Veteran social worker Savithri Vaithi on setting up homes to take care of the old and the needy. She says, "Over the years, despite a sea of changes in this city, what has changed is the nature of suffering, never its quantum. Perhaps, my work reflects this."

During Mahatma Gandhi's time, I volunteered with the Congress Seva Dal under the famed social worker Manjubhashini. I recall our being punished at school for our participation! Incidentally, I met some of those friends today at a reunion at Express Avenue Mall. We (octogenarians now) meet every other year and reminisce over old times.

My social work began 60 years ago when I worked in the slums of Choolai, Periamet and others. Unlike the present day, slums were neatly built and maintained, and women used to decorate their front yards with pretty kolams. We were called 'barefoot walkers' — a group of doctors, a nurse and welfare workers who would walk to these slums. We’d take care of their health, education and other needs. The Corporation closed this unit and soon after my marriage I decided to learn something novel and unheard of. I joined a Catering Technology course and learnt to bake, cook and make juice. Baking was a bit unusual back then as the sight of an egg made people uneasy!

I then started my own cookery class and also taught Ikebana. With around 20 good friends, at a time of no TV entertainment, we wanted an outlet to express our social consciousness that was beyond the mundane 'ladies club'. A modest beginning was made with a ‘one-day charity' programme that charged a monthly subscription of Rs. 3 per head. This paved the way for more activities such as a book bank in 1974 that further led to 'Adoption' — a programme to educate needy children. 'Oonru kol' was another project where we supplied provisions and vegetables to select old people who had no support in their homes. Although I was young and inexperienced, the main thing I had going for me was my sense of purpose to make a difference.

Then was the birth of Vishranti — our old age home, for, I believed that true service lay here. Veteran social activist and former Mayor of Chennai, Tara Cherian, was a big source of strength. But we were babes in the wood — we had no experience in geriatrics — what ailed them, how to medicate them, and how to deal with their psychological issues. Under the guidance of Geriatric Physician Dr. V.S. Natarajan, we observed keenly and learned gradually.

Self-reliant home

Today Vishranti hosts 192 women, 32 staff members and apart from the watchman and driver, there are no men. It is also completely self-sustained. I don't question the trends in today's society of neglecting the old. The compulsions are many so we teach our members to be strong and self-reliant.

We also started Malarchi (1990), a home for children with single parents and Nizhal, a short stay home for women in distress.

A.V. Meiappa Chettiyar donated the money for this acre of land in Palavakkam that cost Rs. 20,000 in 1977. Help Age India aided us by raising funds for the construction. We have been fortunate to have the support of Prabhudas Patwari, Sanjeeva Reddy and Soundaram Kailasam among others over the years.

There was always work to do, people to help. Over the years, despite a sea of changes in this city, what has changed is the nature of suffering, never its quantum. Perhaps, my work reflects this.

We have conducted weddings here. And we also deal with death. We send our friends off with prayers and light their pyres…

For a video by M. Karunakaran, go to http://thne.ws/madras-savithri

(Madras 373 is a series that celebrates the city coinciding with the Madras Week celebrations)