Thursday, January 17, 2008

Leaving Bangalore and resolving crises

Whilst in Bangalore, I visited Celine who runs Karuna Niwas, the Home of Compassion, for women. It was her 21st anniversary on Tuesday and was having a celebratory mass to which I was invited. I have never been to a Catholic mass, and not strictly being a believer, I was nervous about going because I felt like it was slightly dishonest. Having said that, I know that she expects no Damascene conversions. Her faith is unassailable and has enabled her to do incredible things, but she judges no-one for their beliefs. It was important to her, she had asked me, so I went.

She was as extraordinary and vibrant as ever. She had arranged for a priest from the US to come and conduct mass for her, which he did, travelling from the US to Bangalore via Kenya and Kerala, staying for one night - actually a total of 10 hours only - before flying up to Nagarland in the North East of India. He was called Father Joseph and was a bouncing bundle of enthusiasm and non-stop chatter. He was accompanied by his polar opposite. A dour man, whose face only lit up when he smiled, called Father Xavier, from Mexico.

Upstairs, Celine has built a chapel where mass is said daily. Several of her women, no doubt inspired by the energies and compassion of the woman who saved them from the strictures and judgements of their own culture, have converted to christianity. But many women don't. We entered the small, modest chapel with a small sea of a different sort of chappel outside. A couple of Christmas decorations hung on the green, plain walls and a verse from the bible was spelled out in fluorescent polystyrene letters on the purlins facing the congergation. There were about 10 women and 8 children inside, waiting quietly. Celine's cousin was also present. She is a nun who made it all the way through and she works in an addiction centre nearby, treating and supporting alcoholics from the local community.

Father Joseph started the service as Xavier was still struggling into his cassock. As he talked movingly about Celine's work and the strength of God's Love, the women sat, transfixed by his voice if not his words. The hymns were sung with great force and the reverberations around the tiny room lingered long after the last note left our throats. It was very moving to be in the presence of people who had such a strong faith. After the short service, during which Father Joseph prayed several times that everyone should have a good and deep sleep that night, subconsciously echoing his own heartfelt desires, the women and children lined up to be blessed by him.

In turn, each came forward and Celine said a few words. Father Joseph was quick to understand their needs and bless them accordingly. A young girl, with learning difficulties, who had just given up her baby for adoption, was blessed for the courage of her difficult decision and the care she took of her baby in the womb. For a Celine's beautiful assistant who has a hand deformity, he prayed that her compassion and caring keep her strong and not tire out. He noted in the eyes of one woman a lost hopelessness and he urged God to help her follow the dreams she held in her heart. To the two young children who had witnessed their father burning their mother to death, he prayed that they should grow strong and happy in the caring environment they found there and be extraordinary people. For Celine, there was a special blessing. As she knelt on the floor, everyone gathered round and placed their hands on her. I found the whole experience very moving. Not because of what it meant to me, I still am an ish-believer, but because of the incredible effect it had on everyone else who was there. There was such a strong sense of belonging and selfless love radiating from Celine which energised everyone in the room. I know that others felt that this was God's presence, but it seemd to me to have a much more mortal origin. Nonetheless, I found myself deeply moved. Sadly, my time there was too short as we all left the next morning at 7 to catch our various forms of transport to toher parts of the country - Celine by bus to Kerala, myself by train to Vellore and the two priests by plane to Nagarland.

Also, whilst in Bangalore, I drafted a letter to KRJ to vent my spleen and, in a polite and respectful way, to find out how the land really lay. After my nose-bubble episode I felt generally much calmer about it and, perhaps if I had been someone else I might have ignored it and just carried on. But, I felt that to do that would be to miss an opportunity to clarify my position and to squander bridges I had spent 8 months building. On my return, I hand delivered it to his home, phoned him to tell him it was there and made an arrangement to see him to discuss its contents.

The next day I met an entirely different KRJ. He was smiling, appreciative and thanked me for my "well-constructed letter, with valid points". He was (rather too) complimentary, which as always is very effective at diffusing problem situations and we agreed to move forwards amicably, making plans to construct an International Visitors' Hostel at RUHSA, so there are proper facilities and fewer stupid rules. He then and there arranged a meeting with the KPP team to discuss the forthcoming evaluation. He told Mathew he should stay behind and not come to Delhi and we made great progress not only with our plans, but also for an external evaluating team to assess the project, which is fantastic. Of course we are all subconsciously going to put a positive spin on things, so to have an independent view of how the project has been for the last year is a fantastic move. I hope they don't discover it's been pointless!

Meanwhile, there had been a few underground team meetings before this new spirit of reconciliation and the evaluation had begun. I have been out to the village several times to carry out repeat nutritional measures, like weight, mid-arm circumference and calf circumference. Interestingly, the weights and CCs seem to have fallen but the MACs have increased. They need to be analysed statistically and take into account the normal changes of aging, but they are interesting findings so far. By some measures, the MAC is the most sensitive marker of nutritional status, measuring muscle bulk and subcutaneous fat, so it is interesting that this one alone seems to have increased. The elderly are reporting that they are more mobile than before which might contribute to weight loss, but we will have to wait for the results of the BREF questionnaire which measures perceptions about physical, psychological social and functional well-being to see whether they really feel better, as they seem to us - with our rosy-coloured spectacles.

The full evaluation will comprise, in addition to the nutritional measures and BREF questionnaire, an individual, open feedback questionnaire and focus group discussions to find out the elderly members perceptions of the role, future and their contribution to the centre. We hope to be able to come to some clear conclusions about the success of this project as a pilot study to set up other community centres for the elderly, as well as those about the future for this centre involving greater community involvement and some sustainability measures.

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