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Gopal Lal of Bhilwara

Safe haven

(Courtesy: The Hindu online, http://www.hinduonnet.com/mag/2006/06/11/stories/2006061100180400.htm)

Gopal, with a monthly salary of Rs. 2,500, provides shelter and care to over 50 neglected old women in Bhilwara.

Gopal_Lal

Care and concern: A health camp conducted by the Ram Rahim Seva Dal.

HE spread his hands before me. “See, is there anything wrong with my hands? I clean their posterior daily, they are too old and feeble to do it themselves! They come to me with their tears dried up — I tell them, `I’m your son, I will hold you’.” His number flashes on my mobile once a week. Gopal Lal calls to appeal for help in any form. Sacks of wheat, medicines, clothes, wheel chairs, sewing machines are on his agenda. There are 50 old women under his care as of today. They are special. Because they are victims of shameful neglect and dishonour by their own families.

“My wife asked me to leave my mother. I left her instead. My father was a rickshaw puller before he died 14 years back. I brought up my two younger brothers. Once married, they weren’t ready to look after my mother. News spread about my mother within the colony. An old woman who hadn’t eaten for three days, came to me for help.” Soon he found five old women at his doorstep. This happened three-and-a-half years ago.

Gopal, 38, earns Rs. 2,500 per month at the local baniya’s shop in Bhilwara.

 

Not an easy task

“You can buy creature comforts but you can’t buy your parents. What disgusts and tortures my soul is the shamelessly rampant neglect of the elderly in our society.” Gopal formed the Ram Rahim Seva Dal in Bhilwara. Between himself and his friend, Ram Pal Soni, they serve elderly women (aged between 50 and 118 years) under their care.

It’s not easy. A 118-year-old woman, a 127-year-old woman have lived under his care in the past. “I did a survey in Bhilwara and found 100 women who had been thrown out by their families. I have gathered a team of 10 to meet the needs of all of them. We make sure they get meals daily. Piyaus have been set up to supply cold water in this intense heat. Blankets in winters. Medicines and wheel chairs for the oldest.”

“We have got daughters of six widows married. These women have been empowered by us. They stitch clothes to earn a living. I have had cases of domestic violence come to me. A lady with five children was beaten by her drunken husband. She was helpless.” There are handicapped women and blind women being nurtured by Gopal and his team of 10. Gopal approaches moneyed businessmen for aid. “I have been physically mauled, abused but I keep trying to sensitize them into giving me something. A lot of the “seths” from around Bhilwara do send me regular aid. I keep a record and also take pictures regularly so no one can question my honesty.”

 

Against the odds

There are days when Gopal survives on tea and two bidis. His fervour is feverish. His devotion is deep. When Pavan Kumari was rescued in Jaipur, he came to request the State Women’s Commission to grant him permission to take her to Bhilwara under his care. That was the first time I met him. “I cannot register Ram Rahim Seva Dal as a society, I don’t have money even to open a bank account.”

“We knit them together. There are Gujjar women living with `lohar’ women. There is no caste in play here. We are all human beings, we do “hari kirtan” together every morning.” To most of us Gopal’s is a “hard-to-believe” case. He has been named “Shravan Kumar” by the local people. But his devotion is just a drop in the ocean, if we are to digest the fact that there are over 19 million widows in India. Disappointed by his regular visits to government departments for “Annapurna cards”, pension aids, Gopal wonders when we would arrive at an organized system of social security and planned institutional support for the aged.

A couple of these women spoke to me over the phone. Speaking in their local dialect, I could gather they said, “Gopal mhare ko chokha rakhe.” Meaning, Gopal looks after me well. Despite the troubles, one could hear happy overtones.