By Rujuta Pendharkar Singh
What could be nobler than spending time with kids at an orphanage, right? The smile that greets you when you enter their home, makes for a better picture than any camera could capture.
You generally think that such a visit will bring joy to these children. In reality perhaps, your visit to an orphanage gives you more than it gives the kids. The innocence of their world leaves your soul churning. When you meet a three-year-old boy, and learn that he has inherited HIV from his dead parents, you find yourself questioning if god exists.
They know they have a bimari, a disease that ripped them away from their families and made them orphans.
They appear overjoyed when you give them gifts. Some love it when you read them stories. When they fall asleep on your lap, you don’t want to move till they wake up.
When you sit with them, and talk to them, you become their window to the ‘normal’ world. “Where do you work? How much do you earn? Do you have kids? Where do you live? How big is your home?” They ask all sort of questions.
But the real questions that they are seeking answers for, lie hidden in their hearts – “Can I also do what you do, when I grow up? Can I also live how you live?
You think, a visit from you makes ample difference to their simple lives. But what if, instead of making a difference, we end up making them realise that they are different?
One Sunday, a friend and I decided to sponsor lunch for an orphanage that houses around 30 HIV positive kids.
We arrived at the orphanage at around 11am. There was a birthday party going on. What I saw that day really moved me.
The birthday girl was dressed in a pink princess dress with a glittering tiara on her head. She was being spoilt silly by her parents. She looked very happy as she cut cake and handed out gifts, while her parents took her pictures.
But then there were the less privileged kids. The orphans, for whom this birthday treat was supposed to bring joy, were sitting around her wearing forced expressions.
Imagine, you only get a Sunday to get up late, not go to school, and play all day. But on this day every week, strangers come to your home, to enjoy their birthdays and anniversaries.
These kids were made to sing the birthday song. They sang without any emotion, as if it was a routine they played out every weekend. They posed for the pictures with a manufactured smile.
Many kids in that orphanage have been abandoned by their family because of social stigma associated with HIV. The way these children looked at the birthday girl being pampered by her family spoke everything they couldn’t say. They wished they could be her. No one celebrated their birthdays after all.
They were very happy to receive gifts and chocolates though. I offered my chocolate to a little boy sitting beside me and he refused saying, “Fir aap kya khaoge?” (what will you eat?). Tears welled up in my eyes.
Many of us celebrate our or our children’s birthdays in an orphanage with good intentions. Some of us do it to make our children develop empathy. While our intentions are noble, it can be less than pleasant for these kids.
By celebrating our birthdays at an orphanage, we make orphans feel even more like orphans.
Here’s a thought - instead of celebrating your birthday with them, why not celebrate theirs?
(Views expressed are personal opinions of the author.)