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November 19, 1997


Helping hands Shobha Warrier

You will find an abandoned baby in Anna Nagar, near the arch," whispered the anonymous voice on the telephone, before the buzz of a broken connection echoed in Vidyakar's ear.

Anna Nagar was enveloped in darkness -- it was a new moon night and the street lights were not working. Vidyakar searched everywhere, he even looked into the dustbin but there was no baby -- not even the faint cry of one.

He adjusted the headlight of his scooter -- and, in the illumination, saw a couple of men urinating in a corner. And he saw two small legs kicking tiredly in the air. One of the men was unknowingly urinating on the baby.

Vidyakar picked up to the half-dead child -- she smelt of filth and urine -- and rushed her to a nearby hospital. "Fight, little one, fight," he whispered to her. "Your parents may not want you, but I do. Don't you die on me…" Last heard, the little one was fighting gamely for her life.

Prayer before meals
Prayer before meals
Saving life, providing succour to the suffering, is a second-by-second process at Vidyakar's Udavum Karangal (Helping Hands). It is a different world out there -- a world that has been created for those who have been deserted by their near and dear ones.

Sleep and rest are unknown to the volunteers. The phone can ring at midnight, giving information about an abandoned baby or a dying destitute. An old inmate might close his eyes for the last time at night. A new baby might open her eyes for the first time in the wee hours of the morning. And someone would be there to hold their hands.

Little Vidyakar hid in an inconspicuous corner of his house and pretended he was blind, invisible and deaf. He didn't want to hear any part of the skirmishes which occurred quite frequently between his parents.

Soon, he started spending less and less time at home. And, as he looked at the world outside, he saw people tormented, with pain with no one to comfort them. So he tried to help them as much as he could.

He took to visiting the nearby hospitals where he would console those in agony. He sat with the dying destitutes, caring for them till their eyes closed. In the process, his personal pain and fear vanished. And he experienced love, as he became father, brother and son to many strangers.

An abandoned child
An abandoned child
Which was how he met Ramakrishnan. When Vidyakar saw first him, Ramakrishnan was at death's door -- the victim of a hit-and-run. Vidyakar looked after him, till Ramakrishnan had recovered enough to return to Madras.

The latter was amazed at Vidyakar's selfless behaviour. When he came to know of Vidyakar's sorry life story, he gave him his address, "If you want any help from me, don't hesitate to come to Madras."

Few months later, unable to bear the torture at home, Vidyakar did just that. Once in Madras, he was unable to locate Ramakrishnan for several days. Though forced to live on the streets, he continued helping those who were in distress.

Then, he met Ramakrishnan.

The starved boy got a new lease of life. He joined a local college, all the while remaining true to his aim of helping the poor and the suffering. He already had years of experience, what he needed now was theoretical knowledge. Once he was equipped with both, he went and established base in a lepers' colony.

It was Ramakrishnan who first called his small hut Udavum Karangal. From the lepers' colony, from one abandoned child, from the small hut called Udavum, a vast organisation spread it wings. Today, it houses more than a thousand people.

Our first halt was a small house for abandoned babies who had been picked up from gutters, dustbins, hospital beds, corridors and streets. There were dozens of colourfully dressed babies, all of them less than six months old.

Karunalayam and Shantivanam shelter the terminally ill, the dying, the destitute, the mentally ill and AIDS patients. The smell of disinfectant hung in the air. Trees and flowering plants adorned the front of all the rooms. Vidyakar indicated a lady who was approaching us, "Sundari left her home and a government job to work with these people."

Sundari added, "There was a vacuum in my life when I was working for the central excise department. The routine got on to my nerves. Yes, there was an initial resistance from my people who could not accept that I preferred voluntary work to a well-paid job. Now, after retirement, my father also has joined me here."

Photographs: Sanjay Ghosh                                               Continued...

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