000-calorie meal. It was inevitable that Afghans coming across the yellow packages in the field would confuse the two. Children in particular – with no English and little idea of what a BLU-97 is – would pick them up, with devastating consequences.

But neither danger nor arrogance has been a deterrent to the white saviour complex. The desire to save the world is so strong in our white brothers and sisters that an entire industrial complex has sprung up to cater to their superhero alter egos. Are you a clueless graduate who wants to travel to India and overhaul the country’s pathetic systems? Your First World government will let you.  Organisations like the International Monetary Fund, (aka those bloody neo-colonists) which run projects in the Third World have long been criticised for relying on the supposedly superior knowledge of their Western counterparts over local know-how. Just like the good eggs who do patchy paint jobs at orphanages during their gap years, volunteer to teach English to unsuspecting African children, and tweet about their visits to Indian slums with the hashtag “blessed”.

The white saviour narrative is so ubiquitous that it has a Hollywood trope and a Wikipedia page of its own. “White Saviour film is often based on some supposedly true story. Second, it features a nonwhite group or person who experiences conflict and struggle with others that is particularly dangerous or threatening to their life and livelihood. Third, a White person (the saviour) enters the milieu and through his or her sacrifices as a teacher, mentor, lawyer, military hero, aspiring writer, or wannabe Native American warrior, is able to physically save – or at least morally redeem – the person or community of folks of colour by the film’s end.”

Think City of Joy, Dangerous Minds, Amistad, Finding Forrester, The Last Samurai, Gran Torino, Avatar, and a hundred other flicks.

With Mother Teresa, we have all the material for a classic white saviour film. Imagine a young Albanian-Christian missionary who travels to a country with starving children, cows, and snake charmers, and a half-naked Father of the Nation. In a dirty pit of human misery called Calcutta, brimming full of orphans and lepers, dirt and decay, this white woman finds her calling. Imagine this white knight, a Nobel Prize winner at that, hugging a hungry child, and you have a blockbuster film or sainthood, whichever way you chose to look at this circus.

The question is not whether Mother Teresa did in fact create a legacy of humanitarianism – that is the subject of a separate debate – but it is one of overcoming the white saviour complex some day. But now that Mother Teresa has been canonised and we have expressed our unmitigated delight, the myth will perpetuate.

Unsuspecting do-gooders oblivious to the fact that they are not changing the world one exotic volunteering vacation at a time, will descend upon us, striving to change our world. So Harry from London and Jenna from Boston will teach our kids English, apply a lick of paint to an orhanage wall, photograph the women in our red light districts, or gift a couple of bicycles and take their valiant efforts to social media, and then promptly go back to Wall Street or wherever they were originally headed, their guilt assuaged, their white saviour complex fulfilled.

And we will continue to be delighted.