The Government Home for Men is nestled behind a very forgettable gate on a busy Bangalore road. The meandering path beyond the gate takes you sufficiently away from the sounds of peak hour traffic in Koramangala.
It was a dry and mostly Sunny day that was also noticeably not Diwali. All the U&I volunteers started to trickle in as soon as the clock struck 2. Today was, to us, the only Diwali celebration worth having. Oh, and we also didn’t bring any crackers.
Also called the Social Service Complex or ‘the Men’s Home’ this is a centre for destitute mentally disabled men. Every Sunday, we show up here for 2 hours of activities, dance, meditation and snacks. But today we were here for a dry and sunny, cracker-less Diwali celebration.
We kicked things off by decorating the place with balloons, streamers and origami diyas. There was a big, bold ‘HAPPY DIWALI’ made of cut-out paper and things that glittered. Many of us got busy with decorating while the rest either played football with the men or got them cleaned up and ready.
Roughly one hundred men at the government home have one unobstructed hall to themselves. The diyas made their way on to the walls on each side. The banner slipped quietly under the wall-mounted TV on the far end of the hall. The men started watching us with fascination. This was a clear deviation from our weekly routine.
One of the men, Jitendra burst a balloon we’d stuck on a wall when we weren’t looking. We should have known that soon he’d be perfecting the art of jumping and punching the balloons, before running away in a peal of laughter.
With the last paper diya making its way on to the wall, we set up speakers and mics before the hall sprang to life. There was animated cheering from the men for every singer, tabla player and beatboxer who went up on stage. The performers were friends and colleagues of the other volunteers and some of them would later admit to feeling what all of us felt when we visited the centre for the first time: like their life had irrevocably changed.
Annaya refused to sit down and broke into dance with many of the other men. He was grinning from ear to ear, one of his trademarks during our Sunday dance sessions.
After the singing and impromptu dancing, the government staff at the Home had the men line up and handed out pills one-by-one. Most of the men, like Annaya, suffer from epilepsy. A smaller portion suffer from dementia. Round the clock care wasn’t a luxury these men have, so no one received specialized treatment, especially not the kind that would see many of them on a path to becoming functioning members of society.
Soon after the medicine break, we brought the men in for their Diwali cake. With the cake finished and the speakers set up it was officially dance time. Most of the men loved this part of our weekly visit so we just had to include it in their Diwali celebration too.
This is always the favourite part of my Sundays. The capering men all around you, the volunteers dancing along, unapologetically mainstream music making a strong case for its existence.
You might not dance in a club, but you’d dance here. I’d dare anyone not to.
Dheeraj and Srinivas made their way onto the makeshift dancefloor, inviting stunned stares and pleasantly raised eyebrows. The two men rarely took part in our weekly activities and generally stayed aloof during our dance sessions. Dheeraj usually wasn’t even near the hall and would perch himself on a nook in the wall of the administrative building across from it. But they were dancing now, arms and legs moving to the music with abandon.
While the dancing continued, there was a covert mission underway to get a bunch of sky lanterns set up. We had about 7 of these, 2 of them inexplicably heart-shaped. We brought the men outside soon after the dancing was done so that they could watch us send the sky lanterns on their way. We lit the camphor and watched the lanterns fill up with gas for several minutes, with phone cameras flashing all around. The first one was let go, accompanied by cheering from the men.
It made it maybe 5 feet before it changed its mind and found its way back down. This happened repeatedly and we soon had to put one of the lanterns out of its misery for catching on fire.
The old adage about journeys and destinations held true, though, and watching us fail was probably an entertaining filler to any fiery sky lights. The men watched with fascination as we bungled attempt after attempt. Somehow, this never dulled the mood - no one believed that we wouldn’t see a lantern sailing through the sky that night.
We were finally saved by the heart-shaped lanterns that took to the skies one after the other. Cheering erupted all around us as they made it past the previous record of five feet and rose effortlessly into the air.
The men watched the lanterns rise and float away. The dancing flames reflected in their eyes. They had gotten their Diwali.
I could say that this celebration is all about lighting up people’s lives and that the true spirit of Diwali is in giving. But I don’t even know if I believe any of that. Sometimes, when you spend time with the men at the Home, you wonder if this is what life will always be for them. If this is all they’ll ever know. If the ‘Home’ in the institute’s name will ever be more than nomenclature.
There’s no end result. There’s no narrative of heroism where you can get the kind of success story that’ll make newspaper headlines, with a bold statistic attached to it and critical acclaim.
But there are success stories. Ones that will show you that you can be their family and this can be their home. They’re so tiny that you might miss them if you aren’t looking. It’s in the man who manages to button a single button on his shirt after an hour of your persistence. Or the man who never speaks or engages in an activity suddenly dancing with you.
Today, it was in the two heart shaped sky lanterns that managed to climb towards the stars.