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A visit to Father Jose in Thiruvananthapuram, India

A visit to Father Jose in Thiruvananthapuram, India
A travelogue by Michèle Heeb, Spring 2010.

It is impossible to prepare for India. And unnecessary. It is different from what you expect, anyway. At least, that is how it was with me, when I flew to India at the end of April 2009 for an internship in New Delhi, the country's capital. It was not easy to find my way about this gigantic, strange city at the start, but I soon became accustomed to living and working in Delhi. Sooner or later, the ride to work in the motor rickshaw every morning, the charlady who washed up our dishes and washed our clothes every day, the lunch of rice, dal, curry and chappathi, and all those people everywhere all the time - in short, Delhi - became my daily routine. In spite of the heat, the dust and the culture shock, I felt very much at ease.

In Autumn, on completion of my internship, I travelled round the south of this vast country with Madeleine, a friend of mine. I wanted to take the opportunity to visit Niteesh, my parents' godchild. In Delhi, I had already got in touch with Father Jose, and he had immediately invited me to spend some time with him. He picked us up in person in Kovalam, a town near Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), and first of all drove us to the Boys' Home in his car. A game of volleyball was in progress, so of course we joined in. The boys were very open and polite, and enjoyed having us visit them.

Over a shared evening meal, a few of them performed familiar Indian songs, and the priest told us about his work. The Boys' Home takes in boys from poor and underprivileged families in various villages. Here, they receive thorough schooling, and thus a chance of finding a good job. The contact with their families is not severed, because although the boys remain in the Boys' Home during the week, they go home at weekends. It is the priest's aim to send the boys back to their villages after their time in the Boys' Home - well educated and employed - where they can support their families and the other villagers.The boys' routine is pretty rigidly organised. There is an hour of sports every afternoon; they have to go back to the classroom for lessons after supper; and the day is structured by the prayers that are an integral part of life in the Boys' Home.

The next day began with a yoga lesson. We had moved from the Boys' Home to the AIDS clinic. In addition to the medical care of the patients, the priest and his team look after children whose parents have contracted or died from HIV. The children, some of whom are themselves HIV positive, live here. So that morning we stretched and posed along with them, and after breakfast the priest instructed us to teach them something and to play with them. So, after a preparation time of less than half an hour, there we stood in front of a class of 20 children aged 7 to 13. They soon relinquished their initial shyness, and sang songs, recited the alphabet, and named fruits and animals in English. They were all shouting at the same time, wanting to sing another song and play another game, and when the priest showed us the leprosy clinic in the afternoon, they hardly wanted to let us go.

The standard of the education is probably not as high in the AIDS clinic as in the Boys' Home. For the priest, the main thing is to give the children fun and shelter And he achieves this very well with the heartiness and generosity that he lavishes on his charges. To see them laughing and playing, one can hardly imagine the misfortune that they have had to suffer.

Madeleine and I also enjoyed his unbounded hospitality and generosity.

But the loveliest experience was an excursion with the children from the AIDS clinic. First of all, we all took the clinic's bus to the beach. However, very few Indians go into the water to bathe as we do. Mostly, they stand fully clothed with the water up to their calves (or up to their hips, in the case of the brave ones), or - and the children in particular like this - they go as close to the water as they can, and run away screaming at every wave. Fantastic! After that, we took a little boat trip, and when we had all fortified ourselves with samosa and tea, there came the best part of the day: the Big Wheel! This specimen looked rather decrepit. It might have been in use in Switzerland 30 years ago, but would have been declared unsafe there long ago. Everybody was allowed to have a go, and the laughter of the children drowned out both the sound of the diesel engine and my inner voice, which advised me not to ride on the thing. The children ran from the Big Wheel to the helter-skelter, then back to us and then to the car roundabout, squealing with pleasure. When the priest bought peanuts for everyone, their happiness was perfect.

We were sorry to have to leave next day, although we were looking forward to the rest of our journey. As a farewell present, we gave Niteesh a game of Memory with Swiss motifs. Perhaps he will visit us some time, who knows?

 © 2011 Schroff-Stiftung
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