Cast Off

Living Among the Dead

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The story of five orphans forced to stay in a graveyard after their parents died of AIDS

JAMUA, UTTAR PRADESH ~ On Eid, just before the children went to the Idgah a few kilometres away, Ishratunissa counted her money carefully and handed the coins to her grandson Adil. They totalled Rs 5. It wasn’t much, but he might be able to buy himself some sweets.

He had been crying that morning. Ishratunissa sat with him, wiping his tears. But when the other children arrived to take him to the mosque, he was cheerful again. He wore the new set of clothes a charitable man from a nearby village had sent over. A green check shirt and a skullcap.

Adil doesn’t live in the village anymore.

The district administration sent him to school in Narayanpur with his brother Iqhlaq—again, an act of charity. The grandmother has tears of her own to wipe. She can’t see properly, she says. A thin film of cataract covers her pupils, making them look like glass.

She casts a glance in the direction of her granddaughter Nishath Bano, and says, “Poor girl.”

Jamua, the family’s village in Uttar Pradesh that is home to about 35 families, is surrounded by fields and a thick grove of trees. They also once had a house here to stay in. But after their father died of AIDS, the five children—Irfan, Nishath, Iqhlaq, Adil and Moonis—and their mother Aashiya Bano found life unbearable in that house.

They had to move out.

Aashiya, just 35 years old at the time, had contracted the virus too and was already afflicted by the disease. The old house was too dark and mouldy for her anyway, says Irfan. She liked sunlight and fresh air. A few months before she died, Aashiya had asked Irfan to build a little hut adjoining the house. He did, but it collapsed in May this year.

The kids wanted to return to their old house, but their uncles refused to let them back in. “We were afraid in that house,” says Irfan, the eldest, “Everyone said, ‘Go away.’ Where could we go? They said ‘Go live in the graveyard’.” They made a makeshift tent there under which all of them huddled. When Aashiya died, it was just the five of them left: the boys, aged 18, 13, 11 and nine, and the girl, 16. Only their grandmother would ever come near them. Now, they have been rehabilitated in their old house by district officials after a local reporter highlighted their plight. Taking note of a National Human Rights Commission report, the administration asked one of their uncles to unlock the old house and allow the children to stay there until it found a plot in the village to build them a new house under a government scheme, the Lohia Awas Yojana.

Before she died, her son Iqhlaq recalls, Aashiya had walked hand-in-hand with him towards the road. She was almost limping. “Walking looked like such an effort for her,” he says. They took a bus to the nearby tehsil Mandhata, and she bought him a length of checkered cloth that they took to a tailor to have stitched. Weak and frail, this was her last gift to her third-born. Iqhlaq wears it on Eid, a white-and-blue shirt. His mother liked those colours.

Last Eid, Aashiya had handed him Rs 20 to go buy himself some sweets. When she was alive, she would call for the children, ask after their health. Now they have to fend for themselves. There is a mobile handset the district administration has given them in case they need help. If, say, someone tries to force them out of the village.

For almost a month, they lived next to their mother’s grave. To them, she was extraordinary, even if fragile in her dying days. In the graveyard, it would be pitch dark once night fell, and the shadows cast by the moon made strange patterns on everything around. It was eerie. Nishath could not sleep. “It felt someone was calling out to me,” she says.

Salahuddin and Niyauddin, the two uncles, are now reconciled to the children.

For months, Niyauddin, who lives in Bombay, kept the house in Jamua locked. Finally, after pressure mounted, he let the children live in his quarters.

For years after he dropped out of school to take care of his ill father, Irfan worked odd jobs and earned around Rs 100 per day. He doesn’t know how his father, Awazhuddin, who drove trucks in Bombay, got the killer disease. It doesn’t matter anymore.

It was on a Friday that their thatch hut crumbled. The villagers, including some of their own relatives, refused to come anywhere near them. Even while addressing them, they would usually keep a distance of about 150 feet. It was best, they felt, that the children moved to the graveyard. But a few thought even that was too much. They wanted them out of the village.

Their rehabilitation is incomplete. The land the government first allotted turned out to be disputed property. A second allotment happens to be land next to the school ground, a little away from the cluster of mud-and-brick houses that make up this village.

Under the Lohia Awas Yojana, the children have been sanctioned Rs 1.5 lakh and 1.5 biswa land. The state government has also approved Rs 5 lakh for the five children. They are yet to get the money, though.

The children have spent many a night huddled in the local graveyard. Under a torn blue tarpaulin sheet, they had placed two cots and their meagre belongings— a few utensils and a plastic can for water. Three bricks that served as a stove are still lying next to that tree alongside burnt pieces of coal. That was how they lived before an anganwadi worker told her son, a reporter, about them. He alerted the media and then the administration.

The children have tested negative for HIV-AIDS, according to Pratapgarh’s Chief Medical Officer Vinod Kumar Pandey and another doctor of the Public Health Centre in Mandhata, reportedly.

Shunned for so long, that has come as a relief for the children. Earlier, parents in the village would not let their kids play or go near them. Now there is some form of repentance in almost everyone. Salahuddin, the uncle, says he didn’t know better and that they aren’t evil people.

A poor farmer who sells his hens’ eggs and works on other farms (though jobless right now) for a living, he has three children of his own to worry about. His wife says they didn’t have a choice in ostracising the family. “We were just afraid,” Salahuddin says. “We used to keep at least 100-200 metres away. We still don’t understand this strange illness. We didn’t want to die.”

The children are still in penury. Their mother’s old BPL card comes in handy. They get 10 kg of wheat, 20 kg of rice, 2 kg of sugar, and three litres of kerosene from a PDS outlet in Mandhata. That is not sufficient, but it helps them get by. The district administration has also promised the eldest son an MNREGA card and a new BPL card.

This Eid, their mother’s elder sister came to celebrate the occasion with them. She brought them a box of sweets. “What strength these children have, to go through so much and not utter a single world of complaint,” she says, “I didn’t even know they had made them live in a graveyard.”

Nishath says her mother had wanted them to study. But she dropped out of school long ago, once her mother took ill. She had to cook, clean and take care of her ailing mother, apart from minding the younger boys. Iqhlaq and Adil are now in a residential school in Narayanpur, but Moonis—still young—lives with her.

“When we build our new house, I would like to have three rooms,” says Nishath, “We have been in our uncle’s house for the last 20 days. It would be better to have our own place. Then we can look for a girl for my brother, and she will take care of them. I will get married then and go to my own house.”

Till 2003, they used to live in Mumbai. Then tragedy struck. Their father fell ill and they couldn’t pay the rent anymore. Their mother Aashiya made them all board the Mahanagari Express, and they returned to Jamua for refuge. Irfan had studied till Class 5 in Mumbai.

On their return to Uttar Pradesh, they consulted doctors at a government hospital in Allahabad and found that their father had AIDS. “My father never used to cry,” says Irfan, “He knew he was going to die soon, but held on.”

In Jamua, the grandmother let them stay with her. Awazhuddin would lie on a cot in a corner of the house, which was one long room, with his wife in attendance.

He never spoke much.

Moonis, the youngest, was born in the village.

It was three years after their return from Mumbai that the father died. They buried him in the graveyard, and once every six months, Irfan would light a candle at his grave and read out an aayat of the Quran. The mother fell ill a year after their father’s death. The symptoms were similar. Unrelenting fever. The same pattern of ill health, more or less. They went to doctors, who confirmed AIDS. She did not have long to live, they said. Irfan had to work. He assisted some truck drivers but never went too far, staying within the district on his travels. His mother, he knew, was so ill that he may need to rush home at short notice. Sometimes, the drivers would be kind enough to let him call one of the villagers to ask after his mother. Once every three days, he would manage to make this call. On Eid, he would return home and buy his siblings new clothes. One morning, she was gone.

At 2:30 am at night, Irfan remembers, he had given her water. When Nishath got up, she nudged her mother.

Aashiya didn’t respond, so she called out to her brothers.

They buried her near their father.