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Udavum Karangal sublimates a city's horrors

Vidyakar's life experience results in positive action through Udavum Karangal

The horrors of childhood such as those of Vidyakar's, may in most cases, be expected to yield a selfish, embittered man. Yet Vidyakar today personifies the power of compassion. His many armed service organisation Udavum Karangal, saves Tamil Nadu from the ignominy of being a heartless state.

Size and scale:

In a mere 18 years, Vidyakar who is not yet fifty, has built a safe haven for 1800 people the society has no time for. Among them are the new born, the sick, the lost, the abandoned, the abused, the crazed and the dying. Even as he struggles to meet the mammoth budget, he does not turn away anyone needing a home. A mere phone call reporting a destitute will have him race to pick up the soul.

He runs a large campus in the outskirts of Chennai to house his flock, in circumstances of peace and cleanliness, that many middle class Indians would envy. He runs a high school that serves his 400 children and the many more from nearby villages. He is planning a 100 bed hospital. Lepers, AIDS victims, the mentally deranged are all to be found among the members of this bachelor's large family. This family gives them identity, love, training and a positive outlook on life. Many have grown and left the family to re-settle on their own in the outer world that was so abrupt with them once.

Who is this man Vidyakar? Is he real?

An accident in Mysore:

He was born in 1953 in Kollegal a village near Mysore. Barely out of his mother's arms, he began to realise the heavy discord between his parents. His first awareness of the world was one of a space where he was not wanted. He was confused as to why he was there. School was a routine he had to go through. Home was a place to endure. With each passing year came the certainty that he was not wanted by his family for reasons he was too young to understand. He spent his time wandering the streets, helping neighbours, looking for anything that would give him relevance.

"Oh, let me not go in to the details. I was a virtual orphan. But one thing I recollect clearly: anyone in trouble in my mohalla and I was right in the middle, helping out!" he says with a wan smile.

One day he witnessed a road accident. The lone passenger in a car was grievously injured. A crowd gathered, the man was rushed to the hospital and the excitement subsided. But Vidyakar followed the ambulance. He was in attendance at the hospital the next couple of weeks, running errands, taking care. The victim was Mr. Ramakrishnan, an auto-parts dealer from Madras, aged about 35. Vidyakar was 13. The year,1967. Despite a language barrier a bond grew between the two that was to last till 1983, when Ramakrishnan died, nursed by Vidyakar.

Relatives soon arrived in Mysore to take Ramakrishnan for further care in Madras. But Vidyakar had had the first scent of love in his life. Within weeks he slipped out of his house, penniless. Riding a train without a ticket, he arrived in Madras. After two weeks of pounding the hungry streets, with sketchy information he found his patron. Ramakrishnan was slightly dazed at first, but soon took him under his wing.

Vidyakar resumed his studies. "I was not a bright student but I was certain what I wanted to do: social service. And Mr.Ramakrishnan indulged me" he says. But Vidyakar is being modest. He has a Masters in psychiatry and sociology. He is a Bachelor in law and a certified counselor. He has also interned 3 years at the Institute of Mental Health and at a leprosy hospital in Chennai.

But it was clear he had no head for business and so was not much help in the shop. The ever-indulgent Ramakrishnan, hung a wry sign at the shop front. 'Udavum Karangal,' it read in Tamil, meaning 'Helping Hands'. Soon Vidyakar had his hands full: typing letters, connecting people with resources, taking charge of distress situations, counseling the angry and the lost.

The baton passes to Prabhu

Let us pause a moment in this incredible story and remember Ramakrishnan. Vidyakar has named practically every structure and service after his patron. But Ramakrishnan was not a wealthy man. He was a middle class Indian in a joint family and taking Vidyakar on cannot have been an easy act. And to encourage this somewhat dreamy boy on his chosen path indicates a great spirit of mind. This is the very stuff of little known India, where unlikely heroes cause great change. This phenomenon must fill every Indian with pride, and hopefully, spur him on to assist.

Back to the story. 1983. Vidyakar, the busy body now has a vast following among the wretched of Aminjikarai, a derelict corner of Chennai. Ramakrishnan is dying of cancer. One late night, an aging cycle rickshaw man brings a babe wrapped in layers of newspaper. He had found it in a cinema hall after the last show. The child was dehydrated and close to death. Can't have been more than 10 months old.

"There was nothing to do but accept charge. I had already moved out of the Ramakrishnan household, as he had got married. I was with the baby in my room in the slum near the shop. I named him 'Prabhu'.Soon began the media attention and an uninvited reputation of one on whom the unwanted may be dumped," he says." And, oh before we go on: Prabhu is today a well adjusted young man in Kolar, re-claimed by his mother!"

Citizens of Chennai will recall how frequently in the eighties, the press reported Vidyakar being loaded with new responsibilities. He has never declined. Sunday evenings were spent by the beach with his wards, to beg for support. Help began to trickle in but responsibilities began to flood too. The AIDS era was dawning. Chennai was growing. Old values were changing. There were more people being sent to the dump heap. Vidyakar became the reluctant messiah.

Fast forward to 'NOW':

As Prabhu began to recover and grow, so did the Vidyakar 'family'. There were soon many wards, young and old filling his tenement to the rafters. And then they were without even the hut: a slum fire put them on the streets.

Ramakrishnan in a dying act funded a move to a rented building nearby. Help has been coming their way steadily. Soon they did not have to beg on the beach. Vidyakar bought a small parcel of land in Tiruverkkadu near Chennai and began to build an integrated campus to house his wards. Over the last decade it has grown to a vast island of peace. There is no need to repeat the details here, as you can read them by clicking on this link to the Udavum Karangal website

But two concluding points need to be made. The first, a features-list of Vidyakar's work. He is funded entirely by voluntary response; no government alms are sought or received. And most of the money is from Indians. His service has no religious slant. His wards are free to follow whatever religion they choose. The management costs are kept very low and frugality is the norm. No idler or undeserving is ever sheltered. The focus is on rehabilitation; either in the family or the society at large. And finally, this is no adoption shop. "They are all my children. I will never give up my responsibility to raise them," says Vidyakar.

The second and concluding point to be made is about the support you can give. For both running the services and completing the ongoing projects, huge sums are needed. But don't take a word of this article. Set aside about 4 hours to visit Udavum Karangal's facilities when you are next in Chennai. More than any visit to any temple of any claim to any transformation, this will reward you. But do be warned: you WILL loosen your purse strings. And discover new emotions.


Udavum Karangal

460 NSK Nagar

Anna Nagar

Chennai 600 106

Tamil Nadu

Phone: 6216321 / 6216421 / 6216521

eMail: udavum@vsnl.com

Udavum Karangal - contact in USA

23 Crosby Drive


MA 01730