Yoginder Sikand visits Asha Niketan in Bangalore – a home for the mentally challenged that goes way beyond being an institution, and is structured like a family unit where the members share love, joys and emotions with each other. He also meets Paul, the person who has held them together for more than twenty-five years, and has immense faith in his ‘family’.
Based in a small, neat campus, Asha Niketan, located in Koramangala, is truly the ‘Abode of Hope’ that its name says it is, as I’ve learnt from occasionally visiting it over the last several months. Its charter describes it as a community of people ‘with and without intellectual disabilities’, sharing life together, and ‘celebrating the value of every person’ based on ‘mutual relationships and trust in God’.
Home to a community of some forty amazing people, around thirty of Asha Niketan’s members are ‘intellectually challenged’ adults, the rest being assistants who live with them as members of a small family. Although Bangalore has several institutions catering to ‘mentally retarded’ people, Asha Niketan is probably the only one that is structured as a family unit, providing its members love, warmth and care which most ‘normal’ families lack.
Fourteen of the ‘intellectually challenged’ members of the Asha Niketan family live on campus, in cheerful and airy rooms. Some of them have no family members or have been abandoned by them. The rest are what are called day workers, living with their parents or other family members and commuting to Asha Niketan five days a week. Their age ranges from 20 years onwards. The oldest, Georgie, is 85. Their mental age ranges from one to about five, and some of them suffer additional handicaps related to speech and physical disability.
Paul, the current leader of the community, has served in Asha Niketan for some twenty-five years. He was a fresh graduate when he volunteered to spend his holidays in the centre and in a short while decided to make it his life’s vocation, staying on ever since. ‘It’s the love that I receive and am able to share with members of this family that keeps me going,’ he says. Serving the mentally-challenged is Paul’s way of serving God. “Being their friend, so that they know that there is someone for them, gives me the satisfaction that I am fulfilling a purpose in my life. A well-paying job elsewhere could never give me that. Life isn’t all about making money, after all,” he explains.
But it isn’t just the love he gives and the service to people rejected by society that he renders that has kept Paul going for most of his life as an active member of the Asha Niketan community. He believes,
Sharing their joys and pains, everyday I learn so many new things from our family. From them I’ve learnt how to love and forgive – they are very loving and hold no bitterness in their hearts. They are innocent, spontaneous and transparent, unlike so-called normal people, and speak from their hearts, just as they feel, without any pretence or calculation. It isn’t that they don’t occasionally fight with each other, but they soon forget all about it. They are spiritual in their own wonderful ways. They’ve taught me how suffering can be transformed into love.
Life at Asha Niketan follows a regular pattern. Members get up early – some need the help of assistants to bathe, shave and for other early morning necessities. Breakfast is followed by half an hour of silent meditation, which is sometimes accompanied by soft instrumental music. Then, after they chat a bit they set about working in one of the many small workshops located within the premises. Work is light, but it helps the members spend their time productively and together, giving them a sense of self-worth as productive members of society and as also capable of earning just as everyone else.
Visit Asha Niketan on any weekday and you’ll find its member laughing and cracking jokes as they go about weaving mufflers and bath-mats, smoothening bits of bamboos to be made into picture-frames and pen-holders, embroidering bits of cloth to turn into greeting cards, folding old newspapers into paper-bags, and making candles. After lunch and an hour’s break it is back to the workshops – sunny, fun-filled workspaces – till tea-time, after which everyone comes together again to chat or play. Once a week the family goes out – to the local park or to a temple or church, where they spend the pocket-money that they earn from their work on ice-cream and juice and generally have fun. Once a year, the entire family goes on a vacation – to a hill-station or a beachside town.
Occasionally, volunteers drop by and spend time at Asha Niketan, and some, particularly from abroad, choose to spend up to several months living as part of the family for an inspiring learning experience and exposure to an amazing way to live, love, care and share. Volunteers can serve in many ways: helping in the workshops and promoting their products, mobilising funds, assisting in the kitchen, and, best of all, chatting with and helping members of the family.
Members of the Asha Niketan family come from diverse religious, caste and class backgrounds but are mercifully unaware of such humanly-constructed differences. Seeing them love, laugh, argue, chat, work, cry, shout, play and meditate together, you’d definitely wish all other families were that way! And, as you will definitely agree, what a wonderfully different world it would then be!