Our parish has been blessed with the support of two parish priests from Kerala, India. Over the years we have held a number of events to raise funds for the Jesus Youth, an organisation that seeks to bring together catholics from Kerala in worship and faith, from all over the world and the Navjivan Bhavan in Panambalam, Villunni PO, Kottayam in Kerala. The following article provides some further information about the latter.
The humaneness that looks upon the bitter tears and the painful heart-throbs of the most abject section of society, as worth staking all one's time and energy for-that is the impulse that brought Navjivan into existence. A spiritual culture that does not regard the divine life and the aspirations of another as unworthy of consideration. A sincere concern that goes deep into the human conscience. All this and much more one can see in action at Navjivan Bhavan in Panambalam near Kottayam in the state of Kerala. Has anyone seen love? Touched mercy? Tasted sacrifice? Are not all these mere figments of the imagination? Has not goodness been totally blacked out? The ultra-materialists who babble thus have only to pay a visit to this hallowed spot.
In a place where "monopolists of compassion" see only a conscience as elastic as rubber, that is, in Kottayam, there stands like a fresh-water spring of mercy, Navjivan Home. When the tenderness of the human heart and the dynamism of divine life fuse, it is the fresh air of a new spirit that we inhale. A family of people whose hearts melt at the sufferings of their fellowmen - they are the woof and warp of Navjivan. Navjivan Thomas does not need to be introduced. His co-workers too have an identity of their own. The radiance on their faces is due not only to the zeal and firm determination that spur them on, but also to the boundless abundance of God's providence. It happened about three decades age. Thomas, the eldest son of Oani and Annamma was afflicted with a severe abdominal pain. That very night he had to walk a long distance to the hospital at Kottayam. No conveyance was available. A flickering lantern was their only guide. The doctors' decision was surgery as a remedy. How could that poor family sustain the expenses? Moneyed relatives offered to help.The pain and suffering of those days must have made an indelible impression on eighteen -year-old Thomas' mind.
An ardent devotee of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Thomas escaped the clutches of death. Perhaps the mandate to become a support to the mentally imbalanced, a help to the helpless and a guide to those on the road back to normalcy, must have been laid on him during those days. Later, when he was appointed as attender in the Medical College, this orientation was gaining strength - steadily and surely. Let Thomas, the managing trustee of Navjivan Trust, himself relate those matters: "Let me get a job in a medical college so that I can do a lot of good to the poor-this was my prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary. From 1970 January onwards I have been going to hospitals to visit and nurse the sick. Encouragement and help from the medical students was a God-send right from the beginning. Till 1980 my work was a one-man effort. Then came the great inspiration from Pharmacology Professor Dr Kalyani's prayer-filled life and zeal to help the poor. When I was confirmed in my job, in 1980 I began to nurse the sick in Ward II where the greatest number of accident-cases were registered . I did this not only during duty time but also when I was on off-duty. When this became a routine, some began to criticise; others started supporting my work; several people came forward offering meals for distribution to the helpless". The great humanitarian act of feeding the helpless, poor patients, raised P U Thomas' work to a new and more extensive plane. After 8 PM he could be seen carrying a big load on his shoulders to the Medical College campus and, seated on a stone bench, he would be distributing free food-packets. Generous helpers came forward, organised themselves to co-operate and encourage and work together. A good number of ready youngsters soon became available. Anup Panjikaran, Regimon, Saji and others became Thomas' right hand. The free feeding project grew. Instead of collecting food from different quarters, cash offerings were pooled together and food was cooked and distributed. Today the food prepared in the Navjivan kitchen satisfies the hunger of nearly 1200 patients in the medical college hospital, the TB centre at the Kottayam District Hospital, and the Children's Hospital, free of cost.
When the balance of an alert, human mind is disturbed, the faculties are shattered like brittle glass. We set such people apart out of fear and aversion. A shower of stones is their unfortunate experience. They weep. And then burst out laughing. When they strike we are stunned. And then we laugh.... In Navjivan Bhavan they suffer no such alienation. There are about 116 inmates of this category living there, tasting the affection, consolation and security provided. Thomas has much to say about the throb of life that animates the atmosphere. Listen to him: "It was in 1982. A man from TamilNadu, who had gone to Sabarimala, was separated from the crowd he was travelling with. While he was wandering about in Kottayam in a mentally unbalanced state, some social miscreants cut off the tendon of his left foot. He was admitted in the "mentally ill" ward of the hospital. I nursed him. In the meanwhile, we gave a news item in the Tamil papers. People came in search of him from Tamil Nadu. He belonged to a highly-placed family. It was an incident that revealed to me the pitiful state of those who are mentally unbalanced. From that day onwards I began praying to our Blessed Mother for people afflicted with insanity.
"At that time I saw a woman lying near the garbage bin of the Medical College. She had stuffed into her stomach the garbage she managed to pick up. She was pregnant. I bought some food for her. Later I heard she was suffering the throes of child-birth at the door of a shopping centre in Kottayam. She was taken to the District hospital where she gave birth to a child. I went in search of her and put her under the charge of the women close by. The next day I went with oil, soap and fresh clothes. The woman had vainly tried to smother the new-born infant to death and disappeared. Her name was Anubai. "One day I happened to see a human form covered with flies in a gutter near the Medical College It was Anubai. With the help of a passer-by medical student, I saw to it that she was washed, clothed and admitted in the Medical College hospital. In two months that woman's physcial infirmities were healed. She now insisted that I marry her. I got her admitted in the Oolampara Mental Hospital in Trivandrum. That was the day the Lord inspired in me the desire to establish a home for the mentally ill. It was at this time that a man nick-named "Reverse Abu", who had been walking backwards for 16 years on the streets of Kottayam, and his companions Jadau and Aravindan, attracted my attention. I managed to persuade them to wash themselves and handed them over to Abhaya Bhavan run by the Missionaries of Charity."
Eventually the Navjivan Trust with Mgsr Peter Uralil as Patron and P U Thomas as Managing Trustee came to be established. Medical students and several generous people became front-line active workers of the Trust. A part of the lodge where medical students were staying, at calling distance from the Medical College, was rented at Rs 250/- a month and became the nucleus of Navjivan. The first inmate of Navjivan was Kunhachan of Edapilly, known as "Reverse Abu" (just a few weeks ago Kunhachan bade farewell to this world, plunging Thomas and the entire Navjivan in deep grief, to enter the eternal Refuge of Heaven). "To orphaned patients, the Trust began supplying not only food but also blood, medicine,bus-fare and any other kind of help they needed. Gradually the home was extended as the medical students began vacating it. Forty four inmates in all. The corridors and shed were overflowing. I began praying for a house of our own..." The answer came soon enough. About two and a half km away from the Medical College, on the Kottayam - Kudamaloor road, just a few metres away from the birthplace of Blessed Sr Alphonsa, stands Navjivan Bhavan. Of the ten lakhs necessary to purchase the land, there was a deficit of Rs 44,000 We did not need to be anxious, says Thomas. A prayer-group in Australia sent us this amount. When the construction of the house began, help poured in- brick, sand, cement and what not! When our purse was empty at one time, a lady near Kottayam, impelled by an inner impulse, sent us a gift of 16 gold sovereigns". In Thomas' words, one could detect the bliss of total dependence on God's unlimited providence. It was in 1995 that Navjivan was transplanted to Panambalam.
Shanta, from the High Ranges, who jumped across an 11KV line, unable to endure the ill-treatment of her husband; Marathi-speaking Kamala; two-year-old Selvi and her mother Uma Maheshwari, Prema from Bengal, Santhosh and Mansur who had eloped from their homes in Hyderabad - all are happily living in Navjivan. With them is also Anubai. Ammini had abandoned her new-born child in the rubber estate. The child's agonizing death-cry when rats began nibbling his feet, rent the heavens and reached the throne of God even as the cry of Hagar's son echoed in the awesome desert and touched the heart of God. The baby is now secure in Navjivan along with his mother. Lizzy, immersed in the work of the kitchen, Kumari who has been there for the last five years, Baby from Karnataka, are all actively engaged in various activities of Navjivan after receiving the healing touch of love. A good part of the construction work of the huge water tank on the premises was shouldered by the convalescent inmates. Navjivan will not accept those who have family and relatives. The orphaned insane, roaming the streets are the ones they admit and nurse, with permission from the authorities. Only if the family has the means and willingess to rehabilitate those who have recovered, are they sent back.
Navjivan which started as an idea, became a reality, a visible life-style through the total dedication and dutifulness of a small group of people. They are the driving force behind this venture. Anip, Mathew Perumali, Benny, Rosamma, Shibu, Ajo, Shinto, Jose and several others are engaged whole-heartedly in this work. The source of their strength is the fasting and prayer they engage in every Friday. There are twelve permanent workers. The fifty volunteers who render part-time service hail from different villages. They do not mind tending the lice-ridden heads or the puss-oozing sores of these unwanted section of society. The loving co-operation and collaboration of the Medical and B Sc nursing students of Kottayam Medical College, make them superb examples and living models of the generosity and humanitarian mettle of modern youth. This is a sublime instance of the novel orientation of knowing the value of human life taking root in the younger generation. Many of the nurses and doctors who have given of their voluntary service periodically, are currently working in all countries of the world except China and Pakistan. The undercurrents of mercy that overcome continental differences spring from Navjivan. That the services of the Medical College students are made available to Navjivan is a matter of great gratification for Thomas. The doctors and staff of Kottayam Medical College give selfless, unstinted help, says Thomas, a "vessel of election".
The Seminarians of Vadavathoor Seminary, and the Old Orthodox Seminary and sisters from the neighboring convents also lend a helping hand. Fr Francis Kurishumoottil Novice Master of the Sons of the Immaculate Conception, says that the mentally unbalanced are those who recognize the signs of love and affection more easily than any other category of the sick. He comes every Wednesday along with his seminarians to be of help. In Navjivan there is no anxiety about the morrow. Today's prayer for tomorrow's needs-that's the accepted life-style. The throbbing nerve- centre of Navjivan is the spacious prayer hall and the regular prayer service that take place there- with people ranging from three-year-olds to the aged-and weary grandmothers who support the house with their intercessory prayers. Navjivan has no funds, no source of income, no Governmental or non-Governmental or organisational help. Each day about Rs 6300 is necessary to meet the expenses. The whole-hearted co-operation of the general public is a great support to go forward without incurring any debt; "My desire is that Navjivan should wade through debts, difficulties and the providence of God," says Thomas. That was why when a Canadian professor offered 75 lakhs, he politely declined to accept it and was able to stand steady in the firm belief that the Holy Spirit of God and not a bank balance is the greatest treasure in the world.
Thomas firmly believes that it is the Spiritual Renewal sweeping the state that has been instrumental for the change in society and for infusing the spirit of service in the people. Navjivan gives more importance to service than to organisation of committees. The workers of Navjivan consider works of mercy as a prayer service not as social service. Despite this heavy schedule of service, his duties as an attender and the responsibilities of family life, there is not a trace of anxiety or tension on Thomas' face. A hundred and one things that wait for his consideration...the number of patients who are clamouring for his attention, most of them with empty pockets; the heavy expenditure for treatment; doctors, students and workers of the Medical College seeking prayer and advice, preaching the word of God from one end of Kerala to the other-he caters easily to every need with no apparent weariness or impatience, no ostentation or attitude of doing anything great. So lives this great exemplar of mercy in action, the good Samaritan of Kottayam. He has an explanation for it all : "There is a big group of people praying for me and for Navjivan and to cap it all the blessings of the Virgin Mary." That is why he does his work meticulously in the Medical College though exigencies arise like wave upon wave all the time. The unique quality of finishing his duties, even while he is on leave, is but an expression of his inner drive.
Thomas' wife Cicily, and his 4 children, all busy with their studies, have imbibed his ethos with a sense of fulfillment. The premature death of the youngest child, son Sobin is a painful memory. Many were the people who prayed that the family may soon have a house of their own-his patrimony he had spent on the poor sick. A contractor who volunteered to draw up the plan and see to the construction of the house, friends who offered help-all combined to present him with a little house, beautiful beyond expectation. The house-warming was sanctified by the death of a dear inmate, Mayamol. Her desire was like that of a family- member. "May father get a good house soon," was Maya's constant prayer with her hand placed on Thomas' head. She had once roamed about on the streets of Kothamangalam as an unwanted, uncared for mad woman. Navjivan is growing not only in numbers but also in the plane of mental hygiene. Since 1982 more than 500 people have passed through its portals and re-entered the mundane life and world of daily routine after having recovered here. More inportant still, not fewer than 27 institutions have cropped up all over Kerala after the Navjivan model.
"My great desire is," says Thomas, "that such centres be multiplied along with the mighty Retreat Centres, Churches and convents and that the young professionals in the medical line be imbued with this spirit and grow in it to spread the light of Christ in the Church and the world." May the Kerala Church become a good example to the Church the world over-that is Thomas' ardent prayer. Prepared by Jomon M. Mankuzhikari
If you are interested in more information, click on the following links:Official website of the Kerala GovernmentKerala TourismThe Syro Malabar Church