Against Mother Theresa
John Hutnyk's Rumour of Calcutta, reviewed by
Wednesday, 10 September 1997
There are only three things I know for sure about the city of Calcutta. It
was home to the writer Rabindranath Tagore, the film maker Satyajit Ray and
to Mother Teresa, who has just joined them in heaven.
What's curious is just how we come to know things about foreign cities. The
BBC greatly accelerated Mother Teresa's celebrity in 1969 when Malcolm
Muggeridge made a film about her, called Something Beautiful for God. Her
fame spread even further when she won the Nobel Peace prize in 1979. Her
image circulated on a global scale. And with it, an image of Calcutta.
Some of her critics there complain that her order uses the poverty of
Calcutta as an advertisiment to attract funds for a worldwide franchise,
including a branch in Bourke, New South Wales.
Over and over we see images of those nuns in blue-rimmed robes of pristine
white, bending over poor dark sufferers. Images that set up a way of
thinking in which poor foreigners appear as helpless without assistance from
the rich west. Calcutta becomes the Disneyland of suffering.
In John Hutnyk's interesting new book The Rumour of Calcutta: Tourism,
Charity and the Poverty of Representation (Zed Books), he quotes a revealing
remark by a volunteer, to the effect that people who suffer are put there to
keep us compassionate -- an understanding of "the poor" where the latter
hardly appear as people at all.
Calcutta as themepark of poverty is also the theme of the Roland Joffe film,
City of Joy, starring Patrick Swayze. He plays an American doctor who finds
himself when he starts helping the poor. The film is based on a "documentary
fiction" book by Dominique Lapierre. Its odd how often popular myths, good
and bad alike, from the Lucky Country to the City of Joy, start in books
that try to tell the truth.
The film version had a difficult birth. In 1989 Rajiv Gandhi's central
government gave permission for Joffe, director of The Mission and The
Killing Fields, to film. But the Left Front government in the state of West
Bengal revoked it. They argued that "there is no need to show only slum
dwellers to show the indominable spirit of Calcuttan." Joffe then recruited
some leading Bengali intellectuals to his cause, and a lively debate about
censorship and misrepresentation followed. Satyajit Ray remarked that
"Personally I don't think any director has the right to go to a foreign
country and make a documentary film about it unless... he does it with
The shoot was punctuated by locals rioting, invading the set, hijacking the
catering van, union bans, police baton charges, stone throwing, and crowds
cramming the scene who just want to get a glimpse of the film stars -- Om
Puri and Shabana Azmi.
Denied permission to shoot in the streets, Joffe ignored the ban, shooting
on the run. He built his own slum, a water proof million-dollar set, out in
the safety of the suburbs. The special effects the team that brought you
Star Wars pumped 250,000 gallons of water through it to simulate a monsoon.
Rumours circulated of Joffe inspecting slums of rusty tin and hessian,
saying "I love it!" and buying it on the spot. Calcuttans thought he was
The film portrays a struggle between poor people and a brown-skinned
"mafia". Hutnyk notes the irony of poor Bengalis portrayed as docile without
Patrick Swayze to teach them to stand up for themselves. Locals certainly
didn't need any white helping hand to take direct action against Joffe's
film. But as with the media images of Mother Teresa, in City of Joy,
Calcutta exists for the benefit of the spiritual enlightenment of
Hutnyk argues that western experience is framed, not just by the filmmaker,
but by "the idea of film". Westerners consume Calcutta through "machineries
of perception carried as baggage in minds, texts, snapshots and backpacks."
Whatever its motives, this foreign interest in the place is not of much
benefit to Calcutta's people, "or for that matter, to anyone much at all."
Indian critic Ashis Nandy argues that the west is no longer a place but a
state of mind. Hutnyk does something quite paradoxical, going all the way to
Calcutta to write an "exploration of the perforated sheet of the worldwide
West." He wants to explore his own involvement, as an anthropologist, in
this entire industry that describes and explains Calcutta as if it existed
for the benefit of the west. His book is about the voyeurism of poverty and
the poverty of voyeurism.
Hutnyk gets beyond what Edward Said called 'Orientalism', or the argument
that western ways of seeing the east are culture-bound. By that account, all
one has to do is move over and make way for the "authentic" local way of
seeing things, and all will be well. But the problem is not just the ethnic
origin of the hand and eye behind the camera or word processor. The tools we
use to perceive things are not just a means to an end. Tools frame
particular types of ends. We see things framed by the methods used to make
Here Hutnyk practices another kind of tourism, an intellectual one, "trinket
collecting" in high theory. His sources are the writings of Georg Lukacs and
Martin Heidegger, who were concerned with the effects of commerce and
contraptions on our ways of seeing and thinking. What Hutnyk takes from them
is a thorough kind of materialism. Every perception that we have is the
product of an act of labour, an effort shaped by particular tools.
If this is so, then we have a problem. It is not the problem of
"relativism", as is sometimes claimed. There are plenty of perfectly good
ways of deciding what is a good photograph of a beggar, what is a good
ethnographic field report, or what is a good business plan for a tourist
development. The problem is rather that the tools of media recording, market
reckoning or scholarly research don't see what's outside of their particular
ways of making the world appear useful.
Hutnyk collects fragments from different kinds of perception, produced by
different methods, and puts them alongside each other. The result is that
the mirror he holds up to Calcutta seems particularly cracked. This is
disconcerting at times, but the benefit of it is that you don't just get the
illusion that you are seeing Calcutta -- you see the mirror too.
His anthropology hero is not Claude Levi-Strauss, who wrote some perfectly
dreadful cliches about Calcutta, but Michel Leiris, a lesser known French
writer who was as scrupulous about recording his own dissentry as he was
with the myths and customs of Francophone Africa.
For most budget travellers to Calcutta, its the Lonely Planet guidebooks
that are the first "machine" through which most budget travellers "see" such
places, rather than the reports of anthropologists or even popular
non-fiction like Lapierre. Hutnyk explores the way guidebooks make the city
a prop for the myths the traveller already entertains about the place.
The problem for Hutnyk is that if all of our ways of seeing are framed by
the technologies through which we perceive, then how can we ever arrive at a
more adequate picture? The 'real' Calcutta, as he discovers, is a rumour
that circulates among travellers -- its always just that little bit further
off the beaten track, but nobody ever quite seems to find it. Perhaps it is
this desire to consume the 'real' version of the place, as if it was
something that existed just to resist our efforts to know it, that puts it
forever just out of our grasp.
Hutnyk considers, but doesn't quite accept, a radical solution to the
problem of what to write. As Ashis Nandy says, the job is to "create better
myths". Perhaps one about a Calcutta that, despite a lack of resources,
administers itself. Ray's films, such as the famous Pather Panchali and
Aparajito show the poverty of Bangali life, but his characters can act and
think and feel for themselves. They don't need westerners to think for them.
But my favourite "alternative myth" in this book is the rumour that after
Joffe left Calcutta, volunteer workers auctioned off a stool sample bottle
with Patrick Swayze's name on it, found amid the junk donated by the
departing film crew.
McKenzie Wark's book The Virtual Republic: Australia's Culture Wars of the
1990s (Allen & Unwin), will be launched at Gleebooks on October 8th.