Sundera Gopalan is a super hero of sorts to seniors. She is no caped crusader, but when this 76-year-old grandma receives a distress signal- which in this case comes as a feeble cry for help from a lonely, sometimes suicidal, senior citizen – she swoops in, pallu pinned to save the day.
“I don’t do anything dramatic. I just engage in a conversation, crack a few jokes or take them for a walk in the park. And then I do it again. Twice a week at least for months, until they feel alive again,” says Sundera, who volunteers as a senior helping other seniors at the Dignity Foundation in Chennai, an organization helping the elderly lead active lives.
In the case of 85-year old Vedavalli Srinivasagopalan, it’s whenever she flies in from the US to visit her daughter. Vedavalli spends her day stitching pouches, handbags and handkerchiefs, which she sells to friends and neighbours, donating the proceeds to old-age homes.
For five years now, Chennai based Udhavi, an organization that assists elder, founded by 75 -year old Sabita Radhahrishna, has been working with a group of volunteers, most of who are in their seventies, to help other seniors with everything from a walk on the beach to a temple visit, assistance at the bank, sabha hopping or a shopping spree.
From a very inspiring article in the Times of India by Kamini Mathai.
A panel of experts from the NHRC core group on disability and elderly persons at a meeting in Delhi, has recommended that India should adopt the “time bank’ model adopted by Switzerland.
Under the time bank model people save time and volunteer to take care of the elderly who need help. The number of hours they spend time with and take care of senior citizens are deposited into their account of the social security system. When the volunteer himself gets old and needs someone for help, he/she can use the time bank and a volunteer is assigned to take care of him/her.
There are approx. 10 crore senior citizens in India of which around 1.50 crores live alone. Approx. 90% of these are left to fend for themselves. There is urgent need to build over 800 old age care homes across the country.
Neeraj Chauhan in Times of India dated 06 October 2018
I have planned an ambitious 4000 kms cyclotron in support of old age care, particularly for the elderly from the disadvantaged sections of society, that will commence in January 2019. This will coincide with my 70th year and I am very keen on contributing to a meaningful and socially relevant cause to mark this milestone.
Briefly, I am planning a cyclotron of approx 4000 kms across the country, starting mid-January of next year and running through the first half of 2019. I plan to cover old age care homes along the route and capture human interest stories of the inmates as well as caregivers and volunteers and showcase these stories and experiences in the social and print media to encourage contributions in monetary terms and volunteer services from the society. Fellow cyclists from cycling clubs and those who support this noble cause will join me at various stages of this endeavour.
I am seeking a partnership in this endeavour with a leading NGO, such as HelpAge India, and some corporate houses.
The principal aim of this venture is to generate concern and empathy for old age care in society at large and corporate houses and to encourage contributions both in monetary terms and through volunteer services.
Any funds mobilised through this project will be directly credited to the bank account of the NGO by donors.
The support that an NGO can provide for this project is the following:
1)Be a nodal point for receiving donations from the public at large and corporate houses.
2)Encourage willing participation by the old age care homes.
3)Provide support at the ground level through their employees and volunteers to engage with the care homes.
4)Provide promotional material that can be used prior to and during the event showcasing the work done by the NGO.
The scale of the event is planned to be ambitious and will depend on the quantum of sponsorship support that will be pledged by the corporate houses.
“.. For those who live longer the quality of life may depend entirely on the kind of human support system they have, in terms of family and friends and how they now perceive and treat you, and the kind of facilities and benefits that government and agencies and other institutions may make available to the elderly.
Which is why nurturing human relationships and staying connected is so important, not just for older people, but for younger members as well, who tend to distance themselves from their loved ones, often unintentionally, in the hurry-bury of a working life.
Hence the need to engage in conversation with friends and family, free from distractions of e-gadgets and resist the urge “to keep up with the Joneses.” Because, if you plan to sit down and chat with your ageing parents once you are ‘free’- after you are through with answering your emails and social media updates, getting promotions, buying that car or house and after getting your children ‘settled’- you may have simply missed the bus.”
Narayani Ganesh in the Speaking Tree, Times of India, 1st 0ct. 2018.
It was with palpable relief bordering on triumph that we reached the Thamser Pass on 10th Sept, 2017. A couple of days earlier we had traversed the pass as we trekked from Bharpet Got to Upper Marhi but this time it was different as inclement weather, incessant rains and hailstones and the threat of snowfall at the mountain pass could have maroon us in the River Ravi valley until the snow cleared. The Gods were on our side as we cleared the pass and trudged down to our camp site at Bharpet Got albeit in the dead of night.
Our team management underestimated the degree of difficulty on this stage of the trek or the slow pace of the inexperienced trekkers among us compounded by the rarified atmosphere. They had estimated we would reach our campsite at Upper Marhi by 4.00 or 5.00 pm; we actually reached as late as 11.00 pm. For several torturous hours we trekked on the rocky mountain path with the help of small torch lights. The next days we took a day off and on the following day decided to set off at 5.00am to reach our camp site at Bharpet Got before sun down. But the rains spoilt our plans and we could leave for our return trek at 8.30am only, predictably to trek the last few hours in darkness once again.
The degree of difficulty and the pain we experienced did not however dampen the sheer joy we experienced at the magnificent landscape all around us.
For me this was the first time I was trekking over a glazier and that I finally did so gave me immense satisfaction. Perhaps the icing on the cake was that one stretch was considered too slippery and we had to traverse that length with the help of ropes.
Here are a few more pictures of the natural beauty that was a feast for our eyes.
The trek from Bharpet Got to Panhartu was the shortest and should I say the sweetest of our trekking adventure. It took us just around three hours and after the mental stress and fatigue of the last few days this was exactly what the doctor ordered as balm for our ruffled minds.
Hordes of sheep bleating their guts out greeted us at the camp site almost as if to say, whose site is this any way. Rams stood watch over the flock at strategic points.
While the most endearing sight were tiny little lambs being carried in sacks on the back of the mules.
The trek from Panhartu to Palchak Jori was a mixed bag. On our way up we traversed a glazier and then reached a rocky stretch. We clambered over the large boulders for a while before the lead trekker said we were on the wrong path and had to make a precarious return. The roll of thunder and the first onslaught of rain was the last thing we wanted. Luckily the rains subsided and thankfully returned only after 6.00pm by which time we were safely in our tents.
The return had tricky stretches and some torturous trekking over rocky terrain before we hit more comfortable trekking paths.
A view of the glazier we had to cross on this leg.
At times we crossed paths with herds of sheep and it was only fair that we gave them right of way.
A Sheppard’s tent along the way also gave us lamb cuddling opportunities.
The landscape at these heights, around 3000 metres, has a beauty of its own.
At Palchak Jori our cooks made for us a delicious mutton dish cooked over a slow wood fire and this with rotis cooked over a wood fire and dhal and onions was a very special dinner indeed. Most of the food on this trek was simple but wholesome and served hot. There was little to complain on this front although I lost about 5 kilos on this trek.
The trek to Rajgunda was the easiest we encountered. A walk in the park you could say with broad paths and gentle slopes. Nevertheless there was beauty around us. At these altitudes we see more trees and the resultant mist making for magical scenery.
Camp life had a bit of card games and vociferous rounds of antakshri. Some of the members of the group were very good singers with a large repertoire of songs.
Bir is a quaint little town with a couple of Buddhist monasteries places to eat and handicraft and apparel shops. We had a couple of days of relaxation here before we returned to Chandigarh and from there to our respective stations.
Some of the group grabbed a narrow opportunity that the weather permitted to take a para gliding ride from Billing to Bir.
It was a tough trek with moments of intense stress and difficulty but at the end of the day we have loads of memories to take with us and stories to tell our grandchildren.
The high point of our visit was the meeting with the last survivors of truly illustrious Anglo Indian families of the zamindari era. We met with Dr. Jimmy Skinner, at 91, the last male survivor of Col James (Sikander Sahib) Skinner’s family and Jennifer Mann, now 76, who along with her sister Maureen are the survivors of the Carbery family, inheritors of the Powell estates.
Jennifer and Gregory Mann with Dulcie Butler White
Jimmy Skinner relives the old days with Saraswati
Greg tells us of the days when Jennifer shot a leopard with a .22 hunting rifle the one she is displaying to us in the photo. The only addition to the rifle is an infrared sight. Jimmy was excited as a school boy as he recollected shooting a deer in the days when hunting was an open sport .
Jimmy Skinner taking us through albums of treasured memories. The ones he liked best where those with catches of huge fish measuring several feet long.
Jennifer and son Gregory Mann. Gregory has followed in the footsteps of his mother and is an educationist and social worker. He is likely to be the representative of the Anglo Indian community in the Uttarakhand Assembly.
Jennifer lives in the farm house at Carbery Acres, a hunting lodge built by the Carberys over a century ago.The old hunting lodge has been left largely untouched and still has heritage furniture.The walls are splattered with the Carbery and Mann family photos.
An old smithy located on the Carbery Acres resort is still run by Shyamlal, a third generation employee with the Carberys.
Carbery Acres continues to be a beautiful location for a week end getaway. It’s early April and the mango season is around the corner. The trees are in full bloom and a bumper crop of mangoes expected this year.
Bright pink bougainvillea flowers over look the splash pool where we spent over an hour before leisurely drinking glasses of hot tea and eating delicious pakodas.
A view of the tree house and the cottages at the resort.
With my wife Deepa
With Pat Kerr, JVR, Saraswati, Col. Raj Sehgal and Deepa.
We thoroughly enjoyed our stay once again due largely to our gracious host Pat Kerr.
For long I have yearned to find Choyi’s Hotel or whatever it was called as it changed hands several times. My desire was finally met on New Year’s Day of 2017 as I stood outside the ancient wrought iron gate of what is now called Choice Seaside Hotel, in Kannur, Kerala.
In days gone by Choyi’s Hotel was owned and managed by my maternal great grandfather Choyi. I believe it was built for the British in the colonial days and Choyi served at the hotel for several years hence he was popularly called Choyi Butler. His family however refers to him reverentially as Sri Choyi. The hotel was later gifted to Sri Choyi by the British and has been bought and sold several times after his death. Tax litigation in later years has led to the closure of this once proud hotel for decades.
Early on New Year’s Day I took a walk towards the cantonment area of Kannur, the most beautiful and well maintained part of the city. The roads are broad and well maintained like all military cantonments. Choice Hotel is about half a kilometer away from the well known Savoy Hotel. The Military Hospital and the Kannur Lighthouse museum are other nearby landmarks and the popular Payambalam Beach is just about a kilometer away.
Talk stately trees stand like sentinels along the long narrow path that leads to the hotel. I couldn’t see the hotel from the locked gate and was tempted to scale the leaf strewn path for a closer look. It didn’t seem appropriate as the gate was locked from the inside with a bright shiny lock. The lock and the relatively new sign board outside mutely announced the impending return of the hotel to its halcyon days as a luxury hotel.
The roads around the Choice Seaside Hotel are dotted with beautiful houses. Many of them old and dilapidated from the good old days and many rebuilt on modern lines yet bearing vestiges of ancient Kerala architecture. This has got to be an ideal spot for a luxury hotel. If and when it does reopen I hope it retains at least in part its proud heritage from the past.
It was around noon on the 28th August 2016, that the Pallavaram based Velankanni Walkers, which included Errol and I, entered the church of Our Lady of Good Health. The group of 90 followed the redoubtable flag bearer Gregory West as we marched into the church two by two singing, “Vazhga Vazhga, Vazhga Mariye; Vazhga Vazhga, Vazhga Mariye.” As we reached the alter it was time for silent contemplation and prayers for our families and friends and thanks giving for the good fortune that has been showered on us this far. As we filed out of the church the members of the group hugged and kissed each other. It was a time to be grateful, joyful and triumphant after ten arduous days of walking the distance of approx 350 kms from Chennai to Velankanni.
We started the walk from St. Xavier’s church in Pallavaram after a special Mass for the walkers and the recitation of the Rosary at the Grotto of Mother Mary. This is a walk of faith and consequently on several of the ten days journey the walk would start with the assembly of the group and the Rosary would be recited and hymns song as the group set off for the walk well before dawn at around 3,00am. Shrill whistles by the coordinators would get us up by 2.30 am and everybody would spring up to get ready. As the column of pilgrims trudged along the road saying prayers and singing hymns I often thought of them as the Crusaders on the move.
ll through the journey particularly as we crossed Pondicherry when the number of pilgrims on the road increased manifold, several people greeted us on the way with water, biscuits and tea/coffee. Just outside Pondicherry, a kindly soul served us exquisite cardamum tea. He told us he does this every year and generally serves 300 cups of tea. At Chitambur enroute from Maduranthakum, a family offered us lunch. They perform this service every year and started 15 years ago when there was no good restaurant nearby. Pilgrims generally pass this area on either side of noon on the 21st August when the sun beats down on them relentlessly. The family started with just 20 to 25 lunch way back then but now serve up to 1500 lunches all cooked at home and served by extended members of the family.
The young boys who help serving the pilgrims
On a detour from Chunambedu to Koonimedu across the defunct prawn cultivation farms we stopped along the road to have a bath at a pumping station that was pumping water into the nearby fields. The owner of the pump house and fields invited us into his house for a hot cup of coffee made from fresh cow’s milk. At Cuddalore the group stopped for lunch as they traditionally do at the home of the local MLA, a Brahmin Sampath Kumar, who allows the group to sprawl out on the floors of the rooms of his house to beat the scorching heat. His family members serve chilled lime juice and later in the afternoon lunch of kitchidi and curd bath sponsored by Ananda Bhawan. In a display of multi cultural support for the pilgrims, a Muslim, Rahim Khan invited us into the compound of his house as we were walking between Erukkur and Srikazhi. He spread out a polythene mat for us to rest a while and served cool and tasty water.
The heat and humidity took its toll as one of the members of our group collapsed with heat stroke on the way to Marakanam. We saw at least one little child also suffer a heat stroke that caused panic among his parents and a desperate dash for help on a motorcycle passing by. Four years ago our group suffered a fatal accident as a bus driver lost control of his vehicle and ran into the group. One of our friends died on the spot and two others suffered critical injuries. Even on this walk a motorcyclist hit a pilgrim necessitating medical attention to the unfortunate man. The heat and humidity makes most walkers start the day at 2.30 am or so and walk during the cooler times of the day. Our toughest day was day eight ( 26th August) when we had to walk 48 kilometres from Chidambaram to Thirukkadiur. It was necessary to walk through most of the day. Most of the walkers struggled on this day and reached the night halt late at night. Many tend to sleep or just relax at a shady spot along the road to take frequent respites from the blazing heat of the day.
Walking such long distances invariably brings the risk of blisters and every one suffers to a lesser or greater extent. Those of us who took early action at the onset of blisters to apply band aids and bandages got away with it relatively lightly. The others had to content with a painful walk as they stumbled and limped along the way. It was amazing to see people of all ages and some with serious disabilities make the walk. In our group, we had an 83 year old man, Mr. Varghese who walked on unmindful of an implanted pace maker. He trudged along alone most of the time and successfully completed the walk. Our prayer leader, Rex Jacob is 75 years old and this was his 43 straight walk to Velankanni. He now flies down from Melbourne to Chennai along with a group of the faithful to join in the walk each year.
We could see amputees moving along on wheel chairs or hand driven vehicles and parents carrying their children or pushing them in prams. It was an enormous show of faith. Many groups had build floats in honour of Mother Mary and several pulled them along the way with ropes. The driving force was prayer and a plea to Mother Mary to protect them and lead them to her shrine.
Food along the walk was reasonable for our group thanks to sponsors. Most of the time we eat kitchidi or curd rice and idlies but on some occasions we were treated to chicken biryani. On the first day we had to sleep on the road side at a spot between Tambaram and Chenglepet We just spread out on the pavement with lorries and heavy vehicular traffic screeching by. It was the mosquitoes that were the biggest problem though. On other days we spent the night sprawled on the floor of halls at churches and schools and on the odd occasions at a modest lodge. There wasn’t much creature comfort on this pilgrimage and it was never going to be so. Comparatively our group was a lot better off than other pilgrims.
he walk as I said earlier was interspersed with religious events. Special Masses were conducted at St. Joseph’s church, Chenglepet, St. Joseph’s school hall at Nugambal, at the Villianur church, a convent at Bahur besides the Mass at Velankanni. There are several activities that are heartwarming to witness and now a part of the regular programme of our group from year to year. At Villianur, which was not on the path to Velankanni but on a detour taken by the group, we spent time with the school children some of whom are supported by the group and also provided them a sumptuous dinner. At Behur the breakfast was provided for us by the Principal and staff of the catholic school. Further down on the journey at B. Mutlur a group of us stopped by a small juice bar along the road to have a cool drink of nannari sharbat.
We witnessed the flag hoisting signifying the commencement of the celebrations of Novena Masses leading on to the birthday of Mother Mary on 8th September. Velankanni is a sea of humanity on the 29thAugust and is best avoided. There was far too much of pushing and tugging and hours of jam packed waiting for my liking.
Luckily Errol and I spent an extra day at Velankanni when the crowds had subsided and we could spend quality time at the church, submit our Mass intentions and pick up the candles holy water, pictures of Mother Mary and the little things that our family and friends had asked us to pick up. Later that evening we took a bus to Nagapittanam and caught the night train to Chennai. That brought to a close a fabulous spiritual experience.
In a few days my good friend Errol Edmonds and I will set off on a pilgrimage to Velankanni. For Errol this will be his seventh straight walk from Chennai to Velankanni, a distance of 350 kms which is covered over a period of ten days. For me it will be an all new experience.
I have been preparing for this event quite earnestly over the last few months. I hope to witness first hand the fervour and devotion of the thousands of pilgrims who make this journey of faith each year. There are reports of over twenty thousand who make this walk each year.
Some photos available on the internet that gives a glimpse of the pilgrimage.
And a few photos of the sea of humanity at the Basilica at Velankanni.
While these photos are a representative set taken from the internet, my own experience and the images I capture will be the substance of the next blog post after I complete the arduous walk.