Born in Kerala to farmer parents, I was the third among nine siblings. While my elder sisters helped mother in household chores, I loved being around my younger brothers and sisters. Our village only had a primary school and for secondary school, we had to travel 3-4 hours every day. When I was 13, a lady known to my mother insisted that some of us may be sent to Mumbai along with her for better education. With another girl from neighborhood, I embarked on a new journey. It was my first train ride and I had never seen anything beyond Kerala. It must’ve been the year 1969. As I moved past my known territory, the language and landscapes changed quickly. It was a long journey and by the time we reached Mumbai, our faces were covered in dust and soot. The city was intimidating for a young girl who was unfamiliar with the culture, food and habits of an unknown land. Even the water tasted different and I felt sick for days.
Slums of Bombay
As I adjusted to the city, I noticed the slums. I had never seen anything like this before – people living without beds and toilets. The living conditions were dreadful and left me bewildered. By then, I was in a Convent Boarding School and in my free time, I started volunteering for Mother Teresa’s Home. I also saw children that reminded me of my siblings and I craved spending time with them. I found solace in helping the kids in chawl and my homesickness faded with time. The sisters loved me because I was young and took active interest in changing things around me. I developed a childlike zeal to clean all slums of Mumbai and by the time I was 18, I wanted to join Mother Teresa’s Home permanently to serve the society. But before I could, my parents had to sign a ‘consent form’, allowing me to assist leprosy patients. With that form, I traveled all the distance back home. However, my parents denied signing it as they feared I will contract the illness. I came back and joined the Holy Cross Convent in 1980.
I became the only nun in my family, much to my parents’ reluctance. Though I worked for people living in the Convent, I felt as if I am still not reaching those who really need help. I took permission to move out to another place and lived with a nun dedicated to social service.
I was working with HOPE, a part of the Holy Cross Convent when one evening, a pregnant woman in her 7th month, came to our door asking for help. She feared that her husband would harm her and the unborn child. The rules didn’t allow me to provide her shelter during the night so I requested her to wait until morning. I didn’t expect that just one night would make any difference in her life. My experiences had not prepared me for the most unexpected and ugly incident I was about to see.
The Turning Point
I sent the woman away but the same night, I heard screams and yelling. I went out and to my horror, saw the woman ablaze. Over a fight and fit of anger, her drunkard husband had set her on fire. I rushed her to the hospital and urged the doctor to operate so that the child is saved. But the severity of burns proved fatal for both mother and child.
One night changed everything for me.
I couldn’t save them. Everything seemed shallow and pointless. When the woman needed my help, I asked her to wait and now when everything was over, I wanted to turn back time. I felt guilty. My frustration, helplessness and disappointment grew into toxic anger. I started losing my temper over small things and all sisters around me observed the change in my behavior. It was difficult for me to explain to anyone why I had become so distant and furious. I couldn’t share my pain. I was advised to see a counsellor and so I did. I went to a Catholic Priest who was also a preacher and scholar of the ‘Bhagvad Geeta’.
He heard my story and asked me to do something about the problem rather than feeling helpless. I wondered how could I provide shelter as a nun who didn’t have resources. He said, “if you have love in your heart, you can do anything.” His words moved me deeply and there was no looking back.
1997 and the first ‘Maher’ – Mother’s Home
I started talking about my desire to build a home and dream of providing shelter to everyone I knew, even those who I helped. Touched by my intention, people from all walks of life came forward to help, some even with a contribution of Rs 2, and in 1997, we opened our first ‘Maher’ home in the village of Vadhu-Budruk in Maharashtra. Maher means ‘Mother’s Home’ in Marathi and I loved the name. It opened in the month of February with one destitute woman and two children and by June, we had 70 children in Maher.
When my parents visited the first Maher, they were upset by its impoverished state. Paucity of funds invited its own struggles. I went to vegetable market late in evenings to buy vegetables discarded by vendors at the end of the day. I used to clean and cut the good part and brought them home. I bought the cheapest grains. Since I knew how to cook and be creative with it, I ensured that all meals tasted well. There was a time when we didn’t have enough food so I gave whatever there was to the children and I just had water. I had never starved before. I remembered my family where I always had plenty to eat. Hunger made me question my plans but when I stepped out of my room and saw all my children in Maher, playful and happy, all thoughts disappeared and my faith in my work was restored.
A Home for All
With perseverance and love, the word spread and I received support in various forms. There are people who have worked in Maher for 25 years now and are still here, making it better. Together, we have ensured a dignified living for all. We help them become educated and empowered, and also resettle and rehabilitate them as per their desires. Those who wish to stay, continue to be here. Maher belongs to everyone without any discrimination. It is home to people from all religions and castes. We celebrate every festival with the same enthusiasm and in the same breath, I also ensure that local culture is respected. Over the years, I contacted people who can familiarize me with regional traditions and food. While women and children are in larger numbers, we also give shelter to men.
Today, we have 63 ‘Maher’ across many states.
Distance Traveled and Road Ahead
I am 67 now and traveled a long distance in establishing a haven of love, respect and dignity for all. We create awareness, encourage education and provide assistance so that everyone lives with their head held high. Every award that has recognized my work has been special, especially the Nari Shakti Award conferred on me by the President of India. My belief in divine energy has kept me going through some tough days and will continue to do so. There are so many children from Maher who are successful professionals, leading a beautiful life. It gives me satisfaction but there’s so much I can still do. I wish everyone everywhere has their own home and that they never have to seek refuge in an institution. Every time we build a new Maher, I also hope for a day when we wouldn’t need any more of them.