Monday, April 21, 2008

Mermier Bal Ashram, New Mumbai

One lakh, as they say locally. A hundred thousand, to you and me. That’s how many children live on the streets of Mumbai. In the whole of India, twenty million. Try as you might, there’s no way to make that a comfortable tally. That’s a lot of small people, who don’t know what bedtime stories are. It makes you think.

We go to visit the Mermier Bal Ashram, in Koparkhairane, New Mumbai, home to fifty-five “street children and rag-pickers,” between the ages of four and eighteen. As we stand in the reception area, with boxes of lentils and flour at our feet, boys drift downstairs, to have a look at us. Some of them risk a quick “Hello!” before scampering away, stifling giggles. Whatever their past or future, they’re still just boys.

In 1834, in Annecy, France, Father Pierre Mermier founded a missionary religious congregation under the patronage of Saint Francis de Sales – the Missionaries of Saint Francis de Sales, known as Fransalians. When Father Mermier asked Rome for a mission, he thought he’d be sent to Africa, but the African mission wasn’t to happen for another century. Instead, India was to be his first challenge. In 1845, after a three-month voyage, Father Mermier and his five fellow-missionaries finally landed at Pondicherry, South India. Today, the work of the Fransalians is widespread across India, as well as many other developing countries.

In 1996, current members of the order decided that the street children of Mumbai needed direct, practical help, and set up a charitable trust, the Jan Vikas Society. In 2000, The Mermier Bal Ashram was opened, offering not only accommodation, but aiming to cater for the children’s “nutritional, educational, and psychological needs.” They now have rehabilitation centres for girls, such as the Vaduz Bal Ashram in Panvel, as well as several day centres.

On the wall, by the entrance to the Koparkhairane ashram, their mission statement: “to actualise the individuality of the child and make him a mature and self-sufficient man in his future.” Underneath it, a card reads, “rescue, redress, rehabilitation.” It all seems very grandiose and laudable, and then I look at the skinny-legged boys, washing the floor of the open-sided ground-floor hall, hoping to be those very same mature and self-sufficient men, at some point. “Later, we have Mass here,” explains the Father in charge, waving his thanks to the floor-sweepers.

Collected from railway-stations or bus depots, or just off the streets, these boys have all been abandoned. One of the staff, Vijay, points to the smallest of them, and says, “This boy no know, ‘Here is my house.’ Home here now.” Too small, when he was found on the street, to have any idea of where he came from. The original plan, to re-unite these children with their families, had to be reconsidered, because of the growing number of children abandoned deliberately, now too traumatised to return. Some of them are simply orphans, others have one parent who can’t cope, or can’t afford to keep their own child. If they have a parent, there are occasional trips back, for a brief visit. Otherwise, the ashram’s home.

Upstairs, in the playroom-classroom-dormitory, maybe twenty boys are whiling away the afternoon until tea-time. None of them has shoes on his feet, but this is India: their battered trainers and worn flip-flops are in racks by the door. A couple of the older ones flick tokens across a board, in some souped-up version of draughts. Others have nothing better to do than spectate, or idly throw a ball around. Younger ones scoot toy cars to each other across the dusty floor, absorbed - brmm-brmm would appear to be substantially the same in Hindi, as far as I can tell. It’s at once so familiar, yet so other. None of the boys looks at us, hovering in the doorway, but they all know we’re here.

Vijay’s worked at the ashram for eleven years, so he’s seen the first rescued children grow into young men. They learn English, he says, calling a boy over. I ask him his name. He points at his own chest. “I name Akash.” “And, how old are you, Akash?” I reckon he’s about eight. “I thirteen,” he says. He has cheeky eyes and an irresistible grin, the Essential Boy, in my book. Vijay says that, as well as lessons, they’re taught a trade – carpentry, or tailoring, or welding – so that they can find work, when they leave at 18. The society funds itself, in part, by running a printing business, so the boys can learn this skill, too.

Up another floor, more dormitories and offices, and a computer-room, with half a dozen PCs, swathed in plastic against the permanent seeping dust. It’s holiday-time, now, but the boys still have scheduled IT lessons. On the “Holiday” timetable pinned to the wall, I notice both morning and afternoon slots labelled “STUDY,” and can’t help but think of some boys of my personal acquaintance who’d take a very dim view of that...and of the “9.00 p.m.: Good Night!”

It has to be said, they look happy enough – the carers are very caring, the boys are fed, they’re off the street, they’ve got a real hope of staying off the streets, and, most importantly, they have each other. It’s still not what you and I understand by “childhood,” though.

As we leave, a boy hurtles past us, on the stairs, furiously ringing a hand-bell in every doorway, with a summons no-one will ignore. It’s time for tea.