Back to Belgium

Although Claire returned to Belgium only in September 2009, there were already some time she felt some discomfort to remain rela­tively alone Polambakkam. Thanks to the excellent work done in Tamil Nadu, the leprosy incidence had fallen sharply and there was no reason to maintain a “vertical” program that only deals with leprosy. Government policy has been to integrate leprosy control into general health services, thereby depriving the Polambakkam Centre much of its raison d’être. Claire has worked hard to give a new objective for Polambakkam, hoping that the land and buildings could benefit a new dynamic project (disabled, AIDS patients, medical training ?), and she has been disap­pointed that her efforts have remained unsuc­cessful, despite the support of her many friends (Dk. Oza, Dr. Reddy Baktha…).

The year 2008 was also very difficult for her : in January the death of Clara, in early March Arul ‘s death, her faithful cook, and mid-March she felt in her room. She decided early April to return to Belgium for the hot season, making Rosières her “home base” until mid-September, while enjoying the oppor­tunity to visit friends in France and her AFI-ICA team in the Middle East. Back to Polambakkam for two months, she left to Mauritius for two months to spend Christmas with her friend Huguette. But she found herself back in Polambakkam in late January 2009, without having really had time to think about herself and without being able to decide whether she would respond to any invi­ta­tions that were made to her to settle elsewhere in India.

It is mid-March 2009 that she felt “a hollow” and she sent an SOS to friends in India (Nalini, Shanti, Shilanand) and to Belgium. After consul­ta­tions, she decided to go back to Belgium at least for the moment (late April). Emotionally disturbed, while leaving Chennai, she used the “wrong” passport : since 1998, she had regained her Belgian natio­nality and used — not very legally ! — the Belgian or Indian passport according to which border to cross. This mishap forced her, once in Brussels, to regu­larize her situation at the Embassy of India. She was forced to give up her Indian passport (and natio­nality) but — with the help of the Padma Shri deco­ration — she was given a OCI passport (Overseas Citizen of India, this is a permanent visa for India). “I will be able to go to India whenever I want, but I will no longer be able to vote.”

Realizing that the solitude of Polambakkam weighed on her, she decided to “close her house”, she could always try to find another location of India later on. It was at this time that she wrote: “I trust in the Lord who takes me by strange and terrible ways which are necessary for me. All of you and all the friends who encourage me, give me hope of getting throught…”. Jacques went along to help her “packing 55 years of accu­mu­lated memories in India”, she still spent several days in Trivandrum, Bangalore and Chennai, and all the staff, former staff and friends of Polambakkam made her a moving and warm farewell on September 6.

Farewell speech to Polambakkam September 6, 2009

During her previous visits in Belgium, Claire had already made contact to book a room in the St Joseph Home, located in the center of Brussels, managed by the Little Sisters of the Poor, and where already lived two AFI-ICA colleagues. Claire quickly inte­grated in the group of residents, preparing daily sand­wiches distri­buted by the Sisters to the needy and being on duty at the welcome desk for some hours. The situation of the home in downtown also allowed her to keep her autonomy (by public transport) to parti­cipate in AFI meetings, visiting friends or family.

But India obviously was never far away ! By e-mailing obviously, also through Indian friends visiting Brussels (Father Suresh, Rajagopal, Isha, etc.), but parti­cu­larly thanks to the journeys Claire continued whenever possible : in September-November 2010 (including for the centenary cele­bration of Muttumalla Reddiar, who had donated the land for the Polambakkam Centre), in August-October 2011 (Chantiers Damien in Polambakkam) and in June 2012 (Gandhi International Award for leprosy). Every time she took all oppor­tu­nities to visit all her Indian friends in Polambakkam, Chennai, Trivandrum, Bangalore and even Mumbai. At the same time, Claire did not forget her friend Huguette in Mauritius (May 2010 and September 2011 from Chennai). No wonder that for the other residents of the home in Brussels, she was a “frequent traveller”.

It was during her trip to India in October 2011 Claire spent a few days with her friend Nalini, in Trivandrum and she asked Claire to write her thoughts on her expe­rience in India (for a document that was to relate the expe­rience of all AFI-ICA in India). Claire wrote in English and many of her notes are included at various places in this website.

Claire writes about her return to Belgium

Claire was pleased to learn her nomi­nation for the 2011 Gandhi Award not only for the recog­nition of 55 years of work in India, but also because it gave her a new oppor­tunity to return to “her country.” The Prize was to be delivered by the Vice-President of India, and because his agenda did not permit earlier, it is ulti­mately only May 28, 2012 that the Prize was awarded to Claire in Delhi. Claire had insisted that two former employees of early Polambakkam be present at the ceremony.

International Gandhi Award for Leprosy 2011

As usual, Claire wanted to visit a maximum of friends during this espe­cially hot June month, she travelled a lot, and despite everyone’s efforts to offer air-conditioned accom­mo­dation (but in Polambakkam, there is no air-conditioning and instead many blackouts !), she came back from her stay in India very happy but very tired. Twenty days after her return (22 – 07-2012), she made an unfor­tunate fall in her bathroom which caused a fracture trochanther (part of the femur). She was quickly operated at the nearby hospital, but preferred to go home as soon as possible rather than following any advice for reha­bi­li­tation. It is from that time that Claire was no longer auto­nomous in her mobility, having to use a walker or a wheel­chair. In March 2013, she confided to a friend :

“Coming here, I was walking with a stick because I had a slight weakness in the left leg. Since my fall in July, every­thing has really changed. This was a loss not only physi­cally but also psycho­lo­gi­cally and spiri­tually and it is this situation that I do not get over. I don’t have pain at all but I am very weak. Today, I walk again with a stick, having had to use a walker, and I come down for lunch and dinner. With this fall, my health has changed. I have almost never been sick before, and suddenly I found myself completely lost. But at the same time, I feel much better, because on top of the weakness I had a kind of depression. But we are well cared for and my doctor is a friend. (…) We do not choose to live in a home. For me, it was a kind of protection : I made the mistake of living alone in India and I was just looking for such protection I have found in this home where I was greeted by two AFI-ICA friends”.

This loss of mobility did not stop Claire to receive many visits — family, friends, almost every day her diary mentions some name — and even to take part in some family or friends meetings. Her last visit outside — Monday, September 16 — was parti­cu­larly symbolic. For the first time, the International Leprosy Congress — which Claire had parti­ci­pated several times in different cities of the world — was held this year in Brussels. We insisted to register her but Claire was somewhat reluctant to have to get there in a wheel­chair. Claire actually had the oppor­tunity to attend the inaugural meeting (with the presence of Princess Astrid) and espe­cially to meet many former colleagues, lepro­lo­gists from India or elsewhere. It was a great joy for her to receive so many accolades from those alongside whom she had been working in India.