The home with love
20.08.2008 - 19.10.2009
I have just arrived back, last night, from a 2 week break in Nepal, to find that two of the children at the orphanage have died since I went away. I am profoundly shocked and deeply saddened at this tragic turn of events, and find it hard to believe that these two, apparently healthy boys, could have left this world in the short time I have been absent. One of the boys, Kissan, died last week of malaria, his body too weak with fever to fight against the disease. I had not formed any significant bond with Kissan but, nonetheless, I am greatly saddened by his passing. The other boy, Subash, was my friend and a lovely boy with a sweet nature and great sense of humour. I used to take him to the swimming pool three times a week for hydrotherapy and he loved the water, happily splashing around and screaming with pleasure. He couldn’t speak but was intelligent, understood what people were saying to him and communicated with hand signals and noises. Despite suffering from cerebral palsy, he was strong and healthy and this makes his death all the more hard to comprehend. I am told he started choking in the classroom and, unable to breathe, was rushed to the first aid room to receive oxygen, however, this failed to revive him and he died of respiratory failure. A postmortem was carried out, and he was found to have been suffering from internal bleeding of the kidney, which resulted in his choking and ultimate death. The whole affair is mysterious and seems to point to maltreatment, so much so that the police have opened a murder case for investigation. Whatever transpires, I already miss him badly and Snehalaya will not seem the same to me without him here. A friend told me that he was no longer sad at Subash’s passing, as he would be reincarnated into a better life, and had no future in the life he has just left. I am not a Hindu, and don’t believe we are born again, however, I do agree that that he had no real future in this life, and only hope that the soul of this fine young man can now rest in peace wherever it may be. I have attached 2 photo's below in tribute to a handsome and charming Indian boy. The following account was written before recent events transpired and I have decided, despite the tragic deaths, not to change any of the content.
The idea and motivation behind the charity, Gwalior Children’s Hospital, comes from retired paediatrician Dr BK Sharma, who, as a former resident of the city of Gwalior, understood its poverty and the need for a hospital to treat the most deprived children. The charity was founded in 1994 and the hospital opened its doors in 1997 and, for the next ten years, was to treat over 350,000 children from Gwalior and the surrounding areas. Equipment was donated, mostly from the UK, and the hospital was to expand to include an intensive care facility, special baby care unit, women's wing and a mobile hospital that conducted regular visits to villages and slums to distribute medicines and promote rural health education. In 2004, this same mobile hospital travelled to the Southern coast of India to assist in the relief effort for the victim’s of the devastating Asian Tsunami. The hospital was funded by donations, many from the UK, staffed in the main by retired doctors and nurses, and assisted by hundred's of volunteers from around the world. Sadly, Dr Sharma’s dream came to an end in 2007 when the hospital was forced to close, apparently due to a lack of funding and poor management practice. Having spoken to Dr Sharma he related a key event that proved to be the final nail in the coffin for the hospital; a young, very sick, girl was left at the gates by her parents who clearly felt unable to care for her, and she was subsequently admitted for tests to ascertain her condition. After initial examinations were inconclusive, a blood test was carried out, and the results indicated that the girl, Radha, was HIV positive and in need of appropriate medication. Dr Sharma ensured that Radha received anti-retroviral medication, and also arranged for her to live at the hospital as she had nowhere to go and no-one would take her due to her status. As a result of this brave step, staff at the hospital, ignorant of the causes and spread of HIV, left their posts and refused to return until she had gone, leaving Dr Sharma with little choice but to close the hospital until further notice.
The closure of Gwalior Children’s Hospital saw the charity direct its funds and energies into the recently completed orphanage called Snehalaya, which in Hindi translates as ‘home with love.’ The idea for the building of an orphanage in Gwalior came about when volunteers at the hospital, after visiting children living in the state run orphanage, Mercy Home, returned with terrible tales of what they discovered. Conditions were dreadful; children were left alone lying in their own excrement, and were malnourished and uncared for. There was little stimulation and some children were chained to their beds, unable to circulate blood to their arms and legs. Staff was seldom to be seen and clearly had little interest in caring for and protecting the children under their care. The Mercy Home has a number of older boy and men residents and, being unsupervised and sharing rooms, reports of sexual abuse and even rape of minors was not unknown. Moreover, the entrance to the home is on a busy street and anyone could walk in and commit indecent acts and never be apprehended. Over the few years that volunteers were visiting, 15 children were to die from preventable illnesses, malnutrition and neglect. In the volunteers file for Mercy Home there is one testament from an English volunteer who visited the government orphanage, that ends with the chilling lines ‘keep those children alive.’ The charity decided to act and to build its own home for these children, where they could live safely, with the dignity and love they deserved. In 2006, with the building work completed, the children moved in and started their new lives in a safe and loving environment, away from the dangers and abuse they had suffered at the Mercy Home.
Snehalaya is currently home to 63, mostly mentally challenged, children who are afflicted with a range of disabilities such as cerebral palsy (CP), autism, epilepsy, as well as speech and behavioural problems. They come from a broad spectrum of backgrounds; some are true orphans for their parents have died, some have been given up by their parents who are unable to care for them, and some whose parents have simply chosen to abandon then. Their new home is situated 10 km from Gwalior, amongst rural villages and farms, and has ample space for the children to run around and play, away from the dangers of the city. The building itself is covered in murals and pictures of animals, flowers and alphabets in Hindi and English. The children live in 9 different cottages with their carers, who are often a husband and wife team with their own children. There are a number of these non-handicapped children living on site, mixing and playing with the orphans like their own brothers and sisters. The cottages are arranged by sex and age, ranging from five years to nineteen years old, and all the children help out with washing, dressing, cooking and other daily chores. Within the main building is a school that is open six days a week apart from Sundays (Indians work a 6 day week), large kitchen, physiotherapy room, multi-sensory room and vocational training centre. On the first floor is accommodation for up to 14 volunteers at a time, including a kitchen and relaxation area with well-stocked bookshelf and a television. The grounds of Snehalaya are large, with ample open space and many trees, bushes and shrubs that create a lovely natural environment. There is also a farm with a dozen cows that provide buckets of delicious fresh and creamy milk, as well as a bustling chicken hutch producing dozens of eggs. The chickens have the best possible life as they are free to range over the whole grounds and are big, strong and healthy, often with large broods of chicks following on behind.
My typical day at snehalaya begins at 7am, when I take my daily exercise class, with the children, on the front lawn. We begin with simple stretching, followed by jumping, clapping, jogging on the spot, hopping, skipping; basically anything that gets their blood pumping and increases the heart rate. When I first started these sessions, the kids would look at me incredulously, thinking ‘who is this crazy guy jumping around like a fool.’ For my part, I felt somewhat ridiculous, trying to encourage the kids to follow the moves when they would much rather stare the other way, pick their nose or wander off. Nevertheless, with some perseverance and help from a friend called Raju, we managed to engage the children and started having some fun together. The breaking point was, undoubtedly, when I introduced some yoga positions into the sequence, particularly Salabhasna, which translates as the lion pose, and involves getting down on hands and knees, throwing ones head back, and roaring like a lion. The kids loved this, all manner of strange and loud noises coming from their mouths, and lots of laughter and screaming. The next morning I followed this up with bouncing and croaking like a frog, barking like a dog and meowing like a cat (unsurprisingly not genuine yoga moves) and, from this moment on, the future of my exercise class was sealed. Attendance seemed to miraculously increase and the kids would not wander of with such frequency, on the contrary, they would be desperate for assistance with their moves. Perhaps word had got round that the white guy, who speaks poor hindi, spends each morning roaring like a lion and jumping like a frog and is a sight really not to be missed. This enthusiasm gave me renewed confidence with my class, and saw the introduction of further basic yoga moves easily practiced by children. The natural progression of yoga is to a short meditation session at the end and this proved a further success. After arranging them all into the classical lotus pose (this proved an easy task as children are incredibly flexible) they would find great amusement at my inability to sit properly like them. Once settled, the universal sound of OM rings out from the group, who have settled, meditatively, with eyes closed and spine straight. The OM comes out more like an ummmm and errrmmmm from the kids, but they genuinely seemed to love meditating, almost, as if the necessity of practicing this ancient Indian technique has been imprinted on them at birth.
From 9am to quarter past, we all come together, in the main building, for assembly. We sing three songs back to back, two religious Hindi hymns followed by the national anthem. The hymns are very melodious and uplifting and I hum or whistle the words under my breath. The national anthem is sung, every morning, in every school in India, and signifies the pride in which the people hold their country. Following assembly, I usually take a drawing class with up to a dozen children, which is very popular and usually total chaos. Like all children, they love to draw but even more they love breaking and chewing pencils, eating crayons and throwing around anything they can lay their hands on, often snatching objects from each other and, sometimes, biting and kicking. Occasionally, we manage to get some work done, perhaps a rundown of the alphabet or numbers from one to ten. These sessions only last around one hour, as I am usually exhausted and in need of a cup of tea and a sit down upstairs. Drawing class is a little hectic, but the kids seem to enjoy it and prefer it to sitting around doing nothing, which is what they seem to do in the classrooms.
Twice a day, at lunchtime and in the evening, I help to feed the cerebral palsy (CP) kids from cottage number 2. There are now 7 boys in the cottage, having recently tragically lost subash to an unexpected illness. They are a great bunch and a joy to work with as they smile and laugh, as if not having a care in the world, and always cheer me up immeasurably. CP is a brain disorder, most commonly associated with premature births, where the babies’ brain has not has sufficient time to develop inside the womb. The result is that the babies are born disabled, both physically and mentally, unable to form speech and with a host of other afflictions. In cottage number 2, all the children have some form of CP, such as severe distortions of the spine, inability to move their muscles, twisted arms and legs etc. One boy called Bittu is also autistic and Nandu and Chotu suffer from blindness and deafness respectively. They are cared for by BK and Nithu, who bathe them, feed them, change their nappies and play with them. One of the smallest boys, Chotu, has recently been hit by fever and his weight has plummeted, so I spend a significant amount of time trying to fatten him up and regain his strength, however, I sometimes think to what avail, what is his future should he recover? The reality is that these kids, so vulnerable and incapable, have been abandoned by their parents who do not wish to love them and care for them. They are unwanted and, only due to a place like Snehalaya, can they live with the dignity and respect that all human beings deserve. I find spending time with these children one of the most rewarding aspects of my work as, when they smile, it illuminates the atmosphere and invokes, in me, feelings of pleasure. They may have CP, but they refuse to let it get them down and enjoy life as fully as it is possible for them to do so, a lesson that I feel we could all benefit from.
Once a week I go with the mobile hospital out into villages to conduct rural clinics and promote health education. Up to 70% of the population of India lives in rural villages, often inaccessible, on or under the poverty line. Put into context that is not far from a billion men, women and children. Whereas in the UK the government ensures that everyone has enough money to clothe, feed and heat themselves, in India the state takes no responsibility. People living in the most deplorable of circumstances must fend for themselves and somehow scratch a living to keep themselves alive. Farming is often the principal means of making money, however, if the harvest fails this can spell disaster for entire communities. With no income, families are forced to migrate to the cities in search of work, often finding themselves living on the streets and begging for food. It is fairly common in India for farmers to commit suicide after a failed harvest as, with no food or money available, debts unpaid to merciless moneylenders, and no help from the government, they face a hopeless predicament where there appears only one way of escape. In one of the villages that we visit they own no fields, so the locals earn money by gathering bunches of sticks from the forest and selling them at the local market. The government does provide for the building of schools and health clinics, however, sadly many of these are not built as the funds never make it further than the official’s corrupt pockets. What I have learnt from these rural clinics is that life in the villages is very hard, especially for the women. They are the real driving force that keeps these societies going as they do domestic chores, bring up the children and earn money to keep rice in the families’ bowls. When I go walking in the fields and meadows around Snehalaya, I often encounter women bent over, working in the fields, with their babies strapped to their backs and husbands nowhere to be seen. The men generally do not work and spend their days idly sleeping, playing cards and drinking alcohol. It is not uncommon for a wife to work all day to earn a few rupees and for the husband to spend it all at the local drinking den in the evening. If he is refused he will often beat her until he gets what he wants. This is the sad reality for many Indian women.