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A Day in Bal Mandir


A day in Bal Mandir

By Anand Gurung

Sometimes even charity can seem so ugly, especially when it is done out of a feeling of pity instead of real affection. It was International Women's Day, and Nepal Beautician's Association had organised a programme for the children of Bal Mandir orphanage at the banquet Hall of the old palace it is housed in, at Naxal. Mostly little boys and girls aged between 5 to 10 years had gathered in the hall enthusiastic about the function, as any children of their age would be. They were very noisy and ran around the hall, jumped on top of the old and dank sofas, much to the irritation of the elderly nanny who had to constantly tell them to keep quiet.

The beauticians started coming in ones and twos inside the hall after finishing their tour of the orphanage. As they were in the business of hair-care and personal grooming, the ladies looked all spruced up and they had a certain air about themselves, which was accentuated by their heavy perfume. Soon the T.V crew and press photographers arrived, and the programme kicked off. The association's president, a middle-aged lady who runs her own beauty show in television, started her speech by saying how honoured they were to have the opportunity to visit the children of the orphanage on this day, interact with them and learn about their condition. She said being a mother herself, how her heart goes out to these lovely children, and that her association feels proud to be of some help to them.

Then after she finished her speech it was time for the main segment of the programme. The ladies started distributing packets of biscuits, candies and other assortments to the children. They also handed over boxes of powdered milk, baby diapers, oils, napkins and other essential baby items to the orphanage in full glare of the press photographers and television camera crew. All done, the ladies then began posing for the camera and giving interviews to the press, elated by the little "social service" they did. It was surprising that not even one of them talked to the children, asked them about their names or took them in their arms - and they said they were there for the children! They were so busy taking photographs or posing for one that they didn't even notice the children quietly slipping by from there.

To take away my mind from this, I talked with an old nanny who had been looking after these children from the past 20 years.

"Yes, people come here and out of pity for these children distribute biscuits and candies to them. People feel very satisfied after doing this, but it is all the same for the children, it hardly makes any difference," she said.

And how does she feel having looked after the children for all these years? To this she said that while most women get pregnant once or twice in their life-time, she thinks she gets pregnant every month as she nurses each new born that ends up in the orphanage after being abandoned by their mothers.

She was old, probably illiterate, but her love for the children and theirs to her was easily palpable, and all the candy bars of the world couldn't change that. 

This little incident was on my mind when I went to Bal Mandir with my photographer colleague the other day to do a photo-feature on the children there. Some 80 of them live in this orphanage run by Nepal Children Organization (NCO) inside the palace with two big courtyards, being built by a Rana prime minister for his concubine.

We entered the palace, climbed a flight of stairs, and after walking through a maze of corridors, reached the office of the NCO's director. He was a soft-spoken man and told us about the orphanage, the children living there and the history of the organization, its activities and future plans in great detail. But later when we sought his permission to interview and photograph the children living in the orphanage he flatly denied it. We persisted, said we would conceal the children's identity. But he didn't change his mind. He had valid reasons for denying us. In the past the NCO had very bad experiences with some individuals who took photographs inside the orphanage posing sympathetic to the children and their cause, but only later it became clear that making money by using it to collect donations in the name of the child was all in their mind.

Instead, he offered us a guided tour of the orphanage and said we can take our cameras on condition that we take pictures only after seeking the consent of the officer who would be accompanying us.

While leading us through the hallway of the orphanage the officer assigned to tour us around said that the children living in all of 11 orphanages run by NCO are either orphaned, abandoned, are conflict affected or dependent children of prisoners, that the boys are kept in this orphanage till they are 6 or 7 years and then transported to another one run by NCO for boys. Girls, however, remain here till they pass out from high schools or upon reaching adulthood after which they can voluntarily leave the orphanage. The officer, while narrating us all this, took us to the dormitory. Since it was school day, the dormitory was empty and as we entered one room we saw a girl sleeping. She must have taken ill or she had a holiday, but we didn't bother her. There were posters of movie stars and pop idols pasted on the wall, the room airy and squeaky clean, and I felt I could have been in my sister's room.

As my photographer colleague started snapping pictures, but taking care not to bring the sleeping girl in the frame, the officer told me that if the big girls had been here they might have objected our visiting the orphanage with cameras.

He said that one time it so happened that a visitor had taken couple of pictures inside the orphanage. Few girls saw him doing that, and although they were not in the picture, they complained about it to the director. They maintained that the orphanage was like their home and nobody has the right to take theirs or their dormitory's pictures without their consent. When the director tried to console them, they asked him if some stranger came into his house wanting to snap pictures of his sister or daughter or the room they sleep in, then would he allow him to do that?

"Of course, the director had no answers for it," the officer said. “Besides that they also don't want to let everybody know in their schools were they study under sponsorships that they come from an orphanage.”

And of course there were many cases of people misusing the photographs of the children, depicting it in different light, sometimes entirely out of context, just to make some sympathetic individual or organisations to donate, but all of which ended in their own pockets only.

As we were passing through a dormitory we saw a little girl afflicted with Down syndrome standing quietly against the door of her room. Soon as she saw us she shrugged and smiled and we went to her. The officer, in his warm voice, introduced her to us and then asked her to greet us. She did as she was told, but then all of a sudden she demanded a hug from my photographer colleague. With heavy camera on her shoulders, my photographer colleague somehow managed to pat the little girl by kneeling down. But she insisted upon being hugged, and not only that she wanted to be carried up by her. So determined was the little girl that she latched both her feet on the photographer's leg, and wouldn’t let go until she had her way. Only after great effort coupled with some cool headed tactics of the officer, we finally convinced her to let go off her.

As we walked away from there the officer said that an incident like this had never happened before. But there was an explanation.

The officer said: “The children here get very excited when they get visitors from foreign countries like America and Europe, and this must also be because most of the volunteer workers here have been mostly young women from those very countries.” And my photographer colleague being from Canada, no wonder she couldn't avoid the undivided attention of the little girl.

Then we went to the toddler's section of the orphanage, and immediately after entering one we were greeted by smiling little babies playing inside a large crib. There was a nanny to look after them. The babies were between 2 to 18 months old, and were very adorable. In the balcony in the sun few other babies were being given oil massage by two nannies just before in time for their afternoon nap. The officer said that most of the babies here were either abandoned in the hospital or in front of police stations or just left in the street corners to die. It led me to wonder how could mothers who gave birth to these tots after keeping them in their womb for nine-months tuck them away as if they were some trash?

One of the main reasons why infant babies are abandoned by their mothers, the officer said, is that they were born out of wedlock and the mother probably didn't want to be taunted by the society for this. And quite a few parents also abandon their babies or child after not being able to afford to care for them. Still, babies who make it to the orphanages are lucky, as there are countless of those who are just thrown into the dirty Tukucha river hours after being born.

Looking at the babies crawling in all their fours one wonders what fate awaits them. Some of them would get a family from America, Germany or Italy and go on to live there while some would live the next 16 years of their life in this orphanage. Many times I have seen couples, usually whites, usually young, walking out of this orphanage with a baby in their arms or a small child happy for finally having adopted them. But is there a guarantee that all of them would be in safe hands. Does the concerned ministry have any mechanism to see that the children it has given for adoption have a healthy, sound childhood; that they have good, loving families and they don't end up in the hands of abusive parents, or worse, pedophiles? Yes, the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare have child officers who make yearly visits to countries where these children have been taken after being adopted by their new families. But if this mechanism is there just for the sake of it then it would be worst form of silent crime the government would be committing.

The officer informed us that around 700 children have been adopted from Balmandir alone since 1974, and countless numbers of children from countless of other orphanages. He told us that some children who have been adopted from here have returned for a visit of the country of their birth, but barely able to speak a word of Nepali. He also said NCO faces great difficulty in running all 11 orphanages it operates and meet other running costs since the government has stopped providing any funds altogether. So the organization entirely depends on fees it takes for processing the documents of families applying to adopt the children from here including charities and donations from generous individuals and organisations. 

The officer took us to other room full of babies, then to children's play ground, their recreation room, after that their mess and study. Looking at the smiling faces of these children one gets this immense peace, a sense of incredible joy and well-being. If you watch children closely, spend time with them you also realise that beauty is always so delicate, vulnerable, and not to be found in us pretending adults.

Looking at whatever little arrangements made for these children they seemed quite better off from the majority of the children living in the country. It lead us to wonder why despite all the money poured in by the government as well as the international aid organisations and countless number of NGO's working in this field, we still see so many children in the streets, clad in rags, dirty and sniffing horrible intoxicating substances, and most of us pass by them seemingly embarrassed. Reports of children living in sub-human conditions in so-called child homes in the valley and surrounding areas also regularly appear in Nepalese media and there have been cases where such child homes been run by pedophiles also. What is even more appalling is that few organisations claiming to work for children have started to view child adoption as a lucrative business. And why countless of them are sold as domestic help, or involved in hazardous, low paying jobs in factories. Some barely in their teens even end up in brothels in India and some who remain in their village are used as soldiers to fight the people's war.

But amazingly in a country where children suffer such fate and especially where girls are often treated badly compared to their brothers and denied proper nutrition and education, we also see girl child being venerated as "living Goddesses". Such contradiction! And the cultural ministry sings praises of the Kumari tradition, uses it as a promotion material to boost the country's tourism industry. We fail to see how this institution brutally steals away the childhood - the most cherished period in anyone's life - of the innocent little girls and after they grow up and no longer venerated as goddesses, how it affects the entire course of their lives. 

We let children die not only for saving our honour, integrity (like countless of those unwedded mothers), to make easy money (as those orphanages running adoption rackets), but it seems we also sacrifice them to save our tradition, for so called religious reasons. And who says human sacrifice existed during the medieval period only?

The writer can be reached at andygurung@yahoo.com

2008 Jan 1