The new year always brings hope of a better tomorrow. So here are stories of three individuals who started life on the backfoot, ill-treated or abandoned by their parents. However, they did not allow themselves to become victims of their circumstances but had enough optimism and desire to make a better life for themselves. In fact, the factor that keeps them thinking positively is the obstacles they have overcome.
Manoj, Rekha and Pankaj are three examples of persons who as children fell through the cracks of a deficient welfare state, with its inability to tackle poverty, high incidence of child labour, alcoholism, orphaned and abandoned children, amongst many other ills. They exemplify how a few are able to grab opportunities that come their way to rise above the lowly state in which circumstances have placed them.
The common factor between the three is that they found a home away from home, a charitable institution meant just for children like these. Manoj was taken in by Bal Sahyog, a government-run home established in 1954, years after being found alone at a railway station in Etawah. Rekha, who worked as a child domestic help in Delhi and Pankaj, whose love for his father saw him go from one job to the other, were taken in by Salaam Balak Trust – a non-profit providing support for street and working children.
SOS Children’s Villages says that India is home to 20 million orphans, a figure projected to increase by 2021. Most of these children have been abandoned by their parents. In fact, the charity estimates that only 0.3 per cent of these orphans are children whose parents have actually died.
Here are their extraordinary stories:
Lost at the station
When just two years old, Manoj was rescued from a railway station. It seems his parents lost or abandoned him. Now 23 years old, Manoj says he has only dim memories about his parents or his life before that fateful day when he was at a railway station going for a holiday with them. “I think I was being fussy about food, demanding something from the stalls. My parents must have gotten frustrated and mother said, ‘No I won’t give you’, and they must have left me by myself for just a little while. Someone picked me up and gave me food.”
In his growing years, he tried to piece things together in his head. “As I grew up, I saw other children and could associate around what time I saw my parents last. Every time I met someone, they would ask me what happened, where I was going to, who was I with, so these things have stayed with me”, he tells us as we meet at the Centre which was his home for six years.
This person took Manoj to a village in Etawah. “He was one of six sons of a respected man there, but was the worst of the lot. He was a pickpocket, and also had a home in Delhi with another woman.”
Manoj ran away three to four times because of the abuse he faced at the hands of his “rescuer” but was always brought back by the police, who would stop him and enquire his name and address.
“Fear had set in” he says, about what his life held, with no family of his own, being beaten – it was so much he says, that now “even if I want to cry the tears don’t come out – having to do all the housework and also work in the cowshed. “They have even unsuccessfully tried to bid me away, but no one bought me, so I had stayed”, Manoj says. Then when he was six years old, he was brought to Delhi’s Nizamuddin to live with the man’s other wife and child— a daughter.
Even in Delhi he tried running away, but the police would take him back. One day things changed. “It was 15th August and I was playing outside, and Simran, his daughter was also there. Suddenly we couldn’t find her. I was very scared, even his wife got really scared thinking about how violently he would react.”
He didn’t wait to see what happens and instead ran away to Seelampur, where he started working in an auto repair shop. He also sold water inside buses around the Seelampur area on some days.
The auto workshop owner’s relative had lost a son. “He started treating me like his own, showering me with love, giving me good food. My employer didn’t like this and handed me over to the police”.
The police then took him to a government-run orphanage Bal Sahyog, which got him admitted him in Grade 3 at Deen Dayal Upadhyay School where he studied till 12th Grade. “I have spent half my life here. Whatever I am is because of them.”
The home became a refuge and a place he could indulge his growing love for computers. This helped him develop some skill and a passion which led him to take up the course in BCA (Bachelor’s in Computer Application) from IGNOU, where he’s currently in his 2nd year.
And this helped him secure a job with NDMC as a desktop support engineer.
He plans on doing much more. After working for two months at Lajpat Nagar’s Westside mall and an internship with Jabong, he realised it wasn’t for him. “As I was growing up, I had thought that if I don’t enjoy what I’m doing, I won’t do it. I had spent my entire life in misery. So, I left that.”
As he turned 18, Bal Sahyog bid him farewell. A cook who worked there, however, promised to help with the boarding, and he has been with him ever since. “From the money I earned I could start paying him rent, I also bought myself a Scooty on instalment. But even today I have to think hard before doing something, because if I take even one wrong step there’ll be no one to help me up”.
Manoj dreams of opening a little dhaba someday and making it successful, and then finally turning it into a hotel. He hopes that this would not just help him improve his own life but also give him a chance to find his parents.
“I wanted to apply for Delhi Police, even the armed forces, but they ask about parents and I didn’t know how to go about it. I don’t know a lot. People ask me what my religion is. I don’t know, the family that first took me in were Hindu so I became a Hindu. Maybe my parents were Muslim, but I don’t know.”
Some also ask about his caste. They were Thakurs, so he calls himself that. “I don’t have a birth certificate, they said I was born in 1997 so that’s what I have taken it as. They gave me the name Manoj so I took that.”
Many times, he has thought of looking for his biological parents. When he turned 18, he thought maybe he can go to that area and ask all police stations. But he doesn’t think he would be able to find them. “They don’t know if I’m alive or not,” is his gloomy conclusion.
New stage set
Thirty-year-old Pankaj’s life began in Delhi’s Mongolpuri where he lived with his parents, an elder brother and two younger sisters. His father worked as a scrap dealer, and things were hard, made worse by an alcoholic father.
“One can imagine how difficult it is to have an alcoholic in your family. My mother suffered a lot of abuse and she finally decided to leave him”, Pankaj tells us. She took the girls with her to Kanpur’s Jhinjhak – leaving 7-year-old Pankaj and his 11-year-old brother with their father.
After that, it became an endless quest for his father to bring back the mother. “My father tried very hard to bring her back but my mother’s brother would not allow her to. They knew he wouldn’t stop drinking.”
Things back in Mongolpuri turned from bad to worse. The brother ran away from home, the drinking continued and Pankaj’s father incurred a lot of debt to fuel his habit and for his frequent travels to Uttar Pradesh. He also stopped dealing in scrap and instead started rag picking. Pankaj helped him.
People would come home and threaten his father and abuse him. “It was a few months after mother had left, and around 5-6 people had come home demanding money. They had come with the intent to beat him up, so we fled.”
They went to Jhinjhak, “but mother didn’t care as father was an alcoholic, so believing him was a problem.” His father found a solution by leaving the now 8-year-old Pankaj at a dhaba to work would be a solution. “He thought that if my uncle saw me working here he would feel ashamed, as he had a good reputation in that area, and would then send my mother back”.
Pankaj spent 2-3 months washing utensils while his father went to Ferozabad to work in a bangle making factory. “My father then returned, trying to convince my mother but she didn’t relent. So he took me with him and I started working in the factory as well”.
Another few months later the father decided to make another attempt to bring his wife back. With no positive response yet again, Pankaj was left at another dhaba to work. “In the meantime, my brother who had ran away from home visited my mother who told him about me. By then he was with Salaam Balak so he came to take me with him”.
Pankaj made a deal, asking his mother to go back to his father and in return, he would go with his brother to Delhi. His mother agreed.
With tears in his eyes, he tells us how he reached Salaam Balak in 1998. “For the first time, I had a chance to study in school but it was too late in the year so they couldn’t enrol me”, he recalls. But a door opened for him. Another boy by the name of Pankaj ran away right before his class 1 exams and so a teacher asked him to give the exam in the other boy’s place.
“I got the first position and I remember the trustee gave me wax crayons. That was the first ever-present I got. I don’t remember if I ever got a present from my family so this will always be something I will remember.”
He then jumped up to grade 3. But just as things were looking up, his parents came to get him, saying they felt lonely. “My sisters had been left at a relative’s home and now they lived in Ferozabad. Although I didn’t want to leave, I couldn’t say no to my father”, Pankaj says as he tell us about seeing his father beg to feed him at times, something he couldn’t forget.
“I told them I really want to study and my father said he would make me. I went back with them and I started working at the factory again. I also sold bhelpuri, after working from 8 am to 6 pm, outside a liquor shop. My father didn’t enrol me into school. saying he didn’t have the means to.”
As months passed by, Pankaj says he started to compare his life when he had been rehabilitated in the home to where he was now. “I started telling my father that you can’t take my money, it’s mine. I told him not to beat mother. Then one day he beat me a lot when I opposed him. I was just so frustrated by then: I would be beaten constantly, had no friends, no time to play. I only worked all the time yet couldn’t eat a meal in peace, had to see my mother being beaten and so I decided to run away and go back to Salaam Balak.” He was then nine years old.
“I went to the railway station, and I kept thinking for two days if I should go to Delhi”, and he decided he must. He caught the train to the capital city without a ticket, scared all the way of being caught by the ticket checker. “I didn’t even know there was something like old and new Delhi, but some babas who had seen me and understood something was up, told me how to get to New Delhi”.
He reached the station at night, sleeping outside till 5 in the morning before looking for the Trust. “When I reached, I was told my brother was shifted to some other place with older children. I promised I will not leave no matter who comes. I started studying and although I wasn’t great at it, I had decided that I will at least graduate.”
His real passion was for theatre. “As a child I really loved theatre. If you offer me nice things or nice places to out to, I would have chosen instead to practice. It made me really happy.”
By 2007, his drama teacher left for Mumbai, and Pankaj was taken in as a peer educator with a stipend of Rs 1,000. He recently completed 10 years in Salaam Balak as a theatre teacher, working independently directing plays for them for the past five years.
He wanted to get formal training but his father passed away in 2006, which meant he could not continue his studies while also having to work, do theatre and support his family who had no source of income now. “Instead I split my time between theatre and earning some money. After 10th I did open schooling so as to give more time to theatre.”
“In 2008, when I tried for National School of Drama, I learnt that you have to be a college graduate. So I thought, forget it.”
Years passed, and in 2012 he auditioned at Kingdom of Dreams and has been working with them since in their Bollywood musical production named Jhumroo. He also works as a freelancer, and was associated with Astad Deboo as a dancer since 2008 to 2013 which saw him travel across the world, to countries like Spain and Mexico. He has even had small roles in films like Saandh ki Ankh, and in the Netflix web series Delhi Crime.
“I bought my mother a home in Sultanpuri in 2015. I got my sisters married. My brother is following in my father’s footsteps. So I do whatever I can for my mother,” he says.
Domestic help to University graduate
Rekha was born in UP’s Palia Kalan into the Tharu tribe. She was the second of three children – an older sister and younger brother.
With her father being mentally ill, she says, he was violent with her mother, having sudden outbursts in the middle of normalcy. “She left me with my father and grandmother, taking my siblings with her to my Nani’s (maternal grandmother) home. I hated her for leaving me”.
Then five years old, she couldn’t understand why her mother left her there. “I cried a lot when she left, I thought she has disowned me”.
But life went on in the small village, where her father owned a small piece of land where they grew all their food. “I started forgetting my mother’s face. My father stopped farming because of his illness and only stayed home while my grandmother worked”.
Her father’s elder brother and wife would visit sometimes, and say they would take Rekha away as there was no one to care for her. The day came when she was seven years old, Rekha believes. The couple turned out to be a violent duo, drinking at night and beating each other up. “I used to get so scared that I would run and hide behind the wheel of the tractor at night.”
One day, her aunt and uncle decided she must leave with a woman to Delhi. This woman was the daughter of the family on whose land they worked. “She had just gotten married and they wanted me to go with her. They said they would educate me. I was very excited as I wanted to study.”
She then reached the home located in Vikaspuri, “they had a joint family and I would call them aunty, mummy, so it felt okay”. She spent her days looking after one of their family members, a little child, much younger than her 8-year-old self.
But then, the domestic help, who was in her 30s, Rekha says, was removed and then she was asked to start doing the housework. “I would wash the utensils, clean the house, make rotis. Everything I did poorly, as I had never done all this. If I burnt rotis, I would toss them out of the window. I was so small, I had to use a stool to reach the kitchen counter.”
It was not just the labour they put her through but the women were also abusive, kicking her and being violent. “They would also say that my mum doesn’t love me and if she did, she would have come and taken me. They would say this was my life now”.
As per Census 2011, the total child population in India in the age group (5-14) years is 259.6 million. Of these, 10.1 million (3.9% of total child population) are working, either as ‘main worker’ or as ‘marginal worker’. In addition, more than 42.7 million children in India are out of school.
“At night it would become so dark, like I didn’t know what to do, I was all alone. But slowly all the work became normal for me”, and then almost two years since working there, the day came which broke all that normalcy. Rekha’s mother was looking for her and found the landline number of the home she was working in. “When they told me it was my mother calling, I was shocked, I had fever that whole day.”
The family, in turn, told her it was a lie, that it wasn’t her mother. But a few days later a social worker came along with Rekha’s mother and sister to the house.
I saw this woman standing there in a red saree, telling me she was my mother. I was so scared, I had forgotten her face completely, I didn’t know who this person was. As for her sister, Rekha remembered she had broken her arm and it was in a cast, but all these years later, of course, the cast was off.
“I cried a lot that day and fell ill. So, my sister did all the housework for me. My mother started crying, she told me all my family members and their names, everything about our village. But I still wasn’t getting convinced. She then told me father had cancer and was going to die soon. I was very attached to him, so that’s when I changed my mind and decided to go with them”.
The family whose home Rekha worked at didn’t want to let go, so the social worker who had come with them from Katyayani Balika Ashram threatened to take the matter up with the police.
“I went back home to UP and stayed there for a year. Then my mother brought me back to Delhi and put me in the Ashram where they helped with the education of children till 8th grade”. She was then taken to the Child Welfare Committee who then directed them to Salaam Balak.
Since then she stayed with them. The now 20-year-old got a scholarship when she was in 11th grade. And in May 2019, she graduated from Amity University with an Honours degree in Spanish.
She tried a corporate job in Tech Mahindra since then, but couldn’t continue after working for a month. She stays on rent, paying for it by working with an NGO since July, taking workshops on menstrual hygiene which pays Rs 10,000-12,000 a month.
Her father passed away just after she was moved to the ashram. Her mother has been working in another branch of the ashram as a cook for over 10 years.
She plans to apply to Accenture and Amazon, but her dream is to be recruited by a travel agency.
This article was first published in The Patriot.