Written specially for Vikalp Sangam
‘Come sit with us. Wait, let me get a plastic sheet for you (to sit on).’
The group of old women stationed on the pavement at the Eastern entrance of Dhakuria Lake look amongst themselves to find an extra plastic sheet. One of them ends up offering their own sheet for me to sit on. My refusals are useless, I have no say. It is the stern voice of grand-parental love.
These women, along with hundreds of the city’s aged homeless, penniless and hungry, find themselves at this location every morning. At this interface of urban public commons & the city’s upper class, instant charity and long term efforts have combined to create a space that represents hope for many.
Some have managed to survive for years on the generosity and charity of good Samaritans, others have not been so lucky. And even for those who receive food and other material assistance, the chalice of belonging and warmth stays dry.
Ador, an initiative by Kolkata based NGO Prantakatha, has been functioning for a few years now. Born out of a youth leadership program at Prantakatha, Ador – literally meaning love or affection – works towards filling this gap of love and material needs, but aimed at old women who they lovingly call ‘grannies’.
This initiative has created a safe space for these grannies to come together, have a stable supply of ration and clothes, and be part of a community. They have built bonds amongst themselves and with young volunteers who provide them with a way to express parental love, something that is hugely missing from their lives.
Ankita, who works with Prantakatha, and leads the work at Ador describes how difficult the initial stages were. How do you choose to include? How do you say no to someone who is needy? Keeping in mind the resources at hand, in 2017 the team started off with a saree distribution drive for 60-70 grannies, following it up with an exercise of conversations and observation making.
And here comes the most difficult part – how do you decide whether someone needs help or not? It is an extremely difficult exercise to undertake, especially for empathetic persons who usually constitute a large proportion of such organisations. The team had to be prepared to be stern while retaining their empathy.
Shaped by their experiences of ignorance and abandonment, along with the daily need to ask, the grannies had become rough in their social engagements, a natural outcome of their conditions. The team took care to work with the grannies – providing them with warmth and basic material needs, while helping them reconnect with their natural demeanours. A community started taking shape with 35 grannies who would be identified with cards that the team had issued. The cards however weren’t needed for long as the grannies and volunteers quickly formed a close bond.
The team met the grannies regularly, 3-4 times a week, conversing with them, conducting group meditation sessions, singing sessions, food distribution, clothing distribution and regular medical camps. It was a challenging process for the team – both mentally and financially – but the process and perseverance simultaneously shaped these volunteers into empathetic leaders.
This effort was supported in parts by Prantakatha, and through an online public fundraiser that was initiated in 2017. Along with financial support came young volunteers, some in search for parental love and affection. Even the local communities around the location were supportive. A sort of adoption of these old grannies had taken place, where they were a community and did not have to beg for a living.
Things were starting to look good and stable until the Covid pandemic tore open the chasm – between the needy and the willing – while unfortunately also creating many more who needed assistance. Thankfully just before the announcement of the first lockdown, the team was able to give all grannies basic supplies in bulk, with the hope that it would last the duration of the lockdown. The lockdown however went on for longer than expected.
Assembling publicly was not an option during the lockdown. How would this effort continue? Would the needy still find their way to this location? What could the volunteers do? It was a time of uncomfortable waiting.
Most grannies do not have mobile phones and the team relies on a combination of volunteer networks and the physical presence of the grannies at this location for all the work. Many grannies usually travel for hours every morning just to get to this location, often changing multiple modes of transport and walking long distances.
The lockdown forced the team to be patient, hoping for the best, until the cracks started opening up, little by little.
At the first available opportunity the team made contact with the grannies, at least the ones they could meet or get in touch with. Some grannies unfortunately did not survive the lockdown, and even the minimal medical care through the camps organised by Ador were not accessible during this period. But the community building needed to start again.
I had joined a morning meeting with the grannies in July 2021 after the end of the deadly second covid wave in India. Seated on that lovingly placed plastic sheet, I listened to all the conversations – stories of the pandemic, of morning travels, of summer and monsoon, of struggles, of the love for the volunteers and more. They had all received a ration kit that day, and the mood was upbeat. They all sat together in a circle with the volunteers. A chanting of devotional songs followed.
The post pandemic world brought with it a fresh set of challenges. Public assemblies of a large group of people – especially older citizens – was now a medical risk, the support of the local communities at this place of assembly had also unfortunately waned due to some tussles and financial constraints for the team had increased manifold.
Even concerned citizens like one Chaand Babu, who would provide hot meals daily to all those assembled at this location had been forced to stop his work by the residents in the locality. Chaand Babu continues to provide hot meals in other parts of the city, but it is not possible for the grannies or others who are in need to travel to these distant locations.
On a subsequent visit as we assembled at the same location, the idea of chanting came up. Bhagavathi didi, one of the grannies, said “How will we sing? There’s no energy. We haven’t eaten much. I have come all the way from Gobindpur. My body is in pain but I still have to come here daily because I have no option”.
The Ador team is currently looking for a space in the same locality where the grannies can assemble daily, so that the friction with the locals may reduce and they also have an indoor space where hot meals can be served to them. But this is not an easy task. Most house owners are not ready to allow this, even if the space were to be taken on rent.
Ankita and the other volunteers reassure the grannies that they will have a space soon. For these old women who live without support and love from their families, a sense of belonging is a treasured feeling, and they look forward to this space becoming available.
While we push and wait for systemic changes in governance and society that enables care for senior citizens as a built-in measure, we need many more fountains of care like Ador. What else is a progressive society if not one filled with more acts of love.
All images by Siddharth Agarwal
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