Monthly Archives: March 2007

My Indian Papa & Family

Now has come the hardest time of the trip – the time to say goodbye.

I have been in Cuttack all week now. It holds a special place in my heart, because this was the reason I first came to India two years ago – the children of the Sishu Sudan orphanage in Choudwar, outside Cuttack, in the state of Orissa in Northeastern India. This is the place where I first feel in love with India, because this is where I fell in love with these children.

In March 2005 I traveled here for the first time with Caroline Boudreaux, founder of The Miracle Foundation, to visit the children’s home that her foundation had been supporting. The home is run by Domadar Sahoo, known to all simply as “Papa.”

Papa, Caroline & children

From the moment I first set foot here, overwhelmed by the 100-plus children who live here, Papa and his wife have welcomed me as their daughter, insisting that they are my Indian Papa and Mama, and that this is my home.

Over the past two years, on additional visits here, I have grown very close to many of the children who live here, and they have a constant place inside my heart. It has been so amazing, as always, to be back here with them and sharing this time, fleeting though it is, with them.

When I first arrived, Daina ran full force at me within seconds and flung herself up and into my arms before I even knew what hit me. I hugged her to me hard and covered her sweet little face with kisses. And then the dozens of others came in waves. Mami, Sumi, Sibani, Asap, Tapas, Santosh, Meena…..that night at prayer, I told them how I think about them every single day, and miss them when we’re apart.

Sukru, Harapriya, Me, Alouk & Bikram

In the course of this week, we have played numerous games of bulldog, the hokey-pokey, duck-duck-goose, and many others. We have had dance parties where the girls and boys do these incredibly complex Bollywood dance moves in between giggling hysterically. We’ve hennaed each other’s hands and sat together in prayer. We’ve sang songs and done artwork together. I have held countless hands, picked up babies and toddlers time after time, and held dozens of wiggly, giggly, or sleepy children on my lap.

Papa took us on a tour of the ashram, showing us where they are building new dorm rooms for the girls, and the improved and updated library. It was nice as well to see some of the staff members who have become my friends, such as Madhu and Bubu.

Tonight is my last night at the ashram with “my kids,” and already I miss them. It’s always so hard to leave. So I will return home, full of my travels and visits for the book, my bags full of interview tapes and pages upon pages of notes, eager to begin telling more of this story I have started – the story of these invisible children of India.

Daina and I hug goodbye

But when I return, there will be a piece of me left behind – with Papa, with Daina and Santosh, with all these precious children. A piece of me will remain in India, this maddening and magical place, and I know I will return to claim it, because it is a part of my soul.


The Missing Face of AIDS

Imagine you are a 12 year old boy. You live on the outskirts of a town called Vijayawada in the state of Andhra Pradesh, India.

Your home is a tiny two-room concrete block, approximately 200 square feet, in a slum known as the Vambay Colony. Imagine that you live in this small home with your grandmother and your 9 year old brother. You live with your grandmother because your parents both died of AIDS – first your father, who brought the infection home, in 2001; then your mother followed in 2004. There was no one left to take care of you and your brother except your elderly grandmother. Almost crippled with severe leg problems, she can barely walk or take care of herself and never expected to be raising two more children at this age, never knowing how she will feed you and constantly worrying about what will happen to the two of you if she dies before you are grown.

Grandmother Durgamma in front
of the home she shares with grandsons

Your mother did not reveal her HIV status until shortly before her death to your grandmother – her mother. Soon after, you learned that although you are HIV-negative, your young brother is HIV-positive. He grows sick. He battles many infections. He cries in the night when he’s ill and calls for his mother.

There is no one else to provide an income for this new family you have formed, so at 12 years old, imagine that you must go to work. Your grandmother pays 200 rupees per month for the house – about five U.S. dollars – and this is a hardship. She has no income and cannot physically work; even if she could, someone has to care for your brother.

So you let your brother go to school, although for what future is painfully unclear, while you leave home for a week at a time to travel for migrant construction or agricultural work. You are paid 30 to 50 rupees a day on a good day – roughly a dollar or less.

You are 12 years old. You know you should be in school. You should have a childhood; but it has been traded in far too soon for adult work and worries, for hardships that no 12 year old should ever have to face. But what can you do? There is no one else. There is no other way. From a normal life with a mother and father, school, a childhood, possibilities – to this previously unimagined reality that is an all-too-common legacy of India’s exploding AIDS epidemic.

This is your new normal. Imagine.


I met this family on March 20, when I traveled to Vambay Colony with Abraham, a social worker with Vasavya Mahila Mandali (VMM). Vambay sprung up two and a half years ago, almost overnight, as thousands of people from the surrounding rural villages migrated to Vijayawada for work, setting up camps along the river. Soon the government built 8,000 of the small concrete boxes like the one Durgamma and her two grandsons live in, right up next to each other in row after endless row.

The homes are dark and poorly ventilated inside, a concrete locker, an arm’s length from the next one. In front of each home runs the open sewer, which you must step over to enter the home. The flies were incredible, swarms of them everywhere, an incessant presence. Bags of grain and bowls of food sat around, with no refrigeration and very little storage space. I thought of the flies and how they must land on both the open sewers and on the food. There seemed no such thing as sanitation, or hygiene, in Vambay. Children squatted by the side of the road to defecate. Other children played with simple things on the front stoops or in the small lanes – a small dirty ball, two or three jacks. I passed one little girl of about 4 or 5, in a yellow dress all by herself, twirling a piece of string around.

Vambay Colony

Keerthi Bollineni of VMM, which focuses on women and children, told me that the national and global response to the HIV/AIDS crisis in India has virtually ignored its impact on children. It is a sentiment which I have heard over and over from every single AIDS organization and activist I talked to. Keerthi explained that the government and international response to AIDS in India has primarily focused on high-risk target groups: the sex trade, the truckers who carry and spread the infection from town to town, drug users. But the epidemic has been spreading so rapidly, and for so long already in India, that the NGOs have known for years that it has long since moved from the high risk groups into the general population. 80% of women who are HIV-positive here are housewives. The ones who are bearing the brunt of what is widely considered the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time are the families and children.

The plight of Durgamma and her 9 and 12 year old grandsons has, distressingly, become an increasingly familiar story in Andhra Pradesh, the epicenter of the Indian AIDS crisis with the country’s highest infection rates. AIDS is an epidemic that wipes out the middle-aged generation, leaving the very old to take care of the very young – as well as the other way around. As AIDS devastates the 16-to-49 year old population, the very ages at which most people are raising families, it leaves hundreds of thousands of children in its wake.

The huge resulting trend of grandparents raising grandchildren has become so prevalent that VMM and other organizations like it have started what they call “Granny’s Clubs.” These are social and educational networks of women (and some men) like Durgamma who are caring for orphaned grandchildren. The granny clubs generally have around 10 members, who meet formally once a month. Each meeting includes education and information on a different topic – at one meeting, it might be about HIV medications and ART (Anti-Retroviral Treatment); at another, the topic might be nutrition and how to cook healthy meals inexpensively. The time is also used to make friendships, share problems, and offer solutions.

Durgamma told me, as Abraham translated, “Sometimes we play games or sing. We are older people who have watched our children die. We share our joys and our sorrows.”

I talk to Durgamma in her home

In spite of their plight, Durgamma’s two grandsons are some of the luckier children, for they have a grandmother to live with. Others without any extended family – or families who refuse to take them in because of the stigma of AIDS – end up in institutional homes or simply on the streets.

They are the missing face of AIDS, these children left behind.

Through the Eyes of Children

In 2004, a very small-budget, independent film called “I Am” caught some worldwide buzz. It was awarded Grand Prize at the international Children’s Film Festival in Athens, came to the attention of the Australian press where it was ran as a major story in The Age newspaper, and was even featured on the Oprah Winfrey show.

But “I Am” was not any ordinary independent movie. Not only was the film made entirely by children – directed by Ashikul Islam and filmed by Sahiful Mondal and starring all children – but these young award-winning filmmakers are all residents of a home for destitute boys in Kolkata, India (formerly Calcutta).

Sahiful Mondal with camera

The boys live at the Muktaneer Home, which means “Open Sky” in Hindi. Muktaneer is an initiative of the Centre for Communication and Development (CCD), founded in 1978 to assist vulnerable children, with a focus mainly on education.

Then in 1995, an explosion in a Kolkata fireworks factory killed 23 children who were working there illegally. CCD Secretary, and now surrogate “father” to these boys, Swapan Mukherjee, was outraged – especially after the factory refused responsibility for the tragedy. Ultimately, Swapan took them to court and eventually won a judgment for compensation for all the victims’ families. It was the start of CCD’s move to a child protection focus, and in the 12 years since Swapan has focused on rescuing such children from bonded labor, trafficking, the sex trade, or simply a life on the streets.

Me & Swapan

These situations of child trafficking, indentured servitude, factory labor and the sex trade comprise an “industry” that millions of children in India fall victim to, and which essentially amount to nothing more than slavery, 200 years after legislation was passed which made slavery illegal. And this is slavery at its ugliest, its most evil and heart-breaking core – slavery of the most vulnerable among us: children.

When I visited Kolkata and Muktaneer Home last week, Swapan told me about his start into investigating child trafficking and rescuing as many of these children as he could. In the mid 1990s he was in Delhi, where he found four street children huddled together in tears. He wanted to know what had happened to him. After some time, the children were able to identify the men who had trafficked them to Delhi from their home village. Swapan reported them to the police and then traveled to the children’s village and found their parents. But instead of leaving it at that, simply returning the children to their home, Swapan organized a four-member team and spent six months in that village, the Murshidabad District, doing a door to door household survey to try and find out about missing children. In those six months his team surveyed 1400 households, and from that effort 364 children who had been trafficked were found and returned home.

During his efforts Swapan contacted Amnesty International, Equality Now, and other human rights organizations which assisted him. The Indian government began to take action. In 2000, Swapan opened the Muktaneer Children’s Home so that the children who did not have a home to return to, or whose families were too poor to care for them, would have a place to live. Although Muktaneer is just for boys, CCD also works with other organizations who provide similar homes for girls who have been rescued from indentured servitude or brothels.

As Swapan continued his work investigating child trafficking, he was photographing and filming the children’s conditions, their lives, their rescues, for proof and documentation. The boys who came to live at Muktaneer were fascinated by the camera, and soon told Swapan that they wanted to document and film their own lives, themselves. A movie legend was born.

The boys spy on me while
I watch their newest movie

Sahiful Mondal, who filmed that first movie “I Am” in 2004, is now 13 years old and has filmed or directed three other movies since. Sahiful is very tall for his age, an extremely attractive bright-eyed boy who is full of boundless, optimistic energy and always has a smile on his face. He has traveled to Athens, Cyprus and Melbourne in association with his films. He has come a long way from his early childhood. After his father died of tuberculosis when he was three years old, Sahiful began working in agricultural labor at a very early age due to his mother’s mental illness. The backbreaking work earned him the equivalent of 20 cents per day. Because the agricultural work was seasonal, in the off season Sahiful worked tending goats. He earned two portions of rice per day for this work. One day when he lost a goat under his herding watch, his employer beat him and refused him food for two days.

At age six and a half, Sahiful came to Muktaneer, and today his life is very different. He began receiving four good meals a day, was given his own bed, and was allowed to play for the first time in his life.

“Before I lived here, I didn’t study, I didn’t go to school,” Sahiful told me when I met him. “When I came here, I can go to school. I learned about photo and film. Swapan gave me a camera, and I took one photo, and from there I learned all about filmmaking. I love it!”

But it is also a team effort to Sahiful. When I asked him what made him the happiest about all the attention that “I Am,” and the other films, have received, he told me that he enjoyed the attention and people talking to him. But what made him the happiest about it?

“When we got first prize, all the boys here were very happy,” Sahiful replied, a huge grin on his face and his eyes sparkling. It’s definitely one for all here, and the accolades are for them all.

Sahiful wants to be a professional filmmaker when he grows up – and after meeting him and seeing his movies, I have absolutely no doubt that one day you will all see his name at the Cannes or Academy Awards. He is determined, and obviously very passionate about his new-found love of movie-making.

“It was my dream to make a movie,” said Sahiful.

Me, Swapan, & the boys of Muktaneer

For more information about CCD and the Muktaneer Home for Boys, visit their website or email Swapan Mukherjee.

Children Overflowing

From Chennai I traveled with C.P. Kumar by train to Nellore, 3 hours north in the state of Andhra Pradesh where CP runs the Little Hearts orphanage for children who have lost their parents due to AIDS. These are children, truly, with nowhere else to go.

C.P. introduces me to the children

Andhra Pradesh is the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic in India, with the highest infection rates in the country. Many reasons are attributed to this – Keerthi Bollineni with the AIDS-Awareness NGO Vasavya Mahila Mandali (VMM) tells me that the main causes for the explosion in Andhra Pradesh are:

– The national highways that run straight through the state are the main thoroughfares for the truckers, who frequent prostitutes in the sex trade while on the road, and once infected they carry the virus back to their home villages and families.

– The sex trade in Andhra Pradesh, a mostly rural state with high levels of illiteracy and gender inequality. Girls’ education is not very highly valued here; in fact, girls themselves are often not highly valued.

– Migration trends. In the last decades there has been a huge mass migration from the rural to the urban areas.

Amazingly, as many as 90% of people here who are infected with HIV do not know of their positive status until a calamity occurs – either they fall ill, or for some reason receive a blood test. The stigma of AIDS is very high, and once it is known that a family is affected by HIV/AIDS, being shunned is a common occurence. When children lose their parents to AIDS and are then left on their own, many times their village will refuse to admit them or to care for them due to the stigma. Doctors refuse to treat them, and many cases have been reported in the newspapers of schools and orphanages kicking children out who have been affected by AIDS. Often these children themselves are HIV-negative, but the stigma is still there.

CP Kumar runs Little Hearts orphanage, which was one of the first of its kind in Andhra Pradesh – taking in children who have been orphaned due to AIDS. At Little Hearts, 25 boys and girls live in a very tiny home. There are two small rooms – the boys sleep in one and the girls in another. A very tiny kitchen barely big enough for three people to stand in, and bathrooms on the rooftop. The entire place is about one-third the size of my home – which at 1250 square feet is considered a small house in the United States. The Little Hearts home for 25 children could fit into my living room and office.

I play with some of the children
of Little Hearts Home.

The children living here seem happy, however, to have a home. They attend school right down the street, and CP and his wife Mamatha – along with their own two sons, Prince and Boon – provide a loving family for the kids. CP hears of children who have been orphaned and shunned, with nowhere else to go, and he takes them in. Often a teacher or other local official will bring a child to Little Hearts. In other cases, CP reads about such a situation in the newspaper and contacts the reporter to offer to take in the children.

When I ask CP why he does this, he replies, “If not me, who? If not now, when?”

For more information about Little Hearts orphanage, go to their page at the Global Giving Network.

For more information about VMM’s work, visit their website.