Friday, September 23, 2011

Rejoicing and Dance in the Mogal Vadi Leprosy Colony

Recently, the most recent newsletter for Promethean Spark was published, and it focuses a lot on the program India. (For those of you who don't know Promethan Spark also has programs in Costa Rica and Kenya). After reading through the newsletter, I felt that I had to share this article on my blog. I hope you are as moved by the article as I was.

Saroja and Krishnan were a beautiful couple when they first met. She was petitie and pretty and he was tall and handsome. A goat-herder in his young life, Krishnan had a virile, muscular body with a full head of hair and an infectious smile. He had a masculine, resonant deep voice which one day a radio producer heard and offered him a job as a radio announcer. He spent 7 years as a successful announcer. The story gets muddled in the retelling so we are not sure exactly when he actually met Saroja, but they were married and apparently had a good life together. Little did they know that their worlds would crash before their very eyes and all they had been blessed with would be retracted by a vengeful god who would, for no apparent reason curse them with a debilitating disease causing them to be ostracized from all they knew and loved and would exact a toll on their bodies and minds to the furthest degree imaginable.

Jean Shifrin with Krishnan

We don’t know how old they are now but they live their days in the Mogal Vadi leprosy colony; Saroja moves about bent completely in half using the stubs she has left for hands as crutches coordinating with her one good leg with a stub of a foot that remains intact. The leprosy has reached advanced stages attacking her nervous system causing strokes and paralysis on half of her face. Her right eye was frozen open so it dried up and now she only sees from her left eye. Krishnan has lost both legs to the knees and wears mini-sandals on the rounded out portions of his fingerless hands to pull himself along rutted dirt roads on an 18” square piece of wood with wheels attached to the bottom. When I first met him I had to ask if he was a man or woman because the leprosy destroys testosterone. His voice was high and squeaky. He has lost most of his hair and developed feminine features in his decaying body. In the words of Dr. Susan, “Leprosy is a most cruel and pitiless disease. It keeps its victims alive as long as possible to suffer as much as possible.”

Shaun Parry and Stacey Tookey at Mogal Vadi

After 1½ hours of rutted dirt roads and dodging sari-clad women and monkeys our medical van arrived at the Mogal Vadi Colony. We efficiently set up and attended to the patients for blood pressure, open ulcer cleansing, cuttings, rebandaging, consultations with Dr. Susan and distribution of medication. I set up the small speakers, turned on Jaya Hei an upbeat Tamil song and gathered a few of the patients to do some basic movement with me. We started slow and others gathered to join in the therapeutic dancing. JayaRaj, the head of the colony (who loves to laugh and is a comedian in his own right), dressed in a lungi and a button up yellow shirt got carried away and started doing his own steps to the music. We all followed his lead, which brought him great joy, jabbing twice right, twice left repeating higher and higher. Saroja was sitting in the dirt a few paces away smiling the most beautiful sideways half-grin I have ever seen. I approached her and motioned for her to copy the dance motions with her arms. She hid her face and withered back into herself. I asked Velu, our driver to translate for me into Tamil. Then I asked her if she would allow me to pick her up and dance with her. It took a bit of persuading but soon she smiled and like a child opened her frail arms to me.

I scooped her up gently and held her seventy-pound frame tight against my chest. She was nervous but soon relaxed and began smiling as I swayed back and forth to the music. She trusted me. Standing between JayaRaj and Paramasivan, who had dressed in his nicest purple shirt, we imitated their dances. Then I twirled slowly. She squealed spontaneously and giggled. Her heart was beating like a little hummingbird next to mine and for a moment the world disappeared. Twirling and bobbing to the Indian rhythms we laughed and though we could not speak the same language, our souls were communing. I will never forget the tiny squeals and the high pitched tittering as she shook with excitement. I had never experienced anything like it in my life and I dare say she had never either. I knelt on one knee and she sat on my lap for some time enthralled in the joy of the moment. It was as if nothing else existed in the whole universe except our small group in that leprosy colony that day. Stacey Tookey was dancing with Paramasivam, I was with Saroja, we brought Krishnan over to join in with JayaRaj and we shared love and rejoiced together. A glimpse of heaven in a corner of the earth where it would seem impossible.

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