A tale from Alampundi, India

I am sharing with you something I learned from Krishnan, a friend of ours since the first days of the Alampundi Fraternity.

Krishnan died yesterday. I had seen him the week before, when he had appeared preoccupied, but in good health. It was his heart that gave way. He was sixty-six. Yesterday I saw him for the last time.
Krishnan had suffered from leprosy since his childhood, and very soon became disabled. In a hospital near Madras that specialised in leprosy he met Susilla, a young Tamil woman who also suffered from leprosy and was disabled. Krishna discovered that Susilla had a son a few months old, and had been abandoned by her husband because of her illness. He asked her to marry him. The ceremony took place in one of the hospital outbuildings, and was attended by the people suffering from leprosy. Krishnan was an accomplished tailor and was able to earn a living, and Susilla’s sister was married and living in a village near Alampundi.
They decided to settle in the village in 1972, together with Ravi, their little boy who was "the apple of their eye". They both regularly came to Alampundi twice a month for leprosy treatment. Arul (one of the brothers) was their 'doctor' and became a friend of the family. Their type of leprosy was fairly virulent as they had little natural resistance to the bacilli. After a few years of treatment, the bacilli were eradicated, but obviously no-one could repair the damage that had already done.

Every day, Krishnan set up his sewing machine under a tree in the main village street. Their little boy Ravi went to school, but morning and evening he would sit at the machine to do all the sewing that goes with tailoring. Krishnan was fairly strict with him. In the end, Krishnan managed to make a fairly reasonable living. Ravi finished his secondary schooling and got a place in a technical college where he specialised in vehicle engineering; he managed to get a job and his future was now secure.
Krishnan was a wise and courageous man. He was also religious in his own discreet way, but didn’t go to the temple, especially as some temples would have been barred to him because of his illness. But his Hindu faith did provide the enlightenment necessary for him to accept his illness and his fate. He never rebelled against it, and remained deeply at peace.

In 1983, Arul and I, with the help of a number of other people, set up the Gandhi Rural Rehabilitation Center (GRRC) in Alampundi, with a weaving and sewing workshop for victims of leprosy. The Center asked Krishnan to join them as a master tailor, and he became an excellent teacher; he had the gift of being able to bring out the best in everyone. He was always quiet, and I never saw him get angry. Although he had lost the sight of one eye, and retained only 25% vision in the other one, he watched every worker in his workshop and if he saw two people at odds with each other, he always managed to get to the root of the problem and come up with a solution. There was never any trouble in his workshop.

One day he came to me and said: “We’re having trouble finding Ravi a wife. Every time we do find someone from our own caste, her parents refuse because we suffer from leprosy. Can you help?” So I went off in search of a wife for Ravi. In another hospital I found a family whose daughter was having the same difficulties. They all gathered together, as is traditional custom, and the marriage was agreed. It was a magnificent ceremony. The young couple have to wash their parents’ feet as a sign of respect; these particular parents no longer had any toes, but the ritual was followed with great dignity.

It was Krishnan's responsibility to create new designs to be sold in the workshop. One day I went with him to Pondichery, where he was getting some new fabrics. We went by bus; I found a seat, but Krishnan remained standing. I asked him to sit down, which he did reluctantly. His neighbour saw that he had leprosy, and very noticeably went to sit somewhere else. I was furious with myself. I knew well how leprosy victims were shunned by others; I should have sat next to him myself. I had forgotten because I was so used to living with them myself. But for Krishnan it was a further humiliation, after so many others! Once we got to Pondichery, we went to an embroidery workshop run by a nun, Sister Therese. After looking at our designs, she showed us her stock, revealing many shelves full of very beautiful fabrics. I left Krishnan alone so that he could choose freely. When I returned shortly afterwards, he was crying as he stroked the fabrics with his deformed hands. "For I don’t know how many years, I’ve no longer been allowed to touch the fabrics I want to buy," he said. I knew him well, and had worked with him for a long time, but I hadn't really discovered his anguish, that of a tailor buying fabrics for his work, but not being allowed to touch them! I think this was the time when I gained some insight of what it was like to suffer from leprosy, with its disappointments and humiliations in all the small things of life. But Krishnan never complained, and always had a sad little smile on his face.

Krishnan's big moment was when he got an official letter from the Ministry of Social Affairs in the Delhi Government. The President had set up a special reward scheme for any disabled person who had been able to reintegrate into society. We had put Krishnan’s name forward, pointing out that he deserved such recognition not only because he had managed to rehabilitate himself, but had also helped others to do the same. Krishnan’s application had been successful. For the first time in his life, he made a long train journey to New Delhi; length 36 hours, distance 2,000 km (1,500 miles). Together with four other successful candidates, he was presented to the President of India in a formal official reception, and received a certificate with the President's signature. These were indeed his days of glory!When he was 60, Krishnan retired with a pension. It was enough to see him through to the end of his life. Ravi was earning a good wage, which allowed him to be independent.

In May last year I went to see my family in Belgium, and Susilla asked me if I would be seeing Arul. When I said that I would, she said: "Tell him I want him to give me a special present, just for me." Krishnan smiled in his usual sad way; Susilla's joy was his also. While I was in Europe, Arul and I went to a number of pharmacies to buy 'bio gauze' bandages, which are very effective for leprosy ulcers, but not used much in Europe these days. Each pharmacy only had a few of them, and we spent a whole afternoon going from one to another to build up a large enough supply. Arul then bought a splendid towel and some scented soap "especially for Susilla".

Last week, Krishnan asked me to call round. "I want to go back to the ashram, while Susilla stays here," he said. "Help me to arrange this." Susilla was furious, and said: "How can you manage alone? Who’ll help you?" It was a delicate situation. I said that I was going on a ten-day silent retreat, and that when I came back I’d speak to Ravi and reach a decision. As always, he remained silent, with his usual resigned smile. He was used to receiving little consideration from others. Throughout his life, almost every day, he had had to accept the limitations of his illness, but he always remained serene. His life was governed, not by his illness but by the Lord of Life, through his acceptance of his own fate.
He is now in the Kingdom of Peace.
He always makes me think of the second Beatitude: "Happy the gentle; they shall inherit the earth."