Gazing at you with a pair of the saddest eyes you’ve ever seen, 50-year old Thanabalam Rajagopal cuts a pitiful figure as the gaunt, tired-looking gentleman hunches over his walking frame in the dingy, dimly lit corridor outside his one-room flat.
A deep tracheotomy scar is nestled in the folds of his weathered neck as he struggles to speak. His speech, though laboured, is at best slurred and hardly decipherable.
Mr Thanabalam’s life wasn’t always this unfortunate.
Back in the 1990s, he was holding a good job in a law firm and happily married with a wife and son. But his life as he knew it would be changed forever on the night of March 19, 1996.
“It was a hit-and-run. I was just going home…,” Mr Thanabalam swallows hard, the crevice in his throat leaps uncomfortably as his eyes fill with sadness.
“It’s a painful story,” Wang Tingting, who’s sitting in for the interview, interjects with a warning look.
20-year old Tingting is a first year Chemical Engineering undergraduate at the National University of Singapore. Together with over 70 other civic-minded undergraduates, she’s part of the Eusoff Hall Voluntary Corps Elderly Service, spending her weekends helping less fortunate elderly like Uncle Paul (as Mr Thanabalam is known to them) in the Outram vicinity. The Eusoff Hall Voluntary Corps also works with the Salvation Army and mentally-challenged children at MINDS.
We later found out that the horrific accident had left Uncle Paul with a traumatic brain injury that put the then brilliant young man in a coma for 8 whole months. When he finally came to, news was broken to him that his wife and son lost their lives in the accident, while he was still bravely fighting for his own.
The accident robbed him of everything he had.
“My son would have been 17 this year,” he says, extracting a faded photograph of a doe-eyed little boy from his weathered wallet, sliding it gingerly across the table.
Unable to stand, walk or speak properly since, Uncle Paul has been unable to hold a job for the past 15 years, receiving a monthly allowance of $200 from the Central CDC. Apart from the students at Eusoff Hall, volunteers from another charitable organisation, the Thye Hua Kwan Moral Society, visit his tiny one-room flat weekly to help clean his toilet and walls.
He has lost all contact with his immediate family and only keeps in touch with his brother, a pastor in Cambodia who lives there with his wife.
Volunteering & The Free Mattress Programme
Uncle Paul’s only activity is serving as a volunteer with the Salvation Army, teaching Sunday School classes at its Bishan Headquarters, something he takes great pride in.
“This is my Captain..this one’s my Major,” he manages, pointing happily at a couple of beaming faces on another creased photograph he pulled from the folds of his wallet.
Due to the tiny nature of his flat, Uncle Paul has been sleeping on the floor to save precious space that a bed would otherwise take up. He doesn’t even use a blanket, complaining that “the weather’s too hot”. So when he slipped and broke his arm in a fall last Lunar New Year, he had a difficult time going to sleep every night and waking up every morning. Due to age, he’s also beginning to complain of backaches from sleeping on the hard floor.
“One of my seniors posted a link to the BEDS.sg Free Mattress Programme on Facebook. That’s how I applied for a free mattress for Uncle (Paul),” Tingting tells us.
With the mattress as a platform, it’s now easier for Uncle Paul to get up in the morning. He seems pretty happy, flashing a near toothless grin after the short photoshoot we had.
“Thank you,” he manages.