I viewed with great interest the movie documentary, Mother India: Life through the Eyes of the Orphan (2012). With 31,000,000 orphans in India, this movie invites us briefly into the lives of 25 orphaned or abandoned young people (ages three to 25) who live along the railway in South India. I have been thinking a lot about India which is suffering intensely from COVID. The world today is sending material help, blessings, and best wishes to our global neighbors, our sisters and brothers in India.
David Trotter and Shawn Scheinoha, who made the documentary, first traveled to Tenali (Andhra Pradesh), population three hundred thousand, in 2004. We meet Geetha, Reddy, Nagareju, Lakshmi, Kotegwari, Polayya, Yellapah, Satkyananda, Aadamma, Yesu, Abdullabi, Baachir, Chilipada, Raja, Ramu, Sekar, Siva, Gopi, P. Gopi, Hussen, Kiran, Mark, Nageswararao, Nami, and Narendra, such exquisite names, shining human beings worthy of our regard. David and Shawn interviewed the children and tried to see life through their eyes. The youngsters sleep together on cement or dirt floors littered with needles and condoms. Some sleep at store fronts. They wrapped themselves in blankets so they could avoid mosquitoes and being recognized as an exploitable young person.
The children beg money for food from passing train passengers, sometimes first “cleaning” or sweeping the train-car floor, then holding out their hands for one or two rupees (one or two pennies). At the end of the day, they might have one or two dollars to buy food. The group’s leader was the solicitous Reddy (“I only have my mother; she beat me, so I left.”), in his early 20s but already having lived more than 10 years on the street. Reddy would rally the group to help each other out. Lakshmi was abused by a foster parent who burned her with a hot steelrod. When her boyfriend saw her talking to another boy, he forced her to put her hand under the train. She lost two fingers. Crying, she said she had a baby boy, but that he died when three days old. Satkyananda’s parents were killed in a bus accident. Nagareju’s parents beat him, and he ran away. A third of the children were missing a limb, often from falling when jumping on the train (train hopping). The children first wanted to show David and Shawn their wounds: missing fingers, hand, arm, leg, deep lesions. That is a major unhidden but usually ignored component of the pain they carried.
“Not above but among,” David and Shawn decide to leave their comfortable, air-conditioned Gotham Hotel room and sleep with the homeless young on the concrete and dirt floor. They experienced, if only for a night, exposure to the extremely hot weather and a host of biting mosquitoes. Waking up early, they saw children huddled asleep together, a pod of safety like a group of puppies, blanketed people mounds. The children brush their teeth at the well using their fingers and powder produced on the spot by rubbing bricks together.
The young people are invited to go to a fair where all have some fun and excitement, games, and rides, taking their minds off constant attention to having to survive. All the children had “bad habits” to numb the pain in their bleak lives. Some smoked or chewed tobacco, and others, dangerously sharing needles, injected an unknown substance, which “took away the sadness.” Some “huffed” by sucking in fumes of rags soaked with Erazex, “White-Out” correction fluid which cost 50 cents, “to not feel the pain of police beatings, cold and rain in winter, and mosquito bites.”A trip to the burial site of a youngster who died three weeks earlier of an overdose is filmed.
The children were sexualized, the older children abusing the younger children. Geetha relates the sad story of his being sold to the red-light district, sex for money. Serendipitously, two men who recognized him took him back to the youth hostel. Folding his hands in prayer, Geetha says, “I am thankful to these two men.” HIV/AIDS is common among these young people.
Yet they have hopes and dreams. Their eyes can still light up. “I want to run my own business and enjoy life as a normal person.” “I want to be a mechanic.” “I want a good house and to marry.” “I want to get a house for myself.” David and Shawn turn to their friends at Harvest India, to place in their main orphanage the two youngest children, siblings, Kotegwari, a seven-year-old girl and Polayya, a three-year-old boy. The group fills a bus and off they go to see the orphanage, where they get haircuts, shower, receive new clothes, and savor a delicious meal of chicken, various curries, rice, and yogurt. The children were beaming, “walking different,” with freshness, self-respect, and dignity.
Reddy and the children support Kotegwari and Polayya to move into the orphanage although they would not choose to live there. Suresh and Christina Kumar oversee daily operations of Harvest India, a service to, with, and from orphaned, abandoned, unaccompanied children. They provide a home to 1400 children at 26 different locations. Harvest India has been in existence for more than 40 years. Suresh says the discarded children are miserable, distrustful, feeling betrayed, homeless, neglected, no one to talk to, abused, without mother and father, consumed rather than cared for, exploited rather than loved. Suresh himself grew up in an orphanage where, after his father died young, his mother had found work. Suresh and Christina start the process where Kotegwari and Polayya can be adopted by Harvest India.
Harvest India with all the good that it is doing is not without criticism (fair or not) for its not being forthright about its Christian missionary focus to convert the 74% Hindu and 12% Muslim population (and other minority religions) to Christianity which is presently only 6% of India’s population. However, this film raises our awareness in mind and heart, influencing our world for the better, small steps to potentially big healing.