It happened one fine day, like most other things. An erudite bunch of twenty somethings, fired by the passion to make a difference, all set to make the most of a rare opportunity. An opportunity presented by the judicial authorities of Chennai, Tamilnadu that welcomed voluntary organizations, to help with proceedings at the State Juvenile Justice Homes. My lot was asked to help out with the Girl’s home, which housed an orphanage for underprivileged children.
After a thorough interrogation, which summed up the attitude of the staff towards ‘outsiders’, the perplexed watchman let us walk through the gates. I watched as the activities came to a stand still and all eyes assessed the ‘Akkas’ (tamil for elder sister) and ‘Annas’ (tamil for elder brother) who had trespassed into their world. There were some hushed speculations as to what our motive might be. Undeterred, we kept pace with our guide who led us to a sprightly group of thirty girls. Clean skirts, clipped nails, two plaits that dangled forth- it was obvious that they had taken some effort to make an impression upon us. Impress us, they did. Be it with their cheeky repartees to questions that undermined their intelligence or their attention to detail that reflected in dance impersonations of Kollywood’s biggest stars. Quite simply, these young girls were made of sterner stuff than the dilapidated buildings, which was their home.
It isn’t as if they lacked the intelligence. It isn’t as if they are denied a basic education. Yet, their minimal interaction with the world outside left them vulnerable to strangers with ulterior motives. The need of the hour was interaction with different individuals that would change their behavioural patterns. In less fancy terms, we were their first taste of the world outside. Through origami, painting and English lessons we had broken past more than just ice. This was more than an arts and crafts class. Children who have the love and support of a family and a secure place to call home would only take back the paints, paper and brushes from these sessions. These girls were learning to colour the bigger picture. These girls were learning to recognize the beautiful mornings even as we taught them the English greeting. Roopa, the artist, Lakshmi the danseuse, Priya, the teacher… this was a start, marked by newfound confidence. Fostering an interaction between the group, teaching them to share and reach out, it’s amazing how wiping the slates clean can bring about such significance. As the pink and purple excitement continued, you couldn’t help but wonder if people would give them a chance to discover themselves? To just be children?
Two fun Sundays later, we were confronted with a strange problem. The girls, who were starved of any male attention and constantly fed on imaginative filmi plots, staked their claim on the Annas, who were their tickets to an escape route. It came as a surprise, because we thought they were responding well to our sessions. Little did we anticipate that this turn would unearth certain ghastly truths.
These girls are only aware of two kinds of men – the men in their families who remained helplessly stricken by poverty, reducing them to the state of orphans and men who took advantage of their naiveté. The few good men who did exist were from the movies. The girls would bare their body and soul, only to be loved by a man. You feel immense pity for a young prostitute, forced into the flesh trade by malicious forces but what you feel for these girls is indescribable. After years of rigid suppression, their hormones eventually get the better of them. It’s almost as if they were left with no choice, but to fall for sleazy innuendos. Since the authorities do everything in their might to keep the men at bay, their sexual frustrations boil over. Lesbianism is rampant amongst the older girls in the orphanage. The situation stands at a stagnant lose-lose. If you rope in the men, you have teenage pregnancies. If you don’t, the girls resort to sexual exploration amongst themselves.
How then could you reach out to make the girls aware of the diverse relationships that a man and woman share? As father and daughter, as teacher and student, as colleagues at any workplace or as best friends? Unfortunately, not much has been done to break these barriers as an empathizing Superintendent delivered the ultimatum- she understood the circumstances better than any of us, but she wasn’t prepared to be harassed by the system. The group could stay if the men opted out.
This was a learning process, indeed. It isn’t always easy to watch your liberal ideas being squashed under rubber chappals. While penning these thoughts down, my attention drifts towards the system itself. While a commendable effort was being made to make operations more transparent, a great deal still remained flawed. The wardens of the homes still continue to employ these girls as free manual labour to clean their quarters in exchange for a tastier meal. Exploitation notwithstanding, I don’t blame any of the girls who grab hold of this opportunity for the meals served at the home gets monotonous. The hugest challenge that the Superintendent faces is the indifference that the girls show towards their staff. If the staff fails to understand their requirements, the consequences range from ripping apart furniture to slashing wrists. This relationship seems to be jostled by desperation at both ends. It should be noted that the staff consider this as a routine government job and remain oblivious to methods of change.
Despite several events that came to light, we persisted, sans the men. As the Sunday trouper’s visits grew more frequent, we earned the grudging cooperation of the hitherto sniggering wardens. Maybe the girls would listen to us, after all. Maybe this was the way to keep them from staging a rebellion. The wardens seemed more willing to let the girls attend our Sunday sessions and at times we were even greeted with a smile.
It’s been over a year now, since we embarked upon this mission. Alright, scratch that. We didn’t change lives overnight. Yet, with time, the equations did change. The constant bickering amongst the girls has lessened. It seems less of an issue now if one group had more sheets of paper to paint on or a few more beads to string together. The tell tale stories of woe didn’t vanish altogether but they make fewer appearances. These small changes accounted for bigger changes in the group’s attitude towards their own lives.
None of this happened because ours is a gifted group. We walked in as just another bunch trying to bridge a divide. There has been more than one occasion where we have yelled at the top of our voices to get a point across or refused to fulfill certain unreasonable demands. It only goes to show that a group such as this will break down the walls, if you are willing to lend them your ears. Is there a point to all of this? There is. I’m sure there are many other groups making an effort to reach out. If you have the time and the will, put your hand up. At the risk of sounding preachy, I shall tell you that this has been one of my better life experiences. If for nothing else, you’ll start to view your life a little differently.