Beyond the white walls

You coming to paint the sea mural na ? Tejal had asked me enthusiastically. Ya, if I don’t go for a trek! –  I had replied.

However on Sunday morning, it was clear to me that that’s what I was going to do. I was going to paint the sea mural, with the kids at the children’s (remand) home in Dongri.

The short cab ride from Grant road station to Sandhurst road takes me through many narrow lanes and alleyways. People hard at work on a Sunday, loading and unloading trucks, a bullock cart carrying blocks of ice, some hand carts being pushed.. Images of streets of Mumbai flash across my eyes, at the same speed as, the thoughts filled with apprehension and excitement of what I was going to experience next.

I have heard many stories of this so-called children’s home from Tejal but to experience it for real and see and feel it, was going to be different. I knew it.

I get off the cab at the corner of the street. From across the road one cannot miss noticing the mossy white walls, high enough to touch the sky,  one huge rusted iron sought of gate with a little door opening at the center. The Dongri Remand Home or as the board says “Children’s Home” was actually the first prison of Mumbai and is now the largest children’s home of the city. History has it down that great leaders like Lokmanya Tilak spent quite a bit of time in this Jail.

Well, I am not sure how that makes me feel…. From a prison to a home for the rescued children? Except for the board, nothing seems to have changed here. The high walls guarding the prisoners (now kids) making it impossible for them to even dream of escaping, the basic infrastructure, water from the taps, stinking bathrooms and room behind the iron grills. From prisoners, we have the rescued children and from the guards, we have 6 men keepers rotating in shifts. That’s all that has changed.

I pen my name down on the register and ask the way. A beautiful courtyard with a patch of green at the center, a temple, tiled floor, few tall trees on the sides with an otlo (sitting place) welcomes me. I am disconnected from the outer world in seconds. It feels as if the greenery and the stillness of the courtyard is preparing me to face the 417 kids from the age of 5 – 18yrs, I am about to encounter next.

Another smaller gate. I enter and I am greeted by a few smiling kids calling out didi-didi. Some boys want to shake my hand, some want to hold my hand and walk. One differently-abled child immediately takes the cleaning broom that I am carrying from home, from my hand. I feel welcomed. I am smiling.

Another kid opens the lock and lets me in a room. This is the longest room I’ve ever seen. The room is divided into two sections by a shutter. In one section, Tejal screens movies for majority of the kids. In another, all the volunteers paint the dead yellow – white walls with just about 20 kids and make them come alive. The painting section stinks of urine as the bathroom is closer to this section.

For the first few minutes, I decide to walk around, observe and soak in the place. Many kids have open bruises, cuts and dried blood on parts of their bodies, some are mentally challenged and some differently-abled, some kids are lying around sick. But all of them look happy to have us there and want to get our attention, either by showing of their new drawings or calling out our names loudly, or by playing mischief and bullying the younger ones. Just a glance, just a bit of our attention and appreciation. A kid bends half way down holding his paper camera and shouts “Didi Smile!” I pose and the paper opens – a flap and he shouts CLICK!

“Pick up a brush and paint. Take a kid with you !” says Ellie with all her enthusiasm.

Tiny little 3 foot nothing, super eager Vishal asks me to join him. “Oh my God ! You’ve got the naughtiest of all. He is just not going to let go off the brush” warns Tejal. And rightly so! He just din’t leave the brush! In the lines and out of the lines creating what he’d like. “Didi, I want to make a house” he said. So, I hold his hand and with shapes create a house! Under water house 🙂  As the little one starts doing things on his own, I decide to let him enjoy by himself.

Just then, Tejal draws my attention to another kid who would not stop crying. He is from Bihar and is a runaway kid. I squat down to his height and asks him why he is crying. “Raksha Bandhan is coming up and I am missing my sister” he says. I give my brush to him and ask him to paint.“Didi, I don’t know how to paint” nervously he says.

I make him hold the brush and hold his hand firmly and the two of us start creating a world of our own. With the sea weeds and fish, Tortoises and octopuses.. waves.. blue, green and yellow ! I hold his hand tight and create the shapes that would turn into creatures 🙂 Some of the older kids, who had now become our judging audience comment saying it isn’t looking good. So, I tell them, pick up a brush and do a better job than what we did. And they all back off, once again being our silent audience.

It’s 4.30 pm and it’s time for a count. The counting takes place 4 times in a day just before the duty officer’s shift changes. If a kid is missing, it’s a scene you don’t want to be a part of!! All the kids are rushed to the other section of the room, where the movie is being screened. Some of the older kids have wooden sticks or a broken branch from the trees, which they use to put the kids in order and discipline them. “Sit else the older ones will beat you up” says one of our volunteers. So we hurriedly get them all into lines.

Tejal draws my attention to a 6 year old.  “Make him sit in the line before the older kids hit him” she says. This kid would just not look at me or even look up for that matter. He was abused and so, he is extremely frightened. I hold his hand and pull him towards me. His hold is light at first, and then, once I hug him, his hold becomes firm. I put him in the line and sit by his side.

May be he felt safe. May be he felt secure when I was holding him. I am not sure.. But a thought troubled me. How long am I going to give him this comfort. 2mins… 5 minutes…10 minutes… I am here now and I will be gone in 20 mins ! Am I giving him false hope!

Another kid who Tejal is attending to has high fever and a severe headache. He has popped in a pill but there is no one to sit by his side, or give him the love that you and I get when we are sick. The kid I was painting with earlier kept telling him to go to sleep and he will be alright. I sit by his side and press his head, brush my hand through his hair and put him to sleep.

What kind of a children’s home is this with no freakin women around ? 

It’s surprising to know that the kids in the children’s home don’t know each others name. However, when I am talking to a kid or holding him, I hear comments about him from other children – like he keeps crying or he is mad, or he is mute or dumb or mental.

There are kids in the home who know where their parents are. Who know how to get to their village and yet they cannot go back and are having a childhood that is so inhuman!

We walk out. I need some water to clean up. And the duty officer / guard calls out “NO 2 GET WATER FOR DIDI!” NO. 2… that’s what an identity of a child is.. Numbers.. I guess this was the most shocking and disturbing realization of my visit.

The session is over and we are leaving. Many kids come up to us and ask when we will come next.

The volunteers are now discussing other things and we all go to Merwaan Irani bakery and unwind. My mind still wanders. I know I am overwhelmed by this experience. Overwhelmed with emotions.  I have too many questions and no answers.

It’s not fair. It’s not fair that each of those kids are living a life like that. Is this it ? Spending a few hours with the kids on a Sunday.. Have I done my bit ? For the society! For those kids ? Should I feel happy about the fact that I made their Sunday ! Or should I console my self that at least I did something. There are people who don’t even notice such thing? Or should I feel less burden by telling my self  “who am I to do anything”

I know, we do what we can, for others, in the situation we are in. But when is it enough? when will I feel satisfied that I have done my part? I know I haven’t yet. But may be, even when I have, I won’t feel satisfied. May be never, not at least till suffering exists! till inequality exists.

Every time, I am faced with an experience like that, I am disturbed. Why do I find my self so touched by suffering that it haunts me? To do any kind of service one has to be detached, detached from the issue, Isn’t it ? How can one be detached. How can one see the sufferings one moment and in the next forget all about it  and sip a coffee at a coffee shop ? How can we live a separate personal life? Is it really possible to live disconnected lives ??

Probably this is the first time I am writing an entry without sorting the questions out in my head first or looking at the positives in an experience.

Witness to Suffering and Inequality,

I live.

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6 thoughts on “Beyond the white walls

  1. i was just passing by the big white walls today…and was wondering if i could be of any assistance..or join an NGO that works closely with them

    • Dear Cedric,
      If you are based in Mumbai you could always join us for painting. Our facebook page is :
      Also, connecting you to Tejal (via email) who is the person behind initiating this project and is also closely involved with the kids.
      Thank you 🙂

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