Four Days at Child Haven
05.12.2008 - 09.12.2008 28 °C
Some films begin with a black and white still photo and slowly come into colour before the action begins. Our experience in coming here was like that – we have seen newsprint images of this place for so long – it was amazing to suddenly be there and see the colourful buildings and the lovely gardens. At first, only the staff and older students who are on a 2 week break from college were there, so the action was slow in building. School got out at 4 and suddenly, there were 200 children all saying, “Sister, what is your name?” in their delightfully sweet Indian English. Conversations got a little repetitive, especially with the younger children, but our supply of string for cat’s cradle went over very well – a great mixer!
Saturday was a busy day, everyone here was involved in preparations for Sunday’s “function” – the inauguration of a new water treatment facility and an interfaith temple (funded by the Jain’s – so the marble effigy of their god, Mahaveera sits in the centre). The temple is at one end of the hall where the children eat. We enjoyed watching all the special food preparation happening at the other end of the hall that day – the most sumptuous handmade Jain specialties - Sunday’s breakfast, lunch and supper for around 700 people. Bonnie of course already has saris, but the rest of us westerners (3 other women and ourselves) headed into the nearby town, Uthiramerur, to purchase saris and arrange for the sewing of sari blouses. We wanted to look our best (and fit in) for the special occasion. We also asked the tailor to sew Emil a lovely new shirt.
Sunday was AMAZING!! Building slowly… and crescendo-ing for a very long time!
All the food we’ve eaten here has been delicious, but Sunday’s breakfast was still more delicate and mysterious, perhaps all the more so with the backdrop of traditional ragas being played by musicians in the courtyard. The children loved showing us the horses (which they called ox) and the many fine decorations that had been hung overnight.
Outsiders trickled and then streamed in. Within the throngs of people was a man named Kalyanam - he was at least 90, very fit and wonderfully calm. I soon learned that he was Gandhi’s secretary, and had nursed Gandhi when he was hospitalized. What an honour it was for me, to walk hand in hand with him and other dignitaries for the procession partway to the village and back!! Bonnie and a few others rode in a decked out 1960-s Chevrolet. Jain dignitaries - including a young nun dressed like a bride with her crown and peach coloured bejeweled sari - rode in a horse drawn carriage. Emil hopped on to one of the 3 or 4 bullock carts piled high with boys. Nadia and Kaya were eventually convinced (forced?) to dance to the music provided by a very classic 4-man marching band. Bags of fluorescent pink powder provided more fun (or shall we say stains), and the many gaudy plastic masks given to the kids just prior to the procession enhanced the overall chaos. And chaos is an understatement!! Unfortunately, the elephant that had been promised was replaced by 2 beautiful white horses that pulled the carriage because people were worried that the elephant might stampede in the chaos of the event. Rather prudent I’d say! And no one seemed to mind.
When we returned to the compound, we squished into the hall/temple for a rousing ceremony. As the effigies of Ganesh, Buddha, Mahaveera, Saraswati and Laksma were ceremoniously placed in position (with lots of red dye smeared on the white marble walls first), the leading Jain woman was overcome with emotion and proceeded to lash out at nearby people. I suspect it was probably part of normal temple activity and eventually she was restrained. As incense was lit and ghee ignited people pulled off jewelry to offer in donation. Mega-decibel call and return songs got everyone involved in the excitement, and soon money passed from hand to hand from the back of the hall to the puja table.
Still reverberating with the experience, we watched the far more restrained opening of the water treatment plant and the lovely garden named “The Bonnie Garden” - after Child Haven’s founder, Bonnie Capucino. Next, we proceeded to another room to collect our lunch and after a most fragrant meal, the entertainment began. We were almost too overwhelmed to pay much attention but there were re-enactments of folktales, honours given and more. All residents of Child Haven were presented with new thali plates, blankets and towels.
This was no ordinary day at Child Haven Kaliyampoondi!! This was the biggest festival ever to have taken place there – what good luck that we happened to be here.
But we enjoyed the days before and after the function just as much. The children are so friendly and kind, to one another as well as us. It was an inspiration to meet them! Several of the older ones spoke English well. Nadia enjoyed a guided tour to the temples of Kanchipuram with 2 of them. Kaya was impressed by the computer lab in the local high school – and she rode on the back of a motor bike Indian style (much to her mother’s horror!) Almost all the kids called Emil (pronounced He-me-il) uncle, even several of the teenagers (he was taller than almost all the children.) All of us had lots of laughs with the children and fun both teaching and learning new games.
We also enjoyed touring the vegetable garden – I helped plant tomatoes (for a few minutes), tasted okra and marveled at the mango, guava, banana and coconut trees. We were sorry to learn that a new steel plant has been constructed a kilometer or so away, and that the black smoke is destroying farmland, polluting Child Haven’s well and even staining the children’s clothes if left on the line for too long. Bonnie and others tried to meet with officials there to talk about changes. Hopefully things will improve.
We were thrilled to spend 4 nights at Child Haven and already there is talk of returning before we leave India.