My NGO runs an old aged persons home in Rayagada, only about 15 minutes walk from our office. I've met several of the residents before at various occasions like the Music festival, and some have been to my house helping Gunno and Pralad who run the home deliver my gas bottle and fit my fans. But I had never actually been to visit. I decided it was high time to rectify this and so today I took the afternoon off and went to call. I went with Mrs P as I needed to have someone with me who could help with the language. Mrs P tells me that Oct 1st is Elders Day and my NGO has a big celebration at the home on that day.
At first everyone is a bit wary as we arrive. Is it because of me or is it because it is Mrs P? Mrs P gives me a tour of the whole house. It is much smaller than I expected. From the front veranda where everyone is sitting there are two doorways, The one of the right leads into the men's dormitory and the one on the right into the women's. Beds line the two long walls of each room. There is not an inch of space between them. But each has their mattress, sheet, blanket and I am please to see, each has a mosquito net. It is extremely basic accommodation which I had expected, but much, much smaller. The dorms are tightly packed, although there are fewer beds in the women's one because there have been a number of deaths over the recent hot season. At the other end of each dormitory a second doorway leads into another room at right angles to the dorms, running behind them. This is their dining area, it is completely bare. On the right hand wall are the toilets. I am told only the women use them - the men just go outside. On the left hand wall is another doorway into a kitchen area, where a wood fire is burning and a huge communal pot is already boiling up on the fire.
Only one of the men in the home speaks English, he tells me he was a government teacher for 36 years before coming to this home. I wonder just how he ended up here, but cannot ask. I praise his English. One of the men is blind. Slowly they start to feel comfortable enough to talk. I recognize some of the men and women from the Music evening that was held a few months ago in the nagar. One of the women recognizes me also. One lady is squatted down in a brilliant red sari. I don't see her picture, so I politely ask her name. I say it in my best Oriya and get a big smile but nothing is said. I try my best Hindi, still nothing. Then she says something which is clearly more than saying her name and which I cannot understand a single word of. Then I hear one of the other women say Telugu. Of course, I have chosen to try my Language out on the one person in the whole 22 who cannot understand me, she only speaks Telugu - no Oriya, no Hindi, no English. There are smiles all round as I begin to understand. I can feel the atmosphere relaxing. One lady then shows me where their pictures hang on the veranda wall, each with their names, a roll call of residents. My lady in red is not on there either as she is relatively new to the home. But suddenly there is a lot of speaking, and I am having everyone pointed out to there pictures. I have no hope of catching everyone's names, but it feels good.
By now three of the women have started to sift through rice for their evening meal, tossing the rice in a wicker basket shaped like a dustpan, and picking out the little stones than could break your teeth. I think maybe next time I will sit down with them and help. I am told everyone helps with chores, everyone has something they can do. One man has been pumping water and others are busy filing up pail size buckets. I notice each has a number painted on its side, I think this is for washing prior to eating dinner. Mrs P tells me they all help each other, if someone is not able to wash their clothes others will do it for them. They certainly all look clean, as do their saris and clothes.
Jaganath, one of the men who has been to my house, shows me their garden. My NGO has just bought a small piece of adjacent land which lies between the home and a plot of government owned land which the residents have vegetables growing in. A few very sorry looking plants are in this new patch. I am told it has only recently been cleared and planted with bringal (aubergine) but with the bad rains of last weekend the plants are suffering, from too much rain. I suspect they have planted too late and may not get a crop at all this year. The other patch is full of beans and bendi (ladies fingers/okra) This is actually the first time I have seen a ladies finger plant and am surprised to find the vegetables stand erect rather than hang down. I am not sure why I thought they would hang, but they don't. A nice crop of green papaya hangs from their two papaya trees. Ah something else I can say, Mote green papaya bhala lage - I like green papaya. I get Mrs P to add that I only recently tasted this for the first time. Amused, disbelieving looks at this, but I repeat that I like it and all seems well. In the front garden are medicinal plants, one which I am told is good for snake bites. Nods of appreciation as I understand and repeat sapa - snake. There is also a Bitter Gourd plant - Mote bhala lageni I say with a disgusted look on my face. Smiles again, then Mrs P tells me no one here like it either.
So it is time to go. I see one of their pictures shows them playing a board game I am told is called Karrom. Now those of you who know me well know that I love to play cards, board games and the like, even winning a few thousand Vatu ( all of £20!) in a nicely conducted "Sting" operation on 3 young lads on the Soren Larsen who were playing poker :) I love playing games, maybe this is the way to really break the ice. Mu asuchi, I say - I will come again if you teach me how to play Karrom.
I retrieve my shoes and struggle to get me feet in them - they are actually Mrs P's shoes because the toe strap broke on mine as I walked from home this afternoon and I have borrowed a pair to walk over to the home. My shoe struggle and my attempt at an explanation of why I am having to man handle my feet into my shoes, that they are Mrs P's shoes and I have too big feet - bahut bura pada - is met with laughter from the women. A good note on which to take our leave.
I make it home before the rains start, thinking about what life must be like for the residents. Better than many places, worse then many others. Certainly nothing like what I can expect in my old age. But for these ladies and gents, all of whom are into their 70s, it represents a safe place to stay, it is dry (although very hot indoors now never mind in the hot season), there is a hot meal to eat every day, regular medical checkups and the camaraderie of others. I will be visiting again, even if it is only to call in for 10 minutes to say hello and to ask them how they are. So be prepared anyone who is going to visit because now you will also be visiting the old dears.