On any given day, thousands of devotees throng Guruvayur to seek Lord Krishna’s blessings. But a few visitors have a hidden agenda during their pilgrimage to the 17th-century temple in Thrissur district of Kerala — dumping their aged parents in the temple premises.
“Every month, at least 15 new destitutes end up staying at Guruvayur as the temple offers free meals at noon and evening,” says TT Sivadasan, chairman of the Guruvayur Municipality. “Many of them are those who have been kicked out of their homes by their families or dumped by their children.”
“Last month, a 90-year-old woman named Padmavati was found wandering in the temple premises,” says Sivadasan. “We tried to locate her family but all she could give us was a vague description of her location and family members. We have put her in an old-age home.”
A majority of the old people abandoned in Guruvayur are women who need medical care or are terminally ill.
The Guruvayur Municipality has been running a destitute home for the poor since 1998 and has now set up a day care centre for old people. Now, 21 inmates are lodged at the destitute home. “We have only limited funds for taking care of the destitute,” says Sivadasan. “Since their numbers are increasing day by day, we want to set up a bigger home for the destitute, where they can rest in the night.”
According to VK Sreeraman, chairman of the Guruvayur Municipality’s Standing Committee (Health), the new trend of dumping old people in public places is a result of nuclear families replacing the joint family system. “Earlier, the old people were given proper care, but now they are discarded like waste,” he says. “In my experience, it’s not the poor who are dumping the old; most of them are from educated middle-class families.”
Guruvayur ACP RK Jayarajan, who has launched a programme called Caring Touch to ease the pain of the unwanted senior citizens, says that abuse of the elderly is increasingly becoming common. “Many people prefer to dump their old parents here as the temple authorities offer free food,” he says. “At least, the old people won’t die due to starvation. In a way, they are kind to their old parents.”
Jayarajan, who has served in Guruvayur for more than nine years in various capacities, has come across several cases of senior citizens getting dumped in the temple premises. “Whenever we find a new destitute in the temple premises, we send them to the State-run old-age home,” he says. “Most of them don’t want to go back home because life used to be hell for them over there.”
A 73-year-old man, who did not wish to reveal his identity, says that his son had dropped him off at the temple premises in 2006. “I had five acres of land and both my sons were employed,” he says. “Things took a bad turn after my wife fell ill and died. I had to sell three acres for her treatment. I divided the rest between my sons. But that was a foolish decision. When they got the titles, they started finding fault with everything I did. Finally, they asked me to get out of the house.”
Now, he works as a watchman at a construction site. In the night, he comes to the temple premises to sleep.
“I could sleep at the construction site, but there are many people like me who come here to spend their nights,” he says. “So I come here to meet them every night and watch dance and music performances. In a way, I have started enjoying my life and now I have no worries.”
Is he not angry at his sons? “What’s the use of putting them behind bars? After all, they are my sons. They will realise their mistake when their children dump them in the streets,” he says.
Lonappan Jacob lives with his wife and two children at a small house located 1 km away from the temple. The 51-yearold repairs sewing machines for a living. But his real calling is to help destitutes who end up at Guruvayur.
In 1996, he set up a charity organisation to help the destitute and has rescued more than 500 senior citizens who were abandoned by their families.
“I helped them find shelter as no one was there to help,” says Jacob. “Many of the destitutes don’t reveal that they had been dumped. They don’t want bad publicity for their families.”
“Last year, I saw a man crying in the street,” he recalls. “When I asked him about his problem, he told me that he had come to the temple with his son’s family and got lost. We tried to search for his family in vain. I took him to my home and fed him. I gave him a place to sleep. The next day, he told me his story. All his four sons are government servants. He was suffering from cancer and his sons were not ready to get him treated. They wanted to get rid of him. So, the elder son took him to Guruvayur and abandoned him. I took him to an old-age home, where he died. His sons never claimed his body.”
In a similar incident, a man dumped his 75-year-old mother at Guruvayur because she was blind. “He and his wife were a working couple and had no time to take care of her,” says Jacob. “They were not willing to hire a help.”
Jacob says many senior citizens are facing abuse. “I don’t think the law can put a stop to it,” he says. “We need to change our attitude towards the old. They gave us their blood and sweat when they were healthy. We must take care of them and treat them with dignity.”
A national survey conducted by HelpAge India, an NGO, reveals that many families are guilty of abusing senior citizens. The survey held in 24 cities, including Kochi, showed that more than one-fifth of the elderly people experienced abuse one way or the other. Daughters-in-law were found to be the primary perpetrators with 39 percent, closely followed by sons at 38 percent.
“Our survey revealed that 70 percent of the abused never reported the matter,” says Biju Mathew, Kerala coordinator of the HelpAge survey. “A majority feared loss of family prestige and reputation; 23 percent of the elderly feared retaliation and 20 percent of them didn’t know where to report and whom to report to.”
According to Mathew, a hefty bank balance or ownership of a house and property are not enough to save the elderly people from abuse. “Earlier, we thought that a good bank balance can guarantee an easy retired life for the senior citizens,” he says. “But many of them told us that they were being abused by sons and daughters demanding them to transfer the money to their accounts.”
Additional DGP B Sandhya, who heads the Community Police Programme in Kerala, says that incidents of elderly abuse have been on the rise. “During our interaction with elderly people, we have noticed that many of them were subjected to abuse,” she says.
While Kerala continues to excel in health and cultural indices, its senior citizens are suffering humiliation and torture at the hands of their family members. As a result, many prefer to live on the streets rather than their own homes.
‘I did not want to survive on anybody’s charity’
Ramachandran Nair has been staying at the government destitute home in Guruvayur for the past eight years. Earlier, he used to work as a typist at the Bombay High Court. He spent all his life savings to educate his sisters, who are now well settled. However, in his struggle, he forgot to make his own life and remained a bachelor. When he became jobless, nobody wanted to take care of him. So he left home and came to Guruvayur.
“I didn’t want to survive on anybody’s charity,” he says. “Unfortunately, I ended up at the destitute home. Life is like that. You don’t get what you wish for. You get what you are destined to. There is no escape from destiny.”
Nair keeps himself occupied by reading English newspapers and watching television, and always inspires his fellow mates to face hardships with a cool head.
“Many of those who are here have wives and kids, but they don’t feel wanted because they are old now,” says Nair. “So, I have no regrets about not marrying. Even if I had been married, destiny wouldn’t have been different.”
‘My own daughter left me to starve’
On 28 October, Leela became the latest destitute who calls Guruvayur her home. The 61-year-old still can’t believe that her own daughter kicked her out of her house.
Life was a great struggle for Leela, who hails from Ottappalam in Palakkad district. She lost her husband when she was 28 and did menial jobs to make ends meet. In no time, her daughter got married and divorced. Soon, her daughter got into a relationship with a younger man, who couldn’t stand Leela.
The trouble started when Leela decided to transfer the title of her property to her grandson’s name. However, her daughter wanted the title to be in her own name.
“It was my daughter who asked me to get out of my house,” says Leela. “I lived all these years for her. When she started beating me, my grandson told me to go some place where I would be safe. She used to beat him also.
“On many occasions, my daughter left me to starve. She would beat her own kids if they gave me any food. Finally, I decided to leave and come to Guruvayur.”
‘My nephew’s family told me to commit suicide’
Kamalamma looks so much at peace that it’s hard to tell she is a destitute. The 72-year-old has been living in the temple premises for the past 18 years, but she has no complaints.
“I got married when I was only 17,” says Kamalamma. “My husband, who was in the army, abandoned me soon. So, I started living with my sister. I used to take care of her kids as if they were my own. Her family drove me out after forcing me to hand over my property to her son. Later, I went to live with my other nephew. After a year, his family started misbehaving with me. They even told me to commit suicide. So, I came to Guruvayur.”
Initially, she worked as a domestic help at houses near the temple. When she became too old to work, she was taken in by the old age home, where she lives with 18 other destitutes.
Kamalamma is aware that there is a law — Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007 — to protect the rights of people like her. “But what’s the use?” she asks. “I don’t want to complain about my nephew whom I loved once. When god is with me, I don’t need anyone else to take care of me.”