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Reports on how charity work and development continues at the childrens and young women's residential boarding school in Bhubaneswar in Odisha, India.

NEWSLETTER—July 2008

From Uschi Kraus-Harper

Kadambini dies in hospital

On Monday, 30th of June, we had a phone call from Kadambini's niece and Bhagavan Patra's daughter Kuku. She was crying. Kadambini had been admitted to hospital complaining of chest pain two days before and now she was dying. Two hours later we phoned Kuku again. Kadambini was dead. She died of total kidney failure and other related problems. She was only 56 years old. She had been my friend ever since I went to live with her for a week in August 1992, in the small village of Naharkanta near Bhubaneswar in Orissa.

President of PUSS died in April

Only two months before, on the 30th of April, Bhagavan Patra, Kadambini's brother-in-law and the President of PUSS had also died. So now all of a sudden the two pillars of PUSS were no more. Malcolm and I decided to fly to Orissa that same week.

We flew to Orissa

Kadambini
Enlarge picture

Bhagavan Patra with some of the girls at PUSS in 2004

When we arrived at Bhubaneswar airport, Kuku and Babu (Patra's daughter and son) together with two of the children from PUSS were there to receive us. We all cried. When we arrived at PUSS it felt empty. Somehow we could not believe that neither Kadambini nor Patra were there. How many times had they met us at the gate, Kadambini always in a simple white sari. I can hear her voice now: "Come, sit." And dear Patra, often clad just in a lunghi, no shirt, always smiling and greeting us in the traditional way, hands brought together in front of the chest. "Uschi Madam, Malcolm Sir, welcome!" He never just said Uschi or Malcolm, yet he was himself a highly respected, quite influential man in Naharkanta and surrounding villages.

Then we went to see the children, it was late afternoon and they were all upstairs in and around their dormitories. Another lot of tears but also smiles and laughter, especially from the little ones. My last visit had been two years before, so there were quite a lot of new little faces.

Memorials

The following six days went by much too fast. We attended three memorial meetings for Kadambini: one in her village near Cuttack, the old capital city of Orissa. Another one at PUSS and a third one organised by a women's group, attended by many leading men and women from the voluntary sector in Orissa. The memorial meeting at the school was the most moving. The speeches by friends, teachers, admirers, local politicians and some of the older children took over three hours. During all that time, all 365 children sat patiently and quietly on mats on the floor of the large, semi-open assembly hall. There was so much to say about Kadambini, and the children seemed to listen attentively. Kadambini had received so many awards for her work not only for destitute children but also for education in general and for the social welfare of women. A large photo had been placed on the side of the hall, adorned with garlands and lit by candles.

Vows to work on

Manu, the girl Kadambini adopted 18 years ago when she was left as a newborn baby at Kadambini's mother's doorstep, sat between Malcolm and myself. She had written a farewell piece for her Mummy in the memorial booklet PUSS had produced since Kadambini's death. Malcolm quoted from it during his short speech: "You have struggled and were painstaking till death. But you are the most successful lady because you have the keen eye, keen interest and very much daring... I promise you, Mummy, ...I'll try my level best to do each work as you were doing with the same eagerness, zeal and spirit."

Kuku the new Secretary

We also attended a PUSS management committee meeting and were pleased when Kuku received a clear vote to become the new Secretary. She is a remarkable young woman who has taken over her new role with an incredible determination to continue in the footsteps of her aunt, yet also bring about a few necessary changes. We had many discussions with Kuku and her brother Babu, who had been elected President after the death of their father - about the future of PUSS, about dealing with day-to-day problems, about gently overcoming resistance to change from some of the staff members.

Confident PUSS in good hands

When we left one week later we felt much better. We were confident that PUSS was going to be in good hands and that 365 children were being looked after properly in the way Kadambini would have wanted it.

From Malcolm Harper

Two such sad and totally unexpected blows, but the mark of true achievement is not so much to start good things, but to establish them so that they continue to be good when you are gone. We have lost two very good personal friends, and the PUSS school has lost its founders and guides, but as Uschi says, we came away from Orissa feeling much better than when we had arrived.

We believe in Kuku's ability

Kuku is responding magnificently to the challenge. Some of the older and more traditional people in Orissa clearly believe that someone thirty years of age, and a woman too, cannot possibly manage anything, but we made it clear that we believe in Kuku's ability. So far, she has more than proved us right.

Government inspectors satisfied

Large numbers of local well-wishers and supporters keep coming to the school to express their sympathies, and Kuku has to receive and entertain each one and show them round. Otherwise, she says, people will mutter that the school is not being run as well as Kadambini used to do it. Government inspectors came, to check that all is well, even though government support has been minimal. They went away satisfied, but it all takes time and energy. Kuku seems to be able to cope very well.

Kuku has experience and plans

She has previous experience as an assistant accountant in a government office and a health project, and is determined to introduce a more systematic management style. She has already made some changes. On Sundays the children will get a choice of a non-vegetarian meal if they want it, and they will have fresh fruit and biscuits once a week.

Loyal staff look forward

The twenty odd staff at PUSS, and particularly the teachers, were naturally very upset. Many of them have worked there for fifteen years or more, and they have been sustained by their loyalty to Kadambini, in spite of their very low salaries and long hours. The staff who live at the school receive board and lodging in addition to their wages, but they far more than compensate for this with their round-the-clock commitment to the children.

We had extensive meetings with the teachers, and we discussed the many small grievances which they never talked about when Kadambini was alive. We went through all their salaries with Kuku, and we agreed on substantial increases across the board. I have talked to Kuku on the telephone most days since we came home, and she tells us that the staff are delighted. The increases were necessary anyway, since inflation in India is running at well over ten per cent, much higher for rice and other basic foods, and this is also having a major impact on the regular running costs of the school, of which food is by far the largest item.

New buildings and land use

The new building for the baby home will soon be completed, and Kuku is also figuring out how to integrate this more systematically with the school. Right now, the four babies who have already been taken in are living in amongst the staff. Kadambini used even to share her bed with them, but they will soon have to join the baby home.

We also discussed how the new land will be used. Kuku's father Bhagavan Patra was planning this and would have been in charge of its management, but now that he is no longer with us Kuku is looking at possibilities to lease it out. So long as this can be done without prejudicing PUSS' ownership rights, this may be the best medium term solution.

August visit

Kadambini

I shall be going to Orissa again in mid-August, and quite frequently thereafter. By good fortune I have been invited to help run a management training programme at a new institution not far away, so this should cover my travel costs. Kadambini and Patra have built a strong trustworty foundation.

But costs are rising inexorably, in India as elsewhere, and the school will no longer be possible to depend as much as it has on the charisma of Kadambini and people's personal loyalty to her. We shall need all your support, even more than before, but we are confident that your donations will be as well-used in the future as they were in the past. Kadambini and Patra have built a strong foundation, and the children in Orissa are in good hands.

© Friends of the Children of Orissa