After travelling for about an hour one November morning, we arrived at their home in Thane. We hadn’t expected to see what was in front of us. We were at a flat inside a typical apartment of a housing colony. It was an image that brought back memories from Shekhar Kapur’s Mr. India. Well, almost. A young couple with seven kids welcomed us, warmly into their home.
Looking around the apartment, we spotted two rooms with bunk beds, school bags and notebooks lying around. There was no magical watch that made people invisible, but what struck us, instantly, was that this young, educated couple was doing an incredible job, just like Mr. India, and the kids were as fun-loving and adorable as those featured in the cult film.
House of hope
This home was started about three years back by Oasis India — an NGO working for those living with HIV/AIDS and people from other disadvantaged groups. The couple, Rajesh and Savita Menon (names changed; they prefer to keep their identity under wraps for this interview), joined the NGO around the same time, and took on the onus of looking after seven kids — four of whom are HIV positive, while the fifth has Hepatitis B. The sixth has an attention related disorder while the seventh kid, is their three-year-old son whose playfulness is addictive and his endearment for the other boys evident, as he runs around them calling them “bhaiya.”
The day we reached their home, the kids were away with the couple (who are called ‘uncle and aunty’), for a film about Sadhu Sundar Singh, an Indian Christian missionary who travelled the globe, preaching about the power of God. When they returned, the excited bunch plonked themselves on their bunk beds. We asked them about their aspirations and an enthusiastic Ashok (15) answered, “a missionary”. We weren’t sure if the reply had anything to do with his caretakers’ faith or the film he had just seen. Soon, we got our reply, when he added, “I’ll get to travel the world”. Ashok, who contracted the virus from his mother at birth, has to undertake second line HIV therapy, as his CD4 count is not very high.
While Shahid (14) wants to be a sportsman, Arun (16), the eldest of the lot wants to be an author. They all have dreams, but they are aware that funds would be a problem as they can live in the home only till they are 18, after which they will have to fend for themselves. “But the NGO will help us, if we want to study further. I plan to take up a part time job and study,” said Pratik (13), who has his eyes set on the high skies — he wants to become an air force engineer.
Until three years ago, these teenagers lived at the Oasis India home in Igatpuri, along with 30 youngsters. The place had a large open playground, and a dam nearby, which was a favourite hang out zone. But when the school authorities learnt that a few of them were HIV+ve they were asked to leave. Perhaps, this is the reason why most people around them are unaware of their +ve status.
“When people get to know that they are positive, discrimination begins to surface,” informs 35-year-old Rajesh Menon, who first met the kids at their Igatpuri home. Prior to this, he worked at the Taj Wellington Mews, a luxury residence in Colaba. After his corporate stint for two and a half years, his wife shared her desire to work with and care for disadvantaged kids. Soon, he quit his job, and signed up with Oasis India. The couple, originally Colaba residents, reveal that with time a bond has been created with these kids and now, they are all part of a happy family. “The money may not be great and the journey of taking care of the youngsters has been difficult, but it has been an extremely fulfilling one, for sure,” reassures 27-year old Savita.
The lives of these youngsters are no different from a normal teenager and they have their regular outings to movies and dinners. They play everyday and also attend Sunday school and participate in its different activities. Unperturbed by the ailment or the monthly visits to the hospital, these youngsters have big plans for the future made with great hope and enthusiasm.
“We only hope God continues to take care of them,” adds Menon.
The names of the children have been changed to protect their identities.
NGOs working with HIV/AIDS
>> Community Care Centre, Niramay Niketan - 25513314
>> Salvation Army Call centre - 23093566
>> Forum against drug and AIDS, Marine Lines - 22817914
>> IMCARES, Grant Road - 23806237
>> Oasis India - 25031117
>> St Catherine’s home, Andheri - 26762312