By Uma Sudhir
I was a little surprised when Muthupandian stopped outside the creche and gesticulated to me, saying you go inside and see, I will join you a little later. He was escorting us around Ananda Illam, a home for children affected and infected by HIV on the outskirts of Chennai. I would have thought on any such `guided’ tour, NGO representatives would like to be with you at every step, guiding what you see and what you don’t.
Inside was a cheerfully painted hall lined with cradles, some of them with two and more babies in it. It was morning, the babies had just been given a bath and in various states of dressing and eating baby food. I could smell the fresh baby powder, a couple of them were hungrily lapping up the food, the gurgling noises they were making, the cackle of a baby laughter when amused by a toy or something else, it was impossible to be unmoved and be just a journalist.
To satisfy the ache in my own heart, I spent some time here with the babies, knowing a little about each of them and the names they have been given, not lovingly by parents, but by the home, more as a tag to distinguish them from one another, but nevertheless their first claim to an identity of their own after being virtually abandoned by whoever was their family.
All these were children born to HIV positive mothers and had most probably been abandoned by the family on mere suspicion that they could be HIV positive. The children must have tested HIV positive at birth, because they carry anti-bodies from their mother. It is only when they turn 18 months old, is it possible to conclusively know if they are indeed HIV positive or it was a case of false positive.
Most children, 80 per cent it turns out, test negative and yet they have no family. They have become orphans.
When I was looking into the baby faces, beautiful in their innocence, well- taken care of here and yet not getting the cuddle of a mother’s warmth, I couldn’t help feeling guilty for what we have denied them.
Most people like us manage to escape such guilt pricks on our conscience because we don’t have the opportunity to look into such innocent faces, that make you feel worse because they don’t question the injustice or point fingers, they simply give you that look that makes your heart go full.
Muthupandian confessed later that that was also the reason he didn’t come in with me.
“Those little sweet faces are difficult to face,’’ he told me.
Dr Manorama who is director of the Institute tells me she did not want the children to grow up as orphans.
“The children who test negative, the issue was whether to discuss that the child had history of being positive for some time to adoptive parents. We said yes, let us give factual info. Why hide it? Let us allow parents to go for second test. That opened up, and from 2000 to 2010, we have sent around 32 children for adoption. Otherwise, they would have all grown up as orphans.’’
I asked which of the two of you is the mischief-maker. Two hands promptly went up pointing to each other. Mary and Sylvia. “She aunty,’’ came the chorus. The battle between the two was quite evenly balanced.
All through the meal though, it seemed to me the mother was the butt of all the jokes, from the kind of food she cooks at home to her being overweight. “Doesn’t your mother get annoyed with this kind of teasing,’’ I asked, quite sure I in her place would not be too amused, specially before a virtual stranger like me. “If they don’t do this, I will wonder what has gone wrong with them,’’ Chitra answered, laughing.
Nothing may seem quite so unusual or special in what I described here. But this is probably something you would rarely find anywhere else, in any other family in India.
The elder of the two girls here is HIV positive. The couple brought her home as a baby from an orphanage 14 years ago knowing fully well that she is HIV positive. Mary has grown up as the firstborn of the family. The second child is a biological daughter.
Muthupandian says he couldn’t forget the face of a baby he saw in a crèche in an orphanage, and he took Chitra to meet her. They both knew they wanted to bring the baby home as their daughter.
“We both knew about HIV and about the child being HIV positive. There was no resistance from my mother too. She is uneducated but she also said, a child is a child. We saw it as an opportunity. It is like you can keep learning theory about swimming or cycling. But you have to do it to learn it. We understood what HIV is and believed it is no big deal, but we had to bring the child home to live the experience. Now Mary is in eighth standard. Not on ART but healthy.’’
I see Mary and her sister playing with some friends from the neighbourhood. It is obvious the ever-smiling bespectacled Mary is a healthy and happy teenager. The care, love and affection she has received have given this child as normal a childhood as any other.
Muthupandian insists fears about HIV and its spread through everyday contact is totally baseless. So he sees no reason to cry from the rooftops and make a public declaration of the child’s HIV status either in her school or elsewhere. Because society may not be quite so ready for it.
“We take no special precaution. Bed, glass, plate, all are same, shared. There is no need for anything like that. It is not necessary. In the last 15 years, we have had what you may call many accidents, but we are all negative. As far as I am concerned, no infection is possible like that. I don’t think there are any chances. Everyone talks about the need for `universal precaution’ but we have no such fear.’’
The almost dismissive tone of Muthupandian’s voice and words was an indication to me that neither Muthupandian nor the family thought too much about bringing a HIV positive baby home or making her their own daughter. It was almost as though they were telling me that she is here, because she belongs here, in our family, with us. In that I saw hope. And proof that love, without prejudice, without judgment, is really worth it.