This is the last morning of my time at RUHSA and I have woken early, surrounded by too many, too heavy bags, for which I am sure Emirates will charge me a ridiculous amount. As has been the case every place I have stayed in for longer than a week, I have accumulated so many things that packing is an ordeal, a mathematical impossibility. I have no idea where the stuff comes from. It seems, especially here, that I have lived a Spartan existence. I have no bedspreads, no ornaments, no kitchen things to pack up. OK I have a couple of cushions but that is because the pillows provided are like bricks and smell of mushrooms. The main problem is books. I have lots. They are cheap to buy here and I have had no television for the last 8 months. Also, I have had a lot of salwar suits made, they are the only thing to wear and being such a hot climate, a new one is needed every day, so two or three is not enough as the dhobi (laundry man) takes 3-4 days to get the clothes back. I do occasionally wash them myself by hand in a bucket and then spend the next few days with swinging, dripping pants draped across my room, but as the dhobi only charges 11p per item for washing and ironing, it is churlish to refuse him the business, especially as my washing attempts are pathetically ineffective.
It seems amazing that finally this extraordinary experience is drawing to a close. Up until the last days I have been seeing and doing new things, meeting new people and it has not seemed as if I am leaving at all. Yesterday, we had our last team meeting with me present. It was a sombre affair. There are concerns about the future of the leadership at RUHSA, staff are unhappy, and I think they enjoyed my involvement because I was able to be a bridge between themselves and their erratically brilliant and compassionate, but very tricky head of Department, who is undergoing so much stress at present that the brilliant/erratic balance is tipping further towards the undesirable end. However, there are some good signs. The staff are proud of what has been achieved so far and are keen our efforts should not be wasted. Mathew and I have written a clear, simple and achievable timeplan for the next year, with specific dates for monitoring and evaluation and goals to be achieved at the end of the first year. The team members know what needs to be done and they know how to do it, so with luck, despite the difficulties, I will return in a year and see that it has been achieved. Although, I understand their concerns, I trust them to be able to carry this embryonic venture forward into maturity, for it is only with its successful expansion into the wider community that it will achieve what it intends, which is addressing the needs of all vulnerable people and providing a workable prototype to develop in other areas.
Knowing I’m coming back in January and that this is the start, I hope, of a long professional and personal relationship with everyone here makes leaving much easier. I haven’t felt sad, because I don’t feel anything is ending but that something is beginning. Pandian, my fiance, does not feel the same way. He is very sad. I thought he had got over the whole fiance thing, but yesterday he asked me to marry him again. I said no.
"When you coming back?"
"OK, I wait, then."
"No don’t wait, I’m not going to marry you at all."
"I wait. 9 months, 9 years. I wait"
I gave up. I thought perhaps it was the quirks in my character which attract him, but, call me cynical and callous, I fear the vast difference in our relative incomes has a bearing on his adoration.
As for saying goodbye to everyone at RUHSA, some are happy to see me go. I have been a thorn in their side and rocked their comfortable existence by being challenging and demanding, but some seem, on the face of it, to be sorry I am leaving. Being a delusional optimist, I like to think the latter group forms the majority.
I shall miss the ride to the village through the unruly headed coconut palms. The effort but release of cycling in the heat, concentrating on the ground when there is a slight incline, seeing only the spiky shadows of the leaves cast on the hot tarmac. I shall miss the transient company of the other cyclists as we pass each other: the old men in dhotis travelling at snail’s pace without wobbling or falling; the young men carrying mountains of pots or wide, drooping bundles of sugar cane; and the young girls, their hair still in plaits, tied with jasmine and bows, two or three to a bicycle, slyly looking and giggling as sweatily I pass them, usually singing loudly to Rigoletto on my MP3 player. I wonder if the ladies of the rope making village, who wave cheerily as I pedal and they weave, will notice that I no longer pass on occasional mornings.
I shall definitely be sad to say goodbye to the oldies in the village, whose names, I have only just managed to remember, Sukkupattu, Chinnathambi, Rajamani, Pushpa, Chandrammal and many others. Today, they are giving me lunch to say goodbye. I hope they will still be here in January. I shall enjoy our last morning together, all of us wobbling our heads, united in our mystification of the other’s language. My cheek muscles will be aching by the end of lunch from all the smiling, the only avenue of international communication open to us, but it will be worth it.
The rest of the day will be spent wrapping books in packages of less than 2kg to send back to UK at ¼ of the minimum potential cost of excess baggage; weighing my suitcases to see how much overweight they still are and traumatically chucking out salwar suits that I will never use in England but to which I have a sentimental attachment. I have bags containing old clothes and medicines for Rita, read books and pots for Jackie and Alex who are in Vellore for the year, stationery for Mathew and socks for Dr John. That still leaves three enormous suitcases. No presents this time, I have too much of my own stuff.
The funny thing is, the ants know I’m leaving and they have invaded my space already, scavenging for any hitherto unnoticed crumbs and dead insects. The ongoing Battle for Supremacy which has been raging for 8 months is in the balance. At present the ants are winning, but I have a secret plan up my sleeve. As soon as the suitcases are outside. I am going to sweep like a maniac and clear them, plus all their food out, so it will just be a bare concrete block again. Hah. I will win.