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Not an Orphan Anymore

Max, a French man, had come to Calcutta with the mindset of exploring the place; but to his surprise he ends up staying here for almost 30 years and still falls in love with India each day. Read on our interview #8 below:

Keshav: Hi Max, how are you?

Max: Good, what about you?

Keshav: I’m good too.

Keshav: So, tell me if you were to introduce yourself, who are you?

Max: I am French, my name is Thiery Donaldi, born in 1964, I’m 53 years old and I have been living in India, Calcutta for the last 28 years. I have been running an NGO, as well as a project for sexually abused kids in Cambodia.

Keshav: Why have you been living in India for the past 28 years? Can you go back to the day when you actually moved and tell me how did you come up with this decision?

Max: Okay, it was never a decision; it was just that it happened that I went to India on 24 December 1989. I landed there and I was coming to Calcutta to experience something new in my life such as being a volunteer with Mother Theresa and her sisters in hospitals for dying people in Calcutta. I was going to be in Calcutta for a few weeks, then I was going to travel around the world for about five years after which I would decide on a place where I would like to live and the kind of work I would like to do. But I never an idea or a plan that I would be staying in India. I was not attracted by India. I was attracted by different places on the planet and somehow I landed in Calcutta and the first evening I freaked out. I was really, really lost because India is such a different place from France. I was quiet lost and the next morning I think I fell in love with Calcutta.

Keshav: It happened overnight? (Chuckles)

Max: Yeah! Overnight yeah! I am a fast guy. It happened overnight, falling in love yes, but living in Calcutta for so long did not happen overnight. Gradually I had to stay in India because I started a project for orphans, street children, runaway kids and lost children in India. I started a home, and I felt that giving them food, shelter and education was not enough. They were in need of a father figure in order to provide them with emotional support and guidance, because I feel as a child you usually study to make someone happy, not to make yourself happy. So you need that motivation, true love and discipline. Gradually I got myself more involved with the kids and as a result my journey around the world for five years did not take place because I felt it was not good to leave the kids after some time

Keshav: Where else did you travel that time?

Max: That time I did not travel that much. I just went to Seychelles Islands 5 times because I love lagoons and blue water, crystal water and water world. Then I went to Thailand and to Vietnam and a bit in Europe, then after that I traveled quite a bit in fact.

Keshav: What actually happened? What really attracted you to India, Calcutta that changed your opinion overnight?

Max: Okay, okay, let me think. Well I’m someone who gets bored very fast, with a lot of things, with people and with places. India is so different from Europe, from France, it is so intense and colorful and so full of people and activities in streets everywhere. Calcutta is a city in India which is a little bit backward, a little bit back on time. Landing in Calcutta was being in a time machine that took me back, way back, like cars and buses and taxis. I have never seen cars like that. They reminded me of cars we had in Europe, maybe in the 60s or 50s. So my mind was traveling in time just by being in Calcutta by what I was seeing in the streets. I was like, ‘wow!’ I really like this place, because this place is giving me a lot to think about and I love to think. I love to study human beings, different skies, atmospheres and everything. I was getting my daily food, my mental, intellectual and visual food. And few months later, I was involved with the kids. Obviously if Calcutta would’ve been a very modern place like it is becoming now, yeah, it would be surely less interesting to me but yeah, most probably for Bengalis they could wish that. Most Bengalis are very proud of Calcutta and they love Calcutta the way it is.

Keshav: Some French are very proud of Calcutta too.

Max: Can you give me names?

Keshav: I have one in front of me right now

Max: Oh! Yes!

Keshav: I get your point on what attracted you to the city and the country, but what attracted you to social service? What made you at that age think of what many people don’t think about until much later in their lives?

Max: I was 25 when I came to India and to Calcutta, and I am not educated, I did not even pass class 12. In France we have this thing we fantasize, young or even older people, we always fantasize about going to Africa and dig the mud to find water for those poor Africans, who are not having water. Or going to South America to build a school or going to India to save the world. We’re very influenced by what we see on TV, we see documentaries, we read articles, we’ve seen Mother Theresa and the Nobel Peace Prize, we have read books like City of Joy. In Europe, for most of us

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Max, a French man, had come to Calcutta with the mindset of exploring the place; but to his surprise he ends up staying here for almost 30 years and still falls in love with India each day. Read on our interview #8 below:

Keshav: Hi Max, how are you?

Max: Good, what about you?

Keshav: I’m good too.

Keshav: So, tell me if you were to introduce yourself, who are you?

Max: I am French, my name is Thiery Donaldi, born in 1964, I’m 53 years old and I have been living in India, Calcutta for the last 28 years. I have been running an NGO, as well as a project for sexually abused kids in Cambodia.

Keshav: Why have you been living in India for the past 28 years? Can you go back to the day when you actually moved and tell me how did you come up with this decision?

Max: Okay, it was never a decision; it was just that it happened that I went to India on 24 December 1989. I landed there and I was coming to Calcutta to experience something new in my life such as being a volunteer with Mother Theresa and her sisters in hospitals for dying people in Calcutta. I was going to be in Calcutta for a few weeks, then I was going to travel around the world for about five years after which I would decide on a place where I would like to live and the kind of work I would like to do. But I never an idea or a plan that I would be staying in India. I was not attracted by India. I was attracted by different places on the planet and somehow I landed in Calcutta and the first evening I freaked out. I was really, really lost because India is such a different place from France. I was quiet lost and the next morning I think I fell in love with Calcutta.

Keshav: It happened overnight? (Chuckles)

Max: Yeah! Overnight yeah! I am a fast guy. It happened overnight, falling in love yes, but living in Calcutta for so long did not happen overnight. Gradually I had to stay in India because I started a project for orphans, street children, runaway kids and lost children in India. I started a home, and I felt that giving them food, shelter and education was not enough. They were in need of a father figure in order to provide them with emotional support and guidance, because I feel as a child you usually study to make someone happy, not to make yourself happy. So you need that motivation, true love and discipline. Gradually I got myself more involved with the kids and as a result my journey around the world for five years did not take place because I felt it was not good to leave the kids after some time

Keshav: Where else did you travel that time?

Max: That time I did not travel that much. I just went to Seychelles Islands 5 times because I love lagoons and blue water, crystal water and water world. Then I went to Thailand and to Vietnam and a bit in Europe, then after that I traveled quite a bit in fact.

Keshav: What actually happened? What really attracted you to India, Calcutta that changed your opinion overnight?

Max: Okay, okay, let me think. Well I’m someone who gets bored very fast, with a lot of things, with people and with places. India is so different from Europe, from France, it is so intense and colorful and so full of people and activities in streets everywhere. Calcutta is a city in India which is a little bit backward, a little bit back on time. Landing in Calcutta was being in a time machine that took me back, way back, like cars and buses and taxis. I have never seen cars like that. They reminded me of cars we had in Europe, maybe in the 60s or 50s. So my mind was traveling in time just by being in Calcutta by what I was seeing in the streets. I was like, ‘wow!’ I really like this place, because this place is giving me a lot to think about and I love to think. I love to study human beings, different skies, atmospheres and everything. I was getting my daily food, my mental, intellectual and visual food. And few months later, I was involved with the kids. Obviously if Calcutta would’ve been a very modern place like it is becoming now, yeah, it would be surely less interesting to me but yeah, most probably for Bengalis they could wish that. Most Bengalis are very proud of Calcutta and they love Calcutta the way it is.

Keshav: Some French are very proud of Calcutta too.

Max: Can you give me names?

Keshav: I have one in front of me right now

Max: Oh! Yes!

Keshav: I get your point on what attracted you to the city and the country, but what attracted you to social service? What made you at that age think of what many people don’t think about until much later in their lives?

Max: I was 25 when I came to India and to Calcutta, and I am not educated, I did not even pass class 12. In France we have this thing we fantasize, young or even older people, we always fantasize about going to Africa and dig the mud to find water for those poor Africans, who are not having water. Or going to South America to build a school or going to India to save the world. We’re very influenced by what we see on TV, we see documentaries, we read articles, we’ve seen Mother Theresa and the Nobel Peace Prize, we have read books like City of Joy. In Europe, for most of us when our life is not going very well and when we don’t know what to do, we think if we go to those far away countries we might get different kinds of benefits We’ll get an experience, expose ourselves to a different cultures, by engaging in voluntary work. We have no interest in going to any hospital and spending time with old people in France but we don’t mind doing that in India and Africa where we don’t even speak the same language as the people. We are going to those countries to help ourselves and to maybe have a kick in life because we don’t know where our lives are going. Maybe we need some kind of attention, so if you go to Calcutta as a European, you will become a hero in your circle of friends and family. You are so strong and courageous that you went there and you did it. You come back to France and people will say, ‘Wow! You went to Calcutta, you worked with Mother Theresa.’ I was very naïve when I was 25, and I had this romantic idea about helping people around the world and everything. I was so naïve but I was very genuine as well and I was a bit inspired by Christian values, which can be what now I know as Hindu values, Muslim values, Buddhist values. I could not join any big NGO because I was not a nurse, nor a doctor, so there was no way and Mother Theresa was the easiest.

Keshav: That’s alright, but there is nothing wrong if your selfish act of social service is actually helping someone, isn’t it?

Max: There is nothing so wrong, but there is everything wrong at the same time. We go there, pretending we are coming to help, we’re going to be the saviors. White people have this huge tendency of ruling the world, we’ve been doing that for centuries. We’ve been exploiting other countries’ resources, indulging in slavery, and missionaries from Europe have been all over the world to convert people, so this is very much in our blood. We go to Calcutta and give tablets to some old patients, give them food and everything. What we are indirectly showing to the Indians is ‘Guys you are so useless but we are so great. We are coming to your place and doing things that you guys are not doing.’ To some extent it’s a bit like that. I don’t know, I’ll not really agree with your question, let’s say on that.

Keshav: Point taken. You said you are not educated, was it out of choice, or were there circumstances around that at that time?

Max: No. it was because from class 4 I lost in math. In Europe and in India as well I guess, when you are lost in math and science group then they intend not to promote you to the next class, I was very good in literature, French, Spanish, geography, history, but not science. I could not cope and so I was not promoted to class 10/11 and then again I failed. So I concluded that studies where not for me.

Keshav: Since you have lived more than half of your life in India. Which place do you consider your home right now?

Max: Calcutta and India, definitely Calcutta where I spend most of my time because I’ve been in this city for so long. It’s very noisy though. I want to live close to nature so I spend time in different places in India but Calcutta is in my heart. Calcutta, I have my flat there, all the kids I have been taking care of, have become my family, and to me they are my kids like, I love them and I need them.

Keshav: Does this not remind you of your back home? Doesn’t that make you want you to go back someday?

Max: First of all I’m not like most of the people you know (chuckles). That’s why you are doing the interview. No I have never felt like that. I was always and I am always happy to be in India and I can’t live in Europe because to me Europe is so boring and what India gave me, and still gives me today, Europe can’t give me that therefore I am very grateful to India. I am learning a lot of good things the hard way in India because India is not an easy country. It’s not an easy society as well, so many people are there in this country, it’s a big challenge. At 25, I would have surely studied in New York because I love New York. But I would not have learnt so much that I have learnt in India, I am not going to change India, India has changed me. And no, I never miss my friends, I never miss my family in France, I never miss them. I used to miss the food a little bit, especially cheese at the beginning as a French. I get depressed when I go to Europe. It’s boring, its dull, its so many things that I don’t like. It’s not challenging, nor is it dynamic. India is dynamic, a very heavy country, a very heavy society. So many things going on in India, especially in the last few years, it’s changing and it’s dynamic. I love to see Indians doing economically better, so I can see how much they can spend and I can see how much they can enjoy. There are more people who are able to travel in India, more people are able to buy the things they like I just love it, it is wonderful to see. I am so happy that my Indian Brothers and sisters have more money and they can do a lot of things so it’s so exciting. And I don’t like France at all, it’s too boring.

Keshav: Looks like you are pitching India to me.

Max: Yeah! I want to make you fall in love with India (chuckles).

Keshav: I actually agree with you, not that I have been to so many countries as you, but India is so exciting and I can’t agree with you more

Max: I am glad

Keshav: Who exactly are the kids that you deal with? What are they like and their lives?

Max: Okay, the kids are mostly kids who have been lost in India. They have just got lost in the train in their hometown. They are very small, sometimes they are 4, sometimes they are 5 or 7 and they end up let’s say in Haral station in speaking about Calcutta and also in 3rd Street near Park Street. They beg for some kind of small work, polishing shoes and collecting plastic bottles I wanted to look after all orphans, I did not want to look after kids who have a mother or father living with them in the street, because I thought orphaned kids are much more deprived of everything, compared to a child who is having a parent. Luckily, there aren’t many orphans and then after that I was welcoming children living on the footpath with their parent in plastic, because I felt they will be more safe in a home and they will have proper food, proper education Then there are those who had lost their family, either they ran away because father was beating them or maybe there was a step mother who did not want to look after the kids. We always tried to find their families by taking the child back to his home. Sometimes the family was happy to see the child, whereas often a step mother would who did not want the child to be with the family, so we always took the child back with us until he or she could get married and everything.

Keshav: What do you do for the kids?

Max: Well, it’s very simple just, put yourself in a situation when you were a kid, and you had your father and mother provide for you, right? They provided for your food, accommodation, schooling, clothes, your medicines etc. Except in our case, it was much large kind of family 80/85 kids. But that’s a lot of kids because I wanted to do quality stuff; I did not want to do quantity. When a child comes to us, 10 or 12 years old he has never been to school. So we would coach him at home, as much as possible and then we’ll put him in a formal school. So it was a lot of intense coaching for them and it worked.

Keshav: How do you manage this group of 80-85 financially?

Max: I registered an NGO in France, in 1994, to collect money and started with my circle of friends and they gave me 20 euros for a month. And gradually you meet more people especially foreigners who used to come to Calcutta to Mother Theresa. So donations from foreigners for many years and later on it was donations from Indians; then I opened a branch in Belgium I met a big NGO in Spain that funded us around 75 to 80 lacs per year. So every year I had to find that money to fund the kids 30 staff, cook, teachers, caretakers, and office people. Over the years, I bought 3 buildings, a big house in Calcutta it became a home to about 50/55 boys. I bought another house for girls; another building made it into a school for our kids where we were teaching essential subjects, for them to make it to class 10 and 12 and an IOS with a lot of English and computer skills So with finances I was always very lucky, it was like God was always helping me to get the money. I never had to work too much for the donations.

Keshav: Must have been a nice feeling yeah! Are you in touch with the kids who have been taught by you?

Max: Oh! Yeah! It was wonderful! Yes very much, I am very close to them and of course I guide them until they get married. Some of them are in Mumbai, some are in West Bengal, about 2 in Dubai and so we don’t see each other every day, but yes, we are in touch. I am mostly in touch with a particular group of kids, maybe the first batch, first group. Those kids are now like 35 to 37 years old. They are married and are having kids and everything. So their kids are my grandkids. Well, I am not so much in touch with the youngest batch because over the years, I became very tired, exhausted and now there a lot of things I have to deal with every day one has to go to the hospital, other is having an exam at school, and so on. But first few years I was very involved with the kids ‘hey do your homework, where is your tie, where are your shoes? I was like a mother, not only a father. They are very nice and they are my best friends. I do a lot of things with them, we travel, we party and they are my partners in crime. Some of them call me dad, some me uncle it’s up to them and that’s the relationship we have.

Keshav: So are you proud of yourself, having settled these boys at good places?

Max: Proud of myself? No, I don’t have to be proud of any of that. Satisfied and happy for them? Yes, it’s quite dangerous to have an ego in this field of social work; the job is done, they are doing okay. They might not be CEOs but some of them are graphic designers, in Dubai, they could buy a house, a flat, a car so yeah, ‘satisfied’ in the word. Mission accomplished.

Keshav: What do you do now?

Max: I take rest (chuckles). I enjoy India as much as I can. I just want to open my eyes big, see India, feel it, meet as many Indians as possible and make new friends. I take rest because I was extremely mentally exhausted, having sleeping problems due to a lots of stress. And so that’s how I am busy right now. right now I enjoy spending quality time with my kids not interested to take care of thousands of kids, Also because now I am 53, I realize that time is going very fast so I try not be busy in my mind because then the time passes slowly. When you have a lot of things running, then 10 years will just pass by in no time. And now I don’t want 10 years to go in no time because I want to enjoy, the sky, the sun, swimming and all the beautiful things that we have in our planet.

Keshav: That sounds like a busy schedule?

Max: No, no it’s not. It is the most quiet and peaceful schedule that one can have. It’s all about enjoying life and being happy that I am still having my health and everything. I can see properly, I can hear, I can walk. I don’t want to be 85 and be like, ‘where is the time gone’? I want to enjoy the Calcutta winter

Keshav: Tell me your experience in Cambodia, how was that like?

Max: My experience in Cambodia was something very different from what my life in Calcutta, I went to Cambodia in the early 1990s for a few days after Cambodia started to open to world after the war I had thought of having a home same as in Calcutta because the recent history of Cambodia was terrible due to the war that had happened over there. I did not have a long term visa for India and every six months I had to go out since Cambodia is not very far from India, so I wanted to open a home there. And then one day, I went to swim with this Cambodian guy who was my translator to the municipal stadium. There were about 5 foreigners, Europeans inside that water, and with them was 12 or 14 very young kids and you could tell they were from the streets, Cambodian kids. On entering the pool and having my companion translate their conversation for me I quickly understood that those guys were pedophiles, they were here to have sex with the kids I went to an NGOs I knew those days in Cambodia and I said, ‘Hey, I have seen that, I have heard that, do you know anything about that?’ they said, ‘yeah, yes of course we know it’s happening. It’s a big thing here but we can’t do anything because the police is co corrupted, they want proof and pictures. How do we take a picture of a guy abusing a child in his apartment? It’s impossible.’ I started to go to that around that municipal stadium because those days that was the place where the pedophiles were coming. It was like an open market. They would hang around with the kids, taking the kids on the motor bikes to their flats and back to their guest houses to have sex with the kids. I was taking notes where they are living, which hotel, which apartment I would sometimes look at the window and I could not do anything I did that for a few weeks and started my own investigations with this Cambodian guy and we ended up in some crazy situation where we were chased by some of the pedophiles who wanted to beat us up. In 94/95, the police even the Cambodian police was so reluctant even to arrest a white person because of the inferiority complex. They say that white people are superior and what they do is always okay. And at the same in Cambodia a Police Officer will have a salary of 20/25 dollars which is not enough to feed his family and if you arrest a foreigner say a French guy, then you might have a French ambassador on the call with the ministry of foreign affairs in Cambodia saying, ‘Why did you arrest that French guy’. Those days ambassadors did not want to have their citizens in jail anywhere in the world because that gave them extra work of visiting the guy in jail. We also had to educate the cops and the judges of such malpractices that they were not aware about. I discontinued the project there and returned to India. I went back to Cambodia in 2001.Cambodia is such a small country 10 million people in those days. So everyone knew but no one was doing anything. I registered my NGO in Cambodia, got in local staff, started to do investigations about hot spots, places where foreigners were hanging out with kids. We supplied this information to the police. We became private detectives. The NGO is still running well today.

Keshav: I heard from my very top secret sources, that, you’ve just been out of the prison of Oman is that true?

Max: Yes, it is. Three months back, yes.

Keshav: How was that experience and how did you get there? Was it on your itinerary of World travel?

Max: Oman was on my itinerary of world travel but jail was not. It was what we call cherry on top of the cake, something like that. I went to Oman to see Muscat. For 12 to 13 days I was booked there and then finally it was for 4 months and three weeks. It was so amazing, because I was learning a lot of things. I was always curious about how life could be in jail so I was motivated from day one I was very passive because I wanted to understand, absorb and see as much while being pretty scary at times. When you are 24 hours locked up with the same people, you don’t have privacy anymore and its crazy.,

Keshav: You do realize you were in a prison right? You make it sound like you were in a guest house that was not kept very well, like an unwanted guest, but that was a real prison and it wasn’t a movie.

Max: I felt I was so blessed to hear the stories of the guys I met there, the crazy talks and even the location was interesting. It was around 40 minutes from Muscat, in the desert, surrounded by desert mountains, not very high. There are no a villages, cities or towns nearby. It’s just this jail being put up like this in this amazing place which is so quiet and silent.

Keshav: Okay, last question. If you could say anything to someone watching this interview, what would you say?

Max: You are young and you want to have a career but don’t give everything to your work. Keep a lot of time for yourself, for activities which have nothing to do with work. Switch off from work, because the time flies and one day you will be fifty years old People have to find a balance. Don’t make the mistake that I have made. I was overworked, I worked 7 days a week, 24/7. My brain was always busy and yes, I made the mistake of not taking time off, so I got very tired. So that’s what I will say. Find a balance with social life, family life, whatever you want or busy with. That’s what I can say.

Keshav: Thank you very much.

Max: You are welcome!

 

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Thierry darnaudet

that s funny to read the story. thanks . good job.

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