By Uma Sudhir
“Will you take me home with you?”
That was what Rajitha had asked me, as if almost pleading, a few months ago. I knew it was not as simple as that. And I was still carrying the guilt of not being able to do that when I walked into the government school at Vengalrao Nagar in Hyderabad, looking for Rajitha.
It was shortly after the mid-day meal had been served, and all I saw was a sea of children. So it was not surprising that Rajitha saw me before I spotted her in the crowd of children on the school corridor.
Her face broke into a spontaneous smile of recognition and warmth. She was wearing an oversized school uniform. Her small frame still revealing a small potbelly. Her left elbow still bandaged. But her face looked at peace, happy, as she walked towards me.
Within minutes, I was being swarmed by at least a dozen children, all trying to catch my attention. Some tugging at my shirt, some trying to touch and hold my hand, my arm, almost with a sense of ownership, trying to tell their friends they knew me, asking me if I was there to take them or Rajitha home with me.
I didn’t have to ask names or details to know that the ones vying for my attention, literally rubbing themselves against me, were all from Sishu Vihar, the same government-run home for orphan and abandoned children, that had become Rajitha’s home for the last few weeks.
Unknown children trying to get physically close to you, trying to touch and talk to you, can seem a bit unnerving if you have not been exposed to this kind of a situation before. You can feel uncomfortable, intimidated, even be unconsciously telling yourself that you must wash your hands once you are out of here.
But then you suddenly realise, these children do this almost unconsciously, unknowingly. It is an urge to belong, to be liked, to be accepted that makes them almost paw a stranger who they gauge as being friendly and open to them. For children who have mostly been rejected by their own kin, there is a subconscious awareness perhaps that drives them to try and tap for themselves any little chance of affection that may seem available. Or are children in an orphanage taught to endear themselves to visitors and strangers, so they can find a home and family early? I don’t know. I don’t think these things can be taught to innocent children.
The effort such a child makes to get some attention and affection may by itself be very heartwrenching. But the will and capacity to do that is certainly a vast and drastic, welcome improvement over several other children we have come across, who seem so hardened, cynical by the bitter, unpleasant experiences of their little lives that they simply withdraw into their shell and that to me, is even more frightening and sad.
Rajitha was like that when I first met her in May. She was coiled up, face down on a bed in a government hospital in Mahbubnagar district. A small child of about eight years, hardly weighing what a healthy one-year-old would weigh. Her left elbow, fractured and festering, in severe pain. Respiratory infections and fever had made her dull and withdrawn. Her breath, coming out in difficult gasps, made it difficult for me to figure out the few words she uttered. She anyways didn’t want to talk, at least in the beginning.
Even when the nurses tried to wake her up (despite my protests), she threw only a passing glance at me and my camera crew. Even the usual curiosity and attention that lights and camera attract failed to enthuse her. It was almost as though she had lost interest and hope and there was nothing to look forward to. I realised not just her state of health but also her childhood experiences had made this child apathetic to happenings around her.
Investigations to piece together her past revealed she had been born to a very young mother, who was possibly herself a victim of child sexual abuse. When Rajitha was three or four, she was found on a railway station, next to the dead body of an elderly man.
The NGO that rescued her gave her a name, her first identity possibly, and a temporary home, but in some time that closed down and she was sold or sent to work as domestic labour to a family where she was physically abused for not being able to do the work assigned to her.
Severely malnourished, with broken bones and burn injuries on her body, she was brought to this hospital in a miserable state, possibly because those keeping her were afraid she would die and then they may end up with a police case.
Media attention sometimes has its advantages. That was possibly one reason the child was shifted to Hyderabad, in the custody of state’s child welfare department, to the best government hospitals in town. Many concerned NDTV viewers wrote in, offering help. One young woman, who preferred to remain anonymous, flew in from Bangalore with lots of gifts for Rajitha. She insisted that she would help financially and only wanted to spend time with the child. All this made a difference. Rajitha, I think, began to feel the world is not such a bad place after all. There are people who care.
Hyderabad’s Apollo hospital offered to take care of her. The women and child welfare director Usha Rani says the medical attention they gave, waiving off the 3 lakh rupees bill, for Rajitha’s hospitalisation and care, was a big help. Apollo’s paediatrician Dr Sivaranjani to this date, continues to follow up on Rajitha every week to ensure she continues to get nutritious food and is regular on anti-TB medication.
I need to write about all these people, most of who remain unnamed and unseen, because they to me convey hope in our world, that mostly looks so selfish and self-centred. Among them Mahbubnagar district SP Sudheer Babu, who took a personal interest in the case.
It is thanks to all these people and money well-spent by the women and child welfare department in caring for children in its care, that Rajitha now goes to school. And she proudly recites for us and our camera, poems that probably other children would recite at a younger age.
What next for Rajitha? Hopefully, some family will come forward to adopt her or at least give her a foster home, which means there will be no legal rights. “If that doesn’t happen, we will send her to a good school and take care of her. But a family is best for her future,” says Usha Rani.
Rajitha tells me she is happy in the Home and doesn’t want to go anywhere else. I am hoping she will never have to ask anyone “Will you take me home?”
Children should never have to ask, for love, for food, for protection against violence, for some kindness, for a gentle word, for being accepted, for being given a hug. If we can’t give that to our children, in a secret corner inside those little hearts, they will feel betrayed, denied what they deserve, and it will be very difficult to wipe away that hurt.
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