Friday, January 22, 2010

The Sweetness of Keelalathur

Over the last couple of days, I have had a glorious time, so busy that my feet have barely touched the ground. I have either been cycling to a village or bouncing along, my hair generating static electricity from rubbing against the velveteen roof of a hard-sprung Ambassador, or I have been revolving from office to office talking to different, different people in a heady combination of opportunistic interactions and tightly scheduled meetings. What a difference to my early days at RUHSA when I had to pretend not to be interested too much and setting up meetings gave me a sense of what it must have been like to organise Charlotte Grey’s schedule with informers in Occupied France.

As I mentioned, yesterday, was bittersweet, but I only described the sadness of Sukkupattu’s death, however, there were also many wonderful things to emerge from the visit. Most importantly, the elderly people still attend the centre. Every day for the last three years they have been turning up: coming to sit and chat, to read the newspaper, put together jigsaw puzzles, do some, admittedly, pretty pointless exercises (the kind someone does if they want to feel good about exercising without in any way exerting themselves – the kind my Dad would enjoy), to watch television or simply to get away from the worries at home. I must admit that last year I was disappointed that the function of the centre did not seem to have evolved; there was no sense of trying to generate sustainability and that made me feel that it had not been a success as a model. However, there have been a steady stream of people from the UK who having heard about it, have visited and their fresh-eyed impressions have been much different to mine. They have seen a gathering of chatty, happy-looking elderly people who gladly tell them how much they enjoy coming for all or some of the reasons above, who tell them how life is different now, how they feel valued, both by the attention from people such as them and also, by reflection, by their family. I have been told that it has the kind of atmosphere they would have liked to have been able to offer their aging parents, instead of some of the more sterile, soulless Day centres at home. That is an accolade indeed. For all its simplicity, the feel of the place is right. That is not to say that the model is perfect, it is not. I still feel that we have increased dependency and we did not take sufficient account fo their assets before we started. This means we are left in a dilemma - either we continue as is or stop funding, in which case the centre ceases to be. I would prefer to see a model that has some capacity to draw from local resources, not necessarily from the elderly themselves, but the wider community at least and this is what we are working on - taking the excellent components of Keelalthur but imbuing them with a greater sense of agency.

But there was a moment yesterday which corroborated the idea that success cannot necessarily be measured in financial output. Just as I am not supposed to have favourites, I am also not supposed to have anti-favourites, but I’m afraid I do. I can’t help it, she’s just really, really annoying. Always moaning and whining, not in a charming, chance-it kind of a way, but in a petulant, irritating, unrelenting kind of a way. Anyhow, it would appear that she doesn’t only evoke this reaction in me. Everyone metaphorically rolls their eyes when she starts talking. She sits a little apart from the others and scowls. Poor thing, I’m sure she’s a natural charmer to her family but I can’t see it. When Kalaimanai asked everyone at large what they thought of the centre, whether they felt they had benefitted or not, she started talking. Obviously I couldn’t understand more than a few words of the torrent of Tamil (ie sapad –food, kashtum- difficulty) but the tone was whiny and wheedling. The effect was instantaneous, everyone started up in fury, waving their hands at her, talking to Kalai and tutting in disapproval. It turned out she had said the centre was pointless except for food, she derived no other benefit from it and it was this which unleashed a flood of indignation. They were furious with her; they stridently contradicted her assertion that this was merely a place of feeding. It was lovely to see them so protective - she wasn't voicing the unvoiced, she was being unjust.

We also talked about whether the vacancies from participants’ deaths should be filled. Good old Minnie* moaned that we would not have enough food for her if we took on more people. Everyone else felt that more people should be invited, but they were concerned about finances from our point of view. They felt any incomers should have the same opportunities they have had in which case, they would be happy to have fewer meals per week if that helped. In fact, they said that if the project had to stop in order to benefit others, they have had a lovely time and would happily relinquish their turn for someone else. It emerged during the course of the conversation, that although the centre itself is not more sustainable, the individuals themselves have become so. Another adorable, deaf, bewhiskered old man called Duraisamy, who walks on swollen feet a mile each way in order to come to the centre, and who has a beaming smile as big as Sukkupattu’s, told us his story. 3 years ago, he tottered aimlessly around his village, sewing sacks together to swap for food. Some days he managed to get a small, small meal or snack and some days he got nothing. Now he gets a good meal every day, he feels better, he makes more sacks which, not having to swap for food, he able to make a little income from. I passed him whilst cycling home after lunch, he was walking briskly back to his village and gave me an Indianormous grin in response to my cheery wave. His life is definitely better. I am seriously having to re-evaluate my expectations about what outcome measures to use for the project. It would be wrong to expect him to use this little money he is gaining to pay for his food, it effectively puts him back in square one. Besides, he has already given us his goat’s kid back, how much more should we expect them to contribute? These are interesting philosophical problems between opposing positions between which I vacillate constantly.

The last thing to mention is the most personally moving. Rathinam is a small, neat man with a few words of English he polishes and shows me each visit. He is married to a woman with untreated schizophrenia with whom he had some children. Soon after marriage, it became apparent that she could not cope with caring for them or him, or sometimes, even herself. The solution was to also marry her sister, with whom he has some other children and who is the main carer for them and the household. He brings his schizophrenic wife to the centre every day where she sits softly blank, but in blessed calm. He told us how she enjoys coming, it has brought peace to her and she is has many fewer distressing episodes now. Every day she plays Pallankuzhi and he assembles the world map, pointing out India to his friends and Australia and UK to me, if I am there and then, being one of the few literate members, he reads the newspaper aloud to others. He told Kalaimanai how thankful he is for the centre and how his life has changed since coming here, a fact he attributes to me. I noticed him pointing to me a lot whilst he was talking and when Kalai translated, he told me that every day, when Rathinam says his prayers, he prays for me. It makes me ashamed to be so free and easy with life when I hear something like that.

* She's not really called Minnie, that would be ridiculous

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