Sunday, March 21, 2010

Children of an absent God

The boarders at the Precious Children International Village are mostly the sons and daughters of criminals. They have a difficult time to adjust because of a broken family life and the stigma attached to their father’s name

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Children at the Precious Children International Village, near Kottayam. Dr. Kunjumon Chacko is at extreme left

One day Dr. Kunjumon Chacko was talking to a group of boys and girls at the Precious Children International Village, at Areeparambu, 14 kilomtres from Kottayam. Suddenly, a seven-year-old girl, Maya, got up and started combing Chacko’s hair.

Chacko said, “Maya, do you want me to look more handsome?”

Maya replied, “I never had the opportunity to comb the hair of my father.”

On another occasion, Radha, 10, showed her answer sheet in mathematics. She had got full marks. Chacko gave her a hug and said, “Well done, keep it up.”

Radha began crying. When Chacko asked why, she said, “My father has never given me an embrace.”

A teary-eyed Chacko said, “A hug is nothing when you receive it all the time. But when nobody gives you one, then it becomes a big event.”

He says that in India the family plays a very important part in the life of every individual. “So when somebody is excluded, especially a child, they feel it very keenly,” he says. “They are always yearning for a family atmosphere.”

At the international village, there are 54 boys and 64 girls. “We admit more girls, because they are vulnerable to exploitation,” says Chacko. The youngsters range in age from six to sixteen years. Many of them are the children of long-term prisoners: a mix of murderers, burglars, drug traffickers, and other convicts.

There are also a dozen children who have lost their parents in the anti-Christian riots which rocked Kandhamal in Orissa, in 2008, while a few have come from the north-east, the victims of tribal clashes, in which their fathers were killed.

For most of the children, especially, those who know that their father is in prison, it is a traumatic feeling.

“Some get very angry with their father,” says Chacko. “A few are against the police. They say, ‘Why did the police arrest my dad? He is innocent.’ Usually mothers and relatives, in order to pacify the child, will insist that the father is innocent.”

Some children want to take revenge against the people who created this situation. “Others are angry at the community that has labelled their father a criminal,” says Chacko.

And there are many children who become sad. They realize that their future is bleak. They suffer from an intense loneliness. “I see many children sitting alone and crying to themselves,” says Chacko. Some are convinced they have reached the end of the road. A small number get obsessed with their fathers.

In ordinary circumstances, there is a strong possibility of the son following in the father’s footsteps. “If he is in an environment, where everybody constantly tells him he is the son of a criminal, he will turn to crime,” says Chacko. “But if people approach him with love and acceptance, it is easy to correct the boy.”

The staffers at the hostel have been using love, acceptance and counselling to tackle the troubled children, ever since the institution was set up in 1987.

The idea of starting a home occurred to Chacko when, as a counsellor, he met prisoners in various prisons all over Kerala.

“When I asked them about their children, they would start crying,” says Chacko. “The prisoners worried constantly about how their children would be able to eat and go to school. They felt helpless. These men can be cold-blooded killers, but all of them have a caring father alive in their hearts.”

One day, a prisoner told Chacko, “We get food in prison, and are looked after, but what about our children? Who will look after them? Can you help?”

Chacko pondered over this and finally took the plunge. “Initially, we had seven children,” he says. One woman, Beena, whose husband was serving a life sentence for murder, brought her son along, because there was nobody to look after them. “I asked Beena whether she could cook for the children and she agreed,” says Chacko. “So, she was the first employee.”

Beena is an exception. Faced with starvation, most of the wives of criminals enter the flesh trade. “They have no other option,” says Chacko. Men are always around to exploit them. The woman will rarely get the chance to work as a maid servant because of the stigma attached to her husband.

“I know of several women who sell their bodies for food,” says Chacko. Suffering from a bad reputation, a few women have brought their children to the international village in the hopes of providing a better life for the youngsters.

On a hot Wednesday afternoon, the children have just returned from school. Several are playing on the swings and the slides. A few older ones are stacking firewood inside an open shed. Two boys are washing their clothes. Some are hanging around in the dormitory. Children being children, they smile easily at the visitor.

“Try not to ask them about their parents,” says Chacko. “Then they will realize I told you about their life stories. Instead, ask them about their dreams.”

So, when eight-year-old Rohit is asked what he wanted to be, when he grew up, he says, without hesitation, “A policeman. I want to catch all the robbers.”

David, 12, wants to be a teacher. And his logic is simple. “My teacher beats me a lot,” he says. “So when I grow up and become a teacher and when my teacher’s children become my students, I will also hit them.”

Neha, on the other hand, has noble aspirations. “I want to be like Mother Teresa,” she says, and explains why. “I want to help people. Uncle (Chacko) has helped me, and that is why I am able to go to school. Many people are helping us. So I want to do the same.”

The village is set in 3.5 acres surrounded by trees and plants. There are five dormitories, a large canteen, several bathrooms, and open areas. It is spacious and strikingly clean. “Children should be treated royally,” says Chacko. “That is my attitude.” Indeed, the village looks more like a tourist resort rather than the home of the children of criminals.

And because of the children’s traumatic family backgrounds Chacko tells positive stories, to keep their spirits up. One is the oft-familiar story of the endless failures of Abraham Lincoln before he became the president of the United States .

Thanks to this positive atmosphere, there are heart-warming stories in the institution.

When Riya was in Class one she awoke one morning and found that her mother, Sandhya was not at home. She started crying. When Riya’s grandfather realized that Sandhya had eloped with a man, he brought Riya to the village. Riya’s father, Mukesh, was serving a long jail sentence for robbery.

Three years later, Sandhya came to see Riya, but the daughter did not want to meet her. “I told Riya, ‘She is your mother,’” says Chacko. “There is no replacement for a mother.”

Eventually, they met, and slowly mended their relationship. A couple of years later, Chacko received the news that Mukesh had been killed in a fight with another man. When Riya was informed, she cried bitterly for days. She hardly knew her father and now she would never know. “All the children felt sad for Riya,” says Chacko.

Then after another two years, Sandhya also died, aged 50. Now Riya was all alone in the world, but Chacko and his wife assured her that they were now her parents.

Emboldened, Riya carried on studying. When she finished her class 12, Chacko arranged a marriage for her with a local carpenter. Today, they have a three-year-old son, and five orphans.

“Riya said that she wanted to help others because she had received so much help herself,” he says. “Hence, she has adopted the children. She is very happy. And I also feel glad for her.”

This story is a ray of sunlight in this environment of tragedy. Of course, the obvious questions that come to mind when one sees the children are these: why do terrible things happen to innocent children? What wrong have they done? Why should they suffer like this?

Chacko shrugs his shoulders and says, “Who knows the ways of God? There are many questions for which we have no answers.”

(Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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