Monday, March 14, 2011

rising temperatures and (now) familiar faces

One phrase I that I hadn't heard before coming to Mandiram, and have heard several times since arriving, is, "why don't you go take some rest?"

...Rest? What's that?

While I was often almost always busy with one thing or another at Buchanan--and don't get me wrong, I loved it--the concept of taking time for rest has been a nice change of pace. Throughout the course of the past two weeks, I have, at random times, been able to catch up on some reading, write some long-overdue email responses, and even--gasp!--take a few naps.

Part of what makes the after-lunch 'rest' time almost mandatory is that it's just so HOT! Summer has arrived to Kerala, and it's here in full force. I have even resorted to lying on my (comparatively) cool tile floor, directly under my ceiling fan, to get some respite from the heat. You know that hot water I was so excited about? Haven't used it once.

But enough about the weather. I want to tell you about a few now-familiar faces, and in the process acquaint you with Mandiram a little more. First, however, a quick explanation:

In a recent post, I mentioned that Mandiram is a home for the elderly destitute--'amachees and appachens' who have no family or resources of their own. This is true, and the majority of the elderly who live here fall under this designation. Mandiram is also home, however, to 'paying residents.' The paying residents live in apartments (where I live, too) that are in a separate area from where the amachees and appachens of the old age home live. The paying residents are from well-off backgrounds and all seem to be highly educated. Many of them speak English fluently and have children who are married and successful. As far as I can tell, they have moved here to enjoy a comfortable, happy retirement without having to worry about keeping up a large house, etc.

SO, on to the familiar faces. One is Tangama Kochamma, a paying resident. She and her husband (I don't know his name?) are staying in one of the apartments temporarily while their house is being remodeled. While perhaps a little too interested in my daily affairs and comings and goings, she means well and really has gone out of her way to introduce me to people and help me learn my way around. What I find most interesting about her, though, is her husband, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer's. He is oftentimes silent, but will randomly pipe up with perfect English in moments of lucidity. We've had the same conversation more than a few times.

Mild-mannered and quiet, he is such a contrast to his outspoken wife, who he often meekly trails behind. Tangama Kochamma, at the age of 75, is hearty, robust, and healthy, physically and mentally. If she despairs over her husband's deteriorating mental condition, she hides it well. But I can't imagine what it would be like to have to shepherd your life partner around, seeing them inhabit a shell of their former self, knowing that the day will come when they won't remember you at all. It makes me sad for her. In the moments I find her to be particularly overbearing, I try to remember how isolated she must feel and treat her with extra kindness.

On the opposite end of the age spectrum is Manna, a two-year-old member of the balika (orphanage). She is quite possibly the most precious little girl I have ever seen. She has the brightest eyes, cutest dimples, and most adorable smile. She was brought to the balika the day she was born, and, as, no exaggeration, the happiest baby I have ever known, has obviously been very well-loved and taken care of here.

In the US, we associate the word 'orphanage' with a temporary, miserable place where children must bide their time until a family comes to adopt them. I have no idea how this system works elsewhere in India, but I can speak for the balika Mandiram, where adopting the children out is not a practice. When the children are brought here, this is their home. They have a 'mother' who takes care of them, as well as a full-time tutor to help them with their studies outside of school hours. Together with their mother and tutor, the girls of the balika are their own little (well, actually rather big) family, and function as such. They are a bright spot in the lives of Mandiram's staff and the residents of the old age home.

One of the balika girls, Soni, is in 12th grade at Maggie's YAV placement, Nicholson School. K.C. Mathew Achen (who you may or may not recall is my supervisor at Mandiram) invited me to accompany him to Nicholson the other day for the graduation of the twelfth grade students. A prominent person in the community, I assumed he was going because he had been asked to speak at the ceremony. Shortly after we arrived to Nicholson, I scampered off with Maggie. A few minutes later, we entered the chapel, where the graduation ceremony had just started. The graduating 12th grade students sat in the front of the room, flanked by their families who had come to support them. I was confused to see K.C. Mathew Achen sitting in the audience, rather than on stage. My appreciation for him grew as I realized that he had not made the hour-long journey to speak at the graduation, but rather to be the face of Soni's Mandiram family.

One of my new friends at the old age home is Krishna. Short in stature, he is probably close to 80. Like the rest of the residents of the old age home, he speaks no English. Krishna's legs are being visibly crippled by some disease unknown to me, and he has dental and eyesight problems. He walks with a distinct, bow-legged hobble that I can now recognize from any distance. We cross paths most frequently at mealtimes, when I serve food to the residents of the old age home. Whenever Krishna walks into the dining hall, he never fails to seek me out if I'm nearby. He always shakes my hand and with a huge smile will strike up a simple conversation in Malayalam. I always look forward to running into him and seeing his face light up.

A very lively group that I have yet to mention are the 4 male wardens: Nibu, Jijo, Abraham, and Roy. They are all either currently in or plan to enroll in Seminary. Partof their training is spending 1-2 years living and serving at Mandiram. They lead nightly chapel, help serve food at meals, visit the residents of the old age home, do administrative tasks in the office, etc. While I'm here, I'm doing a lot of the same work as them. Jijo is my age, although he looks much younger, and the other three are in their mid-twenties, I would guess. Nibu has been especially helpful in acquainting me with Mandiram, and I know that he and Tyler (Mandiram's YAV last year) were/are good friends. Nibu also speaks more English than the other three.

It's funny how much I've been subconsciously impacted by living in a gender-segregated society; six months ago, if I had gotten on the bus to see women crammed in the aisle at the front when there were several open seats among the men at the back, I would have thought 'are they crazy??' and headed straight for an open seat. But now I know that you just can't do that. I found myself in that exact predicament the other day, and instinctually stood crowded amongst the women, envying all the space that the men had.

I mention this small occurence in order to relate it to my interactions with the wardens--I am thrilled to be around people of my own age, but am often unsure how to act around them. Mealtimes are a great example: usually the wardens sit at a table together, and as I walk up to find a seat, I am faced with two options: sit with my peers, who are also incidentally male, or sit at the next table over--the 'girls' table--alone. My desire to be friendly and with other people (regardless of their gender...what a novel concept) trumps my concern for propriety; I sit with the boys. I'm not sure how big of a no-no this is, and no one has said anything to me yet; I doubt they will. I just can't bring myself to sit alone at my own table because I am a girl. However, when there are women at the 'girls' table, I sit with them.

I never expected how much serving at mealtimes would help me get to know people. Going from table to table and ladling out chor (rice) or meen (fish) curry, I've started remembering who sits at what table and even some of their food preferences. I know who likes extra achar (pickle), for example, or who won't want any at all. One face I have grown to recognize among the many is a man who actually looks quite young; maybe around 55. Whenever I come to his table, he is more often than not armed with a question for me in almost perfectly accented English. It's usually somewhat creepy, like "how old are you?" or "are you married?" However I always give him the benefit of the doubt and answer honestly and with a smile. I'm sure he means wel and is just eager to show off his English. More than anything, I wonder how he--a seemingly 'normal' (whatever that means, right?), healthy, average person--ended up in Mandiram's home for the elderly destitute. It reminds me that everyone has a story.

There is one man who gets a kick out of quizzing me on the names of the food items of the day. While I learned food names long ago, I sometime indulge him and let him 'teach' me one. There is another man who, when I serve him, looks straight at his plate and doesn't acknowledge me or anyone else. Outwardly, he appears to be in good health. The only thing I know about him is that he was brought to Mandiram by a pastor who found him on the side of the road when traveling here from another state. He never speaks.

"Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle unknown to you."

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