It is the end of the road and I get down from my car. A cool gentle wind envelopes me and with it, brings the smell of the fishes and the indication that the sea is nearby.
Coconut trees gently sway and ahead of me is a small bridge, wide enough for a scooter to get by. Beyond it are the Sayhadri hills. Towards my left is a four storey building, looking slightly neglected as the paint is peeling off.
A woman wearing a salwar kameez waits for us to disembark and walk towards her. With a smile she welcomes us and informs, “It’s on the fourth floor.” I nod silently, acknowledging her. At the same time wondering, it looks too small for 20 people.
I walk with trepidation, unsure of what I will find there. Will it be emotionally hard for me? Will it make me sad? In my line of work, emotions have to be kept in check, lest they interfere with the story, the facts.
I imagine a dark, depressing unlit corridor, sad faces and emotionally scarred girls cowering as we try and talk to them. My image of an orphanage being one which I have seen in films and assume to be true.
I walk up the stairs with a silent prayer to god and even before I can finish, a group of young girls, smiling, say in unison, “Welcome to our home.”
Bewildered, I acknowledge them as I walk into the lobby. A bunch of girls are huddled in one side of the room, making crafts, bit of coloured paper, boxes of water colours, scissors, paint brushes strewn around. Some of them giggle amongst themselves as we walk in.
Shyly some of them show us the Diwali and Christmas cards, beautiful wall hangings, envelopes and paper bags. Some of them continue without as much casting us a glance. The lady informs us that it’s for a fete they are participating in. “This is the first time they are doing it. I had a crafts teacher come in and teach them how to do it.” It will also help raise some money, she adds softly.
A girl, about 4 years old, smiles at me. She is fascinated by the camera and musters courage to touch it while I take notes. Suddenly she grabs my pen. I decide to rummage for another pen in my bag when she returns it minus the bright blue cap. A little puppy wags his tail and a girl has scooped him up in her arms, showering him with kisses.
I sit in the lady’s office with her husband and we discuss about how and why these girls have ended up here. Their stories are undoubtedly sad and reflect how our fractured society functions. Meanwhile a Labrador nonchalantly enters the room and curls up underneath my chair. Seeing a slightly frightened expression on my face, the lady says, “He’s old. You can pet him if you want.” A spray of water hits me and the husband gets up to close the window. It has started to rain.
We continue talking and are interrupted when a girl comes running. “Mom, your phone is ringing.” She hands her the phone and runs away. I continue asking questions and there is a second interruption. A teenage girls asks, “Mom should I get some tea?” Mom?
After she leaves, the lady tells me, they call us Mom and Dad.
I nod faintly and continue talking. Later we want to interview some of the girls. I ask the lady if we can ask them questions about their families or life in the orphanage. She says, “They all know where they came from and why they are here. Ask them anything.”
To me it’s hard to ask a twelve year old why her family left her there or if her parents are dead and if she misses them. I can’t break their hearts further and worry if my questions will leave an emotional scar.
The twelve year old gives me an encouraging smile as I ask my questions. The first few are the easy ones – as she describes her favourite subjects in school and what she wants to be when she grows up. A pilot, she says in perfect English. The tough questions are asked gently and answered haltingly.
I feel guilty but the deed is now done.
I look up to see a silhouette of a girl perched up on a concrete plank running the length of the large windows, staring out and looking at the sea. I wonder what she is thinking about. Yearning about her family perhaps? It has stopped raining and a cool breeze enters the room.
Suddenly a cat is thrust in my arms by a girl. Before I can react it has gracefully jumped down. The girl runs after it and I follow them to the living quarters. A big room has 5 bunks beds, each painted in a different colour. Two girls are sitting in a corner and doing their science homework. I hear a woof and turn to find a Dalmatian tied to one corner. A small girl is curled up and sleeping soundly on one of the beds. A big shelf is stacked with many schoolbags and a few girls are talking to each other.
My colleague whips out his camera and we proceed to take photos with 18 girls, 2 dogs, 1 cat and 1 puppy in tow. There is laughter all around. Cups of hot tea and patties have miraculously emerged from somewhere. There is an atmosphere of bonhomie. It almost feels like I have either walked into a boarding school or a family home with lots of children. “Didi, khao naa”; “Nahi, pehle ek aur photo”; I am accepted into their world, no questions asked.
My earlier discomfiture slowly melts away.
While we partake the evening snacks, one of the girls starts to sing for us. Incredulously, it’s an American pop song I sometimes hear on the radio. Her clear soulful voice fills up the room as she sings about falling in love. How do they know English songs, asks a surprised colleague. “Oh, they listen to them on the internet and memorize the lyrics,” the lady replies. But I am just marveling at the confidence of the young girl.
I remember my last words to the lady, “I think you are doing a wonderful job of raising them.” She replies, “I treat them like I would treat my own children. What would I do for them? I would give them the best education and make sure they stand on their feet.” She adds that’s why she decided to never have her own biological children.
Soon its time to leave. My last memory of them is bright, shining eyes, quick smiles and eager faces. Their arms interlocked, the girls gather around us and drop us to our car. Goodbyes take another fifteen minutes as another round of photos is taken, silly origami roses are exchanged, a light banter is conducted. And then its time to say the final goodbye as they keep waving their arms until our car disappears around the curving road.
I don’t know what the future holds for them. What I hope is that they will be able to overcome any challenge which comes their way.
The essay is based on a news story I am currently doing. For more details about the orphanage, check out their website http://www.amchaghar.org