On October 25th 2016 after an approximately 3,5 hours ride from Chennai (Madras), I finally arrived in Pondicherry. I received a warm and joyful welcome although not very many people were there; the children were at school still. So I met Leela and Robert as well as Munjula and Mary who work in the kitchen. Robert is a young man who helps Leela with the children. His tasks range from transport duty over homework supervision to small errands. Both were very excited about the gifts I had brought, especially about the 2017 calendar that shows Snehalayam and the children.
At 4 in the afternoon, the first children came from school and examined me curiously. I probably looked as surprised as them since I didn’t expect such discipline when they arrived. One after another they all neatly put their school bags in a long row and took out their lunch boxes. Then they all went to wash their hands in the big sink right next to the house and everybody thoroughly cleaned their lunch box. Finally, they all disappeared and came back shortly after in leisurewear. They went back to the sink to wash the school uniforms they had worn until just then. As soon as everything was in place, as if on command, there was a colourful hustle and bustle, the children laughed, played, told stories and some even were courageous enough to speak to me and showed me the house. Communication was difficult at first but became lively after we got to know each other a bit better.
At 5 p.m., the children began with their homework and before I knew, as if on command, they all took out their school books and started to study out on the veranda floor. This all happened without much clamour and I was very impressed with the children’s discipline. Leela then explained to me that without certain strict processes, nothing would work in the house. At the moment, 21 children live in Snehalayam. It is especially nice that two students from a university came every afternoon to help the children with the homework. The two students speak good English and can explain the tasks very clearly which especially helps some boys with their homework. Three children unfortunately had to leave since they always disturbed the processes, would not listen, which made things increasingly difficult for Leela and had a negative influence on other children.
Leela is 63 years old and came to Snehalayam 20 years ago. When in 1991 she prayed to recover from critical illness she vowed to dedicate her life to God’s service should she recover. She did and soon her pastor found an ad in the newspaper that Tojo from Kerala had placed. He was looking for support in Snehalayam. And so Leela went from Kerala to Pondicherry. Her work here, especially after Tojo’s death, means everything to her.
Since the children are in school during the day until the late afternoon, I spent the following days with Leela. I inspected the house and tried to find out what’s missing most urgently. There was no doubt that the repair of the roof of the main building was needed most. It had been destroyed during a fire two years ago. To fix it they had installed a makeshift palm roof that after a year already was entirely destroyed. I also visited Snehagramma, a place in Mattu where older people live that were given a home by Tojo. 30 elderly people live in Snehagramma at the moment. I was heartened by seeing how people care for each other there. The property is huge and the buildings of a formed textile factory offer a good home to women and men and also provides a home for ill people. I saw the vegetable garden and spoke to the cook who explained to me how she prepared the meals.
I spent the afternoons of my short 4-day stay in Snehalayam in the orphanage. As soon as the children come home from school, there is a lively atmosphere and day by day, everybody is more excited; it is only a few days until the Diwali festival. For the festival, we went shopping. On Diwali, there should be more than just the usual donations from the supermarket that due to the festival was smaller than usually. We bought lots of vegetables for the following days and fruit like apples, bananas, organs, papayas and lemons, an unusual treat for the children. I would have loved to make a fruit salad a la Germania for the feast but lacked the time. Visitors who look after the children and bring something for the festival arrive all the time. Almost every day, friends and supporters of the orphanage arrived and brought sweets for the children. A woman from Pondicherry even brought new shirts and trousers for every child. I decided to buy a new dress for Leela. It is the custom that the festival is begun in new clothes.
On the evening before Diwali I had to say goodbye. I exchanged some important information with Robert and Leela, and then the children sang a song. I was moved and sad that the time passed too fast to get to know everybody better. But I will come back.
The children’s excitement is contagious and I regret having to leave on the day of the festival. But in my heart I took the laughter, love and joy of the house with me.