Today was bittersweet. I went to Keelalathur today to say an enormous thank you to Kalaimanai, who has been instrumental in the development and continuation of the elderly welfare project, and who has retired after 30 years working at RUHSA. His meticulous and fair approach has ensured that any initiative started has been carried out in the best of ways. Unlike at Kovasambet, all the elderly people who wanted goats have not only received them, kept them and looked after them, but they have produced baby goats and, as per agreement with RUHSA, have handed the first kid back to donate to someone else and now have gone on to produce more kids. At Kovasambet, there have been several goats which have mysteriously “disappeared” (kid-napped?) and ended up garnishing someone else’s plate. But under Kalai’s stewardship, all of the Keelalathur goats have been a prolific success, giving increased freedom to the elderly, and in some cases, renewed respect for them within their family.
Happily, he looks like he is going to embrace and enjoy his retirement, but obviously, I am sad to say goodbye to him. He is a huge personality with a smile to match. He speaks a rolling, flamboyant English like a crowd of over-excited children running downhill; sometimes falling, sometimes running so fast it seems their feet will never catch up, laughing and jostling each other to get to the bottom first. In every word containing an R, he adds several more for good measure. In words without them, he adds them in for extra embellishment. His tongue moves rapidly and nimbly around his mouth, his accent so thick, that sometimes it is difficult to tell the point at which he swaps from Tamil to English or vice versa. He is a lovely man and I shall thoroughly miss him next time I go to the village and he is not there. He has been a ubiquitous presence, greeting me so warmly “Ahh, Drrrr Arrrrabella!”
We held a small celebration of thanks in the centre, with an exchange of presents and short speeches; the participants and self help group women smiling as broadly as only the Indians can. However, during the celebration I asked where my favourite was – Sukkupattu - as he had not turned up. I was told he had died on Monday.
I know you are not supposed to have favourites, but I couldn’t help it, he was adorable; a hugely tall, thin man with an elegant, lived-in face. His height gave him a slight stoop, the effect of which was enhanced by the presence of a lipoma the size of a melon nestling on his right shoulder like a shy, squat, monochrome parrot. His soft smile and warm, crinkly eyes always made a point of finding mine in order to express a greeting, knowing that words could not be exchanged. We wobbled at each other furiously every time I went to the centre, both of our faces lighting up with pleasure to see each other. It’s difficult to explain why one person moves us more than another. I think it is to do with the intensity of light in their eyes, the presence of an undeniable twinkle, a hint of gentle mischief. He never looked humble or ingratiating, he simply looked delighted to see me and who could resist that? He was very old for a rural villager, more than 80, and had a terrible cough. I have been dreading the time when I would go and learn of his death and finally, after three years, it came. I was devastated to have missed him by such a short time, but I am so glad that in the last few years of his life, he spent some time feeling less alone or abandoned by his family, being given some of his deserved dignity back and enjoying twinkling at a crazy English woman who turned up unexpectedly, usually sweaty and red-faced but who tried to return his heartfelt greetings with matched enthusiasm. I shall miss the wordless, graceful friendship.