Monday, November 10, 2014

Life In A Timeless Zone

A school dropout, VC Raju runs the Snehamandiram centre in Kerala that caters to the mentally-challenged people who have been abandoned

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram

I have 15 husbands and thirty children,” says Thresiamma. “Indira Gandhi knew me. Mammooty is my father. In my house, there are 30 planes.”

Ebin comes to the mike and says, “I have a computer in my pocket.” Then he takes out a small metal case. James says, “I am ready to get married. Is there anybody willing to marry me?”

The audience, sitting on chairs, in a hall, smile and clap. All of them are inmates of the Snehamandiram (Home of Love) at Padamugham in the scenic district of Idukki in Kerala. They are mentally challenged, and range in age from 21 to 98. They are having an entertainment programme following their weekly prayer meeting.

These people have been abandoned by their families,” says Snehamandiram founder VC Raju. “Nobody is there to love and care for them.”

It is the local populace, police and social service organisations who have brought the men and women to the centre. One of them has come from as far away as Delhi. Somebody put the Hindi-speaking Nitesh on a train. He reached Kochi where the police sent him to Snehamanidram.

Nitesh has been with us for the past 12 years,” says Raju. As he talks, Murali, an inmate, with missing teeth, comes up. Playfully, Raju pulls out a one rupee coin from his shirt pocket. Murali looks glum and walks away. Then Raju takes out a ten rupee note and calls him. Murali is gleeful, runs back, and hugs Raju. “Even Murali knows that there is no value for a rupee coin these days,” says a smiling Raju.

At the centre, there are 280 men and women and 38 children. A few of the boys and girls are the children of mentally challenged mothers. Many women had been sexually abused, and became pregnant. “Traumatised, they lost their mental equilibrium,” says Raju. The rest are orphans and abandoned children. All of them receive an education in the nearby schools.

To pay the school fees and the other expenses, the centre depends on donations. “Several people in the district are working abroad as nurses,” says Raju. “They set aside some money every month for us. Many local people also provide funds.”

Raju, 52, was a person who did not have any funds. A Class 10 dropout, one day when he gave alms to a mentally-challenged man, he felt an inner calling to start a home for these people. At that time, he owned a small stationary shop in Padamugham and was struggling to look after his family: wife Shiny, and children Nibin, Neetu, and Nivya.

When Raju broached the idea of starting a home, Shiny vehemently opposed it. “I am a practical person and could not understand why he wanted to do this,” she says. “All I wanted to do was look after my family.” In the end, a compromise was reached. Shiny would run the stationary shop, while Raju followed his dream.

In March, 1995, Raju bought a small plot of land with a donation from his sister, Rosamma Thankachan, who was working as a nurse in Rome. He began with a shed, 7 kgs of rice and an aged inmate, Thomas. Later, more people arrived. Now the shed has been replaced by two buildings with dormitories, halls, bathrooms and canteens, apart from a playing ground.

To run the centre efficiently, there are about 20 hired staff and volunteers. One volunteer is a retired head nurse from Mumbai, who is a spinster. “Her aim is to spend the rest of her life here,” he says.

Raju will also be spending the rest of his life looking after the inmates, helped by his son, a MBA graduate, and Shiny. “Much later, I realised what a noble work Raju is doing and offered my support,” says Shiny.

Raju's noble work has been receiving appreciation. Recently, he won the 'Social Service Award-2013', instituted by the ‘Samakalika Malayalam Vaarika’, a sister publication of ‘The New Indian Express’, and received a cash prize of Rs 1 lakh. “He has been doing meritorious work and a jury of three eminent people selected Raju based on reader nominations,” says Saji James, the editor of 'Vaarika'.

(Published in The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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