Committed to Shishu, Swami

Swami's happiest memory of his childhood days is of Mama's birthday during his first year at Shishu. She gave him a set of clothes - a black pant, white shirt and a pair of shoes. It was the first time he was given clothes that were new and entirely his own.

"I don't know when I was born. My parents don't remember the date. I was given a date of birth when I joined Shishu Mandir. Mama picked it for me - July 1st. In my records, my birth year is 1984. I celebrate my birthday on July 1st."

Swami was born in a village in Andhra Pradesh. His father ran a small store selling seeds for agricultural cultivation. When he went into a loss, he left the house. Swami and his younger brother were left in the care of their grandparents, while his mother worked to keep the family afloat. When his father returned three months later, it was to tell his family that he had been away in Bangalore working, and that he believed they would be happy there. There was no reason for the family to remain in their village, with no income and no prospect of employment. The family, consisting of Swami, his brother and their parents packed their meagre belongings and left, to seek their fortunes in the city, a phenomenon common across the length and breadth of the country.

They took a bus to get to Bangalore. "It was during the monsoons. I remember being hungry and crying," says Swami. His father had no money and his mother requested the bus driver for some money. The man obliged by buying Swami and his brother their dinner.

In Bangalore, the rain did not let up. Swami's father also didn't seem to remember how to reach the construction site where a job waited for him. After several hours walking in the rain, they managed to reach the site, on Langford Road, near the Hockey Stadium. This site was to be their home for several months. Swami's parents both found work as coolies. The family had no supplies, no utensils to cook their meals in, no bedding, nothing. At night they slept on centering sheets with lungis as blankets. The engineer at the site was Jayaram, a kindly man and considerate towards the people he hired. He gave Swami's family some utensils to use. Eight months later, he also shifted them to another construction site, this time employing them as the "watchman family". This meant that for the duration of the construction, Swami's parents would live at the site, in a small house temporarily constructed for them. With this, things began to look up just a little bit.

Jayaram also hired a teacher to come to the site and teach the children of the construction workers. The construction site was huge and there were 100 to 150 children. It was the first time Swami was attending a class, any class at all. However, he didn't enjoy it very much. Instead, he preferred to run errands for Jayaram or do anything that kept him out of the classroom. Around this time, another brother was born to Swami's parents. As the oldest sibling, Swami was now the responsible one. He shared everything he got with his brothers, whether it was clothes or food.

Jayaram must have realised that this boy with his malnourished dull hair and wounds covering his legs had to go to school if he were to have a chance at a better life. Left in the construction site, it was only a matter of time before he too would start working. One day, Jayaram brought Swami to Ulsoor, to a place for children like him. It was called Shishu Mandir. The boy cried at being plucked out of his all too familiar surroundings. But Jayaram insisted that he try it out.

Swami did not know how to read or write. He did not want to go to school either. Yet, within a couple of days, the warm and tasty meals, the caring teachers, the comfort of a classroom, changed his feelings towards Shishu. Although he was already around 10 years old, he'd had no schooling to back him, and was admitted to the 2nd standard.

Swami began to look forward to life in Shishu. He continued to stay with his parents. Every morning he changed two buses to reach Ulsoor. Once there, he would stand in wait at the beginning of the street for Ramu the stray dog that lived there terrified him. Soon enough, one of the aunties would arrive to fetch him. He would spend the day at Shishu, having his lessons and his meals. In the evening, it was two buses back. Sometimes a teacher would drop him to the bus stand or as close to his house as possible. For the first time, Swami says, he felt like a child. Young and without too many worries to burden him.

However, Swami's parents disapproved of his education at Shishu although they could not provide anything substantial themselves. As the oldest, Swami was perhaps expected to shoulder more responsibilities than a child of his age could. Increasingly Swami felt torn between his parents' expectations of him and the life that Shishu Mandir offered. He did not want to displease his parents, but he didn't know how to accept the life Shishu Mandir offered without evoking their displeasure. Unable to handle the stress, he ran away from his house and Shishu one day. He got in and out of buses and by midnight, fell asleep on a road somewhere. A beat constable picked him up and took him to a nearby hotel where he was given a meal and a place to sleep. At 3 in the morning, he was woken up to start helping in the kitchen. Confused he looked around, only to be told that if he wanted food to eat and a place to sleep, he had to wash dishes in return. Swami went to the kitchen to work. He worked there for three days and realised he was not safe. Strange men tried to abuse him and he knew he had to get out as soon as he could. So, in the middle of the night, on the pretext of going to the bathroom, he slipped out of the hotel. He walked to the railway station and worked there as a coolie for a few days before he eventually returned to his parents' house. For six months, he missed school. And for six months, the staff at Shishu - Shashi Rao, the Principal, and Pearl, the Social Worker - looked for Swami.

Happy that he was back and realising that living with his parents did not make life easier for Swami, the Shishu staff admitted him to the Home. Within a month and a half, he ran away again, this time going back to his parents. As expected, he began working as a coolie. "One day, I was carrying a load of stones on my head when I saw David. He was standing outside the construction site waiting for me. When he saw me, he came and pulled my ear, and asked me to come back," says Swami. David was one of the older kids in Shishu and Swami's friend. Seeing him reminded Swami of a better life that was available to him, and he agreed to return. Coming back to Shishu, he vividly remembers standing at the door for 45 minutes, embarrassed at his recurrent escapades, and ashamed too, for not telling anyone where he was.

The best thing to come out of this, perhaps, was that Swami was given a bicycle so that he could go to Aiya's (Dr. Dwarka Das Mundhra) house every evening, to study under his tutelage. "Aiya would call me Swamiji," he says. "I remember him telling me to stand on my own feet and not depend on anyone." During his summer holidays he regularly worked at the Cambridge Book Store near Shishu, earning Rs 700 at first and Rs 900 in the following month.

Despite all these efforts, Swami found it extremely difficult to study and grasp the lessons. Looking back, he wonders if it was the years lost during his early childhood, or if it was his inability to cope with the lessons that was the issue. He was older than most of the other children in his class and this too posed a problem, when he entered adolescence before many of his classmates did. He expressed the desire to start vocational training right away to be in a position to support his family at the earliest. After discontinuing school, he pursued his studies through the National Open School system, while he worked. Yet, Swami's heart was not in this job. He was a diligent and hard worker, but what he wanted was to learn a skill. When Mama and Anand asked him what he would like, he expressed a desire to learn carpentry. Swami was admitted in a reputed vocational training institute for Carpentry classes. But this turned out to be a disaster. When the teacher realised that Swami knew good English and was able to confidently have a conversation in the language, he gave him the text book and said, "Now you teach the others!" Swami stopped going there immediately after.

While Hella would have preferred to see him apprentice under a professional carpenter, Swami chose to look for a job. He found employment as Office Boy in an advertising agency. Hella was not happy, but as months went by, even she could not ignore the fact that Swami made up for his lack of education by being a conscientious worker. In a short while, he moved up the ladder and went on to join a verification company, where he worked for three years as Team Leader. The days were long, the work was hard, but Swami stuck it through. When he decided to move out of the Shishu Home, it was Anand and his wife who helped him rent a house so that his parents and brothers too could live with him. When Swami began working, his mother stopped. And too quickly, the responsibility of the entire household fell on Swami's young shoulders. "Anand Sir helped me deal with it. The whole family was now my responsibility and it was with Anand Sir's help that I learnt how to manage it." "When I was younger, I used to want to be an engineer like Jayaram. Now I see Mama and I want to support her in her dream for Shishu," says Swami. Although Hella had already moved to Germany when Swami joined Shishu, she followed his progress at every stage. She saw that he was an eager and obedient child, very emotional and always so torn between his family's demands and the prospect of a better future for himself. With the years, he grew closer to his Shishu family. They became the support system he needed.

When Swami chose to leave his verification job because he refused to falsify a document, Shishu Mandir opened its doors for Swami. "At every important stage in my life, Shishu Mandir, and especially Mama, Anand Sir and his wife, have played an important role, in my education, in my career and even in my marriage."

At Shishu Mandir, Swami is the Technical Manager. He has become the man who everyone trusts and depends on. He is there early in the morning assisting Anand in various operations and maintenance tasks. He is there until late in the evening and at any time of the day or night if required. He is fast becoming an indispensable asset to Shishu Mandir, the one who everyone calls if there is a problem in the premises, or if something is not working. Swami is the one who carries the keys to everything in the school.

For Mama, Swami is an ideal Shishu child, who despite lacking extended educational qualifications, shows what integrity and hardwork can do. She sees him as someone who has earned her respect for those very qualities, something she would like to see the children of Shishu Mandir embody as much as possible. Which is why in the last ten years, Swami has been recognised and honoured twice as an achiever among the students. The first time was in 2000 and again, in 2008 during the Silver Jubilee celebrations of the organisation.

Swami's most endearing quality is perhaps his unconditional loyalty to Shishu and Hella. When she visits, he is at the airport to receive her. And during her stay, no matter how late it is or tired he is, he will stop by at the Home for a chat and a game of Chinese Checkers, Hella's favourite. Often, he lets her win. They both know that he could have won. "I am happy when she wins. It makes her forget the many tensions of the day. It's a small thing I can do for someone who has given us so much."