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In Ashray, despite Aids causing devastation, children smile and have a good time
When you look at the smiling face of Rajesh Kamlakar you cannot imagine the tragedy that has befallen his life. His father died when he was a child, and his mother, who had an elder daughter, Shailaja, decided to marry a tailor, Sunil. Within a few months, Rukmini was pregnant, but when she went to the hospital, the doctor told her she was HIV positive. Despite this prognosis, she did not abort the child. Eventually, Rukmini gave birth to Anupama. When Sunil died a few months later, Rajesh began working as an assistant to a hawker. He would eat only vada pav daily, to save money and buy food for his mother.
One day, Rukmini, who had contracted tuberculosis, and was feeling low and desperate, decided to commit suicide. But Shailaja, who was 14 at that time, learnt of this and said, “What are you doing? I know of an organisation that might help us.”
The family came to project CHILD (Children of HIV Positive Individuals Living in Dignity)—a home-based care programme, which is run by Committed Communities Development Trust (CCDT). Says director Sara D’Mello: “The longer the mother is alive, the child will get emotionally stronger. And they will be better able to cope for the time when she is no longer there.” Rukmini died soon after and Shailaja was put into a government institution for young girls while Anupama was admitted to Ashray, a CCDT crisis centre for children in Bandra. Rajesh would visit his stepsister every Saturday, but, over a period of time, Anupama’s health began deteriorating.
“When Rajesh realised this, he stopped coming,” says Lucinda D’Souza, Ashray project manager. When Anupama died, the Ashray authorities delayed the cremation; they wanted Rajesh to be present. “We felt he deserved the privilege of performing the last rites,” says Sara. So, one of the social workers, Vimal Bagul, wandered all over Bandra for hours before she spotted him near the railway terminus. Reluctantly, and with fear in his eyes, he came to Ashray. Can you blame him? By the time, he was 12, he had lit the funeral pyre of his father, his stepfather, his mother and now he had to do it for his stepsister.
In Ashray, there are 58 children: 34 boys and 24 girls, all of them from poor families. Several are HIV positive; some are orphans, while many have parents who are dying from Aids-related illnesses. There is no segregation between infected and non-infected children because the HIV virus can only be transmitted through blood transfusion, an infected needle, from mother to child and through sexual intercourse.
But for these children, death is never far away. “You have to prepare children for the death of a loved one,” says Mugdha Wadivkar, project manager, HIV Aids programme of the CCDT. “They talk about illnesses and express their perceptions about death. In death, they say, their parents have gone to God’s place. Some children feel their parents are going to come back.”
But for children like Rajesh, it is an uphill road. “We need specially trained counsellors and we don’t have enough of these, especially in the hospitals,” says Sara. “These children are vulnerable because they have to cope with the stigma associated with HIV-Aids.”
Ashray, started 10 years ago, celebrated its anniversary on November 1. In the evening, after the children have returned from the municipal school, and had their baths, they sit on the floor of the high ceiling bungalow, which has been provided by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, watching the Cartoon Network on television. They range in age from 2 to 15 years. I am introduced to Meenakshi, whose face is suffused with a bright glow and one of the warmest smiles I have seen in a child. She is an orphan but, thankfully, is not infected. “She is a bright student,” says Lucinda. Meenakshi tells me her favourite subject is mathematics. There is Minal, who is lying face down, the only child in the sick room. He has sores on his legs and is sleeping. Then there is three-year-old Manish, who was supposed to live for a few weeks but is throbbing with energy two years later.
I am introduced to Pradip, who walks very slowly. But at 12, he has suffered a stroke and has meningitis. He shakes my hand and asks for a chocolate. I am saddened that I don’t have any. He looks disappointed but does not say anything. Just then there is a call on my mobile. After I put the phone back into my pocket, my hand touches something. When I pull it out, I am amazed to see it is a chocolate, which my colleague had given to me earlier in the day and I had forgotten all about it. I proffer it to Minal, who does not smile, but thanks me profusely and grips the chocolate so hard I fear he is going to crush it out of shape.
Their lives may seem to be out of shape, but because they are children, full of innocence and joy, it is sweet most of the time.