A grieving mother found solace in caring for little children and divided among them the love she had for a lost daughter Manisha died on April 1, 1978, in Lucknow. A police patrol jeep came roaring from nowhere and crashed into the scooter Manisha's mother, Sarojini was driving, taking the little girl to school. It was too sudden for Sarojini. "I was lying there, pinned under the scooter, hoping that her face would not get scratches...... she was very pretty. I could not simply think that she would go away. Just like that." It was later, in hospital, where Sarojini was admitted with a fractured pelvic bone and numerous injuries, that they told her about her daughter. 'I couldn’t even cry. I kept on thinking about her. We had two sons and I had wanted a daughter badly.'
When she had arrived, with a twin brother, I had felt my family was complete. And now she was gone. I kept telling myself not to break down. My husband, my little sons were there at home, waiting for me to come back from the hospital. The boys were very young. Who would look after them if I broke down? I was at my wit's end... struggling to cope... trying to console my sons and my husband. They, too, missed the laughter of that delightful little eight-year old girl." Then, within that darkness, a germ of an idea blossomed. Sarojini thought of those homeless little orphans, as young as her Manisha, without anyone to look after them. "The thought of my girl, all along, would fill me with grief. I remembered those young, vulnerable orphans and felt I had to do something for them and for myself. To overcome my agony and, to some extent, alleviate theirs."
Back home, when she announced her decision to pen an orphanage for little girls, Sarojini's husband and his parents did not think much of the idea. They said it sounded good theoretically, but was not very practical. They gave in later when she persisted, thinking she would back out of the project once she realized how difficult it was to run such a home.
Sarojini refused to give up her dream. She went on doggedly, running about here and there, arranging for funds and money to get the centre which she chose to call 'Manisha Mandir' - registered. This was in 1985, seven years after her daughter's death.
It was a very difficult beginning. Sarojini, who is also a well-known Hindi writer and poetess, spent all the money she had received from royalties on her orphanage. Three rooms in her own home were kept for the little girls... and all of a sudden she was a full time mother to three little bawling, sniffling, lice infested, scrawny waifs. Two of them, aged three and six, brought to her by a social worker, had been found abandoned and hungry, on a railway platform and the third, aged three, had no mother. Her father had given her up because he was too ill to look after her.
Sarojini got to walk on the lot, giving them a good wash, getting the lice off, dressing and feeding them. "The girls had stayed hungry for days, and they would just go on eating when I fed them. It was as if they would never be able to stop. One child virtually starved to death and so terrified was she of hunger that she kept repeating mechanically: 'Ek kona de do aur kuchh bhi kara lo' (give me a piece of bread and make me do anything).
It was very tough for me to wipe away their tears and heal their scars, but my love for them kept me going. "How did her family take it? "It was all right with them. They helped me throughout and didn’t mind sharing me with the other children, but the crunch came when I got an eight-day old infant to look after. A man called early one morning. He was clutching a little white bundle and said he had spotted it on the road and found a child inside. Seeing the orphanage nearby, he had brought her to us. It was difficult for me to look after such a tiny thing. I had to do all the washing and cleaning up and since she used to get up in the middle of the night and howl her head off, I used to sleep with her alone in another room. Naturally, my husband was not very happy with this arrangement, but I could not compromise, I had to look after the baby; she would have died otherwise."
Manisha Mandir shifted to a brand-new building on September 24, 1992. It is more roomy and is home to 11 little girls now. Sarojini single handedly managed to get the land booked and the building constructed. Where did she get the money from?" We brought out a small newsletter, 'Manisha', and the ads brought in some cash. Donations from the public had also started pouring in, initially; people simply did not accept us. They thought we had started the home as a means to siphon off money from donations and charities." They used to drop in at any ungodly hour at home and demand to see the girls. Sarojini did not lose her cool. "If I got mad I did not show it. That would have made them doubt something was wrong. They saw how we cared for the girls and went away satisfied."
Today, many of these people send in money, clothes, toys and books for the girls. This is welcome because Sarojini is reluctant to take help from the government. "Once you accept government aid, then you have them interfering in everything you do. I have big plans for my little girls, to send them to the best public schools and spend a lot of money on their education because I believe a sound, all round education is the only thing that can make you confident."
She will simply not have any pompous bureaucrat telling her to cut down on expensive education" I went to make them independent, confident young woman, who will make a significant contribution to society. It is only when they are able to stand on their own feet that I will let them go."
Sarojini knows it is an uphill task and that she is dealing with some very, very shaky lives. "I have adopted them and love them a lot, but I have not given birth to them. They have, sometimes, came across very cruel unfeeling people who have told them that they do not have parents. One of the girls has a very good friend in school and invited her home for lunch.
Apparently, this friend's brother chided his sister in front of her for bringing a girl from an orphanage home. I was wild when she came home crying and I had to make her understand how the minds of such nutty people worked."
Another thing which makes her very angry is the attitude of some people. 'An elderly couple one day visited the home and said they wanted a girl to work for them as a domestic help. "I asked them just one thing. I said 'Would you have asked me the same question if these girls were my own daughters?' They did not have a answer to
this." But everyone is not so inhuman.
Every effort has been made to ensure that the girls do not feel unloved and unwanted. The orphanage has some patrons who are the adoptive relatives of the girls. Some of them sponsor their education and send in money from time to time. "However these people are made sponsors only after careful scrutiny of their backgrounds." And most of them take their jobs very seriously, inviting the whole lot out to their homes for festivals or for picnics. A well-known industrialist of Kanpur called the girls over for seven days at his sprawling home and they were treated like other family members. You should hear them talk about their trips there. They have told their classmates about it and say they have a real live grandmother at Kanpur, who just cannot wait to have them come over for the holidays"
Sarojini is "mummy" to her girls and they are very possessive about her, very proud of the fact that she is a well-known writer. They were every excited when she went to Mauritius for the fourth world Hindi convention. "It's always mummy did this and mummy did that. There are times when I have to be a little stern with them, to see that they are disciplined and well mannered. And I have set out a strict routine for them. They wake up at about 5.30 in the morning, study up to 7 a.m. and, by 8.30, finish up their washing and cleaning up jobs. Then we have a 10-minute prayer session. After that they have to listen to a discourse on ethics and religion and then they go to their respective schools. Most of the schools are close by and so they walk. The older ones look after the toddlers. I have also had people asking me how I can let the children walk all by themselves to school. I tell them. I cannot afford to pay for autos or school buses. Everything I earn goes towards paying their fees and for their text-books. I would have done the same for my children. They are my children, after all, and they will have to walk to school if I want it." The girls are also encouraged to participate in all kinds of extracurricular activities. Some of them are learning Indian classical dance at Lucknow's Sangeet Natak Akademi, some have participated and won awards at various drawing and painting competitions. They are slowly finding a firm footing in a society where once their own parents had rejected them. They are growing into sensible, mature and independent young women, and are guided all the time by a loving and kind mother and other family members. Sarojini's sons have grown up and are now married. They help her out with the accounts and her daughters-in-law help with the house work.
Sarojini, now in her 50s, has still not forgotten her little daughter. "These children are a great comfort to me, but I shall remain indebted forever to my little daughter who taught me to love and to care for others."
And to Manisha has her grateful poetess mother dedicated a few lines, which translated into English, read:
"It was a drop that flowed into an ocean, The should merged with the almighty, Limited, it assumed gigantic proportions, Endless, inspiring. Your memory was my strength, Every girl-child is a mirror image of you The love of a mother embraced the world, Truly, you liberated me."