watching ’embracing the world’ video triggered some memories in me. it was sometime back in 1997 and i had been a part of amma’s free housing project – amrita kuteeram. amma had organized a team of volunteers which was to build 25 thousand free houses for the poor. as a forerunner, we visited every applicant’s address and our task was to filter out ineligible ones. the selected applicant or families were sorted out again according to the urgency of the need and that task was to prioritize constructions for the first year, second year, consecutive year and so on.
amongst one of the applicants, we found a special case wherein reading the address in the application the address, not even locals let alone ourselves, were able to find the address mentioned. to our surprise, even though the house address was in the city itself, it was not at all easy to identify this house. with the help of a local man who had in fact submitted an application in their name, we tracked the location of the family.
it was around 4pm when we reached the address mentioned in the application. there was an old lady living under a dozen palm leaves set against a jackfruit tree. this old woman was in her 60’s and looked deathly pale. the little hair, she had was tied up and she was wearing a violet blouse and was wrapped by a dirty cloth. there was no emotions of life on her face. her paleness was so deathlike that if one would look into the eyes, it was as if she were not alive. she could not stand up properly and was sitting in folded-legged with knees up and with the face in between her knees.
as was our task, we enquired about her details and whereabouts. her name was kathu. she had 4 children: 2 boys and 2 girls. the eldest one who was in his early forties was completely unstable, psychologically. he would not talk to anyone. for years, he had been living under another jackfruit tree nearby. he did not do any work either. he would not even get up at all and would be lying under the tree all the time. in fact, the place where he was lying down was devoid of grass while the surrounding area was thick with green grass. kathu’s first girl child got married and living with her husband. the second girl got married and then had separated after a year. she was also psychologically unstable. the main problem with her was that she would abuse everyone around with really foul language. no one could stand up to her and she was in the habit of always talking to everything around! kathu’s fourth child was a boy who was not as psychologically unstable and was in his late 30’s. he did some work, brought back little to the house, that actually fed the others. however, his mental stability was like the phases of the moon and almost always varied as per the moon’s position.
after all that information, we asked her whether she had food. “nothing is there” came the reply.
we insisted “break fast?” and then “no” was the reply again.
we kept going “yesterday?”. again no was her answer.
with that, we asked: “no? when did u last had food?”. she weakly mumbled “one week ago”.
shocked we asked “what was it?”. she again replied “some raw onions.”.
to verify our shock, we kept asking “where did u get that?”.
kathu replied “my son brought from leftovers of a marriage party.”.
it was extremely shocking. i could not believe my ears. i was afraid to ask further -when she had food before that?
even though i had heard about poverty, i never thought of it in such a condition here in the state of kerala. a local politician also had been assisting us, guiding us to find the houses of the applicants. that very politician has never came across this family although he and his family had lived in the town, alongside the same road!
one of us went to buy some food items. in 10 minutes, he was back with rice and tapioca and we gave all that to the old lady and asked her to prepare food for the family. she was so weak and could hardly get up and walk. she took a vessel and started walking. we were surprised. what was happening? where is she going? lo! there was no water in the house to cook food. she would have to climb down a 50 meter hill to get water! touched and shocked, we asked her to sit back and bought water ourselves. we were told it was her younger son who brought water. we then helped her prepare tapioca. it was washed and put in the pot. we asked her to light a fire. she did not even have a match box. luckily one person in the group, a cigarette smoker, had a matchbox. so we lit the fire, put rice in another vessel and allowed her to do the rest.
while the water is warming up in the vessel, we added her name to the top priority list and started our journey to the next applicant.
that night, i could not sleep. i was crying thinking about her and that family – the helplessness of that lady, the craziness of the children. my tears lasted not just that day, but for a full week! every time when i sit for food, i see her suffering face. i have heard about poverty but had never imagined such a plight especially in our kerala state which boasts of 100% literacy rate.
later an ‘amrita kuteeram’ house was built for her. the locals even came forward and gave a helping hand to finish the house early.
to me, in the past, when amma was talking about helping the poor it seemed only as a nice idea; when amma mentioned not to waste food and water it had rung inside me only as an economic statistic. i had never ever thought that such shocking realities exist. that day was an eye opener to me. i saw the plight of hunger. today, even after decades, memories remain afresh of one of those houses that i then visited as part of the housing-enquiry. guess why?
that was the first time i cried for someone. this is the transformation amma has brought in me.