Tuesday, January 12, 2010


We are staying at Sathya’s new (though not entirely finished) house on the outskirts of Chengelput, where she is the head of neonatology at the government hospital. More children are born in this hospital every year than in the entire state of Washington.

The house is magnificent – two stories, with a winding staircase, three bedrooms, kitchen, three bathrooms. And being the last house on the street (for now) a view onto the wetlands and then to small mountains to the east. “It reminded me of Gandhigram,” says Sathya, and indeed it does. There is a world-famous bird sanctuary about a quarter mile away.

The land toward the mountains won’t be uninhabited for long. While officially the lands to the east are government-owned, the reality is that they have been expropriated by a local party boss who is filling them in (including grabbing sand right up to Sathya’s foundations, in hopes of selling them off.

Jaganathanji, now 96, is in better shape than I expected to see him. He sleeps most of the day, and is blind in both eyes, and deaf in one. He rarely knows if it is day or night, and awakens Krishnammal most nights around 1:30 a.m. and asks for dinner. (Since Krishnammal rarely sleeps much as it is, this is a problem!) But we hold some basic conversations, and he still has a droll sense of humor. He does have a 24-hour caretaker.

There is a sign on the house that says “Shanti Niketan”, just like mine at home! (“Shanti Niketan” is the name Rabindranath Tagore gave to his famous school of the arts in Bengal, now apparently turned into a third-rate government university.) Krishnammal has even had a street sign made, pointing people this way. There is a slum about a third of a mile away, and after school, all the children gather at the house (in uniform), and drill themselves on their lessons. There are alphabets in English and Tamil on the wall, and a blackboard, and various educational posters. But the kids teach themselves.

Then I discovered that one of the boys didn’t go home, but is sleeping on the floor next to Jaganathanji’s bed. (Tipu, the incongruous Pomeranian, is sleeping on the bed.) I ask Krishnammal about him. “Oh, that’s Nagaraj,” she says, “He stays with us.”

I piece the story together. Nagaraj lived in the slum colony and lost both parents perhaps several years ago, and lived in the alley ways with the dogs, and was fed the leftovers from the houses of the poor. He does not know his age (I am guessing 8 or 9, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out he is two years older.) When Krishnammal and Sathya took him in three months ago, a child psychiatrist pronounced him mentally retarded and uneducable.

Little did he know. Nagaraj now reads and writes Tamil, is learning to read English (as I write this, sitting on the porch, he is playing with my computer, typing out simple English words at the bottom of the page). Math not so good...yet. He attends school with the other kids (Krishnammal has made a contribution to the local Ramakrishna Mission private school for all the children, as the local government school is hopeless). He is one bright, happy little boy! This evening, we are going to plant some of the giant sunflower seeds together.

He has now figured out that I am his uncle (which probably means I have taken on some new responsibilities that I hadn’t bargained for!)
Could be worse. Sathya has no children (neither has Bhoomi). But Krishnammal has all the children. Since I am her eldest son, that means I have a couple of billion stepbrothers and stepsisters.

The trick is to remember…


Anonymous Anonymous said...


3:52 AM, January 14, 2010  

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