In Press and News

Harmony’s Silvers of the Year

A man who believes that the world is a dark place only when we close our eyes, he provides children of life convicts in Bengaluru, food, shelter, education and the courage to claim a future unsullied by social stigma

When we meet Venkataragavachari Mani, he greets us with a bouquet of flowers, the cost of which, he later confesses, weighs heavily on his mind. “For a minute, I wondered if I can afford to throw money away on such courtesies.” Mani’s unvarnished frankness can be baffling, but his thrift springs from a generous heart. “Every rupee I save can make a lot of difference to my children,” he says. He is referring to the 154 boys and girls, aged between two and 18 years, who live in SOCARE IND (Society’s Care for The Indigent), a non-profit trust that serves as a hostel for children of convicts serving life sentences in jails across Karnataka.

When we enter the unpretentious three-storied row house in Rajajinagar in Bengaluru, 19 of those children stand in a queue near the gate. They have taken the day off from school to meet the Harmony team while the rest are attending class in schools nearby. The youngest—Shyam, all of two years—leads the file. Cherubic, with a smile a mile wide, he confidently proffers his palm for a handshake. Others in the group are quick to follow. You cannot help but return their robust unanimous chorus of “good morning” with an equally loud one of your own. Mani watches the exchange with fatherly pride. As we settle into his cramped office room on the ground floor, the children’s animated voices in the courtyard provide a mildly chaotic background score. Squeals and giggles overlap with the innocent rhymes of ‘ring-a-ring-o’-roses’ and the mandatory calls of hide-and-seek. However, it’s only when Mani starts recounting their stories that we realise how arduous the journey has been to arrive at this scene of cheerful chaos.

 

Children are not just empowered with
education, but are also offered
opportunities to hone their latent talents

“Every day on my way to work, I used to pass by the Central Jail,” reminisces Mani. “The sight of the children and wives of prisoners waiting outside the gate braving the rain and blazing sun used to haunt me all day at work. One day I decided that after retirement I would do something to ease their pain.” True to his word, when he retired as assistant general manager from RBI in 1999, he invested his savings—Rs 300,000—to convert his house ‘Desik’ into a children’s hostel. Today the house is filled with children whose destinies were once horribly entwined with the dark crimes—murders, dacoity and sexual offences—committed by their parents. Many have seen their fathers set their mothers on fire; many others have been mute witness to their mothers poisoning their fathers. “Ninety five per cent of the cases involve one parent killing the other over infidelity or as retaliation from oppression,” explains trustee Asha Narasimhan, 68. “The children have been orphaned even though they have one parent who is alive.”

Though none of the children may ever fully disengage from their past, now they have at least learnt to let go of their inhibitions and low self-esteem and are reaching out for a future with hope. “I don’t know what I would have become if it were not for Mani Uncle,” says 18 year-old Yuvraj who has been at SOCARE for the past six years. His father murdered his brother’s wife in a fit of rage and is now serving a life sentence in prison. Raised by his grandmother who sold idli for a living, the reserved teenager is a hardware networking apprentice at Canara Bank and is aiming for a life less ordinary. “I plan to do my master’s in computer applications soon,” he says with resolute self-assurance. Like him, 17 year-old Sangeeta, studying at Vivekananda College, is sure of her future trajectory. When we ask her about her goals in life, she doesn’t even blink an eye before uttering succinctly: “professor”. Sixteen year-old Sushma too has her plans chalked out for a master’s degree in business management. For every story filled with optimism and hope, though, there is one taut with remembered misery. Usha, 12, has eyes that speak of a lifetime of pain. Sexually abused by her stepfather, she was rescued following intervention from neighbours and a local NGO, who had her father arrested and jailed. Her mother, who was blind and ill-equipped to take care of her and her two year-old brother Shyam, is no more. Usha and Shyam were brought to SOCARE at the behest of the children and women’s division of Bengaluru High Court.

 

“I do not probe for information on their past, if it pains them,” says Mani. He still doesn’t know the background of Shilpa, a painfully shy 17 year-old whose footsteps are as muffled as her voice. Sold many times over as a child labourer before the age of 10, Shilpa was found abandoned at a bus station, dazed with trauma. Unlettered all through her formative years, she had trouble coping with studies and social interaction when she was admitted to a school. Mani tutored her at SOCARE and later enrolled her in a tailoring class. Shilpa’s intense eyes and gentle voice have won over the admiration of 25 year-old Siddharaju, the boys’ warden at SOCARE—the two plan to marry early next year. “I am raising funds to gift her a fixed deposit of Rs 100,000,” says Mani with all the protectiveness of a loving father.

Though he is now adept at galvanising people to contribute to the cause, he still remembers the time when all he had was a dream, and not too many people who believed in it. “When I heard about his idea to educate and provide a home for children of prisoners, I was sceptical of his idealism,” remembers Shobhana Ravi, Mani’s sister-in-law. “But when he came home with two tiny tots one day, I knew that if there was anyone who could take up this superhuman challenge, it was him.” Today, Ravi is one of the most ardent champions of SOCARE and helps bring in donations through her vast network of friends.

 

Mani’s greatest supporter, however, was his wife Saroji who passed away in 2008. “Initially she was apprehensive, but all her reservations vanished when I came home with two tiny three year-old boys,” remembers Mani. As their children were already settled abroad—Mani’s son Desik and daughter Sumathi are in the US and the youngest Shobha lives in Sydney—they had no qualms about sharing their space. “My wife adjusted to the sustained influx of children with a quiet acceptance.” Mani launched the cause after prolonged discussions with former DGP (Prisons) L Revannasiddiah. As the convicts belonged to jails across Bellary, Mysore, Gulbarga and Dandupalya, he had to travel to each place to convince jail officials of his sincerity. Even today, SOCARE regularly invites jail officials to inspect their premises and spend time with the children. “I am handling the children of some of the most dangerous criminals in Karnataka,” he says. “One mistake on my part and I could be hauled up.” Children are admitted to SOCARE with all papers duly processed and signed by the court.

“The process of choosing deserving children is both tedious and painful,” says M S Srihari, legal advisor and trustee. “How does one decide which child is more deserving? Each child’s eyes reach out to you with the same measure of despair.” Mani and his team of trustees screen children on the basis of poverty, age and number of children in each family and after a long dialogue with each convict. In May 2010, he brought home 35 children from Gulbarga. Every new batch takes some time to acclimatise to the new environment. SOCARE has regular sessions with child counsellors to help ease the transition.

 

Though his hands and house are full with children, Mani often broods about the ones left behind. “My dream is to be able to accommodate children from at least 1,000 families.” Lofty, perhaps, but it probably stems from his past when he was the main provider for a large family. The eldest of eight siblings, he was born and brought up in a village near Kanchipuram in an orthodox Tamil Iyengar Brahmin family. He still fondly remembers his simple upbringing; moving to Mumbai in search of job; finding one as a typist at the Accountant General’s office; and then moving onto a successful career at the RBI office in Bengaluru. While working with the AG’s office, Mani also did his master’s in political science from KC College in Mumbai, following it up with a diploma in industrial finance. Along the way he read up extensively on politics, and found himself being drawn to Communism. “I am waiting for the day when casteism is totally eradicated and people are truly free to pursue their chosen path,” he says with all the vehemence of an ideologue. “I am all for statelessness.”

In his rational view of the world, there is no room for moral judgement. He believes in offering a second chance and encourages his wards to forgive and forget. Children are escorted to meet their jailed parents once every three months and parents are allowed to call once every month. When convicts are let off on parole, he invites them over to SOCARE to stay overnight with their children. “We can provide the children with love and compassion,” he says. “But we can never be a substitute to their parents.” Nevertheless his wards flock to him like bees, “Uncle, uncle, uncle”…they call out excitedly. In return, Mani argues, teases and corrects their manners and, through all of it, never fails to treat them as equals. He wearily admits that like children all over the world, it’s tough to get them to sit at one place. “Sometimes, they insist on going to the park and I let them because that’s the only way I can get them to study for an hour in the evenings.” He often takes them to visit the planetarium, zoo and museums. And to hone their individual talents, many are enrolled in classes for taekwondo, computers and Bharatanatyam. All the children have been admitted into reputed English and Kannada-medium schools: East West English School, Parikrama Primary School, Aniketan English School, Mount Scenerio and Rajiv Gandhi Memorial School to name a few. Fees are subsidised and sometime waived, thanks to his appeals to school authorities. “I request them not to divulge the background of these children as this can lead to discrimination among their peers.”

Over the years SOCARE has invested in two Omni vans and an auto-rickshaw to ferry children back and forth from their schools. There are 12 resident staff including drivers, cooks, wardens and cleaning staff and 15 part-time teachers who teach the kids in the evening. Adolescents and teenagers wash their own clothes and those of the younger children. Space is a huge constraint, one that has also strengthened the bonds shared by the kids. At night, children sleep in every available space—seven rooms on the ground floor, four on the first floor and the roofed terrace. “When I go on my rounds to switch off their lights, I can hear their whispers and giggles,” says Mani with an amused chuckle.

 

Shilpa, who was earlier a child labourer,
found solace in SOCARE and a life
partner in warden Siddharaju

Blankets, clothes and bags are piled high in each room. By day, the covered terrace is a classroom, filled with brightly-coloured benches. “Some children find the life here far too regimented and they wish to go back home,” says Mani. “We let them if they insist, but they are clearly informed that they won’t be accepted back if they wish to return.” While the facility in Rajajinagar has 66 girls, another larger bungalow, 6 km away in Leggere, was purchased in 2006 to accommodate adolescent and teenage boys. Mani pledged his wife’s jewellery to make the down payment on the house which was bought for Rs 3 million. He and his team of trustees are now working out plans to build another house in the vacant adjacent plot donated to them by a patron. Talks are also on to acquire land in Sajjapura Road in Bengaluru, where they plan to set up a crèche, hostel, school, a clinic for the poor and a senior citizens’ home.

“He is all heart and I often have a tough time making him understand that we can’t just keep accommodating children till we have more resources,” says R Venkatanathan, 65, a trustee and close friend of Mani. The trustees, all silvers and friends, have known each other for years now. Their arguments are often vociferous. “Sometimes, some of us even walk out in a huff when we disagree on a point, but we are always united by our cause,” says treasurer V Narayanan, 64. The trustees have already made plans to sustain the legacy. SOCARE is registered as a unit of Sri Sringeri Sharada Peetam, a world-renowned spiritual organisation. “At least, SOCARE won’t disintegrate just because we are not around,” says Mani with a contented smile.

The institution incurs an annual expenditure of Rs 4 million, all of which is met through donations. The daily lunch—a nutritious vegetarian meal of sambhar, rasam, vegetables, curd, salad, chapattis and a dessert—is supplied by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). Mani’s children donate to the cause every month and have also rounded up NRI donors who send money regularly. Contributions of all kinds are welcome: clothes, groceries, toiletries, toys and books. “One of our most generous donors is a poor old woman Laxmi who has donated Rs 50 every month for the past nine years,” says Mani. “The true mark of generosity is not how much you give but what you retain. I don’t want to retain anything.” Mani means what he says—his monthly pension in the past 12 years has been spent entirely on the future of the children of SOCARE. It’s not surprising then to find out that his 14 year-old granddaughter who lives in Sydney won a prize for her essay on her grandfather. Though he rarely gets to spend time with her, he has no regrets: “My family understands. They know the children of SOCARE need me more than they do.”

Source : Harmony India

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