News from Alampundi, India (2009)

Today I would like to talk to you about my life in Alampundi.

I have lived in Alampundi for 19 years, all of them with Shanti and 13 of them with Visuvasam. When I arrived, I was with Shanti and Arul. But then Arul retired, and after a few years he went to Bangalore, and then on to France. Michael also came to live with us for a while, and then he too went off to Bangalore. So it is with Shanti and Visuvasam that I now share the Fraternity.
Anand, Shanti, Yesudas, a friend, and VisuvasamAnand, Shanti, Yesudas, a friend, and Visuvasam
Fraternity life is appropriately ordered by the rhythm of village life. After being here for 43 years, we know most people. The Fraternity is still imbued with its original purpose, namely caring for people suffering from leprosy. Not a day goes by without someone coming with some skin or nervous disorder. But there is also the function initiated by Shanti and Arul a few years before I came, to create, in conjunction with the village people, a rehabilitation centre for the disabled. At first this was to cater for people with leprosy, but then its remit spread to all kinds of other disabilities, and to helping women from the poorest families in the village. This led to the creation of the "Gandhi Rural Rehabilitation Centre", with a weaving workshop, through which, the Fraternity found itself concerned with development problems.
It is thanks to the Centre that I was able to get my residence permit, enabling me to work in the rehabilitation of the disabled, especially the mentally disabled. When I arrived, with the help of a few young people in the village I set up a centre to help polio victims, as there had been a bad polio epidemic a few years previously. Lots of babies were suffering from polio, and their parents came to the Centre for help. The babies were in urgent need, and the mothers required a lot of support.
Everything was new to me: the country, the language, the customs, the work. When I arrived, I knew nothing about polio! My team was trained by an organisation called Handicap International. Antoine, a young man from the village, started at the same time as me and is still there today; he has been a great support. The rest of the team have left, each following their own particular path. The first task was to visit the villages, about sixty altogether. I would cycle there with Antoine and we would make a list of all the disabled people. We then set up an orthopaedic workshop, making our own crutches and orthopaedic devices, reducing the muscle contractions when we could or sending the patients to a local hospital if they needed surgery. We also set up a boarding school for children with polio, so that they could study without needing to travel every day.
Little by little, new polio cases became less frequent and we concentrated on children and babies with brain damage, mental disability or with spasmodic disorders. We have a centre where mothers can bring their children twice a week. We carry out tests and teach the mothers what needs doing at home every day. There is also a day centre to which children from nearby villages regularly come every day; there are 24 of them at the moment. Some of the children are now adult, and we have started a work rehabilitation programme, mainly gardening or weaving small mats from off-cuts from the weaving workshop.rehabilitation for a small child at the centrerehabilitation for a small child at the centre
My whole life has been marked by daily contact with the disabled. Engaging with suffering people has left its mark of the Fraternity. Shanti stays at home, but he sees a lot of people who come to tell him about their health problems and seek advice. Visuvasam works as a 'specialised teacher' in a school in the small local town; he helps blind and deaf-mute children integrate into normal school life.
Daily contact with disabled children and their parents has brought me a lot. It has not always been easy, especially when faced with so much suffering. I often became rebellious when a very young mother came with a disabled and deformed baby with rickets. Many times I could be found in the chapel, railing like Job in the face of such misery and injustice! Why should such things happen? Why was the baby not miscarried or stillborn? What had this lovely young mother done to deserve such a baby? What would her life be like? How would her husband react? How do you answer such a mother when she asks if there is any hope of a cure? "Will my child be able to talk, to walk, to go to school?" What does one say? Many times I refused to go to the chapel. Many times I wept.

Many mothers come to the Centre in despair, pinning their last hope on it, having already been to the hospitals and having spent a lot of money. They hear that we care for children well, so they come. What people like is that we spend a lot of time with each child, and with its parents. It is also a place where parents can meet and support each other. It is often the Mum or Dad's courage, smiles and hope that have supported me and have helped me to continue and to persevere. These parents who seem lost and bewildered, wounded and humiliated – it is these people who have taught me the Gospel message.
When children come to the clinic for the first time they are traumatised and fearful: they have had so many injections, seen so many doctors! They just do not want anyone to touch them ever again. Furthermore, my being white doesn’t make my task any easier. It sometimes takes a couple of months to gain a child's trust. But thanks to my team, all turns out well. After a bit, the child’s eyes, its smile, its wish to communicate and make progress, all change my life and give me the strength to do everything I can to help. I have been very lucky to have had a good team who have been very patient with me, have supported me a lot and have also become very competent. The wonderful thing is that all the members are local village people who have been trained on the spot and have remained very close to the people they work with. The Centre has remained very simply equipped, with no fancy gadgetry. Our tools are our hands. Parents discover that you do not need lots of complicated equipment: to help a child, so just have to listen and use your hands.
So our 'Nazareth' path is marked out by our daily meeting with those who suffer; the lepers, the blind, the deaf-mutes, AIDS victims, the disabled.
But it is also marked out by 43 years of day-to-day life here. People know they can come to us whenever they want.
We seek to welcome them, to offer them love and to be moved by the difficulties and hardships of their lives. Are we not called to be 'another Christ', to be witnesses to that Kingdom that is built here in ordinary lives all around us, and to offer it to the Father in our silent prayer of thanksgiving and intercession?
We have been here for 43 years – should we continue or not? Should we be faithful to our commitments, to our friends? This is a question we cannot evade. It is Shanti’s question – Shanti who started the fraternity here. As far as I am concerned, I would very much like to go and live in the Dalit community (i. e. the 'Untouchables') who are the most despised and oppressed group of people in India. I have wanted to do this for a long time. When I become an Indian citizen, I will be able to fulfil this dream. Up till now, because of the terms of my visa, I have been restricted to the Alampundi social work centre. I am praying to Our Lord for inspiration.

P.S. Since this was written, Anand has been granted Indian citizenship, and started sharing the life of a Dalit community. Watch this space !