Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Savings From Nothing

Although I mentioned to you in a previous blog the names of the four women I met when I first arrived to LAFTI a few weeks back, one woman’s life and story will never leave my heart. Our real conversation first began when she was staying at the LAFTI office a few nights ago and I invited her to stay in my air conditioned room, since none of the other women were around to be jealous. Although I had noticed at first glance that she was not wearing the traditional red dot in the center of her forehead (a bindi) like the other women, I waited until now to ask the question directly.

She informed me that a few years back when her son was only five-years-old and her daughter just one, her husband slowly developed a fever. He was taken to the doctor several times, and then sent home because the doctor did not think that his illness was severe enough to run expensive and often unnecessary tests. After returning to the hospital with a fever much greater than ever before, test were run and the diagnosis was confirmed. Only five years into her marriage and her son’s life, her best friend and husband had been diagnosed with Jaundice. It was immediately understood by Valayrmathi and her family that they would not be able to afford the needed liver transplant offered only at a hospital in the Far north. Because her daughter was not old enough to understand what happened when she was nearly one-year-old, she is now very saddened when her mother must explained to her that she has to spend several days away from home working in order to provide for the family. Her son, although much more mature and understanding than most other 10-year-old boys one would meet, has lost his father and friend. He has lost his father not only to a curable disease, but to a disease that is treatable by so many of the Indian doctors that we now find in the U.S. The unfortunate irony in the situation is that the medical care we receive from Indian physicians working in the U.S. are often not affordable by India’s own population.

When I was speaking with my grandmother about Valayrmathi and her struggles, we agreed on one thing almost instantaneously. Valayrmathi is about as far as one can get from being a “useless parent”. With a broken heart, two young children, and only enough money for a few necessities, Valayrmathi loves and cares for her family in a priceless sort of way. She does not spoil her children to make up for their sorrows, yet she is a most comforting mother in times of need, and most importantly she provides for her children, the love, education, and encouragement that is needed to move forward from such a tragedy.

Although words cannot truly explain, Valayrmathi is one of the most active and aware mothers I have ever known. When she admitted that one of the reasons she wanted to spend time around me was to learn more English so that she could then relay that knowledge to her children, I was honored and overwhelmed. She works tirelessly and loves endlessly, and that combination has made her one of the strongest, most determined, mothers and friends I know.

While one may not need any further information to understand the complexity and struggles Valayrmathi faces on a daily basis, there is still one more story to share. When I spent some time visiting Valayrmathi’s village last weekend before teaching at the LAFTI Hostel, I was lucky enough to get the V.I.P. tour of her and her father’s house. When first stepping over the concrete ledge amongst a larger rectangle that makes for a doorway, I found myself in the “greeting room”. Not large enough to hold more than three or four people comfortably, I later learned that this is where Valayrmathi and her children sleep. There is a government-provided TV that plays only one channel, and on top of the TV a picture of the Jagannathans surrounded by a traditional string of Indian flowers. They brought me a small plastic white chair, the only one in the house, and insisted that I sit in front of the fan and drink a cup of tea. Because there was only one electrical outlet in the house from what I could see, a few wires had to be twisted and a few cables unplugged until the fan began to blow. Before going on to show me all of the other rooms in the house, she led me outside to the garden. Filled with a few flowers but mostly weeds, her beautiful garden spanned along the side of the house three meters in length but only two feet out because there was only that much space. Glancing at her after she saw me looking at the garden, I had never seen more happiness or pride in her appearance before. She said that “before they weren’t growing at all, but now they’re growing”. I guess when you look at it that way, there’s a lot to be happy about. After we acknowledged the color and beauty of the garden, we made our way back to the inside of the house. Behind the greeting and sleeping room was a small storage room, a small square room that connected to the front and side rooms. Next she showed me the puja or prayer room just off to the left. With only two pictures and a mirror on the wall, the room was nearly empty. She said that one day, after she finished the rest of the house, she hoped to fill the walls with pictures of her favorite Gods. When I asked her about when she might be able to get those pictures she so badly wanted, she started to tell me about her personal finance plan, something most of us college students and even adults seem to lack. We walked into the final room, but it was not yet a room. As I began to asked her where she cooked for her family since this unfinished room seemed to slightly resemble a kitchen, she said “since our kitchen isn’t complete, we cook on a small stove on the floor of my parent’s house just across the street because there is only the two of them living there so they have more space”. Although her explanation was slowly making me swell with sadness, her optimism and determination I mentioned earlier made it impossible to give in. “Every month, after I pay for the food, and my son and daughter’s schooling, and for any low-cost medical expenses for my mother and father, I save.” When I asked her approximately how much she saves each month, she said anywhere from 50 to 150 rupees depending on what other things come up. Just to clarify, that is a savings of approximately $1.20 to $2.60. She said it would take about another 500 rupees to finish the kitchen and maybe 150 to 200 to finish the storage/main room. Again, I just wanted to empty my wallet and help her build her kitchen, but before I could say a thing we were on to visit her parent’s home just across the way. Unlike in her house, there were two small fragile cots sitting at the front this home for her elderly mother and father, but this house was completely made of straw and sticks instead of cement like their daughter’s. Besides the beds, there was a small pot-like stove in the back right corner, and a picture of Valayrmathi’s husband hanging from the wall. Afterwards, they took me out behind the house to her parent’s “back yard”. There were a few trees, some grass, and a very weak fence that bordered the family’s small plot of land. Valayrmathi went on to tell me that although she really liked having the one lemon tree in her own back yard, “it doesn’t give much lemons so sometimes we take from here”. She said that “my children are very close to their grandparents because they were there when my husband died and they now spent a lot of time at their house because of my working.”

So, while we are busy talking about our dream renovations and our blooming gardens, Valayrmathi is busy saving. Passing up the opportunity to purchase a 25-rupee prayer picture and prioritizing her children’s health and education above all, Valayrmathi has created a small pot of savings from virtually nothing.

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