I am coming towards the end of my stay at Snehalaya and will miss these children immensely when I leave. It has taken me over four months, but I finally know all of their names, and have formed a bond, however small, with each of them. They have been through so many hardships, faced so many challenges and had to endure so many upheavals, that it is a wonder that they have turned out as well as they have. Their lives before at the Mercy Home were very bleak and they faced a future full of misery and fear; now that they are at Snehalaya they are, at the very least, safe, warm and well fed, and well looked after by carers and volunteers. I have made many new friends here and enjoyed their company immeasurably and I will be sad to have to leave them when the time comes. I have written some character profiles of the children below, with photos, which are based on my experiences and from talking to other volunteers and Snehalaya founder, BK Sharma.
Cottage 1 – Mamta, Meenu, Lali, Anu Radha
Mamta is one of only a handful of non-mentally handicapped orphans at Snehalaya. She was brought here by a family friend who was concerned about the abuse she was receiving at the hands of her uncle. Mamta was born with clubbed feet and weak bones in her legs, a condition that, although serious, is not untreatable and should not hinder a normal childhood. The problem was that her parents, either through neglect, lack of money or understanding (probably all three), failed to have her operated on soon after her birth, thereby missing the best opportunity to correct her deformities. Subsequently, both her parents died, the records do not say how, and Mamta went to live with her uncle who beat her. She was made to walk or hobble barefoot, which made her condition yet worse, and life must have been very miserable for this poor little girl. Mercifully, a family friend contacted Snehalaya to ask if they would take her, which they did, and she came to live a new life amongst her fellow orphans. She now has a special stick to help her walk, and specially designed shoes to help her feet and improve her balance and coordination. Dr BK Sharma is looking, when opportunity occurs, to send her for surgery that will hopefully solve her problems and enable her to walk properly for the first time. In the meantime, she has been enrolled for school, as she is a bright and eager student, and she will begin classes after the New Year. Mamta’s story is heartbreaking, as she has suffered so much in the short time she has been alive, however, what is striking is that she is incredibly resilient, and seems not to let her past get in the way of her infinitely brighter future. She has been rescued from a hellish experience of abuse, and there is no reason why she should not now flourish, and go on to lead a happy and normal life.
Meenu is a girl I have grown increasingly fond of during my time at Snehalaya. She is 14 years old, suffers from epilepsy and learning difficulties, and has a rare skin disease that has left her face covered in scars. She has suffered abuse in the past and found in very hard to settle at Snehalaya at first. However, thankfully she has now recovered and seems a lot better, although is moody like any normal teenager, and refuses to stand in line in assembly. She is happiest when I give her a hindi book or ‘kitab’ to look at and, when in a good mood, can be helpful and charming.
If there is one resident of Snehalaya you don’t want to get on the wrong side of, it is Anu Radha. Anu suffers from speech and learning difficulties, and is an imposing young girl, who likes being bossy and pushing people around. On the other hand, she is very helpful in her cottage, and likes to keep the other girls in good order, god help them should they disobey! She is always first to my PT class in the morning, and makes me laugh with her attempts to meditate and do yoga. She was found, aged one and a half, abandoned at the local district hospital, and ended up at Snehalaya via Mother Teresa’s home for orphaned girls. She likes to have a boy on her arm, and is currently stepping out with Pappan, and they love playing cricket together at playtime.
Lali is a little darling, who is always happy, and communicates this with high pitched squeaks that I fear will someday make the windows crack. She claps her hands furiously when excited, and has two big front teeth that make her look like a bunny rabbit. She copes well with her epilepsy and I love taking her for walks around the grounds of Snehalaya. She does have some very bad habits though: she obsessively tries to bite anything within reach, including me, and also likes eating grit and small stones; we are working on this and trying to turn her towards a healthier vegetarian diet.
Cottage 2 – Nandu, Vishal, Bittu and Sandeep
Now poor old Nandu has just about got the lot. He suffers from CP, epilepsy and quadriplegia, as well as being blind. He was found abandoned at an indoor railway station in Gwalior, and brought to Snehalaya via Mercy Home. At mealtimes, Nandu and I have worked out a method that leaves no room for any doubt as to what he wants: If I say ‘kahna,’ or food in hindi, he responds positively with ‘howw,’ much like a red Indian, and if I say ‘pani,’ or water, and he is not thirsty, then he tries to punch me. It’s a very simple and effective means of communication and, as long as I am aware, there is no need for me to get a punch in the face. There have been a few instances of water going flying, where Nandu has missed his main target and knocked the cup right out of my hand. He usually follows up this show of bravado with a big smile, laughter and sticks his tongue out, and I forgive him immediately. I am very fond of Nandu and admire his courage in the face of the difficulties he faces daily, and the constant pain from which he suffers. I have been told that, due to his condition, he will not live many more years, and I hope that those he does are as happy as they can possibly be.
Vishal, as many of the previous volunteers can testify, is an incredibly lovely and charming boy. Despite his CP and learning difficulties, he copes remarkably well, and is very intelligent and independent. He has a great determination to succeed in everything he does, whether walking to assembly in the morning, or folding his clothes in the evening. He understands hindi well and can repeat a number of words, especially when he is shouting at his room mates to keep quiet! He is a very happy boy, with an adorable smile, and only really gets angry when he finds Bittu trying to steal his food. Unfortunately for Vishal, his best friend Subash recently died, and it was clear that he found his absence strange and upsetting, however, thankfully he is now back to his brilliant best. I’m sure that everyone who has known him will agree that Snehalaya would not be the same without this fabulous little boy and his beaming smile.
If there is ever any food lying around then you can bet your bottom dollar that Bittu has his eye on it. This boy’s appetite could rival that of an elephant, and it is no surprise he spends half his time on the toilet. Bittu suffers from CP and autism and is most often found, when not on the loo, pushing his leg support around the grounds, having recently discovered the ability to walk. This improvement is due to his physiotherapy, and proves the value of working with these children to enhance their quality of life. Bittu loves to move his head from side to side to music, and can get quite animated and very energetic when really going for it. He is a great character and much loved by both carers and volunteers; just remember to watch your dinner!
Sandeep is one of my best buddies here at the orphanage, and I go to see him whenever I am feeling down. He has an amazing ability to make you feel better, and he does so simply with his smile and by laughing. He cannot say a single word, but when you mention his name, he grins and gurgles with pleasure. Sometimes I will be in his room and he will be in uncontrollable stitches of laughter, for no apparent reason, and this sets me off, and soon all of the CP kids are giggling like hyenas. Poor Sandeep is the most deformed of the CP orphans; His spine is totally out of line and twisted and his tiny, brittle legs come out at almost a right angle. He can do nothing for himself, and is totally dependent on others for all his needs, not that he asks for much! He sleeps next to his friend Karen, and they often link their arms together before they go to sleep. I hate to see him upset and the usual reason he is crying is because he has no other way of getting anyone’s attention. Sandeep is a total legend and a brilliant friend and I will never forget him.
Milly is new to the orphanage and is quite simply adorable. She has the sweetest face and most captivating hazelnut eyes, and I can’t help but want to pick her up and cuddle her whenever I see her. What I find incredible is that anyone could wish to be parted from such a lovely girl, who is placid and seems to have a very sweet nature. Only a few weeks ago, Milly was found wandering at the gates of Snehalaya, after a car had been seen to pull up and eject a young girl. She had been abandoned, like so many others like her, by parents who simply didn’t want her; probably for the simple reason that she is a girl. She cannot speak, but I do not think she is mentally challenged (I am no expert!), only that she has suffered some trauma that has rendered her afraid and unwilling to communicate. When I first tried to engage her she would shy away from me, as if I was going to strike her, a reaction that surely points to her having been beaten in the past. Now she is very slowly starting to come out of her shell, but I can only imagine how confused she must be to have been cast into a new life, surrounded by dozens of orphan children, away from everything, however bad, she has ever known. I know it’s wrong to have favourites, but this little girl, her hazelnut eyes, and her tragic tale of rejection, have left a deep impression on me, and, were I ever to bring one of these children back to England, it would surely have to be her.
Cottage 5 – Carer Raju and orphans Ayush, Munnu, Chota Raju, Chotu, Mohit, Amman & Pappan
The relationship between Raju and Ayush is one of the really positive success stories of Snehalaya. When I arrived, I soon became aware of a tiny, tearful and despondent little boy, who would sit in the corner and softly cry all day. I have never seen a child more depressed and with less desire for living than Ayush. As hard as I tried to engage this sweet looking boy, I could never raise a smile; just one smile would have been enough to make my day. From checking his records, I discovered that Ayush was abandoned at the gates of Snehalaya aged six and, nothing being known about him, was named by the staff present at the time. He was diagnosed as having learning difficulties, and was immediately beset with problems, the major being that, at mealtimes, he would stuff food down his throat and then vomit it up and rub it all over himself. The notes tell me that a number of doctors sought to alleviate this behavior, but all were unsuccessful, and Ayush continued to be a source of real concern. The breakthrough came when he was moved from cottage 2 to cottage 5 to be looked after by a carer called Raju. Raju has essentially become Ayush’s adopted father and the transformation has been magical. Gone is the tearful and isolated baby and, in his place, has emerged a happy, cheeky and adorable little boy. He now smiles all the time and can often be found walking around the playground happily chuckling to himself. What Raju has achieved, he has by treating Ayush as his own son, and giving him the love that any child requires from a parent. He has become the role model that Ayush so badly needed in order to recover from the dreadful psychological damage of his previous life. I feel I must make further mention of Raju as he is, in every sense, the Indian version of DR Doolittle. He looks after all the birds, pigeons, parrots and ducks, as well as the chickens on the farm. Whenever there is a snake discovered Raju is called to deal with the problem and, hence, I him have named him ‘snake man.’ I recently had the dubious pleasure of witnessing him beat to death a 6 foot cobra that had found its way into the hospital; it was very exciting, although I did feel sorry for the snake that was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Munnu is 14 and suffers from autism. He is very typically autistic, and is most happy when he has a stick or a piece of plastic to flick around. He loves playtime, when he can be found rocking energetically backwards and forwards, clapping his hands and singing his songs. He is absolutely no trouble, and appears to be quite contented in his existence. As long as he can play his games, Munnu, it seems, will always be happy.
If I am ever in need of a quiet, reflective moment, then I usually search out Chota Raju. He can normally be found in the garden, hugging his legs and staring at the horizon meditatively. He cannot speak but can be expressive, particularly when his mouth is agape, and he is pointing something out in the distance that is interesting him. I used to take him swimming and the poor boy was petrified, and clung to me, shaking, with both hands like a vice. He is a totally innocent and good natured and I know he is always there, sitting in the garden, should I need some time out from the likes of Teekam and Mohit.
Mohit is 13, has learning and speech difficulties, as well as being partially physically handicapped. He is very demanding of volunteers and simply loves attention all the time. This can be annoying but he is a sweet boy whose parents, still alive, have left him at Snehalaya and never come to visit. They left him here originally for a period of ‘respite care,’ due to his demanding nature, but have never come back to get him. Poor kid just wants to be noticed and loved, and probably doesn’t understand why he has been left behind.
Chotu, who suffers from speech and learning difficulties, is a very adorable and lovable little boy. He loves playing in the playground and often gets very dirty and needs a good wash. His favourite game is carrying stones on his head and bringing them over to me. He plays this game for hours and, by the time dinner is ready, I have a large pile of stones, all gratefully received.
Aman and Pappan are best friends and, during the summer, I used to take them to the swimming pool for hydrotherapy. Pappan loved the water, but Aman was very shy at first, and there were lots of tears, but eventually he relaxed and we had a lot of fun. Aman, who is 10, is happy and helpful boy with a lovely smile and a handsome face. Having come from the dreadful Mercy Home, he has learnt to be very independent and resilient, and maintains his happy demeanor under the most trying of circumstances. He has some learning and speech difficulties and, instead of speaking, communicates with squeaks. Amman is also DR Doolittle junior, as I often find him chasing the chickens around their hutch, copying the technique of his carer, ‘Snake man’ Raju. This is, however, not appreciated by his hero, and Amman usually receives a clip round the ear for his efforts. Pappan can be a naughty boy at times, but has recently become much calmer and nicer to be around. He has a girlfriend called Anu Radha, and they can often be found playing cricket together with a stick and a plastic ball. Pappan is always batting and Anu Radha dutifully throws him the ball; this is not to say that Pappan wears the trousers in their relationship, as Anu Radha is very resilient and is often seen putting her foot down and pushing him around! They spend a lot of time together and love to have long conversations, both seemingly speaking in entirely different languages of gibberish, although perhaps it all makes perfect sense to them. I must also mention that Pappans favourite word in Hindi is ‘arm’ which translates as mango, and he says it at least ten times a day.
Rupa and Chota Meenu
Snehalaya also opens its doors to homeless women, and currently has one resident called Rupa, living here with her daughter Chota Meenu. Rupa is 36, and came from the mercy home with Chota Meenu three years ago. From speaking to previous volunteers, I have been told that she was ferociously violent towards anyone who came near daughter at the mercy home; a mother prepared to go to any lengths to protect her from a potentially dangerous environment. She would often clash with Shiv Kumar, although not as a threat to her daughter, so much so that one day she threw a brick in his face and broke his nose. I couldn’t help but chuckle when I heard that story! My experience of Rupa is that she is a now a calm woman, who dutifully keeps a keen eye on her daughter, and seems relaxed and contented at Snehalaya. She likes to engage me in long, unintelligible one-way conversations, when she seems fully satisfied with my nodding acceptance at everything she says. Her daughter, Chote Meenu, suffers from no disabilities and attends regular school with the children of the carers. She is very sweet and loves to dance to hindi songs with her best friend Radha.
Cottage 6 – Shiv Kumar, Teekam and Bara Raju
If I could only write about one of the orphans of Snehalaya, it would probably have to be Shiv Kumar. Shiv Kumar, in my opinion, has redefined the word ‘character.’ He can be, depending on his mood, incredibly naughty, bizarrely eccentric or touchingly considerate, often all three at the same time. He is the only child at Snehalaya to whom the rules don’t seem to apply. He can usually be found wandering around the orphanage with a bag of clothes in one hand, comb in his shirt pocket, whistle in his mouth and makeup on his face. He adores dressing up in new outfits, particularly matching jacket and trousers and, I have been informed, has a fondness for wearing women’s clothes. He loves to sing and dance to Bollywood songs, often with his shirt off and pants round his ankles…he is a true performer, the hindi Robbie Williams. What I have come to realize with Shiv Kumar is that, for all the histrionics and controversy that he is often at the centre of, there is a sincere and likeable young man, who treats his fellow orphans with care and affection. He sometimes helps me to carry the CP children and expects nothing in return; although I may just give him a beautiful sari to wear when the time comes for me to leave.
There is no one here, or anywhere else in the world, quite like Teekam. He is 18, suffers from mental retardation and learning and speech difficulties. With Teekam everything is about extremes; he can be the most incredibly sweet and helpful person, but also intensely frustrating and sometimes very annoying. He just loves being involved in everything, and never gives up trying to get his point of view across, despite profound communication issues. One of his favourite games is making me count to ten, and then again, again, again, again and again, until my head explodes and I have to walk away. He then hounds me down and asks me what his name is, and I say ‘Teekam,’ and then I ask him my name, and he says either ‘pur’ or ‘ubba.’ We play this game a few times, and it is a pretty good laugh, until the twentieth time when, concerned for my own sanity, I head off again. At half past four, every day, Teekam demands that I get him chai (tea) from the kitchen, even though I tell him each time that chai is served at three, and he is not allowed any anyway. He gets incredibly annoyed with me but there’s nothing I can do; I have tried but failed to get the kitchen staff to give him chai, but they won’t as he drinks it too hot and burns his tongue. For all his obsessive tendencies, I am very fond of Teekam who is a nice young man, with a great spirit, who just wants to help and have some chai, and you can’t blame him for that!
Bara Raju is 14 years old and suffers from learning and speech difficulties, chronic anemia, and autism. He is not a well boy, and I am not the first volunteer to say that I worry about him and what the future holds. He communicates through expressive noises, particularly ‘eh, eh, eh’ and, at first, I have to admit that I found him hilarious, not in a cruel way, but he just cracked me up. He would often get himself into trouble by grabbing people and obsessively trying to take them to the toilet. He also eats anything he can lay his hands on: plastic, stones, flowers and crayons to name but a few. I have spent more time with him recently and feel very sorry for him, as I think he is teased a lot by some staff and other children, and I often find him tearful and confused. He is totally harmless and, I have been told, possesses a beautiful voice, although I have not yet been able to get him to sing. With Bara Raju, it is hard to know what to do to help him, as he cannot stay in one place more than five seconds, and will not join in with group activities.