- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 21, 2005

“Love Home” is such a romantic name. But it is home to some 200 bundles of broken dreams of women who slipped out of their sane minds.

Most of the inmates of Love Home (near Kochi, India) were picked up from the street. Many had done terrible things during their bouts of insanity.

Leela butchered her three young children with a kitchen knife because she thought them demons intent on devouring her. Some of the women were pushed off balance mentally by other people’s actions — like Pushpa who was raped by her father at age 14. Suganthi, a middle-aged deaf-and-dumb woman had to spend 12 years in jail for “killing” her newborn. She was arrested while roaming the street carrying her infant, dead five days. She probably had been raped, gave birth, and was finally arrested for strangling her baby — all in the street.

Every time I visit Love Home, I leave in tears. The first time, on a news assignment, I wept the 40 miles back to my office. The tales of human suffering I heard at that home for orphaned, mentally ill women were heartbreaking.

I cried not just for the women, but for the little, stooping, poor farmer who established Love Home, too — and his incredible faith in human kindness, his hope and optimism.

Maathappan Chettan was pained by the sight of orphaned, insane women wandering in the towns of my home state Kerala. He just went and set up Love Home. “My only resource was that amazing line in the Bible,” Maathappan Chettan told me. “Christ said: ‘Whoever is helping the weakest among my people is helping me.’ In my view, the most helpless people are the mentally ill women wandering our streets.”

“How do you feed, clothe and tend to nearly 200?” I asked.

“On a hope and a prayer,” he replied disarmingly. Noticing my skepticism, he said: “You know, Basheer, there are over 1 billion people in our country. Each one of them, including all those crooks, thieves and murderers, is willing to help other humans in his or her own little way. I tap into their kindness.”

But how does that reservoir of kindness find a channel to Love Home and nurture it? “Every day is a surprise day. People whom I have never heard of send me money and materials. In many cases, anonymously. They must have heard about our humble home by the word of mouth.”

Maathappan Chettan continued: “Every day, I go to the post office at 11 in the morning. Every day, there is at least a half-dozen money orders. Often, very small sums; once in a while, a surprisingly large one. Some people send in money regularly every month.” There is no assured income from any source, no government grants either.

“But believe me Basheer,” he said. “Our girls never had to go hungry. Sometimes, bags full of rice or vegetables or groceries arrive unexpectedly. The guy who brought them would say, ‘Mr. so-and-so asked me to drop this off here. He also gives you his love.’ I trust in the miracle of love and kindness.” In this little, humble man’s presence, I feel tiny. In my heart, I bow to him.

People like Maathappan Chettan are the little big perks of journalism. (“Maathappan” is a corrupted form of Matthew. “Chettan” in my native Malayalam language means elder brother, but is used as an honorific for an older man).

Such people’s faith in human virtue, their willingness to sacrifice for others, their hope and optimism, their sense of purpose and determination rub off on to you. They make your day.

For reporters, the world is full of crooks, spin doctors and manipulators. The Maathappan Chettans help you regain faith in life and people. They make you weep and make you feel human.

I met another member of Maathappan Chettan’s tiny tribe in a humble seaside village home 25 miles from my city. In the early 1990s, a young man, the hope and promise of his poor fisherman’s family, was tortured to death by a policeman.

Gopi, the darling of his neighborhood, was arrested the day before and accused of theft. A day later, the family was told Gopi had committed suicide in the police station lockup and that the body could be claimed from the government mortuary.

The shocked family knew it was a perfect case of custodial murder. Gopi’s sisters and his father, Thankappan Chettan, then a 60-year-old afflicted with tuberculosis, petitioned the police officials and politicians but received no immediate response.

The poverty-stricken, frail, sickly Thankappan Chettan then did an unheard-of thing: He simply refused to cremate the body. Instead, he preserved his son’s body in formalin, a preservative chemical, in a large plastic bag and kept it in an earthen mound in front of his thatched hut.

I interviewed Thankappan Chettan eight years after his son’s death to report on his Gandhi-style passive-resistance struggle for justice. The plastic bag had remained in the earthen mound all those years. Thankappan Chettan stubbornly insisted that until the government ordered an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and compensated him for his loss, he would not cremate his son’s body.

As we spoke, the earthen mound seemed a large symbol of a little man’s challenge to a gigantic establishment out to defeat and wreck him. Between long bouts of coughing, Thankappan Chettan told me of his son’s tragedy.

Gopi had been a capable player kabaddi (a team tag game). A few days before his arrest and death, he defeated the policeman in a public contest. Afterward, the two scuffled.

The policeman felt publicly humiliated and vowed revenge. The arrest and the torture leading to death, according to Thankappan Chettan, was the policeman’s payback.

The poorest-of-the-poor, that man’s steely resolve to take on the establishment and right a wrong, moved me deeply. Lesser mortals would have crumbled much earlier.

Thankappan Chettan’s story ends on a happier note: He finally won his case, nearly nine years after his son’s death. The Kerala High Court ordered the CBI to investigate and the state to pay him an interim compensation.

Thankappan Chettan’s lawyer had presented my story on the long struggle, published in The Hindu, as a court “exhibit.”

One does not meet a Mathappan Chettan or a Thankappan Chettan often. But such rare, bright encounters make journalism worthwhile to me, particularly in these days when some news reports can trigger rioting.

K.P.M. Basheer is a reporter with the Indian newspaper The Hindu and is a Hubert H. Humphrey fellow in journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland.

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