Among the hundreds of volunteers who come to help during Amma’s program in Chennai there is a ‘special’ group. They are the residents of Amma’s Amritakuteeram housing project in Avadi, located on the outskirts of the city. You cannot tell them apart from any of the other volunteers because at first glance they look just like anybody else. It is not until you hear their stories that you realise there is more poverty and suffering under the surface of a colourful sari and a clean dhoti than you might expect.
Amma has said that even many of her Kerala devotees need to save for a whole year just to travel to Amritapuri for Amma’s darshan. Many of them even borrow a sari to make sure they look proper. Cheap rents in Chennai run around Rs. 500 per month, a sum that is too high for the city’s poorest of the poor. But through Amritakuteeram progect, many such people are getting a second chance in the form of a free home in a clean and well-maintained community. When speaking with the Avadi Amritakuteeram residents who were volunteering during Amma’s Brahmasthanam Festival, we heard stories of renewal and gratitude.
Peneer Selvam, a man with a bright smile, lives in Amritakuteeram Avadi house #4. During Amma’s 2004 Chennai visit, he was busy running from one seva job to another. He has been suffering from leprosy for the past six years, which has caused the loss of half of the fingers on each of his hands, but at least now that he doesn’t have to pay rent he can afford treatment. Leprosy damages the nerves and, when not treated, deteriorates the flesh. Each year when Amma comes to Chennai, he is eager to help, mostly painting. In 2004, Amma asked him to paint the back of the darshan stage and the walls.
Selvam’s neighbour, in house #5, is Ketera Balal (39), who lives with his 70-year-old father. Together, they manage a little STD/ISD [telephone] booth in a Chennai government hospital. Thanks to the free house given by the ashram, he was able to save enough money to pay for the STD booth’s business license. “I’m very happy and grateful to Amma,” he says.
“We live first class!” says 16-year-old Savitri Murugan, the youngest of the group of the Amritakuteeram volunteers. Working in different corners of the city had caused Savitri’s family to split apart, but Amma’s gift of an Amritakuteeram house has allowed them to live together again. Her mother is now supporting the family by teaching at a school for deaf children.
Lakshmi Manimaran (32) lives with her husband and two children in house #54. They used to rent a small room on the outskirts of Chennai with money earned by selling lottery tickets. But when the lottery closed, they were no longer able to afford the room. It was then that they applied and were approval for an Amritakuteeram home. Her family now makes its living selling incense sticks door to door. On a good day, they make a profit of around Rs. 40. With the money they save by not having to pay rent, Lakshmi and her husband are able to pay for the education of their children. Their 12-year-old daughter goes to a government school, but still, a school-uniform and a school fee of Rs. 150 per year are required. They are sending their four-year-old son to a private school, which costs Rs. 150 a month. They never could have afforded it without the free home from the ashram. Lakshmi says her hopes for the family’s future are riding on the education of her son.
Affording rent was also a problem for Likalavari (42) of house #33. She works six days a week in a factory that exports clothing, checking to make sure the buttons are sewn on properly. She makes about Rs. 1,100 a month this way, with which she is able to send her 17-year-old to school. He is in 11 th standard now and hopes to study commerce. “My life is so much better now,” she says with a smile.
Prema Kumar lives together with her husband, Ravi, and two children in house #53. Ravi is away at the moment because Amma’s ashram in Mysore has given him a construction job. Prema Kumar smiles full of pride when she talks about her husband working for Amma. “I am very happy,” she says. “Amma is always there in my heart. I know it and feel it.”
Devi (27) and Venkatesh (37) live with their family in #18. They have two daughters, ages seven and five. “Problems? No, we don’t have problems,” says Venkatesh, with a smile. He was born with one crippled leg, but his eyes have a soft and gentle look. His wife just came back from serving Amma by handing her prasad to distribute to those coming for darshan. She is still blushing from the excitement. She is wearing the seva badge she wore while grinding coconut for the chutney all afternoon. “We made chutney to feed thousands! ” she says excitedly. Venkatesh is a tailor and is able to work out of their new Amritakuteeram home. This year for Amma’s Chennai programme he was asked to stitch the lace hanging off the edge of the stage.