At that time he was working as a volunteer for Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. It took him three months to win the confidence of the sex workers and make them open up to him. He found that one of the major concerns of the women was their children. Most of the kids were ignorant of the identity of their fathers and were doomed to a life in dingy alleys. Many usually graduated to a life of crime when they grew up.
It was in 1994 that Xavier started a small drop-in centre for the children, imparting basic education to them. It was no easy task though, what with the general public and local mafia posing all kinds of problems. After continuing with his efforts for a couple of years, he tried admitting the children to mainstream schools. But he soon discovered that unless the total environment in which they lived was changed, their formal learning would not amount to much. He then approached a number of boarding schools. But the moment the school authorities learnt of the children’s background, they refused admission for fear of "bringing disrepute to their institutions".
All this led to Xavier establishing the New Life, New Hope Ashram at Ramchandrapur in the southern precincts of the city in 1998. It is housed in three sheds—one each for boys and girls, and the third, a study hall. Made of bamboo, with almost no brickwork, the sheds symbolise the austerity with which things are managed at the ashram.
The children from the ashram have now been—at long last—admitted to city schools like Loreto, St Paul’s and Carmel and a few government ones. Some older boys have taken up vocational studies. Tutors, as many as nine of them, are there for helping the children with their homework. They are trained in making baskets, candles, mats, envelopes and greeting cards. They also learn music and dance, and have access to television on weekends. Their mothers are allowed to meet them only once a month. This may sound harsh, but the women realise that their kids are leading a much better life at the ashram and are largely content with the arrangement.
Financial support for Xavier’s efforts has not always been very encouraging. "There was a three-month period a couple of years back when everyone lived on muri (puffed rice) and black tea. I always tell the children never to forget that phase of their life," he says.
One major problem that Xavier faces is that many mistake his ashram as one involved in missionary activities and, consequently, religious indoctrination. "The fact is that there is not even a single Christian among my 65 children," he says, a trifle defensively. A sad sign of the times we live in. How does he want his children to grow up? "I am responsible for seeing that they earn a livelihood, marry, and most importantly, become good citizens."
The inadequate infrastructure at the ashram has not deterred him from opening another institution, an informal school at Kalighat which is attended by 150-odd children. "It’s just the problem of resources. If I have my way I would bring the whole of Kalighat here," he says.
Has the government helped him in his mission? He chuckles and says, "Whenever I go to Writers Building I am offered a hot cup of chai, but that’s it." If you want to help in any way, contact Brother Xavier Raj at the Missionaries of The Word, Ramchandrapur, Kobardanga, Calcutta-700104. Phone: 24534970.