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An eye for service

Saraswathi Bhatt lost her eyesight very young. But she did not let that come in the way of her commitment to look after abandoned children.

Saraswathi Bhatt with her wards; a view of Anaatha Shishu Sevashram. — Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

A WILDLY growing tulsi plant smiles brightly at you as you enter the compound of this house. An open door takes you to a dark room inside. The little sunlight that dares to creep into the room is effectively shut out by worn out drapes. "When I was a child, this house had no doors or barred windows. I have put them up now," says the smartly dressed lady sitting behind her desk, holding a bunch of keys in her hands.

She is Saraswati Bhatt, 42. She has an M.A. in Political Science from Mysore University. This home that she is in charge of, is an orphanage, the Anaatha Shishu Sevashram in Wilson Garden, on the Second Cross next to the crematorium. What could be special about a woman running an orphanage? Many do this. Only that, in this case, Saraswati Bhatt has completely lost her sight.

In 1960, when Saraswati was a three-day-old baby at the Vani Vilasa Children's Hospital, her mother died and the doctors handed her over to this ashram. Since that day, Saraswati proudly breathes in the pungent air that permeates this forlorn house.

Parvattamma Hiremath from Hubli set up this orphanage on the January 12, 1943. From then on, she ran the place with no great resource, except that she could provide a roof to abandoned children. When in 1992 she passed away, Saraswati was chosen to carry on the show. "Only those who have been brought up in this house, those who have lived here, know how this institution runs and love it deeply. No outsider can understand what it means to belong here," says Saraswati. She has already made up her mind to hand over the home to one of the children - a fit child - girl or boy - when her time is done. No outsider, she says vehemently, can claim any right to run this organisation.

Saraswati recalls how it was in the year that Lal Bahadur Shastri died that she lost her eyesight. She was in standard four when she had smallpox that burnt the veins in her eyes. She then had to start going to the Jayanagar Blind School, from where she passed her standard 10. And while she was doing her II P.U. at B.E.S. College, she was married to Gajanana Bhatt, a mechanical engineer from Mangalore. "He is a very good man, takes great care of me. He is a very simple person," she says, a little shyly.

Saraswati Bhatt cooks at home, does all her household work, and spends the entire day at the ashram. She has two teenaged sons to look after. She does not keep a helper at home for she cannot trust people not to take advantage of her blindness.

At the moment, there are 21 girls and 20 boys at the ashram. The youngest is three years old, and the oldest, 19. Almost all of them go to school — the Government School on the 10th Cross, and the Shantinagar K.S.R.T.C School. Saraswati lays emphasis on the children's education as she herself was a teacher in a Blind School and had been a lecturer at B.E.S College for eleven years.

The home does require a lot of help - it needs the professional help of an interior designer who can perhaps suggest ideas about using the limited space more effectively. Children's books and clothes have gathered a musty smell that has grown on them in all these years. Medical help is a must. People do give things in kind, but it is not easy to get money, says Saraswati. She keeps the water bill in her diary, always in the hope that she can show that to some donor. Marwari women, she says, are the ones who help her the most.

The ashram has electricity for fans and bulbs, but not for a geyser or a grinder. The owner of this house, Mr. V.S. Natarajan, is no more, but Saraswati is talking with that owner's grandson, Mr. V. S. Shanmugam, to help them get an AEH connection. The house has a frail looking young caretaker, one cook, and one teacher. All three stay in the ashram and work for free.

Their water bill comes to less than Rs. 200 per month. Since they have a borewell motor, their electricity bill for two months comes to around Rs. 900. And their phone bill is around Rs. 750 for two months, out of which Rs. 500 is the rental charge for the phone. Food — breakfast, lunch, snacks, and dinner - for 45 people comes to Rs. 750 per day. A few people do pay for the food on their children's birthdays or in memory of a loved person.

How the ashram has sustained itself is a miracle. How a woman without sight takes care of 41 growing up children is another miracle. And these are the small miracles that keep hopes alive. Those who wish to help may call 5089074.


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