A Travellerspoint blog

The search for Arishna Gundi

Karnataka

Roughly 20 years ago, Damian Kathkudha was wandering in the deep jungle of Karnataka state, in central India. He was on a mission to find the fabled waterfall known as Arishna Gundi, the name roughly translates as: ‘of turmeric colour’ in Sanskrit. As he trekked ever deeper into the lush and steamy jungle, he imagined the low growl – perhaps almost a purr – of a tiger watching his every movement and tracking his every step. The local people had warned him not to try to look for Arishna Gundi, as he would be eaten by a tiger or mauled by a leopard; they had never visited the place because of this fear of the terrifying Indian jungle cats. Damian was not unduly afraid: if such a thing were to happen then he hoped it would be quick. In the jungle canopy he could hear the crashing of monkeys and the cawing of parrots; in the undergrowth he thought he could hear the hissing of a king cobra waiting patiently for its lunch. As he walked further, he began to hear a new sound faintly in the distance: it was the sound of crashing water and he knew he was getting close. Heading now down the side of the mountain, he traversed huge fallen trees and dried up river beds. As the sound of cascading water became stronger, Damian’s own heart began beating faster in the anticipation of what he was about to see. He had been told that Arishna Gundi was a place of great spirituality; a beautiful waterfall hidden deep in the jungle, where the sun’s rays make the waters mist change into incredible colours, as if by magic. Now he was here, so close as the sounds became ever louder, but with each corner the waterfall would still not appear. Up and over an enormous rock and across a tiny primitive bamboo bridge, and then it revealed itself in all its beauty and breathtaking brilliance: a natural oasis, a gift from the gods to those with the courage to seek it. He had finally found Arishna Gundi and it was every bit as impressive as he had hoped.

As I sat in the kitchen of my aunt’s house in west London, one grey and cold January morning, I was captivated with this tale from Damian, who is my cousin. I had come to see him to say my goodbye’s and ask him if he had any recommendations of special places to visit in India. Now I guess when I look back I could say that I was a little in awe of my cousin Damian when I was young. He spent a large amount of time wandering in India, hanging out with holy men, probably dressing like them, and undoubtedly a genuine peace loving, chillum smoking hippy. In my book, that’s pretty cool, and he was the inspiration behind my decision to travel, along with my old friend Dan, to India at the age of 18. My parents were not exactually overjoyed with the idea - I didn’t fill them with much confidence at that age - however, I left with their blessings nonetheless. So as I sat next to my cousin and heard his recount of this almost mythical and very beautiful sounding waterfall, I had a deep resolve to find it and walk in his footsteps.

So 25 years later, I decided to plan how to find this place. It is not in any guide book; it is too inaccessible for that and very much unknown. As with most things nowadays, the web provided the answer: I found one account from someone who had been there and also something on Wikipedia about the closest town of Kollur, in Karnataka. Armed with this information, I planned to go there on route, whilst travelling with my friend Telly. On the bus in Thamil Nadu - a long way from Karnataka - we had the pleasant experience of meeting a French man called Andre and his guitar. As we chatted, it became apparent that Andre was also heading for Kollur, but not for the waterfall; he was going to stay in an ashram run by the Indian guru Thathatha. Thathatha was his teacher in all things spiritual and had, by Andre’s own admission, completely changed his life for the better through his philosophy and practice of deep meditation. India is the home of spirituality – where else in the world does one find Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity etc all living side by side and being practiced by over a billion people. So to meet someone like Andre, all dressed in white, flowers in his hair and love in his heart, is not all that unusual. I was interested to hear more, but he was soon onto another bus, and I told him I hoped to see him in a few weeks time in Kollur. On we travelled up from the south through Kerala and into Karnataka, and eventually found ourselves a bus to Kollur. It felt great to have made it this far. I had no idea what to do to find the waterfall when we arrived but reassured myself that there must be a way to get some directions. We arrived in Kollur, and found it to be an interesting and charming town with all the usual mix of heat, spice and dust in the air. It is very holy and has the enormous Mookambika temple to which Hindu’s come from miles around to pray. We found ourselves a room, settled in and then I set out looking for guidance; we were very close now and I felt drained but excited. The owner of the guesthouse told us that we would have to take a taxi ride for 5 minutes, to the bottom of the mountain, where a path would present itself and marked the beginning of the trek. It didn’t sound too hard, just follow the path and wait to hear the crashing of the water. We planned to leave the following day and went about the rest of the current day: Telly asleep, suffering from heat exhaustion, and me wandering down to see the river.

Down by the river I got a deep impression of something that is so typically Indian: natural beauty and man made garbage. All over India, from the mountains of the Himalaya’s, through the jungles, down the rivers and across the deserts, these two are side by side; like old friends. It is the tragedy of India and is getting worse as the population increases and more products are flooded into everyday life. Plastic bottles, plastic bags, paper, cardboard, cigarette packets and all the other things that make up litter were everywhere and clogging the river which was absolutely beautiful; even with all the crap! When is someone going to start cleaning this country up, I thought!? It is a mess in so many ways but magnificent in so many others. I was determined to find some untarnished beauty so made my way down the bank of the river away from humanity and its refuse. It didn’t take long to find a better spot and I sat there and watched Sadhu’s (holy Hindu monks) washing their orange robes in the water and having a good old natter. I was amazed when one immaculately dressed Sadhu threw a plastic bottle into the water. I asked him why he did it and he said no-one cares, not even the holymen who need the rivers and the mountains to provide for them in their life of non-attachment. One French woman I subsequently spoke to explained it very well: ‘India is a wonderful place for cleaning inside; cleaning the soul; but it’s a terrible place for cleaning the outside; what you see from your own eyes.’ This is spot on: they have invented so many ways to alleviate suffering and pain through yoga and meditation, but they haven’t yet invented the bin! It’s a tragedy that is not going to be fixed in my view. India will always be beautiful, but oh what I would give to see it before the plastic invasion. I thought with some jealousy of Damian being here 25 years ago when things would have been very different.

Leaving the river behind me, I wandered down a path and, through some trees, saw a strange sight: a western lady, all dressed in white, arms raised to the heavens and a look of happiness and, just a little madness, on her face. Intrigued, I jumped over the fence and found myself in the vicinity of Andre’s destination: the ashram of Thathatha. Soon more westerners in white, flowing robes and peculiar haircuts were swarming around me, and heading into a round building, adorned with gold and fantastic imagery: the central temple for worship. I chatted to a few people, mostly French and very nice, although there were some strange looking folks there. The following day, I brought Telly to have a look: he was pretty shocked, kept telling me it was a cult and that if I had any ideas of joining, then to ditch them, as he would come and, in his own words, ‘forcibly intervene and remove me.’ I had to laugh at that. I am prone to spirituality and a bit of madness, but this place did scare the hell out of me quite a bit! I didn’t hang around too long but asked a few questions to the local Indians about the waterfall. It seemed that no-one would go there because of the tigers, this despite the fact that there are only 1411 tigers in the whole of India, because we Brits shot them all for a laugh. I wasn’t going to be put off by some mystical, scared old sadhu….I was off in the morning and not even a tiger was going to stop me getting there. Besides I had Telly to protect me, and if one of us was going to be lunch, I was confident it was going to be him.

Up early and out the room by 7am, we grabbed a taxi and soon reached the foot of the mountain. There was a large metal gate, which we shimmied around, and a red sun baked earthen path leading into the jungle. I was very excited, incredibly eager and just a little nervous. We were both keen to get the trek underway - and ultimately over - so we went hard at it straightaway. The path was very steep, flanked by dense, bright green jungle – almost fluorescent – and enormous exotic looking trees towered over us. Each time we heard a suspicious noise we stopped and stayed perfectly still; although we knew it was absurd, there was still the fear of attack by a wild animal. But mostly all we saw were monkeys, high in the tree tops, staring down at us with their funny faces, often with babies clinging to their bellies. As the heat of the day increased so did our energy begin to deplete and the sweat became increasingly uncomfortable. We were both finding the going tough and there was little conversation; the ascent was increasingly harsh and the sun hot as an oven. We were well into our trek, hot and sticky, when we heard a new and consistent noise in the distance. We stopped and stayed still, trying to minimise any sound, and became aware of crashing water. I was both happy and relieved to know that we were on the right path and now getting close. After two hours, I saw what I was looking for: no, not the waterfall, not yet, but the stone plinth that I had been told marked the descent down the side of the mountain, just as Damian had described it. Relieved to be moving downhill, our pace increased, and I found myself skipping down the mountain, my boyish enthusiasm and sense of adventure propelling me forward. There was now just a faint path that was easy to miss, and I became very aware of the feeling of following in Damian’s footsteps. Was he thinking the same things as I was all those years ago? What were his emotions? I came across an enormous tree that had fallen down the mountain and dragged its own roots up from the ground in the process. It was somewhat dangerous, but some thoughtful person had dug little steps into the earth to help our progress; it is unlikely, but perhaps Damian had done this, unaware of course that his cousin would benefit, almost three decades later, from his effort. On we went, up and down, over dried riverbeds and through narrow gaps in rocks, and the noise of the waterfall became increasingly louder. Then, through some foliage up ahead, I saw an opening into daylight and the crystal clear water of a jungle river; a hop, skip and a jump onto a large rock and I had arrived. There in front of me, in all its magnificence, was the waterfall Arishna Gundi. Having reached there 25 years since my cousin Damian first laid his eyes on it, I found myself beaming from ear to ear.

We settled ourselves on a rock and took in what we saw before our eyes: the waterfall was high, perhaps 60 – 80 ft from the ridge above, where the water flowed over the lip of the mountain. Perhaps 10ft below from where it emerged, there was a rock face that seemed to have been rubbed smooth by the constant pounding of water over many years. As the water met this rock face and slid down it, it created a very beautiful effect that was captivating to the eye. At the foot of the waterfall was an enormous pool of fresh water, surrounded on all sides by sheer rocks and ledges, with ripples expanding outwards from where it met the rocks below. It looked so fresh and pure; mist jumped up from the rocks and poured down from above, and the rocks shone as if they had been polished. The waterfall was enclosed on all sides by huge overhanging cliffs covered with trees, roots and shrubs, as well as hills of loose stones and boulders. The point where we were sat, silently observing, was where the water from the large pool released itself down the mountain as a river weaving its way through rocks and small lagoons. The view when one turned to face away and look down the mountain, following the rivers course, was very beautiful.

The time was 9.30 am, it had taken us a little more than 2 hours of hard slog, and the sun was now hidden behind the mountain above. This allowed us to get our energy back and dry our sweat drenched t-shirts on the rock on which we had settled. We had brought a number of items of lunch with us, as well as some music, speakers and books. Much of the initial hour or so was spent gazing at the water cascading down in front of us. It was an impressive site: at the lip of the waterfall, high above, you could see the sun very slowly starting to emerge and light up the spray and water vapour. As I watched the way the water fell from above, and then seemed to disappear in the air, I became very conscious of the constant flow of energy that this represented. It was a spiritual understanding: the constant flow of water, ever-present and everlasting, in the same way as the soul will always live on after the body, its vehicle, has long since died away.

As the day developed, the sun moved across in the sky above and slowly enveloped the waterfall, cliffs and pool in its radiant shine. Telly and I stripped down to our shorts, inched ourselves forwards into the fresh, cold water and swam out into the pool. It was a shock at first, but very refreshing and beautifully pure; you could swim underwater with your eyes open with no problems. As I swam towards the rocks where the water fell down, I could feel the wet mist on my face and inside felt very joyful and contented. Together we shouted and laughed, splashed water on each other and congratulated ourselves on our achievement. There was no doubt in our minds that it had been absolutely worth the effort. On reaching the rocks, where the water came crashing down from above, I pulled myself up and stared vertically into the torrent. It was difficult to see without squinting, as the mist and droplets of water got caught in my eyes as I tried to look up towards the overhang. It was a great feeling to be stood, balanced under such a force and staring right into its heart. I wandered from rock to rock, enjoying the cool mist on my body and the thunderous sound of the crashing water all around. As I pulled myself higher up and turned around, I got a great surprise when a rainbow, measuring around 10 ft and incredibly clear and colourful, presented itself in the water below. It was spectacular and I soon had Telly clambering up beside me to have a look. Of course, it was a natural effect of water and light, but, nonetheless, it did feel unreal and magical. Next, we clambered back down and sat under a smaller torrent coming from the main body of water. This gave us a very powerful back massage, and had such force that it made me scream and laugh, and I felt as if it was hammering away any tiredness from out of me. Exhilarated by our little trip out from the shore, we plunged once more into the clear, blue water and in a few strokes had pulled ourselves back onto our chosen rock.

From my position I noticed that there was a bird that stood on the edge of a rock near where the waterfall landed, and opened its wings to preen in the cool, wet mist and the sunshine. It was clearly very happy and spent a long time in the same spot, enjoying the waterfall in much the same way as Telly and I were. When we decided it was time for another dip, I would swim discreetly towards the bird, trying not to alarm it, but always within four feet it would close its wings and fly off over our heads and down the mountain. The amazing thing was that as soon as we were back out of the water and a safe distance away, the bird would swoop back up the mountain and retain its exact same spot, open its wings and bathe away once more. This happened at least five times, and was a cause of great amusement and not a small amount of wonder at the natural world. There were also many large butterflies in spectacular colours and patterns: orange, yellow, turquoise, jade, black and white; they would fly around our heads and land on our bags. What most impressed me was how they would flutter after one another in groups of five or more, and follow each other so perfectly: every little movement left and right was precise; like a game of follow my leader at ridiculous speed. The beauty of the waterfall was that you could watch this nature unfold in front of your eyes and you didn’t have to share it with anyone; the place was deserted and was ours for the whole day to enjoy. The only negative aspect was that it was home to a significant amount of rubbish left behind by fellow adventurers. As I mentioned earlier, this behaviour sickens me and here, up in the mountains surrounded by such spectacular natural scenery, I couldn’t believe my eyes. All people had to do was bring a plastic bag and take their beer cans and crisp packets back down the mountain. Don’t leave them here to spoil this special place. It was depressing to see but we couldn’t fix this problem and, once more, I thought with envy of Damian sitting here with a clean environment around him.

As the day moved into evening, I moved myself up onto a higher rock, and saw what I had been hoping to see. As the mist flowed down from the water above and bounced off the rocks below, it reacted with the sunshine, to create different coloured effects that were mesmerising. Arishna Gundi was finally living up to its name ‘of turmeric colour,’ as the colours swept down from blue to green, then red, yellow and finally an orange turmeric. It was getting late in the day and I was glad that the waterfall had revealed another of its secrets to us. Telly had been busy sharpening up a stake for tiger killing, and together we packed up, and set back off up the path into the jungle. We had debated whether to come again the next day and change our plans, however, we had made arrangements that we had to keep, so we said goodbye to the waterfall with a heavy heart. It was such a memorable day, and it felt so good to have achieved my mission of visiting this place, as my cousin did many years before me.

Finally, some of you may be wondering what became of my cousin Damian. Well, he spent more time travelling in India and developed his passion for music, especially the guitar. On his return to London he vowed he would make a living as a musician and, as far as I am aware, he is doing just that. His first band was called Obi, and wrote a couple of great albums called ‘Magic land of radio,’ and ‘Diceman Lopez.’ He has since had success as Katkhuda and Moss Star Diving club, and I have attached some links to u-tube and some websites if you would like to listen to him. His music is very peaceful, with influences of folk and country, and I am a massive fan.

http://www.myspace.com/katkhuda
http://www.myspace.com/themostardivingclub
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npfE_lNY2C8
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nyr9Xsaw940&feature=related
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJL7SYAvnZA

Please see below for photo's and two video's of Arishna Gundi

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Posted by tcbcrews 08:21 Comments (0)

Holy Inferno

Life and death by the Varanasi ghats

Wandering and lost in the backstreets of Varanasi, I heard the faint murmur of chanting: ‘Hare Rama, Hare Rama.’ As the sound grew closer, I couldn’t work out what direction it was coming from and what its significance was. Suddenly, around the corner of the street came a great commotion: dogs ran yapping towards me, rubbish and dust swirled in the air, as the source of the chanting reveled itself as a procession of young men carrying a body, wrapped in shrouds, on their shoulders. ‘Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Shiva, Shiva,’ they repeated over and over as they bared down upon my position and forced me up against the wall, back flat against it, in order to avoid being crushed into a pulp. They were past me in a flash, a blur of holy fervor, and reached the end of the street and disappeared, as quickly as they had appeared, heading for their destination: Manikarnika ghat aka the burning ghat of Varanasi.

I had come to Varanasi eager to show my younger brother Sam – here on a short 10 day break - something that would stay with him forever; something unique to India that spoke about its history, traditions and central role that Hinduism plays in the lives of its people. Varanasi is an ancient place - the world's oldest inhabited city - located on the banks of the River Ganga (Ganges), about which the author Mark Twain once wrote 'Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and twice as old as all of them put together.'Hindu’s believe that to be cremated by the side of the Ganga in Varanasi is the ultimate achievement of their life and will result in their being removed from the karmic cycle of reincarnation. Dead bodies are brought here to be cremated from all over India, many on trains – only in India can you conceive to be allowed to transport a corpse thousands of miles by public transport! Each cremation costs the family a minimum of 5000 rupees - the price of the cheapest pile of wood - and can be much more if they are wealthy and choose to purchase sandalwood. The wood has been brought downriver on barges from the state of Bihar since ancient times; looking across the river to the opposite side I noticed its endless banks of barren earth – a desert landscape - and wondered whether it had been stripped of its forests long ago to cater for the insatiable demand for new wood. Once the body has been placed on its pyre, and the family has arranged themselves, then it is set alight and burnt for 2 – 3 hours. One would imagine the stench of burning flesh to be unbearable, however, it is cleverly masked with the aroma of sandalwood shavings which are cast into the flames by a crematorium worker. In keeping with Hindu custom, the family members are allowed to show no emotion as they watch, as this may hinder the soul from leaving the body and entering nirvana. Once the body has been burnt the skull is smashed open with a hammer to allow the release of the soul on its onward journey. Interestingly, the only bones strong enough to survive the flames are the breastbone of the male and the pelvic bone of the female. These are ground up into ashes and then cast, along with the rest of the ashes, into the Ganga, where Untouchables (low caste Hindu’s) dredge the water, hoping to find a gold tooth or something else of value. Not everyone is permitted to be cremated in Varanasi: babies, children, pregnant women and people bitten by cobras are wrapped in cloth, tied down with stones, rowed out into the middle of the river and thrown overboard to sink to the bottom; their souls are deemed unready for the highest state of nirvana and must re-enter the cycle of reincarnation.

One of Varanasi’s highlights is to take a boat along the 85 Ghats and marvel at all the activity taking place on the waterfront. After much insisting, we hired a boat for one hour, together with a boatman called Sunny to do the rowing. Boatman is misleading as Sunny, Varanasi's self-proclaimed youngest oarsmen, was 10 years old and little more than a small child. He told us he had been working the river for 2 years and he possessed incredibly strong arms and legs. He was an enthusiastic talker, always trying to please us with his stories but, as he vehemently insisted, was not after more of our money; no Sunny was honest as a hard days work; we could trust him; he was our friend: ‘you happy, me happy, mother Ganga happy, everybody happy!’ We stopped for chai on route, apparently Sunny was paying, but we insisted, and we resumed our trip, hot plastic cups of chai warming our cold fingers. Sunny told us of his love for Mother Ganga, Hinduism’s holiest river, source of divine power, and of how she blesses him everyday he rows her. He then tossed his plastic cup nonchalantly overboard, spat a large mouthful of chewed red tobacco into her body and, satisfied, pulled hard on his oars. It seemed to me a strange way of showing his love and affection for this mighty river.

Not long after, thirsty again, Sunny lent over and sank his lips into mother Ganga’s jade-green body, drank greedily from her and smacked his lips in contentment after taking his fill. ‘Sunny,’ I said, ‘aren’t you worried about all the pollution, dead bodies, human refuse that float in the Ganga?’ ‘No sir, she very clean sir; Very, very clean sir.’ I was unconvinced, but he insisted, ‘look at me sir: very, very strong sir,’ and it is true he was strong as a baby ox. For all his chat he seemed a good kid, who worked hard for his money and who had, in his own words a ‘very strong heart,’ a ‘mighty heart,’ even an ‘antique heart’!? We were not exactually sure what he meant by this, but we guessed at ‘unique heart,’ and didn’t feel like stopping his flow and correcting him.

Sunny aside, the boat ride gave an impressive depiction of life by the Varanasi ghats. We floated past the cremation ghat, where billows of smoke drifted past us in the wind, coming from pyres of burning bodies. Men carried wood and arranged new piles; family members gazed into the flames; dogs, cows and goats slumped lazily on the ground, soaking up the heat of the holy inferno. It was a very fascinating and strange experience: the cremations, six at a time, a production line sending souls on their way to nirvana, holy mother Ganga watching them as they go. As darkness slowly descended the pyres became, in my imagination, the burning of witches during the medieval inquisition, and the mourners became crowds watching intently with morbid fascination. Further down we saw Puja ceremonies, where pilgrims float flowers down the river that are believed to bring good luck to whomever release them. As the sun began to set, many birds appeared, gliding along the water. I saw a large bird of prey - a kite – swirling majestically in the breeze and a beautiful white owl sitting thoughtfully on a rock. The kite wasn’t alone that day: in the sky were hundreds of its kind, although only in name, as these kites were of the paper and string variety, and controlled from the ground by legions of excited children. The sky was full of kites of every colour and flying at every height. Later, when back in our room, we saw from the balcony children flying the kites from their rooftops all the way down the river; it looked like a large gathering of birds at sunset, fluttering and floating in the wind. Sunny told us that, in three days time, the annual kite festival would begin. He then asked us to buy him a kite, we refused, he then told us they were only 2 rupees each so we left him enough tip for 30 new ones. He was a very happy boy!

There is a strikingly large contingent of Asian tourists in Varanasi, particularly from Korea and Japan. They are here because of its reputation as a place very learned in music, where they can take lessons with expert players in, amongst others, the djembe, tabla, sitar and flute. I decided to join a class, eager to improve my djembe skills, and found a small shop, located in the circuit of small, intertwining streets hidden behind the Ghats. We sat, my fellow students and I, together in a circle, each with a drum in hand and notebook in our laps. The teacher wrote us out a rhythm which we all practiced until we were drumming in unison. He then stood, lit some incense and performed puja’s (prayers) to small gods located in a miniature temple on his shop wall. Halfway through the lesson the teacher, Kailash, would again write each of us a new rhythm, teach us, and then rise once more, light new incense and continue with puja’s. A short time into my second rhythm, I received a great shock when a huge black cow stuck his head through the curtain, took a good luck round the circle and let out, in clear pleasure, a magnificent, loud and very tuneful moooooo. It was an impressive horned beast, king of the backstreets, and, as the music teacher told me, one of his best friends - always loyal, simple and never answering back. It was a comical and poignant moment - the teacher and his cow – and I wondered whether I was looking for my friends in all the wrong places! Kailash fed it bread everyday, and in return was simply glad of its company and occasional contributions to the sounds coming from his shop.

Kailash has, as Sam correctly highlighted, one of the best jobs in the world. He works four hours a day, amongst the music he loves, surrounded by enthusiastic students and the serenity created by the incense, precious gods and his holy cow. In truth he doesn’t exactually overwork himself, but he makes enough to provide for his family and takes obvious pleasure in what he does. He is very peaceful, surrounded by a real aura of tranquility, and with skin full of the vitality of youth; this despite his increasing years. One day he told us some of his philosophy on life: how we enter and leave the world naked with no possessions, only the karma that we have accrued in our lives as the product of our deeds and actions. He told us to be honest in everything we do and think, treat others with respect and, most of all, enjoy life and don’t give energy to negative thoughts and emotions. He has been practicing yoga and meditation for more then 30 years and acknowledges the huge part it plays in keeping him happy and stress free. He is the greatest example of the benefits of a spiritual lifestyle that I have yet seen in India.

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Posted by tcbcrews 01:32 Comments (0)

Adventures in puppetry

Jaipur in Rajasthan

My last few weeks at Snehalaya have been strangely dominated by puppets. It all began with the arrival, at the beginning of December, of a new volunteer called Laura Casimir. Laura exuded confidence and creativity: she quickly put forward the idea of a puppet theatre, created and performed by the children, to feature in the upcoming Snehalaya Christmas party. Sanjib recommended two classic hindu tales to perform: ‘the elephant with no friends’ and ‘monkey caps,’ and Laura and I set about drawing the characters and scenery. Next came the fun part: painting the monkeys, elephant, lion and assortment of other jungle characters involved in the stories. We divided the children into two groups and let them go to work with brushes and paints; soon all the characters had come to life (albeit in unusual colours and incredibly thick layers of paint!) We then constructed a theatre set from scrap pieces of wood and decorated it with foliage and flowers to create an authentic jungle background for the performances. Finally, we allocated parts to the children for each tale and held rehearsals in the classroom. When the big day arrived the children were superb: Dipika and Satyam read their scripts perfectly; Jagdeesh and Teekam stole the show as the elephant and lion; and all the children performed with great energy and enthusiasm. I even made a comic cameo appearance as the cap merchant in ‘monkey caps,’ and had the crowd on its knees in raucous laughter. The plays were a great success and, most importantly of all, there had been a contribution, however small, from all the children at Snehalaya.

Following the Christmas program, exhausted and in need of a rest, we left for a short break to Jaipur, capital of Rajasthan. A beautiful city in the desert - hot and dusty, yet clean and elegant - Jaipur was a delightful place to unwind. Known as the ‘pink city,’ due to the colour of its stone, it is famous for its exquisite clothing, marble sculptures and to our obvious delight, Rajasthani puppets. Whilst visiting the city palace, we came across a puppet theatre with a performance in full flow, accompanied by traditional Rajasthani music. As we enjoyed the show, Laura was already forming an idea in her head: wouldn’t it be fun to perform a show, with real puppets, for the children back at Snehalaya. Never one to procrastinate, she soon purchased two puppets and arranged with the puppeteer, Ravi, to visit him at his home and learn how to make them come alive. I readily agreed to accompany her and the date was set for the following evening.

Ravi’s home is in the delightfully named ‘puppet colony,’ a few miles from the centre of Jaipur. It is exactually that: a community of artists, craftsmen and their families, whose lives play out around the making, painting and performing of puppets. Ravi met us by the road outside and led us through the winding back streets to his home. As we walked, we were greeted by hordes of excited young children asking us our names and telling us theirs; I immediately felt at ease to be around people who were genuinely pleased to see a westerner, and not merely making a play for my money. One beautiful young girl ran up and grabbed my hand, asked my name and then told me, with a beaming smile, that her name was ‘Happy.’ She then ran off to play with her friends, leaving me smiling and feeling moved by the simplicity and warmth of the encounter.

We entered Ravi’s home through the kitchen and were greeted by his wife and three adorable children. Indian families often live together, and Ravi shared with his three brothers, their wives and children, as well as his parents and uncles. It seemed very crowded to someone used to living in relatively spacious western houses; however, India demands that people live in close proximity, and everyone has a role to play in the jigsaw of domestic life. Ravi told us that his three brothers were all puppeteers, and they often travelled and performed in shows together. Moreover, they were from a family of puppeteers going back many years: skills passed down from his great-grandfather, grandfather and father, and now being taught to his children to preserve the craft for the future generations. They make the puppets, write the stories, compose the music and perform for enchanted groups of children and adults. Ravi showed us a selection of different characters, all beautifully crafted from mango wood and adorned with exquisite patterns and designs. There were beautiful princesses, snake charmers and musicians; all dressed in the traditional garments of Rajasthani life. He began to perform for us, accompanied by his brother on the drum, and his children who danced around our feet. Laura and I clapped along, enchanted by this unusual and immensely enjoyable experience.

Performance over, we settled down, with some chai, to listen to our host and his stories of life as a Rajasthani puppeteer. He has travelled extensively with his troupe, performing for audiences in France, Germany and Spain, and even as far afield as South America. He showed us pictures taken with nobility, politicians and Bollywood filmstars; however, what most impressed us was how he used puppets to try to improve life for India’s rural poor. Ravi writes and performs, with his puppets, typical scenes from village life that try to teach important educational and moral messages. He has written pieces about the rapid spread of HIV in India, and the importance of using contraceptives to check its advance. He has written about the dangers of primitive abortion methods; in particular, for families repeatedly aborting unwanted female fetuses in their desperate quest for a son. He has written about the importance of drinking clean water to prevent diseases such as cholera and typhoid that continue to take thousands of lives in India every year. Ravi’s performances also try to make people aware that there is help available should things take a turn for the worse. For example the problems faced by rural farmers when the monsoon fails: every time the rains don’t come, which is not infrequent, scores of desperate farmers are led to commit suicide. They have no food to feed their families, can generate no income, and have no seed with which to start again. Consequently, they feel their predicament is entirely hopeless so see no option but to take their own lives. If only they knew that there is help available, for just such an eventuality, in the form of Government- backed interest free loans and grants that can see them through the hard times and help provide for a brighter future. Ravi, through his puppet shows, brings this into awareness, in the hope that next time farmers will know where to turn for help, and thus prevent this tragic and pointless loss of life.

What I found most interesting was comparing Ravi’s puppet shows with what we do for the villagers that surround the orphanage in Gwalior. At Snehalaya, there is a similar scheme called ‘rural visits,’ where we go to villages to raise awareness of common illnesses and their prevention. Unfortunately, the visits only attract a handful of people as most are not interested to hear: they don’t like change, and prefer to stick to their traditional, mystical way of life going back to ancient times. Consequently, the message does not reach a wide enough audience to really have a positive impact. Ravi told us that, as word gets around that a puppet troupe has arrived, dozens of children come running, followed by their parents, to witness the playful performances and listen to the stories containing the crucial messages. Both Laura and I felt that puppets were a brilliant medium for highlighting these problems and, at the same time, providing enjoyable entertainment for the villagers.

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Posted by tcbcrews 23:25 Comments (1)

Mercy Home

I recently accepted an invitation from Snehalaya’s physiotherapist to visit the state orphanage called the Mercy Home. I had heard and read many things about this place where our children came from, and was pleased to finally have the chance to see things for myself. As Vikram and I approached the building, nothing was as I expected it to be: I had formed the impression that the orphanage was in Gwalior itself, surrounded by bustling streets full of markets, shops and the throbbing mass of Indian society. However, much to my surprise, Mercy Home is out in the countryside, seemingly hidden away from view; almost as if India was hiding its shame. We entered through large, imposing metal gates and were greeted by a rush of residents seemingly desperate for contact with the outside world. The atmosphere immediately felt dark and suphocating; I realised, as far as our children were concerned, just how much of an improvement Snehalaya was in comparison with this, their former home.

With Vikram attending to his routine round to check on the residents, I peeled away and went to explore the vast building that had previously served as a paper mill during the British Raj. As I wandered through the corridors and out into the main courtyard, I immediately recognized my surroundings from photos held in the volunteers file at Snehalaya. I had seen pictures of children laid in this very courtyard, being washed and fed by volunteers. I recognized the gate where one boy was filmed chewing at the wallpaper and being beaten with a stick by a member of staff. The atmosphere felt very heavy and melancholic, and I thought how tough it must have been for volunteers who spent six months visiting here on a daily basis. I have been told disturbing stories of blood coating the floors, giant rats running over children and babies lying in their own excrement for days on end. Moreover, at mealtimes, food was laid out in the courtyard, and only those who could physically make it outside would be able to eat. Those bedridden and unable to move, unless fed by fellow residents, would be left to starve as there was no staff to feed them. One female volunteer related to me that, after a days work at the mercy home, exhausted beyond belief, they would head back home for a few stiff gin and tonics; I can certainly understand their need! From the courtyard, I was escorted by one of the male residents into the dormitories that felt like huge hospital wards from a bygone age. It may sound ridiculous, but I half imagined seeing Florence Nightingale carrying her lamp and attending to victims of some dreadful war. All the beds were rusting and falling apart, the sheets were dirty and mouldy, and everything felt very cold and uncomfortable. I was shocked as one man jumped up from underneath his covers; I had not seen him due to the heavy darkness that permeates the place. From the window of the dormitory a fort loomed up on a hill and added to the impression of being in a place more befitting medieval times. A windowless kitchen with earthen floors, hearth and smoky atmosphere only added to this feeling.

The residents of the Mercy Home are now, mercifully, only adults, since the children were rescued from their torment and brought to live at Snehalaya. There are currently only 15 residents, whereas before there were over 70, and thus they naturally seem much better cared for. There is a large garden at the front of the building, with a huge oak tree, and it could look so much better if properly cared for. If there was some fresh paint on the walls, new beds and new equipment, then my impressions of the mercy home would probably be very different. The reality is this however; the government only pays the wages of the staff, and does not provide funds for other necessities. This means that food and equipment (if any) has to be purchased through donation. This strikes me as ridiculous, as this is the state orphanage, and the Government of India should have an obligation to provide for all the needs of its people. However, this is India and not the west; such a situation is unthinkable in the UK, but out here they are fortunate that the government actually pays their salaries at all. How can there be any improvement in conditions if no money is made available?

The lack of resources at the Mercy Home is only one example of a deep rooted problem in Indian society. The villages in the immediate vicinity are desperately poor, where people live out their lives in abject poverty. Children play naked in the dirt, the streets are awash with garbage and human refuse, and mothers cook meager food on fires made from cow dung. Disease is rife with infant mortality high due to lack of sanitation and inadequate education. These shocking realities are no surprise when you consider that there is no welfare state in India. The economy is soaring, with more billionaires than any other country in the world; however, in this huge nation the old adage of the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer, could not be more appropriate. India is in the midst of an economic boom with huge capital being generated from its status as world leaders in IT and services, as well as access to vast natural resources and an infinite pool of manpower. So the question is where does all this money go? The answer, not hard to imagine, is that a large proportion goes into the pockets of the new, emerging middle classes and super rich, and much of what is set aside for the rest is siphoned off by corrupt bureaucrats. Indian bureaucracy is like a huge network of broken and leaking pipes where, by the time the money reaches its required destination, there is very little left. I have seen some signs that money is getting through to those who need it: for example, the government has built some schools where the children are fed for free, and also ensures that there is at least one trained midwife living in each village. However, these examples are few and far between, and so much more can and needs to be done to improve the lives of India’s rural poor. It is little wonder that there are such funding problems at the Mercy Home when the state doesn’t provide for the needs of its own people! It was only when volunteers appealed to Gwalior council on numerous occasions that any improvements were made to the Mercy Home. I have been told that conditions, as they are now, are ten times better then what they used to be; I cannot fathom how awful it must have been when all our children were living there. It is disgraceful and shameful, and it is terrifying to think that all the towns and cities of India will have a Mercy Home, or equivalent, with children living in these deplorable conditions.

To end on a positive note perhaps it is better to see it as a blessing that there is a Mercy Home in Gwalior in the first place. Having seen what I have seen, I would not be surprised to find that, in some parts of India, there is no place at all for mentally challenged people. Gwalior Mercy Home now has an excellent doctor, who seems genuinely caring, and now has a much improved staff to resident’s ratio. I was even informed that, the day after my visit, they were all going to the zoo for a day out to mark a national holiday. Thank goodness there is some light and happiness, for these poor people, in their otherwise dark and troubled existence.

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Posted by tcbcrews 02:41 Comments (0)

Orphan's of Snehalaya

I am coming towards the end of my stay at Snehalaya and will miss these children immensely when I leave. It has taken me over four months, but I finally know all of their names, and have formed a bond, however small, with each of them. They have been through so many hardships, faced so many challenges and had to endure so many upheavals, that it is a wonder that they have turned out as well as they have. Their lives before at the Mercy Home were very bleak and they faced a future full of misery and fear; now that they are at Snehalaya they are, at the very least, safe, warm and well fed, and well looked after by carers and volunteers. I have made many new friends here and enjoyed their company immeasurably and I will be sad to have to leave them when the time comes. I have written some character profiles of the children below, with photos, which are based on my experiences and from talking to other volunteers and Snehalaya founder, BK Sharma.

Cottage 1 – Mamta, Meenu, Lali, Anu Radha

Mamta is one of only a handful of non-mentally handicapped orphans at Snehalaya. She was brought here by a family friend who was concerned about the abuse she was receiving at the hands of her uncle. Mamta was born with clubbed feet and weak bones in her legs, a condition that, although serious, is not untreatable and should not hinder a normal childhood. The problem was that her parents, either through neglect, lack of money or understanding (probably all three), failed to have her operated on soon after her birth, thereby missing the best opportunity to correct her deformities. Subsequently, both her parents died, the records do not say how, and Mamta went to live with her uncle who beat her. She was made to walk or hobble barefoot, which made her condition yet worse, and life must have been very miserable for this poor little girl. Mercifully, a family friend contacted Snehalaya to ask if they would take her, which they did, and she came to live a new life amongst her fellow orphans. She now has a special stick to help her walk, and specially designed shoes to help her feet and improve her balance and coordination. Dr BK Sharma is looking, when opportunity occurs, to send her for surgery that will hopefully solve her problems and enable her to walk properly for the first time. In the meantime, she has been enrolled for school, as she is a bright and eager student, and she will begin classes after the New Year. Mamta’s story is heartbreaking, as she has suffered so much in the short time she has been alive, however, what is striking is that she is incredibly resilient, and seems not to let her past get in the way of her infinitely brighter future. She has been rescued from a hellish experience of abuse, and there is no reason why she should not now flourish, and go on to lead a happy and normal life.

Meenu is a girl I have grown increasingly fond of during my time at Snehalaya. She is 14 years old, suffers from epilepsy and learning difficulties, and has a rare skin disease that has left her face covered in scars. She has suffered abuse in the past and found in very hard to settle at Snehalaya at first. However, thankfully she has now recovered and seems a lot better, although is moody like any normal teenager, and refuses to stand in line in assembly. She is happiest when I give her a hindi book or ‘kitab’ to look at and, when in a good mood, can be helpful and charming.

If there is one resident of Snehalaya you don’t want to get on the wrong side of, it is Anu Radha. Anu suffers from speech and learning difficulties, and is an imposing young girl, who likes being bossy and pushing people around. On the other hand, she is very helpful in her cottage, and likes to keep the other girls in good order, god help them should they disobey! She is always first to my PT class in the morning, and makes me laugh with her attempts to meditate and do yoga. She was found, aged one and a half, abandoned at the local district hospital, and ended up at Snehalaya via Mother Teresa’s home for orphaned girls. She likes to have a boy on her arm, and is currently stepping out with Pappan, and they love playing cricket together at playtime.

Lali is a little darling, who is always happy, and communicates this with high pitched squeaks that I fear will someday make the windows crack. She claps her hands furiously when excited, and has two big front teeth that make her look like a bunny rabbit. She copes well with her epilepsy and I love taking her for walks around the grounds of Snehalaya. She does have some very bad habits though: she obsessively tries to bite anything within reach, including me, and also likes eating grit and small stones; we are working on this and trying to turn her towards a healthier vegetarian diet.

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Cottage 2 – Nandu, Vishal, Bittu and Sandeep

Now poor old Nandu has just about got the lot. He suffers from CP, epilepsy and quadriplegia, as well as being blind. He was found abandoned at an indoor railway station in Gwalior, and brought to Snehalaya via Mercy Home. At mealtimes, Nandu and I have worked out a method that leaves no room for any doubt as to what he wants: If I say ‘kahna,’ or food in hindi, he responds positively with ‘howw,’ much like a red Indian, and if I say ‘pani,’ or water, and he is not thirsty, then he tries to punch me. It’s a very simple and effective means of communication and, as long as I am aware, there is no need for me to get a punch in the face. There have been a few instances of water going flying, where Nandu has missed his main target and knocked the cup right out of my hand. He usually follows up this show of bravado with a big smile, laughter and sticks his tongue out, and I forgive him immediately. I am very fond of Nandu and admire his courage in the face of the difficulties he faces daily, and the constant pain from which he suffers. I have been told that, due to his condition, he will not live many more years, and I hope that those he does are as happy as they can possibly be.

Vishal, as many of the previous volunteers can testify, is an incredibly lovely and charming boy. Despite his CP and learning difficulties, he copes remarkably well, and is very intelligent and independent. He has a great determination to succeed in everything he does, whether walking to assembly in the morning, or folding his clothes in the evening. He understands hindi well and can repeat a number of words, especially when he is shouting at his room mates to keep quiet! He is a very happy boy, with an adorable smile, and only really gets angry when he finds Bittu trying to steal his food. Unfortunately for Vishal, his best friend Subash recently died, and it was clear that he found his absence strange and upsetting, however, thankfully he is now back to his brilliant best. I’m sure that everyone who has known him will agree that Snehalaya would not be the same without this fabulous little boy and his beaming smile.

If there is ever any food lying around then you can bet your bottom dollar that Bittu has his eye on it. This boy’s appetite could rival that of an elephant, and it is no surprise he spends half his time on the toilet. Bittu suffers from CP and autism and is most often found, when not on the loo, pushing his leg support around the grounds, having recently discovered the ability to walk. This improvement is due to his physiotherapy, and proves the value of working with these children to enhance their quality of life. Bittu loves to move his head from side to side to music, and can get quite animated and very energetic when really going for it. He is a great character and much loved by both carers and volunteers; just remember to watch your dinner!

Sandeep is one of my best buddies here at the orphanage, and I go to see him whenever I am feeling down. He has an amazing ability to make you feel better, and he does so simply with his smile and by laughing. He cannot say a single word, but when you mention his name, he grins and gurgles with pleasure. Sometimes I will be in his room and he will be in uncontrollable stitches of laughter, for no apparent reason, and this sets me off, and soon all of the CP kids are giggling like hyenas. Poor Sandeep is the most deformed of the CP orphans; His spine is totally out of line and twisted and his tiny, brittle legs come out at almost a right angle. He can do nothing for himself, and is totally dependent on others for all his needs, not that he asks for much! He sleeps next to his friend Karen, and they often link their arms together before they go to sleep. I hate to see him upset and the usual reason he is crying is because he has no other way of getting anyone’s attention. Sandeep is a total legend and a brilliant friend and I will never forget him.

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Milly is new to the orphanage and is quite simply adorable. She has the sweetest face and most captivating hazelnut eyes, and I can’t help but want to pick her up and cuddle her whenever I see her. What I find incredible is that anyone could wish to be parted from such a lovely girl, who is placid and seems to have a very sweet nature. Only a few weeks ago, Milly was found wandering at the gates of Snehalaya, after a car had been seen to pull up and eject a young girl. She had been abandoned, like so many others like her, by parents who simply didn’t want her; probably for the simple reason that she is a girl. She cannot speak, but I do not think she is mentally challenged (I am no expert!), only that she has suffered some trauma that has rendered her afraid and unwilling to communicate. When I first tried to engage her she would shy away from me, as if I was going to strike her, a reaction that surely points to her having been beaten in the past. Now she is very slowly starting to come out of her shell, but I can only imagine how confused she must be to have been cast into a new life, surrounded by dozens of orphan children, away from everything, however bad, she has ever known. I know it’s wrong to have favourites, but this little girl, her hazelnut eyes, and her tragic tale of rejection, have left a deep impression on me, and, were I ever to bring one of these children back to England, it would surely have to be her.

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Cottage 5 – Carer Raju and orphans Ayush, Munnu, Chota Raju, Chotu, Mohit, Amman & Pappan

The relationship between Raju and Ayush is one of the really positive success stories of Snehalaya. When I arrived, I soon became aware of a tiny, tearful and despondent little boy, who would sit in the corner and softly cry all day. I have never seen a child more depressed and with less desire for living than Ayush. As hard as I tried to engage this sweet looking boy, I could never raise a smile; just one smile would have been enough to make my day. From checking his records, I discovered that Ayush was abandoned at the gates of Snehalaya aged six and, nothing being known about him, was named by the staff present at the time. He was diagnosed as having learning difficulties, and was immediately beset with problems, the major being that, at mealtimes, he would stuff food down his throat and then vomit it up and rub it all over himself. The notes tell me that a number of doctors sought to alleviate this behavior, but all were unsuccessful, and Ayush continued to be a source of real concern. The breakthrough came when he was moved from cottage 2 to cottage 5 to be looked after by a carer called Raju. Raju has essentially become Ayush’s adopted father and the transformation has been magical. Gone is the tearful and isolated baby and, in his place, has emerged a happy, cheeky and adorable little boy. He now smiles all the time and can often be found walking around the playground happily chuckling to himself. What Raju has achieved, he has by treating Ayush as his own son, and giving him the love that any child requires from a parent. He has become the role model that Ayush so badly needed in order to recover from the dreadful psychological damage of his previous life. I feel I must make further mention of Raju as he is, in every sense, the Indian version of DR Doolittle. He looks after all the birds, pigeons, parrots and ducks, as well as the chickens on the farm. Whenever there is a snake discovered Raju is called to deal with the problem and, hence, I him have named him ‘snake man.’ I recently had the dubious pleasure of witnessing him beat to death a 6 foot cobra that had found its way into the hospital; it was very exciting, although I did feel sorry for the snake that was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Munnu is 14 and suffers from autism. He is very typically autistic, and is most happy when he has a stick or a piece of plastic to flick around. He loves playtime, when he can be found rocking energetically backwards and forwards, clapping his hands and singing his songs. He is absolutely no trouble, and appears to be quite contented in his existence. As long as he can play his games, Munnu, it seems, will always be happy.

If I am ever in need of a quiet, reflective moment, then I usually search out Chota Raju. He can normally be found in the garden, hugging his legs and staring at the horizon meditatively. He cannot speak but can be expressive, particularly when his mouth is agape, and he is pointing something out in the distance that is interesting him. I used to take him swimming and the poor boy was petrified, and clung to me, shaking, with both hands like a vice. He is a totally innocent and good natured and I know he is always there, sitting in the garden, should I need some time out from the likes of Teekam and Mohit.

Mohit is 13, has learning and speech difficulties, as well as being partially physically handicapped. He is very demanding of volunteers and simply loves attention all the time. This can be annoying but he is a sweet boy whose parents, still alive, have left him at Snehalaya and never come to visit. They left him here originally for a period of ‘respite care,’ due to his demanding nature, but have never come back to get him. Poor kid just wants to be noticed and loved, and probably doesn’t understand why he has been left behind.

Chotu, who suffers from speech and learning difficulties, is a very adorable and lovable little boy. He loves playing in the playground and often gets very dirty and needs a good wash. His favourite game is carrying stones on his head and bringing them over to me. He plays this game for hours and, by the time dinner is ready, I have a large pile of stones, all gratefully received.

Aman and Pappan are best friends and, during the summer, I used to take them to the swimming pool for hydrotherapy. Pappan loved the water, but Aman was very shy at first, and there were lots of tears, but eventually he relaxed and we had a lot of fun. Aman, who is 10, is happy and helpful boy with a lovely smile and a handsome face. Having come from the dreadful Mercy Home, he has learnt to be very independent and resilient, and maintains his happy demeanor under the most trying of circumstances. He has some learning and speech difficulties and, instead of speaking, communicates with squeaks. Amman is also DR Doolittle junior, as I often find him chasing the chickens around their hutch, copying the technique of his carer, ‘Snake man’ Raju. This is, however, not appreciated by his hero, and Amman usually receives a clip round the ear for his efforts. Pappan can be a naughty boy at times, but has recently become much calmer and nicer to be around. He has a girlfriend called Anu Radha, and they can often be found playing cricket together with a stick and a plastic ball. Pappan is always batting and Anu Radha dutifully throws him the ball; this is not to say that Pappan wears the trousers in their relationship, as Anu Radha is very resilient and is often seen putting her foot down and pushing him around! They spend a lot of time together and love to have long conversations, both seemingly speaking in entirely different languages of gibberish, although perhaps it all makes perfect sense to them. I must also mention that Pappans favourite word in Hindi is ‘arm’ which translates as mango, and he says it at least ten times a day.

Rupa and Chota Meenu

Snehalaya also opens its doors to homeless women, and currently has one resident called Rupa, living here with her daughter Chota Meenu. Rupa is 36, and came from the mercy home with Chota Meenu three years ago. From speaking to previous volunteers, I have been told that she was ferociously violent towards anyone who came near daughter at the mercy home; a mother prepared to go to any lengths to protect her from a potentially dangerous environment. She would often clash with Shiv Kumar, although not as a threat to her daughter, so much so that one day she threw a brick in his face and broke his nose. I couldn’t help but chuckle when I heard that story! My experience of Rupa is that she is a now a calm woman, who dutifully keeps a keen eye on her daughter, and seems relaxed and contented at Snehalaya. She likes to engage me in long, unintelligible one-way conversations, when she seems fully satisfied with my nodding acceptance at everything she says. Her daughter, Chote Meenu, suffers from no disabilities and attends regular school with the children of the carers. She is very sweet and loves to dance to hindi songs with her best friend Radha.

Cottage 6 – Shiv Kumar, Teekam and Bara Raju

If I could only write about one of the orphans of Snehalaya, it would probably have to be Shiv Kumar. Shiv Kumar, in my opinion, has redefined the word ‘character.’ He can be, depending on his mood, incredibly naughty, bizarrely eccentric or touchingly considerate, often all three at the same time. He is the only child at Snehalaya to whom the rules don’t seem to apply. He can usually be found wandering around the orphanage with a bag of clothes in one hand, comb in his shirt pocket, whistle in his mouth and makeup on his face. He adores dressing up in new outfits, particularly matching jacket and trousers and, I have been informed, has a fondness for wearing women’s clothes. He loves to sing and dance to Bollywood songs, often with his shirt off and pants round his ankles…he is a true performer, the hindi Robbie Williams. What I have come to realize with Shiv Kumar is that, for all the histrionics and controversy that he is often at the centre of, there is a sincere and likeable young man, who treats his fellow orphans with care and affection. He sometimes helps me to carry the CP children and expects nothing in return; although I may just give him a beautiful sari to wear when the time comes for me to leave.

There is no one here, or anywhere else in the world, quite like Teekam. He is 18, suffers from mental retardation and learning and speech difficulties. With Teekam everything is about extremes; he can be the most incredibly sweet and helpful person, but also intensely frustrating and sometimes very annoying. He just loves being involved in everything, and never gives up trying to get his point of view across, despite profound communication issues. One of his favourite games is making me count to ten, and then again, again, again, again and again, until my head explodes and I have to walk away. He then hounds me down and asks me what his name is, and I say ‘Teekam,’ and then I ask him my name, and he says either ‘pur’ or ‘ubba.’ We play this game a few times, and it is a pretty good laugh, until the twentieth time when, concerned for my own sanity, I head off again. At half past four, every day, Teekam demands that I get him chai (tea) from the kitchen, even though I tell him each time that chai is served at three, and he is not allowed any anyway. He gets incredibly annoyed with me but there’s nothing I can do; I have tried but failed to get the kitchen staff to give him chai, but they won’t as he drinks it too hot and burns his tongue. For all his obsessive tendencies, I am very fond of Teekam who is a nice young man, with a great spirit, who just wants to help and have some chai, and you can’t blame him for that!

Bara Raju is 14 years old and suffers from learning and speech difficulties, chronic anemia, and autism. He is not a well boy, and I am not the first volunteer to say that I worry about him and what the future holds. He communicates through expressive noises, particularly ‘eh, eh, eh’ and, at first, I have to admit that I found him hilarious, not in a cruel way, but he just cracked me up. He would often get himself into trouble by grabbing people and obsessively trying to take them to the toilet. He also eats anything he can lay his hands on: plastic, stones, flowers and crayons to name but a few. I have spent more time with him recently and feel very sorry for him, as I think he is teased a lot by some staff and other children, and I often find him tearful and confused. He is totally harmless and, I have been told, possesses a beautiful voice, although I have not yet been able to get him to sing. With Bara Raju, it is hard to know what to do to help him, as he cannot stay in one place more than five seconds, and will not join in with group activities.

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