My first full day at RUHSA, ignoring a few details, was, until 9.30 in the evening, a great day.
Firstly, in the morning I walked around the campus wishing old friends and familiar faces a Happy New Year. Mathew, the main project co-ordinator was especially pleased to see me and we had a lovely chat. We made plans for what I would do in my three and a half weeks there. He was keen to get the evaluation done and also to formalise some income generation programs for the elderly so that they cane start contributing back to the project. I felt very positive and was glad I had come back.
I had still not seen Dr John. I finally caught up with him. He gave me a cool greeting, merely mentioning that he had been very anxious about me travelling to the airport (9 months ago) by rickshaw. Slightly puzzled by this belated and unexpected concern I assured him that I had arrived safely and that all was well. As I had emailed him several times during the year and he had not mentioned it in any of his letters, I wondered vaguely why this sudden enquiry.
Dr William Cutting, one of the main trustees and original members of VRCT, the agency in UK who have been funding RUHSA for the last 30 years, and his wife, Margot, arrived in RUHSA for an annual 2 day visit to see how things have been getting on. A detailed and comprehensive agenda for their two days was planned. Ignoring the fact that my arrival was anticipated with a smaller fanfare than an ant's fart, I tagged along with them for the day.
One of the main items on the agenda, was the official opening by William of the Keelalathur kitchen, which had finally been built. A plaque was unveiled stating this fact. I went along, and was so delighted to see all the elderly people, Muniammal, Sukkupattu, Perimmal, Kriashna, Venugopal, amongst others, looking so happy. There were limitless Vannakums, big beaming smiles and general head wobbling all round for a good half an hour. Anytime I caught anyone's eye the whole process started again until my head was ready to drop off and my cheeks got cramp.
Another UK visitor from VRCT had personally contributed a goat to each of the elderly people and today was the day that they were officially given ownership. They had gone with a vet plus a staff member of RUHSA to chose and bargain for their own goat and they were sooooooo proud of their little bleating cuties on a rope. They get the goat free but they give RUHSA back ther first female kid so the gift can be passed on to others.
Several of the elderly people stood up and made speeches, they were confident and happy. A woman showed us some of the exercises she had been taught and said how they had improved her pain from arthritis. One of the more educated men is literate and reads the newspaper to the rest of the group. I had sent some jigsaw puzzles out which they were enjoying. One was a map of the world and one of the group pointed out India with pride. Trying to find the dot that is the UK, I showed them where I lived (they looked a bit surprised at its minuteness). All in all it was very rewarding to see that they all still come, some have had successful health interventions like operations, spectacles, hearing aids and they all looked much less downtrodden than they had a year ago.
After lunch we visited the next village, Sholampur, where they are planning the next elderly welfare program. Firstly there was a meeting of all the elderly to hear about their problems and issues. The contrast between the Keelalathur villagers and these people was marked. This dejected grubby disempowered group was how the first group had been before we started the program. It showed so clearly how far they have come and, if nothing else, how much improvement can be gained by showing an interest in people. At the end of the day we were buzzing about how much benefit simple interventions could produce. Listening to the elderly and giving them a sense of being valued provides great help for the most vulnerable and poorest members of a social structre where there is increasing family disintegration.
William, Margot and myself chatted in the evening about the implications of all we had seen that day. Then came the bombshell. Very tactfully, William said that Dr John had been concerned about my coming back to RUHSA because he had heard all sorts of rumours about my inappropriate behaviour - like having men in my room. I bloody wish. It had been like living in a convent the entire time I had been here I was not even free to talk to men without someone lurking in the bushes watching for any signs of impropriety. Of course, being English and having actually met members of the male sex without resorting to unsolicited lust, I do tend to talk to them in a manner which might seem forward when compared with that of the rural village women's. But we are not talking about a rural village man, we are talking about an educated doctor who should be able to make the distinction between the falsehoood of catty rumours founded on jealousy and the truth of the results of all the work I put into the project over a period of 8 months.
Initially, I laughed it off, it was so unexpected and, I thought, utterly ridiulous, that it barely warranted attention. And then I began to stew. And steam. How dare somebody negate and dismiss everything I had done for this. How dare I be marginalised, like some Fallen Woman in the eyes of the Righteous, how dare all this happen without anyone being adult enough to confront me with their concerns. How dare men be so disgustingly hypocritical and judgemental.
It was then that I made a personal discovery which I'm sure anyone who knows me has realised at least 30 years ago, maybe more, which is that I am a bit of an emotional steamroller and once I set off in a direction I can't really stop. All fine and good if it's positive energy and enthusiasm. All a bit messy if it's fury and tears. By the afternoon of the next day I was in unstoppable mode, startling several people with my scarlet face and enormous nose (it always swells when I cry). I went to talk to Dr Cutting to see what I could do about it, because by this stage I was totally incapable of being rational and I did suspect that if I had a "chat" with Dr John it would get seriously out of hand.
I went in calm. For 2 nanoseconds. Then I started hiccuping gently, then not so gently. He had removed his hearing aids to have a snooze (which I disturbed) and the lighting was low, so neither hearing nor seeing very clearly he started some banal chit chat, with his wife, in her soft Edinburgh tones, interrupting gently, saying, "I think she's a wee bit upset, dear." They were so charming and kind and I was so unrestrained and noisy in my sobs (I think I even blew a nose bubble at one point), but the combination of calm (from them) and pressure release (from me) finally allowed me to simmer down enough to be civil enough to Dr John when I next saw him - about 10 minutes later- and Blessed Margot later seriously ticked him off for not appreciating all the work I had done and continued to do. So, it is all fine now. I feel fine about it and I think this is a good test for me. It represents several issues to negotiate - religious, cultural and cross-gender jealousies and it is very interesting to see how things work and learn from them.