Its close to dusk on a Saturday evening. The ladies of the Gandhi home for the Elderly are seated around the two television sets, one upstairs and the other downstairs, eagerly awaiting the weekly special of the full feature Tamil movie.
“Saturday evenings are much awaited,” says Royal, the man behind the running of the home, and the one who has ‘rescued’ these ladies from their abandoned existences.
In his mid-forties, Royal looks youthful – lightly built, and with an expressive and mobile face that breaks easily into a disarming smile. To these elderly ladies, he is their beloved ‘foster’ son.
Lakshmi has been expecting my arrival; she jumps down exuberantly from the high sofa and grabs my hand shaking it vigorously in greeting. The three of us move up to the terrace where we can talk quietly.
“I am very happy here – I have been here for the last 5 years, and I have no lack of anything,” says Lakshmi, dressed warmly for the Pondicherry winter, a sweater over her sari and blouse, and a woolen cap covering her ears. “Royal is my son, and there is no hunger here; he provides us enough food, and enough tea and for me, enough betel leaves and nuts to chew…! He is like a goat herd who brings in fresh tender greens for the goat that is me!
“I was born near Ulundurpettai in the village of Kalarukuppam; it was the day Gandhi was killed – that will tell you how old I am [66 years]. I was married off to a carpenter in Thoothukudi. He found work in Auroville under a maestri doing construction. So my husband, I, and our 1-year old son came to live in Kuyilapalayam. It was a good life. I also found work in the factory that made paper for wrapping soaps. For 16 years I worked there until the place was closed down by Ojha [the Auroville admistrator, eds.]. I remember Ojha asking me and the other workers to sign papers to close the place. I did not sign but still the factory closed. But soon a technical unit dealing with fabric and tailoring was opened in the same building by a Hindi man. I worked 6 years at this place till I injured my knee there and could not work anymore. By this time my husband had died. I now found some garden work at a few homes in Auroville where I would cut grass.
My son was a stone sculptor. He was working for a vellakaran [foreigner, eds.] from Italy in Thandrakuppan, near Mudaliarchavadi. That man bought some land and registered it under my son’s name, and they were living there while I continued in Kuyilapalayam. My son fell in love and married a girl from Thandrakuppam. Their first was a boy who died, and then a second boy was born. He was well and good at studies. Then fate intervened. My son found out that his wife was unfaithful so he left her and married for the second time, a girl from Edaiyanchavadi. They had a daughter and a son.
But my son’s work with stone carving involved a lot of dust and stone powder. It affected his health badly and he had to be admitted to the hospital to be operated. He died during the operation.
I moved in into my son’s home in Edaiyanchavadi to help my daughter-in-law and my grandchildren. Her mother was also living there. Once when my grand-daughter gave me some coffee to drink, this lady told the child, “Why do you offer her coffee – just lay her down and pour coffee in her mouth.” It was an insult, and I kept quiet. However my grand-daughter got very upset and spoke angrily to this lady – her other grandmother. I chided my grand-daughter for being rude to an elderly person. For 2-3 days I stayed on in that house but I was mentally very disturbed. I finally decided to end my life.
I walked to the sea and try walking into the water to die, but some force – it felt like my son was putting his arms around me and pulling me back – kept preventing. I kept trying again and again to enter the sea from several spots, but every time I was rescued. After five attempts I gave up. I walked to the nearby Periya Amman Koil [Big Goddess temple], climbed up her steps, sat down and had a big cup of tea. Then I bought a lot of betel leaves and nuts and chewed paan to my heart’s content. That was that.
Then I thought of this son; I had worked for his father Albert at the Auroville Health Centre [a Dutch Aurovilian who had set up the Old Age Home and who passed away in December 2013], and I knew he was running a home for old people. I decided that I will go to him and see – if he asks me to stay, I will stay, or else I will go to my birth village.
So this is now my son and here is now my home.”
In conversation with Priya Sundaravalli
Lakshmi continues to be in touch with her son’s family. Her two grandchildren visit her often bringing treats for all the ladies in the home, with special treats for their Lakshmi patti [grandmother].