Every second to third evening my friends picked me up; for dinner or a birthday party of friends, or to just an evening spent with them and their friends. Since our first visit in India the family Matthews has become closely related to my own, like an extended family in India almost. They have visited us in Germany as we have visited them many times. During my stay in the orphanage they cared for me like family, for which I am still very grateful and which made things for me a lot easier.
The mother, Cladius, belonged to the teachers of the girls’ school, because of which we went to India in the first place. Her husband Matthews is engineer and invaluable for our work in India, because he takes care of all the bureaucratic things, stays in touch with the different girls and homes we support and generally takes care of everything which need to be taken care of. At the time of my visit they still lived right in a small house in the center of Pondicherry, together with their two girls, Matthews’ parents and his brother with wife and kids. So always a full house.
The whole family is Christian. Sometimes I had the feeling that Christianity in India is only another form of Hinduism though, taken in consideration how all-encompassing Hinduism is. With 80 % of the population still following the religion, it is the most important one in India and still defines the daily lives of most Indians, even if they are not Hindus. Like a sponge Hinduism absorbs foreign elements. It is no wonder that Buddha and Jesus have been entered into the canon as incarnations of Vishnu, since Hinduism is that inclusive.
Practiced Christianity in India depicts Jesus, Mary, God and the saints in a similar way to the Hindu gods, very colorful. In the house of our friends the many statues standing and hanging everywhere were quite similar to Hindu setups like this. Instead of the more common Ganehsa or Shiva dangling in the front and protecting car and passengers, in Matthews car Mary did the job. Hinduism is just a humongous conglomerate of many different religions anyway, which are mostly held together by their mysticism. Even though Cladius and Matthews eat beef, they only do so very seldom. And they still follow some Hindu rites (like offering of their cut hair in the temple in return for a request), which are still fixed deeply in society.
Cinema in India
Cinema in India is an experience, that’s for sure. You complain when someone talk during the movie? How about dancing, screaming and throwing confetti?
On two evenings Cladius and Matthews took me to the cinema, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The first time we went to see a Tamil remake of Les Intouchables, which was so successful in Europe, Oopiri, and the second time we saw a typical Kollywood blockbuster (the Tamil version of Bollywood), Theri. Both movies were in Tamil without subtitles, but since they are quite easy to understand with their clear picture language and the simplicity of the plot that didn’t prove a problem.
Oopiri: It differs from the original already by being a blockbuster. Which takes places in India and only comes to Paris in a cringy effort to pay homage to the original. Other fundamental differences: Both men are a lot cooler. The paralyzed millionaire Philippe needs to be a playboy as well in his Tamil incarnation, don’t mind that he can only move his head. And Driss gets the girl in this version, of course the secretary isn’t lesbian here. There are also some action and dance scenes, which can’t be missing in an Indian blockbuster. All in all everything is much clearer, simpler and also more corny, including the total perfect happy end.
Theri: A typical action flick, which combines brutal action with sensitive (dancing) scenes. It is carried by the main character Vijay, one of the three big super stars of Kollywood. I already knew him from all the pictures of him on auto rickshaws, on Facebook profiles and on all kinds of posters (which the people print for every conceivable purpose, from birthdays, marriages to deaths, which they put up where ever it fits. The screening of the movie was an experience which is hard to imagine for people used to cinema here. When Vijay made his first appearance, the crowd nearly exploded (you can see it in the video, which can only poorly transmit the atmosphere). I heartily recommend you go and see a movie when in India and be part of the party!
Back to the home
The evenings with the Matthews family always showed me new aspects of the South Indian society, were always familiar and joyful get-togethers and left me with some dear memories. But I came to India this time because of the orphanage, to get to know the home and kids and everything around it. So I spent most of the time in the orphanage, even though my Indian friends would have taken me out every evening, the whole month, in their boundless hospitality.
The evenings in the home usually passed in a similar fashion: After the school shower, then playtime; then the boys studied and did their homework, then praying, some more studying and at about 9 o’clock eating. After the post dinner cleaning the boys went to bed at about 11. Only a little bit later I went to my room as well, read a little bit or wrote in my notebook, sometimes with a cold beer Matthews had brought by.
Regularly benefactors from the surrounding areas came to the home with dinner (these donations are important for the home). Most of the time the occasion was a birthday, where it is common also to give, not only to take. Usually the whole family including friends would come by in cars and auto rickshaws; the food would be set up and distributed, many pictures were taken and rather promptly they would leave as they came. I received a lot of attention of course as the white guest, which mostly led to half educated talk and the usual small talk about origin and profession. I am not quite sure, how many really understood what Art History is and even fewer even why I would study something like that (that proves hard enough at home in Germany). I am also not sure if the course exists in India, nobody heard of it in the South. The natural scientific and the technical courses are enjoying much more popularity and renown; also simply because of the fact that it is much easier finding a job with these subjects in India. Especially Computer Science is immensely popular, contrarily to Germany also with the girls.
The home lies directly on the wall which surrounds the huge university compound of the Pondicherry University. Almost daily students would come by, most of them belonging to a Christian organisation from the neighboring state Kerala, to which Tojo and Leila belonged as well.
These students were kind of friends of the orphanage, they came frequently, chatted with Leila, ate there, played with the kids, brought food by themselves (paid by their own money) and helped the school kids with their homework, partly for hours.
Three of them came very regularly and regularly I chatted with them. Jithin, a student from Kerala, had offered me a few times already that he could show me around the university. One evening as the boys prepared for bed (or floor, in their case), Jithin, who had come for dinner, asked me if I wanted to go now? Leila smiled and said she would leave the door open for me. So I got on the scooter behind Jithin and wished Leila a good night.
In front of the university we met the two other regular student visitors, two girls about my age and they had (another) dinner in a small shop across the entrance. Since my appetite was rather timid during my time there, I just sat with them at the table and watched the tables full of students eating their cheap late night meal. All without rush or stress or one eye on the watch.
University City at Night
Then we mounted our scooters again, passed the entrance gate (technically I wasn’t allowed in there, since I was no student but thanks to the foreign students at the University I didn’t attract too much attention) and made our way into the university city. When I say “city”, I mean it; completely surrounded by walls, with an own super market, a hospital, places of worship and several living quarters, you don’t necessarily need to leave the compound as a student anymore. The living quarters are separated, like the gyms, by gender. Even visiting the other gender’s living quarters is prohibited.
Contrary to my expectations the university was not abandoned during this time of the day: Everywhere students were sitting in groups on the meadows, around the university buildings and in front of the living quartes and were studying, talking, just spending time. Everything was much too quiet for so many people, all sounds strangely subdued, everything very calm and peaceful and because of all that somehow magical. Like a contrasting world to the hectic Indian everyday.
We then drove (you really need a scooter to get around, everything is quite far apart) to the building of the social sciences, where my companions studied. There we made ourselves comfortable on the roof top; they showed me some music from Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which was mostly very melodious, happy music with strong rhythms, I played them some Buena Vista Social Club and and we talked about god and the world and some things in between. Later Jithin drove me back to the orphanage, where I went to sleep, still caught in the strange atmosphere of this small city.
A few days later Jithin took me to the uni in daylight, where everything was louder and brighter of course, but the atmosphere was still there.
Old People’s Home Snehagram
Up until two years ago a group of older people in need of care shared Tojo’s home with the children, most of them either physically or mentally ill, ranging from elephantiasis over depression to patients unable to leave the bed and autistic patients. Because of lacking space – the home is cramped already with only the boys – Tojo transferred them to a big property in a small village further in the countryside. These patients were either also brought to Tojo or he saw them living on the streets and listened to their story, then brought them back and took care of them.
The two homes still are as one, being separated physically. Leila still drives to Snehagram with the kids regularly and Sunu went there everyday, also to bring food. The head of this home is John, a quiet, remarkable person, who sometimes appeared to be a little crazy himself, in a most positive way.
Frequently I joined Sunu on his visits, and of course went there when the kids went.
As I never had real contact with people like this in my life I didn’t really know how to act around them at first; many patients are mentally absent and gaze at you with glazed eyes. I decided I should just treat them like I would do so with everybody else. So I introduced myself, shook hands and learned a little bit of their fates and ill fortunes. Most of them passed many stations in life and somewhere they still have family, which have cut off all contact with their husbands, wives, kids or parents living here now.
The patients spend most of their time on a long platform right in the middle of the compound between the sanitary facilities and the living quarters, which lies protected from the sun by a roof made out of palm leafs. They play cards, watch something on the tiny TV and just sit there, all very calm and peaceful, which fit the very quiet countryside all around well.
Time To Say Goodbye
Like always on journeys I had the strange feeling that I had been there only a short time while I couldn’t even quite remember life back in Germany, it had faded in this different life under the Indian sun. The last week passed more quickly than would have like and at the same time I was excited to get back. I especially looked forward to the food; Kebap! Steak, spaghetti, burger, German bread! And no rice for at least a few weeks.
One sentence I had read one morning under the ceiling fan I couldn’t get out of my head, even after I had returned: „While life is yours, live joyously!“, by the materialistic Indian philosopher Carvaka –
When Cladius and Matthews picked me up in the orphanage at around 8 pm to bring me to the airport in Chennai, the farewell from Leila and the boys wasn’t easy, I felt that the time to go had come. I knew beforehand that I wouldn’t ever be any good as a social worker, and so one month in the home was just the right period of time for me. Full of new found energy and vitality I bid my farewells and got back to where I had come from –
I didn’t only feel physically restored but much more mentally cleansed after I got home. Confronted with all the fates, the wishes and needs of a completely different, more modest world of the orphans, all the trivial things knocking you around in your daily routine, all the small worries in the back of your mind appeared almost ridiculous to me after my homecoming. This may sound like one of these corny motivational sayings, but it is something else to really feel it. Once you have truly realised all that you have and what should bring you joy in itself – and I am not talking about your Porsche, your designer clothes or your flat screen TV here, but of what you really have, the basics for a safe and sound life – you can confront all the trivial things making your life frustrating directly and just get them out of the way. Why be in a bad mood and worry about everything and thus spend your life lethargic, stressed and without joy, when life is yours only so shortly? So live joyously!