Nov 14th is Children’s day in India. The universal date is actually Nov 20th, but in honor of PanditJawaharial Nehru, India’s first prime minister who was very fond of children, the holiday is celebrated on his birthday.
How does a Hyderabadass celebrate this holiday? How about by spending a Sunday afternoon in a park with 30 kids playing cricket, tag, having 3 legged races, learning how to eat rice with my hands south Indian style, being drenched in water fountains by mischievous little girls, carrying tired kids on my shoulders while letting others play with my mobile phone and finally getting genuine goodbye hugs after 5 hours of solid fun. Today I spent Children’s Day playing in a park with these young suffering victims infected by HIV and AIDS.
It is estimated that there are between 2 million to 3.6 million people infected with HIV in India, ranking it third behind Nigeria and South Africa in the list of most infected countries in the world. Less than 15% of these people receive antiretroviral drugs (AVRs), a treatment proven to significantly delay the progression from HIV to AIDS. Ironically, this treatment has been available to rich countries since 1996.
The UN has stated the following:
- India’s adult HIV prevalence will peak at 1.9% in 2019.
- The number of AIDS deaths in India (which was estimated at 2.7 million for the period 1980-2000) will rise to 12.3 million during 2000-15, and to 49.5 million during 2015-50.
- Economic growth in India will slow by almost a percentage point per year as a result of AIDS by 2019.
Nonetheless this community face tremendous hardships in India. I learned from the folks doing social work with them that victims have faced violent attacks, rejection from families and communities, refusal of medical treatment, and even denial of the last rites before dying. Few are informed how they can prevent other diseases. Volunteers and non-profits are also faced with resistance with their efforts to help the victims. I was disgusted to hear that for every four people infected with HIV, at least one will be refused medical treatment in India.
The children I met today are thankfully unaware of the politics, but many of them have lost their parents because of this epidemic. A few of them were coughing throughout the day. Some cried, others consoled them, but at the end of the day they were all smiling. I have never seen such a caring group of kids get along so well, enjoying the simple games and toys we brought to the park. I can only imagine what their eyes have seen so far in life, and a day in the park spent with 4 big people with funny accents eliminated any need for misbehaving.
I couldn’t talk to most of the kids since they spoke only Telugu, yet we had no problem communicating. One of the kids, named Akhil, was one of the smartest 11 year old kids I have ever met. He spoke 4 languages including English, and offered to translate for us if our other methods of communication failed. obviously leader of the group, he was responsible for much of the success of the activities. At one point of the day he took one of the adult volunteers for a walk to the museum while sharing his passion for history. His father had taken him to that museum many times, but had recently died from AIDS.
Akhil returned from the museum with a ball for the other kids to play with, and began an unorganized game of tag/ dodgeball/ volleyball/ football/ tug-o -war/ monkey-in-the-middle/keep away. I had been nourished earlier by a generous serving of yellow rice. There was no silverware, so I was forced to eat rice for the first time with my hands, and I must declare that eating rice by hand is no easy task for someone raised in the US. The kids exploded in laughter at my pathetic attempts, but after they taught me how to hold my hands I figured out how to properly finish the meal.
During the madness of the next 5 hour recess, the kids found their way to the fountain, and started a massive water fight. 4 young girls conspiring against me tricked me into getting close enough to the oasis so that they could mercilessly drench me. One of the other volunteers had also been trapped and tried to make a run for it, but slipped and fell! Everyone erupted into laughter – it was slapstick humor you’d find in a movie. Later in the afternoon, this same character, my buddy Sanjay, was tied up by the kids and used as a trampoline.
During this comic display of pranks, I secretly sent Satyam, my driver, to pick up a cricket set from the nearby store. When he returned with the sporting goods, the boys were absolutely thrilled, jumping around all over the place waiting to play the beloved national sport. When language does me no good here in India, cricket never has failed in helping me connect with people.
The cricket match went into intermission so that we could all jump into a large tug-o-war contest that started across the park. This was followed by a self-organized 3 legged race. Satyam tried to manage the madness by organizing activities. He was the expert with explaining the rules to the kids and is a surprisingly resourceful, acting like eagle scouts at times. At one point he single handedly challenged a dozen kids in a tug-o-war match, but his raw strength could not prevail over the euphoric kids. I have never seen him so happy. He admitted that he wish he had brought his own son to the park that day.
We ended the day sitting in a circle sharing fruit. Akhil quickly offered his fruit to us, uncertain that there would be enough for everyone. All of the other kids followed his lead, in a very generous gesture. It turned out that there was enough to go around, but the gesture is something that I will not forget. There was something about observing Akhil that hinted that he has a greater purpose in life. He was the only kid I noticed who wasn’t smiling during the playtime. His maturity was that of a much older philosopher and his confidence made it easy to forget that he was also an HIV AIDS patient.
This child taught me a lesson in humility today, on Children’s Day , 2007 in Hyderabad, India. Despite only knowing us for a few hours, he and his friends wanted to share everything they possibly could with us. While saying goodbye my heart sank. Today was a highlight for us all but we will probably never see each other again. I still remember the “fun big people” I looked up to when I was a kid, but also remember the sadness I felt when they left. Today I had the same feeling as those childhood memories despite being on the other end of the goodbye. I nearly broke down when Akhil came to me to say bye and wrote my number on his hand, saying that he wanted to call me and the other volunteers to his summer camp. Unfortunately I don’t have a number to give Akhil to reach me at next summer, as I am leaving Hyderabad in 10 days. The fun I had today I now know will be impossible to ever repeat again. I guess sometimes life gifts us with these opportunities to remind ourselves what is truly important.
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