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The Rediff Special/Archana Masih

November 05, 2003


Prince Charles turned and walked back to Majeedan Bi. He folded his hands in a namaste, but the old lady from the neighbouring Jogeshwari hutment languidly extended her right hand to the prince for a handshake.

The prince shook her hand, tipped his head and asked her how she was.

"My biggest problem is this itching all over my body, I have no other problem," she said in Hindi, scratching her lower abdomen through her white kurta.

The HelpAge official standing beside her explained Majeedan's ailment and medication to the prince and directed him to the other beneficiaries seated in two neat rows by the mobile medical van.

Seventy-year-old Zulekha Abdul Latif got up from her chair when it was her turn and told him she had a bad back. "I have a bad back as well," he replied, gesturing for her to sit down.

On the third and final day of his visit to Mumbai, Prince Charles was at the Cheshire Home in city's suburbs. A shelter for paraplegics, it has 45 inmates whose ages range from 17 to 70.  He was also meeting people from the neighbouring area who were being helped by the charity foundation, HelpAge, to get medical attention.

The Cheshire Home, which was set up in 1955, is part of an international organisation established in 1948 in England by Lord Leonard Cheshire, a World War II RAF pilot.

According to the website, Leonard Cheshire founded the charity when he was unsuccessful in finding accommodation for a friend who was terminally ill. He then took his friend into his own home in Hampshire, which became the first Cheshire home.

The home in Mumbai, which is run by the nuns of the Missionaries of Christ Jesus, is the first Cheshire Home to be established overseas. Today, more than 250 locally-run Cheshire Homes have been set up in 55 countries.

An otherwise quiet, leafy premise, the Mumbai home was inundated with British and Indian security personnel, the media, guests and members of the crew of HMS Kent, the Royal Navy frigate that has been docked in Mumbai since three days.

Twenty sailors from the crew had volunteered to paint and do some repair work at the home a day before the royal visit. Dressed in their overalls, they lined up alongside the ship's Commanding Officer Simon Hardern to greet their prince.

"Members of the crew worked here yesterday between 9 am and 6 pm. It is a good experience that we will take back with us," said Commander Hardern, who has met the Duke of Kent, Princess Alexandra and now the Prince of Wales in his 18 months as commanding officer.

Commander Hardern -- whose ship is part of the UK contribution to Operation Enduring Freedom in the northern Arabian Gulf -- said Mumbai so far has been a busy port. HMS Kent's presence had coincided with Prince Charles' visit and that of the Royal Navy's First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Alan West. The ship will depart on November 6 after a short exercise with the Indian Navy.

Prince Charles, who was wearing two garlands around his neck, stopped to speak with the crew -- the average age on board is 21. After exchanging a few words with them, he moved on to meet the old and frail people sitting on the opposite side.

"How many grandchildren do you have?" he asked the lady in the front row.

"Seven," her reply was interpreted to him.

"Do they look after you?"


Jija Bhauvatane, a resident of the Cheshire Home, who sitting behind her, was upset with the woman's response. But he did not show it then. When the prince said namaste to all those sitting in the second row, Jija reciprocated the greeting respectfully.

Later, he said he was ashamed to hear the woman portray such a bad image of his country.

Jija, along with the other residents of the home, was made to sit in 'position 3' for over two hours before the prince came by. During that time, he had unsuccessfully tried two or three times to manoeuvre his wheelchair to the front row. He even tried coercing the lady sitting in front into exchanging places with him.

"Had I been sitting in the front row, I would not have said this -- now he will go back thinking Indians don't look after their old parents!"

Many of those sitting around Jija were not inmates of the home and did not know who the royal visitor was. HelpAge India had brought them by van from their homes. A mobile medical unit goes to their area once a week, they said, and a few days ago they were told they would be taken to some place on November 4.

"Why don't you only tell us who he was?" asked Zulekha, who stitches clothes in order to earn money. When she was given an explanation, she replied that she now had a vague idea because the word rajkumar (prince) did make sense to her.

Oblivious to the fact that he was meeting some people who had never heard of him, Prince Charles' next stop was the home's pottery and painting workshop. He was presented with a pencil sketch of founder Leonard Cheshire and a handmade Diwali greeting card.

Fazal Sheikh, 27, who drew the pencil sketch, said it took him six hours to finish the drawing. "The prince told me I could make a good future out of my paintings," said Fazal, who lost the use of his legs after an accident five years ago.

The inmates also sang a welcome song, which Prince Charles sat down and listened to intently.

"He told us he did not expect this kind of a welcome," said Sambhaji Jhadav, who has been living at the home since 1984. "I gave a speech in which I told him we will pray for him and his family."

For two weeks, Cheshire Home had been preparing for the royal visit. The residents had been informed, the rooms had been cleaned and rehearsals for the welcome song been conducted. "The patients were excited that they would be shaking hands with Prince Charles," said Sister Marie Coutinho, one of the four sisters in charge of the home.

In the far end of the home, sitting in the verandah of a cottage, Chandrashekhar, 57, animatedly recounted his interaction with the prince. Pointing to two sets of framed medals on the wall, he said he had shown the prince all the table tennis medals he had won in sporting championships for the disabled.

Bound to his wheelchair for 32 years, a cheerful Chandrashekhar said that when the prince asked him if he still played the game, his answer was a firm 'yes'.

"I told him I am an optimist. I told him as long as there is a will, I will always find a way."

If there was a lesson that Prince Charles could have picked up during this trip, it definitely was here with this table tennis champ who stood so tall.

Prince Charles in India: The complete coverage

Photo: Jewella C Miranda
Image: Uttam Ghosh

The Rediff Specials

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