New Delhi: Priti sits in a bright red and white bedspread, tracing her fingers along the lines of a book as she mumbles the words to herself. At 10 years old, she’s eloquent in both English and Hindi. She’s reading Thumbelina, the tale of a tiny girl who meets adversity in everyone she meets: kidnapped by a toad, rejected by a beetle, bitten by the winter cold. Eventually, a fieldmouse encourages her to find her handsome prince. She grows wings to fly away with him.
Priti was born HIV positive. Both her parents are dead, and, here in India, she has slim chance of growing up in a family. She’s a lifelong burden to whoever might otherwise foster her. She has to keep her status secret from the school she attends, for otherwise other parents, if not teachers, are sure to hound her out. When she is older, she’s unlikely to get a good job, and even less likely to find a husband.
But she has found her fieldmouse in the NAZ foundation, the orphanage where she lives. Here, another 35 other children are schooled, fed, and cared for. They sleep in brightly coloured dormitories, scattered with toys and adorned with glittered decorations and cartoon-pattered curtains. A bookcase in the corner is full of books. Other children jump off beds and on to the floor, giggling and throwing paper aeroplanes.
“Most of them are the highest five in their class,” says Anjali Gopalan, who has run the orphanage for eight years, alongside a peer education programme and an outreach group for infected adults and the gay community. “I can see them giving back to society. They are aspiring to be engineers and doctors and anything they want to be.”
But society does not want to give back to them. Many of these children have been rejected by their families, and even by doctors and other orphanages.
The misunderstandings such children face are both physical and moral. Gopalan says that while people believe they can be infected simply by touching HIV infected individuals, they also see them – even children – as being sexually promiscuous, or otherwise behaving against society’s norms.
"One child was brought to me by a woman from a major orphanage who was wearing gloves up to her elbows," she says. "A lot has to do with the fact that the medical profession is still reluctant to even touch people with HIV. Doctors are not touching patients."
In June of this year, the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) said it would work with the National AIDS Control Board (NACB) to set up 10 care homes in the most AIDS–ravaged regions of India - Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Manipur. No indication was given as to when these homes would actually be built. Gopalan says she feels these are empty promises. NACO has identified 32,000 AIDS orphans in India. In 2005 the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated the real number to be more than 2 million.
“I’m very grateful to the government for having done what they claim to be doing,“ says Gopalan. “But I know at the ground level, it’s not reaching people who really need it.” said Gopalan. “There’s nothing being done for children. Any government minister who says that is lying through their teeth.”
Tarundeep, at 15, is the oldest child at the NAZ foundation. He is a singer, whose reputation at the orphanage precedes him, though he’s too shy to sing for the cameras. He has plans for the future.
“First I want to become a playback singer,” He says. Though he’s too shy to dance up front, he’ll fill the lips of the stars who will.
Tarundeep must soon leave NAZ and join a society that will treat him and his illness with hostility. The orphanage has given him wings; now it’s his turn to fly. And if he can’t fly to Bollywood?
“I’ll take care of NAZ,” he says, chuckling gently, before going downstairs to have dinner, finish his evening studies, and say his prayers.