Today I went to Kovasambet, which is the village in which a second elderly welfare centre has started. I went once before in March, but only briefly, and I have not been directly involved in the setting up of this centre, so the participants have no idea who I am. This model is different to the Keelalathur model. Trying to minimise the dependency we created in Keelalathur, there is no midday meal only mid-morning snack. The caretaker is more proactive than Jamuna and leads them in a program every day of prayers (Hindu), exercises and reading of news. They sit and chat, sharing their troubles. When asked, they said that they enjoy the company, and indeed this must be true because that is the only real benefit, otherwise they would be sitting in their houses alone. It was very good to see a much purer reflection of what we were trying to achieve in Keelalathur. There are several reasons for this I think: being less munificent as donors, having a more proactive caretaker and being in a more disadvantaged village. Kovasambet is more rural than Keelalathur with increased isolation, so this meeting place has relatively more benefits for the participants.
It was noticeable that they were a cheekier bunch, asking me directly what I was doing there, which I thought was great. They seemed less “grateful”, which seemed to translate into feeling less disempowered. We had a great discussion where they told me about themselves and then asked me about myself. One lady, who was particularly funny and vocal, made the universal sign – clenched fists and flexed pumping biceps conveying astonishment at enormity (fat not muscular) and asked me why I had come all the way from England to look at her. Good question. Telling her about the plan to start welfare centres elsewhere, I answered that they were helping me understand how these places could work well. She replied – you ask us if we are happy, but what about you, are you happy? Jebaraj, who was translating this, was astonished at her frankness, but it was perfect because it helped normalise our relative statuses and made us interesting to one another, rather than relating to one another as provider and recipient. Several other women, well aware of this lady’s frankness, were shaking their heads and smiling in mock despair, but the whole exchange provided much amusement and was a great ice-breaker. By the end of the morning we were all sitting in a circle with me trying to teach them “Concentration” which is a rhythmic game of clapping and pointing to others whilst trying to keep up the rhythm.