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Saturday, May 01, 2010

Good works

As we turned the corner off a little lane off another lane off a road everyone knows as "the East Maredpally Main Road", my friend Havovi remarked, "We think we know the city but we probably know less than five percent of it!" Most likely, much less, given the fact that is is growing both inward and outward every day.

We arrived a few minutes later at the "Dalith Women's Home", an old age shelter for destitute women, run by Kamalamma, who retired from the Indian Railways and put her superannuation benefits into this project. The Home offers a space for women who find themselves without caregivers or support, some single and destitute, some abandoned by their families, and others who simply have no place to go. There are around 30 people living in this rather ramshackle semi-detached building which is itself on the edges of an area that has been forgotten by city developers. An old railway track runs just by it, providing a huge source of entertainment to the children in the area, who run to watch the occasional goods train or engine on its way to the Lallaguda yard, less than half a kilometer away. Across from the Home is a small open space where the children play, The children are mostly from the surrounding basti; some are the children of the young women who, like their older home-mates, have nowhere else to go. One arrived at Kamalamma's doorstep heavy with child, her older son barely two years old. There are others like her, who have now become part of this support system, lending their youth and their agility to keeping the place going from day to day.

Kamalamma keeps the place going with whatever help comes her way. A few charitable groups have pledged short term or incidental support, a wet grinder here, a water pump there, a few cots and blankets now and then, and the occasional visitors like us who, bemused by the extent of need, give a little and leave feeling inadequate and helpless, promising to come back with more. "What do you need?" we ask her. (The question seems a bit superfluous, when Need, with a capital N, is everything they feel.) "We don;t refuse anything," she responds. "Everything that is given can be made use of in some way." So we put our minds to work, thinking of all the excess in our own lives that we can slough off, and make our hearts and minds a bit lighter in the process.

Notebooks for the children to use, sheets and blankets for the old women, money for a pucca roof, vessels and containers for food, clothes, ...and then all the other things that do not bear listing because we know it will be an aeon before they are given...better sanitation (the 35-odd people have use of three toilets located just outside the facility, their metal doors almost falling off the hinges), a more organized layout..the list of needs is endless. Havovi, who has asked about the toilets, remarks, "I read the other day that India has more cell phones than toilets!"

We talk to her and some of the other women for a few more minutes and make our way back to the car, which now looks indecently large in this small space that goes for a road, next to the railway line. And as we prepare to leave we hear the sound of a train approaching. One little girl runs toward the track, in anticipation of the view she will soon have, a promise of the means to escape the known, and everything it represents. Other children run toward the track, too, and soon one of the young mothers comes out, shouting at them to keep a safe distance. One of the little girls has never seen a train before, and the others begin to describe it to her. The engine comes lumbering up the track. That's all it is, an engine, moving tiredly on a track that few people, in the railways and elsewhere, remember.

We leave the little girl, dressed in a bright red salwar kameez that's a bit too big for her, her eyes wide and hopeful, as she stares at the receding engine. And we leave the little island of support that Kamalamma has created for the women, feeling a bit sad at how much more needs to be done. It's easy to feel overwhelmed and turn away, cloaking ourselves in the idea that we cannot really do much. It's much harder to stay and do the little one can. It might just mean that a little girl in a red salwar kameez is able to look at other things in wonder, and in hope.

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