Anybody who has been on railway platforms in a reasonably big Indian city might have noticed a surprisingly large number of unaccompanied children. They are the children who have been abandoned, have run away from abusive homes, were orphaned or simply got lost. And as it is when children fall through the cracks, these kids have become drug addicts, are abused, sexually or otherwise. They have no future and simply have become the jetsam and flotsam of modern society, condemned to be on the garbage heap. Unknown, and uncared for, they sink to the bottom and simply fade away. But not for a tiny institution in Bhopal, which has given the most valuable of all things to them. It gave them hope.
I have noticed one thing common between refugees, orphans, drug addicts and prostitutes. Their eyes are dead. They do not sparkle anymore, are dead to the world, incurious, and they do not shine with life. They might be alive, but frankly, for all practical purposes, their souls are dead. And I think it's primarily because of the fact that they have lost all hope. What is there to put sparkles in your eyes if there is no longer any hope?
One of the everlasting regrets of my life is that I was not able to adopt an orphan. A combination of government apathy and obstruction, plus other circumstances made it impossible for me to adopt and fulfill the pledge and promise I made to myself all those years ago when I visited the Missionaries of Charity home in Indore, India. The eyes of those orphans would light up when visitors came and I wanted to do something about it. But in the absence of that, I was trying to do my little bit for these unfortunate children just to give them a bit of hope and to put some sparkle back into their eyes.
While I was in Amsterdam, I spotted a news item in an Indian newspaper RSS feed about a small institution that has opened in Bhopal, India, which helps orphans, street children and children on the Bhopal Railway Station Platform. My sister and I decided to do a little bit to help them by giving each of them their individual lockers, a small place to call their own. My parents, being there in Bhopal, went over to the charity, asked about their space, got the lockers built and installed. This was over four months ago and it is only now that I finally managed to get to Bhopal to see for myself.
This story is a story of the worst and at the same time the best of human behavior ladled on to the people who can least withstand it, as well as most need it. I saw three small girls , aged 1, 3 and 7 years of age. They do not seem to have any place to stay, their parents squabble, and it is unclear where they live. This one hall provides them with a temporary measure during the day when they can come in from the rain and get some education. The 7 year old girl is apparently extremely intelligent and she is testing at 3 levels above her age related education levels. There is another boy of 5 years of age, who got lost on a train. He is from south India and speaks Tamil, but he does not know where he is from, or anything else. Since they know nothing about him, he is a lost soul. A mother and father would be grieving somewhere for their lost son, but there you are.
I saw a recovering drug addict, a boy of only 10. These boys sell bits and bobs, such as tea or biscuits, on the trains which pass through the railway station. And with the little money they earn, they go purchase a bottle of whitener (the fluid used to correct typing mistakes) which is very cheap at Rupees 15. This is then poured into a cloth which they will sniff all day long. And for some reason, they would also cut themselves on the arms, thighs, chest, anywhere, deeply with a rusty razor blade to let the blood flow. Apparently, it makes them feel like flying. They are not violent, but just go into a deep somnolent daze. This particular boy had scars up and down his body. I saw another boy outside the school, about 13-14 years of age, who wanted to come in and have lunch. He was zonked out of his brains. He is my son's age.
There are three boys that I was introduced to, who were beaten so badly by their parents and families that their bones were broken. So they ran away from home when they were 4-5 years of age. Because they do not know where they came from, (unlettered, illiterate children), now they cannot go back. My mother told me about how she saw this woman speaking to a child in the corner of a school. On inquiring, it turned out that this was his mother who had abandoned her child at the school because she could neither feed nor clothe him. But she comes back once every few months after earning some money, to bring some sweets. Mother and child get together for about 10-15 minutes.
Read about this young lady, Ms. Deepika Suri, who kicked this entire thing off. She is a high ranking police officer and she noticed these children running riot. Now we all know the challenges anybody would face to get any government to do anything out of the ordinary. But she is perhaps one of the real heroines of India. A quiet, lovely young lady, who saw a need, and swung into action. She found an abandoned building and had it fixed up to become a school cum residential hall cum orphanage for thirty odd children. She linked it with a government school to provide education, got political cover and basically got it up and running.
She did not get anything out of it. She is, by all accounts, very retiring and quiet. I have not met her and have only heard about her from the children and the teachers who think of her as a veritable goddess. And so she is. She gave these children hope. She fought against the apathy that is so endemic in society. She did not give up and she made a dream happen for these children. After it was up and running, the building fixed up, food and clothing arranged, bedding fixed, teachers and helpers in place, to get political cover, she got the chief minister of the state to inaugurate the centre called as "Disha" (a Hindi word meaning direction). And when the Chief Minister asked, what they needed, they said, can we please have lockers for the children? My father said that eight people volunteered to provide them.
As it so happened, there is many a slip between the cup and the lip and many months later, nothing happened so we decided to get those lockers for them. Why lockers, you might ask? Why not clothes, or food, or money? Well, there was a lot of thinking behind it. These children, in my opinion, do not have anything personal and individual, no assets, no home, not even a toothbrush, nothing. It is a totally transient existence. And it is horrible, not to have anything to call your own. But the idea was, that if they have a locker, with their own locks and keys, it becomes their little piece of home. And that is what we saw, there were thirty lockers and each had been decorated individually by their owners. The key was hung around their necks with a piece of sturdy twine, but some had put up photographs, some had arranged their clothes in pleasing manners, one even had managed to put in a tiny curtain in that locker.
The children put on a show for us, and I was very impressed by their range of abilities. Whether it was singing, dancing, poetry recital, drumming, recitation of multiplication tables or the 3 R's, they were pretty good. One tiny dervish of a small boy was so enthusiastic, he wanted to volunteer for everything and he danced for us. Apparently, before coming to the centre, he would earn money for food by dancing for train passengers. And now he danced just for the sheer joy of it, the blooming smile on his face, the shining teeth (yes, they now have tooth brushes and tooth paste nicely kept in their lockers), well kept clothes and groomed hair all pointed to a happy boy.
A boy of 15 odd years posed as a radio commentator and gave a full five minutes of a radio news announcement. It was very impressive. The kids knew Sanskrit shlokas and hymns; they would worship religiously every evening. The teachers would ask each boy to think about what they did well and what they did wrong, to learn from their mistakes. The teachers and the associated NGO try to place these orphans with families. One boy was from West Bengal and he had tuberculosis. He liked to eat fish curry and rice, which were his traditional diet, but for some reason he landed in Bhopal, many many miles away. So the NGO spent quite a lot of money and then managed to place him with a family in West Bengal where he can now get a proper diet and medical care in a good middle class family. Guess what? The boy ran away from there and came back to the centre in Bhopal, apparently he missed them so much.
I can talk so much about this, but this is a series of disjointed thoughts about a frankly tear jerker of an experience. I was telling my old friend about it and he offered to do some construction work at the institution, by building up the boundary wall (to keep the drug addict, junkies and thieves away) and refurbishing the toilets. Small things, but that is the power of feeling and caring. Think back about Ms. Suri who kicked off the start, and now 170 children have passed through these halls of this school. It gave them direction and it gave them hope. It was a humbling experience to see this.
I end with a plea; do something for the poor children or orphans of your city. Nothing much, you rally do not have to do much. And you do not have to go far from your city. Why don't you just purchase some cheap and cheerful dictionaries or coloring books for them? What about getting them some board games? Give them something, anything, go sing a song to them or just talk to them. Just show them that somebody cares, and that they have not been abandoned. After having faced the world that we humans have brought down on their tiny innocent heads, show them that they can have a direction to a better life, they can hope, the dead eyes can sparkle again. It can and has been done.