I watched with great interest the documentary film Mother India: Life through the Eyes of the Orphan (2012). With 31,000,000 orphans in India, this film briefly invites us into the lives of 25 orphaned or abandoned young people (ages three to 25) who live along the railroad 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, brilliant human beings worthy of our consideration. David and Shawn interviewed the children and tried to see life through their eyes. Young people sleep together on concrete or dirt floors filled with needles and condoms. Some sleep in store windows. They wrapped themselves in blankets to avoid mosquitoes and to be recognized as an exploitable young man.
Children beg for food money from passing train passengers, sometimes first “cleaning” or sweeping the floor of the train car, and then spreading their hands for a rupee or two (one or two cents). At the end of the day, they may have a dollar or two to buy food. The leader of the group was the solicitous Reddy (“I only have my mother; she beat me, so I left”), in his early 20s but had already lived on the streets for more than 10 years. Reddy would bring the group together to help each other. Lakshmi was abused by a foster father who burned her with a hot rod of steel. When her boyfriend saw her talking to another boy, he forced her to reach under the train. He lost two fingers. Crying, she said she had a baby, but that he died when she was three days old. Satkyananda’s parents were killed in a bus accident. Nagareju’s parents beat him up and he ran away. A third of the children were missing a limb, often from falls while jumping off the train (train jump). The kids first wanted to show David and Shawn their injuries: missing fingers, hand, arm, leg, deep injuries. That is an important component not hidden, but generally ignored, of the pain that they carried.
“Not upstairs, but in between,” David and Shawn decide to leave their comfortable air-conditioned room at the Gotham Hotel and sleep with the homeless youth on the concrete and dirt floor. They experienced, if only for one night, exposure to extremely hot weather and a large number of biting mosquitoes. Waking up early, they saw the children curled up and asleep together, a security group like a group of puppies, lots of people covered in blankets. Children brush their teeth in the well with their fingers and the dust produced on the spot by rubbing the bricks.
Young people are invited to go to a fair where they all have fun and get excited, play and ride, distracting them from constant attention to the need 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 their sadness.” Some “puffed” inhaling fumes from rags soaked in Erazex, a “White-Out” correction fluid that cost 50 cents, “to avoid the pain of police beatings, cold and rain in winter, and mosquito bites.” A trip to The burial place of a young man who died three weeks before of an overdose is filmed.
The children were sexualized, the older children abused the younger ones. Geetha tells the sad story of her sale to the red light district, sex for money. By chance, two men who recognized him took him back to the youth hostel. Folding her hands in prayer, Geetha says, “I am grateful to these two men.” HIV / AIDS is common among these young people.
However, they have hopes and dreams. His eyes can still light up. “I want to run my own business and enjoy life like a normal person.” “I want to be a mechanic.” “I want a good house and get married.” “I want to have a house for myself.” David and Shawn turn to their friends at Harvest India, to place the two youngest children, brothers, Kotegwari, a seven-year-old girl and Polayya, a three-year-old boy, in their main orphanage. The group fills a bus and goes to see the orphanage, where they cut their hair, bathe, receive new clothes, and savor a delicious meal of chicken, various curries, rice, and yogurt. The children were radiant, “walking differently”, with freshness, self-respect and dignity.
Reddy and the children support Kotegwari and Polayya in moving into the orphanage, although they would not choose to live there. Suresh and Christina Kumar oversee the day-to-day operations of Harvest India, a service for, with and from orphaned, abandoned and unaccompanied children. They provide a home for 1,400 children in 26 different locations. Harvest India has been around for over 40 years. Suresh says discarded children are miserable, distrustful, feel betrayed, homeless, abandoned, with no one to talk to, abused, without a mother and father, consumed instead of cared for, exploited instead of loved. Suresh himself grew up in an orphanage where, after his father died young, his mother found work. Suresh and Christina begin the process where Harvest India can adopt Kotegwari and Polayya.
Harvesting India with all the good it is doing is not without criticism (fair or otherwise) for not being frank about its Christian missionary approach of converting 74% of the Hindu population and 12% of the Muslim population (and other minority religions ) to Christianity, which is currently only 6% of the population of India. Yet this movie awakens our consciousness in the mind and heart, influencing our world for the better, small steps toward potentially great healing.