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Fearless Grace

Deivadan Sisters uplift Kerala’s abandoned elderly

text and photographs by Peter Lemieux

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On an early morning in February, the sound of a breakfast bell fills the women’s quarters at the Deivadan Home in Malayatoor, a village nine miles north of Kerala’s commercial center of Ernakulam.

A group of hungry elderly women has already gathered around a large table in the facility’s dining hall. Moments after the ring has faded, Jaseena Muriyamvelil, a young novice of the Congregation of the Deivadan Sisters, emerges from the kitchen carrying a vat of rice and yellow curry. She places it in the center of the table and picks up the ladle. As if on cue, the eager women move in, pushing forward their metal plates and cups.

Thirty-year-old Sister Jiji Puthupparmbil, clothed in a saffron habit, paces around the perimeter. A large silver medallion, engraved with the words “To Serve The Poorest,” hangs around her neck. She engages the women in a lighthearted banter that brings wide smiles to their otherwise world-weary faces. She shares the circumstances of the women’s shattered lives.

“She had daughter-in-law problems,” says Sister Jiji, gesturing toward 75-year-old Thankamma, the first resident at the home when it opened its doors 13 years ago. Thrown out of her son’s home, Thankamma had no one to turn to and no place to go. She boarded a bus, not thinking about its destination and, somehow, found her way to the Deivadan Home.

Continuing around the table, Sister Jiji taps the shoulder of a frail, elderly woman seated next to Thankamma. “She’s a blind spinster.”

One by one, the sister identifies the reasons why the women ended up here, in what resembles a casting call for India’s most destitute — abandoned, deaf, mentally ill, chronically sick — each story as tragic as the next.

“Here, we admit everybody, the poorest of the poor, the depressed, the hated, the unwanted, the uncared for, from all religions — Christian, Muslim, Hindu. Very rough people. Very innocent people,” she says.

“Most are older than 70. We’re totally dedicated to them, feeding them, bathing them, cleaning their clothes, teaching them how to pray and love God.”

In recent years, a fast-paced, more secular and consumerist culture has been steadily supplanting Kerala’s time-honored agrarian culture, along with its traditional family structure. All too often, the elderly suffer most from the changing values of Kerala’s families.

“Normally, old people are looked after by their children,” explains 70-year-old Father Varghese Njaliath, the pastor of St. Thomas Church in Malayatoor and resident chaplain at the Deivadan Home. “But there is a trend here. When parents become ill or a problem, they’re put in a home or sometimes simply thrown out with nobody to look after them. That didn’t happen before. But this new generation likes to be very free. Parents at home can be a burden. They have to be cared for and looked after. So you can see why the Deivadan Home is truly a gift from God for these people.”

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Tags: Sisters Kerala Poor/Poverty Caring for the Elderly Mental health/ mental illness