Finding life is better inside the leper colony

April 12, 2005|By G. Jefferson Price III

JHARSUGUDA, India - Tara Ramkumary glances for help when she is asked how old she is.

Pondering the question, she raises her hands to her hard, browned, deeply wrinkled cheeks. She squeezes her face and looks self-consciously at the small group of villagers standing by. There is some discussion among them and it is proclaimed, with shrugs, that she must be about 70 years old. Maybe 80.

Who knows?

Who cares?

Tara Ramkumary lives from one day to the next. The sun rises and bakes everyone in her village, and it settles below the horizon and it cools off a little, and then the sun rises on the other side of the horizon and another hot day begins. That's the way time is counted. Ask her how hot it is and she is unlikely to say 105 degrees in the shade, which it is. She'd just say it's the hot season.

Tara Ramkumary is not the only person in this area who reacts with bewilderment when the age question is raised. The reaction is the same from people in rural villages all over India. They're not living on a time clock. They're living on a survival clock.

But Tara Ramkumary is different from people living in the other villages, for the hands she raises to her face are missing parts of fingers.

She is a leper.

The community she lives in is a leper colony.

Some of the other people standing around her are missing parts of fingers and toes, or they have whole limbs wrapped up. The disease has been stanched in them thanks to treatment. But they cannot go home to their original villages, because the stigma abides.

And guess what? Judging by villages similar to the ones they came from, the inhabitants of Tara Ramkumary's leper colony are better off in many ways. In fact, most of the people living in this colony on the outskirts of Jharsuguda in north-central India are not lepers. They're just from leper families.

It is a measure of the level of poverty and vulnerability prevailing among hundreds of millions of Indians that this leper colony would be a comfortable place to live for people who are not even afflicted by the disease.

Four generations of Tara Ramkumary's family live in the leper colony. Standing outside her hut, she holds her great-grandson, Dasarad, who is 8 months old.

Her children live here, her grandchildren live here and now her great-grandson lives here.

"I have been here more than 20 years," she says. "I am happy. My grandchild is with me."

There are about 160 people living in the leper colony. Only 50 of them are severely deformed by leprosy. Most of the others are not even infected. Fully a quarter of the population are children.

The colony is swept clean. The dwellings are sturdy, with reliable thatched roofs. The children go to school. In nearly two weeks of visiting rural communities in India, this village is one of the tidiest I have seen. There is electricity. There are wells and water tanks, better amenities than many surrounding villages.

Where did this all come from? Sister Shalini, a Catholic nun ministering to a completely non-Christian community, came to the village six years ago to get it all started, taking resources from wherever she could, including U.S. food aid.

Sister Shalini rides to the colony on her motor scooter every day and works to make the colony a better place for its inhabitants.

"Some of them still go out to beg in the city every day," she says. "But we try to give them a better life. We gave them water, some goats, some chickens, electricity and a clean place to live."

The inhabitants of the colony seem almost obsessive about keeping it clean. The whish-whish of brooms sweeping the dirt pathways between the dwellings never stops.

They are outcasts, but this is their home and their pride. And but for the infirmities from which they cannot be healed, it is a better place.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and editor of The Sun. He has been traveling on behalf of Catholic Relief Services.

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