Malleshwari and her ilk sing, walk and even dance through life, the way most of their contemporaries do, thanks to the efforts of Neehar. Established almost a decade ago for the children of prostitutes, it is among the first institutions of its kind. Located at Lohegaon, 33 km off Pune, Neehar strives to give these underprivileged children a childhood they deserve and a chance in life. Supported without strings, they bend with a burden, stoop without conquering, victims of the sins of their mothers which revisit them. Their songs are not of innocence. They are those of experience.
The experience of confusing adulthood with adultery and not recognising the difference between the two. Of knowing their mothers as providers, though not as the paragons of virtue. Of knowing the presence of pleasure-ridden males in their lives though not of their company.
Neehar, which means a dew-drop, is a refresher course in living. A sea-change from the environment these children were exposed to back home. Spread over an acre, the home has a farm, a few cattle, lots of stray dogs (plus the occasional snapping one that rushes little teasers in trousers to hospital and back). Reality bites, and just as hard, especially when mothers unwillingly leave their baffled three-year-olds behind. “Initially, there are teething problems. ” Says Sunita Joglekar, project in-charge. “Getting adjusted to a new place, to live without one's mother, to get used to other children. To begin with, newcomers are given a lot of attention, but they have to be gradually weaned away so that they can support themselves.”
Some try – such as the four-year-old attempting to climb down a mound of earth; the seven-year-old with a runny nose; the seven-year-old Vaishali who has found her level within three days of her arrival; the Mohammed Azharuddin-Akshay Kumar – loving Sanjay, hopeful of growing up “into a social worker”; young Premila and Shobha whirling in wild abandon to Trushali's tunes on the harmonium; the big boys sneaking off to watch the latest Hindi-'fillum' releases; gender squabbles erupting over who deserves to be the occupants of the new wing…painting, colouring, embroidering, stitching – all with the brightest of colours to detract from the bleakness of their being.
Birthdays are celebrated and surrogate siblings make up for weak family ties. The new bonds are even stronger. “Nobody dares say anything to us in school. We are a tough lot, we know to take care of ourselves. Our group is the largest in the class,” pipes in one. Relations are established outside of their home – and circumstances – too. The children, who have close friends staying in the village, visit their families and participate in the festivities all through the year. “It's a far cry from the time when the villagers vociferously objected to our setting up a home here. They felt it would have a corrupting influence on their children,” remembers founding member Vijayatai Lavate. Oblivious to their status as objects of scorn or harm, the three, four, five and six-year-olds continue dabbling in paints, drawing flowers, pasting leaves for posterity, punctuating each activity with queries about their next 'poha' (a rice snack).
Those grown up, sensing the awkwardness of adolescence and the looming bogey of the brothel, choose to blank out the unbearables. “What do you mean by asking me if I feel bad about what my mother does? What does she do that is wrong?” lashes the belligerence of understanding in a rush. The past always provokes.
The striking of deals, for these children, is not an alien concept. They have witnessed the buying of bodies and selling of souls. Life has been a string of trade-offs. Having welcomed existence in its rawest, most threadbare form, each one fights his or her own battle to come to terms with the fact that their mothers are perpetuating the oldest profession in the world.
Strangely, at no point, do these children raise an accusing finger at the hands that nurtured their baby years. Acceptance couples with angst as habitually as blurred male faces with their mothers.
“These children have lost their innocence since the age of three. They look fine on the outside, but are very complex. There have been too many adults in their lives. One talks about bondings, but it takes time for such notions to sink in,” says Vilas Chaphekar, director of Vanchit Vikas, the organisation responsible for setting up the home.
Escape is tough for the young fugitives. The present stability cannot make up for the absence of roots. Fee-floating as they are, their emotions run amuck too. “Our young girls are constantly falling in and out of love. But the main problem that faces us is that of their marriage. After disclosing the truth of their past, who will accept them? That is an answer that we do not know,” worries Chaphekar. It is a predicament that the project heads will have to consider in the very near future as their sprightly 13-year-olds touch the threshold of comprehension. There are disputes on dealing with the situation – “Basically, these children can be rehabilitated only if they come in when they are very young. The older they are, the more conditioned they are to their experiences back home,” says one of the resident teachers. Growing up and out of the shackles of low-life is especially an indecent proposition for the boys. Rowdy and raucous, “controlling them gets difficult,” reveals Joglekar. Admittedly, “the boys, too, are very aware. They know of the mother-child relationship but not that of a father. Worse, they cannot express their emotions. The irony is that they are in need of a father-figure but do not know what that means.”
For the children, 'future' and 'father' are two garbled 'eff' words. Interesting to toy around with, difficult to possess. Going home to their mothers during vacations and having her over during Diwali is more important. But this, too, is a double edged deal. In a damage-control attempt, mothers are permitted to take their children, though only to anaesthetised environs of their hometowns. But unlike memories, holidays are known to wing past with a vengeance. And whip-cracking conditions rule that visitors, mothers included, have to return alone to where they came from. Hiding, yet seeking, the children thus play hopscotch with happiness. “Unlike children hailing from normal backgrounds, these kids do not think about the future. The only live in the present. To develop this sense of the future is another mighty task,” observes Chaphekar.
Meanwhile, the Maharashtra government's Directorate of Women and Child Welfare has proposed a comprehensive three-year project involving nine Mumbai and Pune-based NGOS that will benefit the offspring of sex workers in Pune and Mumbai. Expected to begin in early July, the project will formulate data on the existing creches and counselling and training centres while striving to enhance educational and health facilities for them. If it works, Sanjay's ambition of becoming a construction engineer and part-time social worker could come true. If it doesn't, Malleshwari, who has never known a father, might also not meet the man of her dreams – “someone who is nice, educated, will look after my mother and will not have any bad habits.”
As these children twist free into the future, the past mist not catch up with them at any cost. At no cost must the light at the end of the tunnel turn red.