Fun. That single word describes my recent visit to the children of Mukta Jeevan. Not a word you’d typically associate with a visit to an orphanage for HIV infected children. But, if you’ve been following my relationship to Mukta Jeevan, it should not surprise you.
As sad as it is that any child should be in this situation, the young ones at Mukta Jeevan will convince you that they’re doing just fine. No, I’m not by any measure diminishing the gravity of their plight but I see these children as the best possible ambassadors of hope and possibilities. Given that they are HIV positive and without family, a state that marginalizes them in society, the nuns at Mukta Jeevan are providing them the love, care and opportunity to grow, thrive and make something of themselves.
But, let me get back to my recent visit. I had set up my date with the children before leaving for India. My visit with them is always a high point for me so I love the anticipation I feel once I know when I’ll be seeing them. I’d learned from my niece Brinda, who’d met them for the first time in November 2015, that the girls had confided to her that they’d really like to get make-up. Of course! They were growing up and like all girls, they wanted make-up. So natural right?
Yet, I’d been so focused on ensuring their education and music instruction, I hadn’t stopped to consider their other interests. However, as the mother of a teenage daughter, I completely understood this need. In the past, I’d got them hair accessories but make-up never came to mind. Besides, as one who barely uses any make-up, it is not exactly something I routinely think about. Given my daughter’s growing interest in it as well as my niece’s expertise and knowledge in that area, I should have seen this coming!
The days leading up to my departure found me buying lipsticks, eye shadows, blush, eyeliners galore. I also tossed in plenty of pretty hair ornaments. Make up brushes and sponges. Nail polishes, fake nails and mani-pedi kits. I had fun filling up my shopping cart. And nary a twinge was felt at the cash register – the girls deserved this gift.
On March 7, I arrived at Mukta Jeevan barely containing my eagerness to see everybody. Sister Barbara and I greeted each other with the joy and affection that old friends reserve for each other. It has been 7 years since she took over the leadership at Mukta Jeevan but I feel we’ve been friends much longer. It is a friendship I value very much.
Side bar – Sr B is being transferred to another mission this coming June. Another nun will take charge of Mukta Jeevan. This is normal in the order of the Helpers Of Mary. While I look forward to forging a new friendship with Sr B’s replacement and continuing my commitment to the children, I am really sorry to see my dear friend go. No doubt, we will remain in touch and close friends always. I wish her the very best in her new appointment and I am certain she will do brilliant work just as she has done here.
The warm welcome extended to me at this place always makes me feel like a million dollars. There is something so genuine and fundamentally pure in the way the Sisters treat everybody that I cannot fail to respond in kind. I’m my better self in their midst. After a quick but delicious breakfast, Sr B and I had a quick catch up in her office. I told her about what was new in my life, how husband and daughter were doing etc., and she spoke of her upcoming transfer and how the children were doing. It struck me that her easy acceptance and readiness for this change is a lesson for me to take to heart. To not hold on too tight but instead, go where you are led with open mind and heart.
I was pleased to present Sister with a generous check from the Episcopal church in my town. St. Mary the Virgin Mary (SMTV) has an Outreach program through which the parishioners support several charities both local and overseas. For the last couple of years, SMTV has added Mukta Jeevan to their list of organizations to help. I am immensely grateful to the members of this church for believing in my cause. Sr B was very appreciative as well. She understands more than most how much and how far such assistance can impact.
And then we went to see the girls. They are now only girls residing here as the boys were shifted to a facility for boys where they would have the kind of care and instruction that they required. However, Mukta Jeevan pays for their living and educational costs.
I was so delighted to see all the adorable faces! But my, how they’ve grown. They are not babies any more. And the older girls are young women. Beautiful women. Their numbers are now down to 37. With the 15 or so boys gone, they were already down from the previous count of 60. In addition, when the girls get to age 18, they shift to the women with HIV house. The nuns at Mukta Jeevan maintain this facility as well. In fact, some of those women run the kitchen at the children’s house.
I was in for a treat. The girls sang songs of their own composition, they demonstrated what they’ve begun learning on the keyboard and they performed dances of their own choreography. Only recently have Sr B been able to find a music teacher so they haven’t been getting keyboard lessons for very long. But clearly they were appreciative of the music education that I, with the monetary support of many friends, family and SMTV have got started.
Six of the oldest girls were studying upstairs for their high school senior finals. But they did take a short break to come say hello to me. Next year, they will be in junior college! The ageing van will take them to and fro every day. The pride with which Sr B spoke of these young ladies was exactly as a true mother would demonstrate. I myself felt so proud of all the children and so humbled by their resilience and determination to succeed.
I loved this performance! And it was all for my benefit alone. That was special. I was even presented with a bouquet of home-grown flowers and a beautifully made card. Treasures.
Once the ‘show’ was over, Sr B made her exit as she rightfully figured the girls would then talk to me more freely. I gave them American candy and the stash of make-up. We discussed use, sharing, cleanliness, less was more when it came to make-up, having fun applying make-up on each other, celebrating girlhood etc., Typical girl stuff! I’ve asked them to send me photos of their made-up selves. Can’t wait!
As I bid farewell, they did say that on my next visit they’d like to see my daughter Mira and niece Brinda again. Clearly, these young women look up to those two as role models. I am after all merely the benevolent aunt. I get it.
Lunch with the nuns and then I was off. Completely fulfilled and happy beyond measure. The children are thriving. That is all that matters.
I hope you will enjoy the photos and videos. I’m sharing a special part of my heart.
Here are videos of the girls:
(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar