Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Promise.

It was a lazy Sunday morning, the week before Christmas. A hard earned weekend for me, after a crazy week and a late night at office the previous day.

The phone rang flashing the name 'ABR'. It was only 8 am. I knew the debate would soon begin.

ABR, aka Aswin and I were volunteers for the HUGS camp, an NGO that 'Helps children Go to School'. It had more to do with play learning, for the underprivileged kids. The recent camps were at the Royappuram Boys home – a government shelter for orphans, children of convicts, kids who ran away or were sent away and so on. We heard about HUGS through Facebook (these days I turn to FB for everything – for gossips from friends’ circles to the latest tips in make-up, from current affairs to the international news. FB has got it all covered!)

Both of us were pretty lazy to wake up and spoke with our eyes closed, under the pretext that that would help us catch on lost sleep, as our lips gibbered away to glory!

I waited for him to say "Let's chuck it and go back to bed". That way the blame would not be on me for backing out. Neither would be the guilt, of disappointing a bunch of kids who looked forward to meeting us every fortnightly.

I guess he read my mind. So instead he said, "You decide Geethu. Am game whatever!"

Hmm... Smart a _ _ !

Spoke like a true man. Left it to the woman to decide. Now I was stuck.

And trust me, it was tough to have decided not to go and yet say, 'Ok! Fine. I'll meet you in 30'. But, that's what I said.

So there we were, that cold December morning, riding from Royapettah to Royappuram, covering a distance of almost 18 kms, on the most dilapidated bike ever! (I know by putting this up, I risk my chance to be ever spotted riding pillion on it).

Aswin spoke as he rode, about old Madras and its monuments along the roadside. He was thanking the British for building short-cuts roads and said that the one we took would take us to the home faster. I wasn't too happy, for a longer ride would have meant more time for me to sleep. However, my desperate attempts to snooze would anyways go futile, for Aswin ensured that not a single gutter or pothole went 'unattended'.

The ride lasted well over 45 minutes, thanks to the drizzle in between. As he parked the bike within the compound of the home, many hands extended out towards him, calling him "Maddy", "Madhavan", "Anna" fondly. The children inside the shelter seemed happy to see us.

We walked in to see Karthik briefing the new volunteers about HUGS. Renita meanwhile was being her chirpy self, organizing the set of toys to be distributed amongst the volunteers. It was my third trip and I felt like a pro already.

The children assembled in the hall. Christmas was round the
corner and a few kids were decorating the walls. Somebody had to keep the rest of them engaged till the play session would begin. Aswin, Sidharth, Amit and I sat amongst the kids.

A few children, who were familiar with us from the previous sessions, came closer to ask how we were, went on to tell us what they had for breakfast and so on. While the new kids watched on in awe. It would take a little time for them to start mingling.

For a few were shy.
Few scared.
Few indifferent.
Few differently abled (deaf, dumb, blind, physically or mentally challenged).

And there were a few more, who could talk, see and
hear. Yet they couldn’t mingle with the rest of the kids. For they spoke languages no one could decipher – it could have been Assamese, Gujrathi, Konkani or even Oriya.

The huge responsibility of talking to the children and locating where they came from, based on their mother tongue, fell on the translator appointed by the government. And he spoke only 2 languages - Tamil and Hindi.The lucky ones were traced back to their homes. The others were provided with shelter, food and education. And they just stayed on. And soon picked up Tamil.

Yet another reason why HUGS needs more volunteers, who can speak different languages.

Coming back to the 19th of December, 2010. Renita and Monica had split the toys for each group, while we helped split the kids into groups of 4 to 5 each.

That's when I noticed Aswin sit with a boy, hardly 10 years old. He was crying clinging on to the window and refused to budge and mingle with the rest of the gang. I offered to help. The 'woman' in me had woken.

I held him close. But he moved away, as large drops of tears kept wetting his faded T-shirt. His answers were restricted to nods and wipes (of his tears, of his nose and occasionally his T-shirt). I had to ask him several questions like
'Did your friend fight with you?'
'Did you not eat this morning?'
'Did someone at the camp scold you?'
'Do you not like the rains?'
'Did you hurt yourself'
… to finally figure out the following:
- The boy had been at the home for hardly 2 days.
- His father had left him there, for he could not provide for his education.
- He had lost his mother earlier that year.
- His sister was also put up at an orphanage nearby.
- He did not like the place (that was the easiest to figure out).

I did not know how to manage the situation. Do I just sit with him or do I try console him and make him cry further? Renita and Karthik offered to take over. And whatever they did, they really seemed to be good at it. For the boy was soon playing and laughing. He was introduced to the rest and they were asked to make him feel at home. Many heads nodded and we knew they would keep their word.

Meanwhile, I had a bunch of loyals from the previous s
ession waiting to play the 'Indianised' version of the Monopoly, with me. They loved the feel of the money, though fake. They refused to play any other game. They waited patiently for me to divide currencies among them - denominations of 10,000s, 5,000s, 1,000s, 500s, 100s, 50s and 10s. And as we played, I observed that this time they were better organized. They were well-planned about how to spend their money and highly enthused to purchase plots and construct houses.
I was amazed at their willingness to help friends who turned paupers!

At HUGS, we use games like Building blocks, Memory cards, Snakes and ladders, Dominoes and sorts, to teach the desolate kids something - to count, to remember, to share, a good manner, a duty, a social responsibility. Any one thing that we could in the 2-3 hours spent.

But usually it worked the other way around.

For often, the kids ended teaching us - the privileged lot, much more than what any school or college could ever offer!

After yet another fulfilling session of play learning, I walked out and waved goodbye. And my 'loyals' came along and called out to me,

"Akka, we will wait for you... Please come fast for the next session!"

I nodded my head.

Only to hope I'd keep my word!

To know more about HUGS or volunteer, please check the following links:


  1. Your words make it all seem worthwhile! I dont think you approach these kids with sympathy - its rather empathy that I can perceive. I actually got a feel of what a kid might be feeling during one of our sessions after reading this post.

  2. Hmmm... Reni, I wldnt know abt sympathy or empathy. One lesson my mom used to tell us is, 'When in trouble, when in pain - dont compare urslf to ppl who are happier and more blessed than you are. Think abt those who are not as privileged as you are. That will console u and help u heal faster.' Mayb I come to the home with a very greedy motive - to give myself a positive stroke and say 'Geethu you cld have been here. But you are much better.' Tht motivates me to live better each day.