As an employee of Tamil Nadu’s Health Department, N Ramamurthi could not help but take care of the elderly lady with leprosy in his house some 20 years ago. His wife, Rajeshwari welcomed her and took care of her needs including food and medicines. Soon the word spread that a husband-wife duo in Denalai village in the state rescued a lady who was abandoned by her family.
A few days later, another elderly woman turned up at their doorstep with her belongings. Instead of turning her away, they gave her space in their small house.
“Back then awareness around leprosy was not much and the stigma around it did not help. From maintaining distances, avoiding conversation to discriminating with leprosy patients, the villagers and even their families shunned them. With nowhere to go, they would have probably died on the streets if we had not helped. Of course, our neighbours looked at us as if we were committing a crime but we did not care,” Ramamurthi tells The Better India.
With five more people living in their house and more people flowing in, the couple formed MN Trust in 2005. Since then, several people have found a home and a family in Ramamurthi and Rajeshwari.
A life of dignity
Rajeshwari and Ramamurthi first transferred everyone to an empty house in their colony but due to lack of amenities like a bathroom and kitchen, they had to be shifted. So, the couple took a loan of Rs 70,000 and built a shelter home with rooms, bathrooms, a kitchen and a common area.
They also arranged for doctors for regular checkups, barbers for grooming, staff for keeping the place clean and for cooking food. The monthly expenses increased as the residents increased.
“I was contributing my salary to the Trust but that was not enough. In the beginning, when people did not know us, I took loans. Then we got donations from our well-wishers. Every two years, I would even sell some cents from my ancestral land and my wife’s jewellery. Even now, during the pandemic, we had to borrow some money as I had just retired,” says Ramamurthi.
The residents at the home ended up there under different circumstances. If some were abandoned by their children, some had no money or job to afford food and some travelled from other villages and towns to spend their final days in peace.
However, losing their dignity and self-respect was one thing everyone had in common.
“Every time we get a call to pick up someone or someone knocks at our door, they refuse to make eye contact. They do not talk and some even cry remembering what their families did to them. Since they are senior citizens, consoling them becomes tough as some don’t understand and some cannot hear,” says Rajeshwari.
As soon as someone arrives, they are first given a proper bath, food and new clothes to make them feel better. Then they are provided all three meals and snacks where they can mingle with others. An hour is reserved for meditation in the morning and evening where everyone assembles.
All the residents in the home are also provided necessary documents like voter ID and Aadhaar which makes them feel valued. “When you are given a document that states your identity, you feel important. Aadhaar cards can get you government benefits and voter IDs gives you the power to decide who forms the government,” she says.
In addition to the necessities, the couple also celebrates birthdays and festivals to make them feel like a family.
“I came here 10 years ago when no one was there to look after me. I was working earlier but due to age-related ailments, I had to stop. I am well looked after here. We get proper care and food like upma, idli, poori and chapati here. Additionally, since I have so many people here who are my age, I feel safe. Doctors come to check on us regularly and they give me medicines to control my blood pressure,” Rajamma, 64, tells The Better India.
At present, the shelter home houses 51 people, the youngest is 45 and the eldest is 96. And 18 people have breathed their last here. For those who pass away, the couple even performs their last rites as per their religion.
It has been nearly 20 years since Rajeshwari and Ramamurthi have been dedicatedly working to provide a better life to the elderly. They have two daughters, one of them has a doctorate in psychology and another one is presently pursuing her Masters’ in Social Work.
Despite having their own family, the duo has added several strangers to their lives. So what keeps them going?
“Honestly, we come from an ideology that believes that the world is one big family. Till we have the resources and energy to work, we will continue welcoming people and taking care of them,” adds Rajeshwari.
Edited by Yoshita Rao