by Uma (Monika) Lakombe
Kiran is a Hindi word meaning a ray. A ray of light and of hope in the lives of the hundreds of physically and mentally handicapped children of this centre located just a few meters away from the holy river Ganges, near Benares, the most sacred city in India. Kiran could also mean the beaming smile of those children who give us all a wonderful lesson of courage. Here, they find a new taste to life, they recover the respect and the esteem of themselves as well as trust and confidence. Indeed, Kiran is much more than a centre for handicapped children, it is a haven where they learn the art of living, of living here and now, in kindness, in harmony and beauty; it is enough to hear the joyful laughers of the children to be convinced about it. The joyful faces of those young ones who sing in spite of their pains is a great teaching for the visitors.
After having crossed several villages of the gangetic plain, driving on a bumpy, stony, powdery or at times asphalted road, we already distinguish the ochred tiled roofs of a small colony which Sangeeta (Judith Keller) the founder and manager of this centre likes to call a “Mini Dörfli” which in Swiss dialect signifies a mini village.
The large blue gate opens on an oasis of greenery and multi-coloured flowers which contrast with the yellowish colour of the sandy earth around. I can remember the ceremony celebrated when the corner stone has been laid on the 27th of January 1996, day of Sangeeta’s fiftieth birthday. Not one tree, not one plant was growing on that land which looked rather desolated, almost like a desert. And the desert began to bloom! At the same time hundreds of young staggering children fragile like thin little buds have blossomed into young boys and girls whose will power and life force call our admiration.
The adventure began fourteen years ago when Judith Keller ( whose Indian name Sangeeta is translated by the word music), who until then had been channelling all her energy into healing lepers, received the inspiration that she should, from then on, work for handicapped children, numerous in India and often rejected both by their family and by society.
At the very beginning there had been only two children, a young little beggar Raju whose back and legs had been deformed and paralysed through poliomyelitis. Raju had been abandoned in the street by his parents long time ago. He then became a member of Kiran foundation and is now married, has two children and is a tempo driver (a tempo is a collective auto rickshaw). Later on there has been Rohit who came from Madhya Pradesh (a state in central India). Rohit has been operated at the university hospital of Benares, he got crutches, then he went back home in Madhya Pradesh where he has settled as a tailor. Then a little neighbour, Sunil, suffering of serious cerebral palsy which prevented him from walking and from communicating with others, added himself to the first children. Sunil’s father was a cycle rickshaw driver; soon he got engaged to fetch in the morning and drive back in the evening the new little ones who were arriving to join the first ones.
A few years later, they were fifty children to go to the small ashram which had been transformed into a centre, located in an area called Nagwa, in the outskirts of the city. Krist Panthi Ashram was a house lent by the diocese of Benares but this building was not well equipped to receive handicapped young beings. Soon, this place became too small as more and more children were coming to the centre to be taken care of. Indeed, seeing a glimmer of hope dawning, parents wanted to confide their little ones to Kiran, the name and the light of which were spreading very fast. Nevertheless, Kiran spent beautiful years in this place from 1990 to 1998. The cycle rickshaw was soon replaced by a bus which was to get the children farther and farther in the city. Lalu, the rickshaw driver was then employed to do other tasks of maintenance.
“Kiran Family” was also growing in Switzerland. Probably that without the help of the parish and of the people of St Galles, a Swiss town where Sangeeeta has been born and brought up, nothing would have been possible. Then “Kiran Family” grew further in other European countries. Until now, it is still the large European “Kiran Family” which supports the centre, thus allowing hundreds of children to be kind of re-born in life.
The funds generously given by the members of the “Kiran Family” made it possible to build, a few years later, this beautiful mini village where we have just arrived. This village is composed of several houses build in a simple and ecological architecture according to Laurie Baker’s designing. Laurie Baker, an English architect who marriedan Indian woman, took the Indian nationality and lives in Kerala, has built extensively in India. The Laurie Baker’s Institute continues his work.
While going on, we first find on the right hand side the workshops of the vocational training where various articles are crafted for the shop close by. This shop offers wishing cards drawn and painted by the children and teenagers, colourful batiks, pearls stringed into garlands, into brooches or belts, bags big and small. Many more beautiful and useful things like biscuits, jam, bread, sold in the shop are prepared a little bit further in the workshop-kitchen. The sick room and the physician’s room adjoin the workshops. A nurse is permanently there and the physician comes once a week to see his little patients.
Going on with our visit we shall see the big community hall used as a prayer hall in the morning where the day begins with devotional songs, universal prayers, quotations read from one of the sacred scriptures belonging to the various traditions or religions of the world and of India; indeed different religions are represented here among the staff as well as among the children: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and also Sikh and Buddhist minorities.
Sangeeta who has been a Christian nun in the community called “The Little Sisters of Jesus”, order founded by Charles de Foucauld, is opened to all the religions of the world. Sangeeta’s spirituality goes beyond dogmas and doctrines and she practises Zen meditation; she even intends to integrate and to teach the Zen art of living to the “Kiran Family.”
In front of the community hall on the left is the administrative building, then on the right we can see the small temple overhanging a pond on which rose lotuses are floating. Further again, here and there, the playground, the rooms for the physiotherapy where the children regularly receive the treatment proper to each of them. There are also the workshops for the making of the orthopaedic shoes and for the plaster casts. Then there is the kitchen and the dining room, the school rooms, the staff room, the hostels in which children stay before and after an operation, and also some orphans or even those who for a reason or another cannot remain with their family. There is also the room for sewing where young peasant girls of the surroundings come to attend a two years course in Home Science. Then there is a kindergarten and not far away a nursery where flowers and plants grow before being sold.
As we go on we see, spreading in front of us, the fields pertaining to the centre in which cereals and vegetables are grown, and the pond where fishes can swim. Then comes the farm with its good cows giving their milk for the well being of the children as well as for the ‘tchaï’ of the adults. The first cow has been offered by the Swiss ambassador in India who himself soon became a member of the “Kiran Family.” Indeed the cow is as much a symbol for India as it is for Switzerland!
Continuing our visit we reach the ‘kutyas’ (a small simple house made out of clay) occupied by some of the staff members who have chosen to live in the country rather than going back to a flat in the city every evening. Seventy people work in the centre; there are the administrative staff, the medical staff, the teachers, the gardeners, the drivers and those in charge of the maintenance of the all place. For them too the adventure went far ahead of their expectations and stimulated their courage and heart; many of them have found a goal to their life in Kiran.
Two hundred twenty children people the centre every day; fifty of them dwell in the four hostels in the compound. Those who come from the city or from the surrounding villages are driven by the three buses belonging to Kiran. Apart from the ‘mini village’, there is an outreach service which works on forty villages which are located too far away for the children to go regularly to the centre. A team of nurses and physiotherapists spend a few days a week in those villages in order to educate the parents and the people so that they all can take care of handicapped children in the most appropriate and considerate manner. Another team of therapists goes once every two months to villages located even further away, to offer the services which are required for handicapped people.
Indeed a great part of the work consists in educating the parents and society. Sangeeta had understood this from the very beginning: it was necessary to help parents to be responsible, it was important to give them hope, trust and confidence so that they would not reject their little one who represents one more mouth to feed and because of whom they felt ashamed.
True that in many a family the situation is dramatic: a widow with eight children, one (or even two) of them being handicapped; an alcoholic father with his two sole children being disabled; a rejected wife being held responsible for her child’s disease, to name only a few examples of the misery borne by those people who are verily sorely tried.
Society should also accept to give employment to beings having ‘different abilities’ else the whole task of (re-) integration which takes place in Kiran would open on a terrible void. The aim is to integrate the children or the young people in society according to their capabilities, their affinities and talents. In Kiran each one will find out what particularly attracts him, or to which he feels pulled, for what she is gifted, even a calling may be. Shushil, who had been considered as an idiot in the village he lived in, has recovered joy and the respect of himself when he discovered painting. Shushil is the first producer of bright and harmoniously coloured cards, for that is what he likes: to blend colours according to his mood; he can paint during hours, his head full of sunny colours!
Children having grown up they also might find a job in the centre itself, be it in the administration, in the craft work, in the making of orthopaedic shoes, as a gardener, a baker, a teacher. For some of them with a very deep handicap reintegration is more difficult. What will our young Vinod become, he who has only one arm working? He likes to write. Will he be able to live from his poetry or his prose? In order that they would not live in a fully protected world where everyone suffers from a disability, 30% of Kiran’s children does not present any disability, physical or mental. They all learn to live together and to help each other. It is moving to see those who are less affected pushing the wheel chairs of those who cannot even walk with crutches or giving a hand to the fragile little companion coming down from the bus.
After a few years spent in Kiran, some of the children will be sent to a government or a public school in the city; but as we can imagine this does not go without difficulties. It is comforting to attend the Kiran Family’s annual function which takes place in the community hall. People will flock to this function, among them many a father or a mother who yesterday had been ashamed of their child and who are proud of him today. Yes, parents are proud of their children who sing and dance on the stage; or may be their child is an actor playing his part in an edifying play, or a speaker for the day.
Many children have found luck and happiness in their own misfortune in receiving the education that their brothers and sisters ‘normally able’ might not have received. Year after year I have seen numbers of those children evolve and blossom, and to witness this gives me a deep joy.
The reason I wanted to describe Kiran Family’s mini village is that it represents for me the miracle of trust, of courage, of faith and of love; a miracle which happens anew everyday. The dream of a fully altruistic, woman who devoted her life to the happiness of the others, has become a reality, a reality which has exceeded her dream.
Kiran: a huge ray of sun light which warms up the heart!