Thursday, August 16, 2007

Children of a nowhere God

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express

Women, who have illegitimate children, abandon them at Saandvanam. The orphanage struggles to play father and mother to these troubled children

By Shevlin Sebastian

When two-year-old Prateeksha sees me, she starts to cry. "She thinks
you are a doctor," says a smiling Radha Menon, 40, chairman of the Edapally-based Saandvanam, an orphanage of the Bharatheya Charitable Trust. "She is afraid of doctors."

Prateeksha is the child of a home nurse, who abandoned her the day she
was born. "We have no idea where the mother is," says Menon. "Most of the mothers give us false addresses and telephone numbers."

Sitting next to Prateeksha on the bed is doe-eyed Chikki. She is also two years
of age, abandoned by the mother, who suffers from a mental disturbance. "She cannot afford to look after the baby, because her husband is jobless," says Menon.

In the next room, there are a few boys and girls. A teacher, Jessie, is
teaching them a song. When they see me, the boys swarm around. One boy, Shakti, plump and with a goofy smile, shakes my hand. Jasu pulls at
my belt, curiosity write large on his face, while Amal presses the mobile
phone protruding from my trouser pocket.

Later, Menon would say, "They know that because there is something different about them, people come to see them, but they don't know what it is. They tell me, 'Amma, we are not ugly, we go to school, so why do people come to see us?’"

But the older children know they are not living with their parents. "When a family comes visiting, they will ask me whether these people are their parents. 'Are our mother or father among them’ is a question they ask all the time.’

And so, in a four-roomed, 950 sq. ft. house, in narrow Anjanappilli Parambu Lane, live 39 children, ranging in age from a few months to 14 years. Each has a tragic tale to tell.

Take the case of Ganesh. He is from Mumbai. He was staying in a colony near a railway station. His elder brother put him on a train and asked him to beg. That particular train was coming to Kerala.

"He got down at Ernakulam and was planning to return on the same train, when the police caught him," says Menon. "They brought him here. He is seven years old and has no idea of his name and where he stays in Mumbai. He has been with us for four years and is studying in Class 2.”

Incidentally, none of the children have birth certificates. So, Menon fixes the birth dates. Some of the dates that she chooses are January 1, January 26, August 15, the dates of Onam and November 14, Children’s Day. In the absence of parents, she is mother and father to them. They call her Amma. But who are the actual mothers?

"They are usually sex workers, wives of murderers and mental patients," says Shanta, Menon’s sister, who helps her in the orphanage. "But you will be surprised to know that the majority of unwanted pregnancies occur among home nurses."

The woman goes to work in a house, the man of the household finds her
attractive, plies her with gifts, seduces her and has unprotected sex. "She gets pregnant," says Shanta. "And then they don't know what to do. The man will not bother to help. Eventually, they give the babies to us."

Do mothers ever suffer from guilt after they have given up their children?
"I don't think so," says Menon. "Not a single mother has come back and
taken her child. They have no idea that by abandoning their child, they are inflicting lifelong psychological damage on the children. There are times when they cry for their parents. A child misses the mother more than the father. Sometimes, the older ones get angry and take it out on us."

Menon began this orphanage by accident. She met a Brahmin priest in Parur who
had five mentally challenged children. Out of the five, three died. And
for the two, they wanted to place them in a home, but could not find a
suitable one. That was when Menon decided to start a home near Bharat Mata
College in Thrikkakara in 2000. Within a matter of time, she had fifteen mentally challenged children. Later, she moved to Edapally.

Now, she has divided the children into two groups. The normal children stay at Edapally, while the mentally challenged group, around 22 members, stay in a home at Tripunithara.

At this moment, the major problem for Menon is funds. "I need Rs 70,000
a month to manage the expenses of the two homes," she says, without a trace of anxiety on her face. "I depend on my own family (her lawyer-husband works in Mumbai), my three sisters and relatives and from donations from the public."

In the Saadvanam office, as we speak, two HDFC Bank employees, Indu and Roy, are waiting patiently to have a discussion. Menon wants to take a Rs 50 lakh loan, so that she can buy a larger place to house all the children comfortably. The discussion will be on what collateral Menon can offer.

So, why is Menon so committed to these children? "My mother, who has been
the biggest influence in my life, when I was growing up in Guruvayoor, always used to help people," she says. "I saw the happiness that poor people felt when they received gifts, money or food. That is why I am doing this."

Then, this mother of a 22-year old son, Nirmal, becomes silent and looks at the ground. After a while, she looks up and with a voice thick with emotion, says, "I will be with these children for the rest of my life."

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