Sunday, July 03, 2011

Poitu vare

Death of a micro-philanthropist
Triplicane, Chennai, Tamil Nadu

It's been a sobering day in Tiruvallikeni (aka Triplicane,Chennai- aka the Trip Hood) as I discovered Robert Purser, author of the now-semi-famous website Street Kids of Madras,who had been AWOL for some years, had died in an accidental fall from a ladder in America.   

At first this seemed impossible ("Mister Robert" was always overly cautious) and I suspected it might even be a ruse to get rid of the street kids' constant demands for money (it's been 10 years now - 10 years of endless "relatives who need surgery," and the usual stories).

But no, I checked with V. Prabhakaran at the bookstore (one of the Good Guys) and he showed me an obituary mailed by Robert's sister in El Dorado, California.  Robert fell from a 15-foot ladder on June 24, 2008 while trimming trees on his property.

I hadn't heard from Robert since about May 2008. A number of Western Indophiles had written me, asking what had become of him.  Since my last visit to Chennai in 2006,  he had continued supporting the kids, even sending Prabhakaran 7000Rs or nearly $180 monthly (according to Prabhakaran) and Nagamma, who lives on the street constantly abused by her ne'er do well husband 1800 (a very respectible sum considering the husband may have earned 2000 a month at work, if he even worked). 

Today, Nagamma was sporting an\open wound over her left brow, and a black eye.  I asked what had happened and she replied, "Fighting."  Prabhakaran says it's her husband who constantly beats her.  Shehas one child, a boy about 1.5 years old now.  

 Robert always said 'if anything happens to me, you have to make sure the kids get my money,' but Prabhu produced a letter from the sister saying there was no provision made.

Though Robert's website became somewhat legendary among Indophiles and backpackers, Robert himself hated India.   He once told me, "I enjoy being with the kids. I have never enjoyed India."  Yet his observations and insights about the country and its street denizens were astute.   His page "Am I Doing Any Good?" should be read by anyone hoping to "change things in India."

In case you're wondering, the kids are all still there - but they are no longer kids. 

Kumar is driving a rickshaw. Prabhu still lives with his grandmother (who must be over 80 now) in Jaiz Complex and works at a printer shoppe.  Beautiful Mumtaz has been married with 2 kids for years, with a husband and proper house (those of you who know Triplicane will know what this means).  Mari likewise has been married with 3 kids.  Jennifer is still, amazingly, unmarried (she was so beautiful and sweet!) and working in Mylapore at a print shoppe as well.  Prabhakaran, the Good Guy who runs the tabloid magazine stall, is still the responsible big brother on his block, keeping the straight and narrow, raising his 8-year-old son and shooing away the glue-sniffing teenagers. 

And Vela still lives on the streets, acting as "native tour guide" for her many Mister Roberts who appear fresh each season in front of the Broadlands Lodge.  Vela was always the most clever of the kids, and has managed to line up a few "sponsors." 

  In short, not much has changed in Triplicane except the "Magarajah" restaurant has been replaced with a pseudo-posh "Hotel Firdouse," which is not nearly as good.

Sad and weird news from India - so what else is new??


Stirling Davenport said...

Good article, Caroline. I read "Am I Doing Any Good?" I loved the part about cheating in a bad way and cheating in a good way. So true!

Colin Todhunter said...

A decent man. He tried to make a difference. I remember seeing him many times in the Maharaja restaurant in Triplicane, sitting with the kids - all young adults now. I'll always remember Robert. I hope his site on the kids remains online. I guess it's become a small but valuable piece of Triplicane history.