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The progeny of the prostitutes of Kamathipura rebuild their lives in Navjeevan centre
Santosh Prasad,* (13), was angry with his mother for a long time. One day, eight years ago, his mother, a commercial sex worker in Kamathipura, disappeared for three days. During that period, Santosh survived just by drinking water. When his mother returned, a famished Santosh said, “Amma, give me some food, I am hungry.” His mother replied, “Ja ke mard ko le ayo, usko mujhe tokne do, uske bad tujko kaneko dega (Go and get me a man, then I will have sex with him and after that I will give you some food).” He says, his eyes blazing, “This is my mother and she should not have spoken to me like that.” Says pony-tailed Rasheeda Khan (14): “My mother is a commercial sex worker on Falkland Road. I used to tell her to leave the profession. But my mother says she has so many debts, she does not know of any other way to earn a living to pay off her debts. Now I don’t ask her to leave because she looks so sad.”
Santosh and Rasheeda are among 160 children, ranging from three to fifteen years, who are living in Navjeevan centre in Khapri, 110 kms from Mumbai. Navjeevan is run by the Mar Thoma church and it caters exclusively for the children of commercial sex workers of Kamathipura. The idea to set up Navjeevan was mooted in 1994 when members of the Mar Thoma community went to Kamathipura to present a Christmas programme. After the programme, they posed the question to the women: what can we do for you? The women replied they did not need any help; instead they wanted help for their children. So, the Mar Thoma church first set up day and night shelters for children in Kamathipura, then a half way home in Kalyan and finally, the Navjeevan centre.
The centre is set in 100 acres of land, with paddy and corn fields and low hillocks and rivulets cutting across the property. It is green all around and when it rains, as it was on the day I visited the place, there is a radiant beauty about the place. Apart from donations from community members, it has received funds from the German government and now there are several buildings including an administrative block, a primary health care centre, a school, a farm house and bungalows where the children stay.
“In every bungalow, twenty children stay with house parents,” says Rev Dr Moni Mathew, the director. “The boys and the girls live separately.”And all of them are enrolled in the primary school, which has classes from kindergarten to class nine. Even children from the nearby villages also come to study. At the lunch break, when you look at the children smiling and teasing each other, you cannot imagine that their lives have been touched by tragedy. But take the case of Madhumita Sharma. She is seven years old and when she sees Fr Mathew, she comes up to him and says, “I am not going to talk to you.” He says, “Why?”
“Because every time you promise me that you will bring my mother to see me but so far she has not come.”
Fr Mathew smiles and tweaks her cheeks. What can he say?
Two years ago, Madhumita’s mother had died of AIDS. How do you tell a child her mother is no longer alive? And nobody has any idea of the father. “He could be a customer,” says the priest. Then there’s Ashutosh Mhatre, (7). He does not know that his mother, Manisha, several months pregnant, had an altercation with the madam of a brothel. The madam said Manisha owed her Rs 30,000 and, in a rage, she poured kerosene on her body and lit a matchstick. She was rushed to the hospital with ninety per cent burns. Says Fr Mathew who went to see her: “When Manisha saw me, she whispered, ‘Father, you are the papa of one of my children. Now you are going to be the father of my second child’. I did not have the heart to tell her that her baby was still born. She died a few minutes later.”
Life is so fragile for these children. The mothers are allowed to visit once a month. “When they come you should see the love that is expressed between mother and child,” says Fr Eapen Abraham, coordinator at the centre. Fathers are not allowed to visit unless the mothers can produce a marriage certificate. “We don’t want any bad influence on the child,” says Mathew. “Out of 160 children, only of 20 children are we sure of the father.” But not all children are happy about these visits. Some feel bereft and weep. “They are the orphans,” says Siby Pappachen, the principal of the school. “It affects them very badly that there is nobody to come and visit them. This disappointment affects their studies, also. So we have to do a lot of counselling before they become all right.” And so life goes on. And despite all what has happened, these children, like children everywhere, have dreams. Says Rasheeda: “I want to be a doctor. I want to serve the people like Mother Teresa. And then when I get a job, I will make my mother stop working.”
(Names of children and parents have been changed.)