There is a cluster of 15 homes, where kids are raised under group foster care, and a ‘mother’ is the head of each home. Kasthuri, one of the senior mothers, says, “I’ve been here for 25 years now, and these years have been the most fulfilling. I was living with my parents in Karaikal before. I have always wanted to be around children and do something for them. When I read about SOS Village in paper, I thought this was it. But my parents weren’t keen to send me over here. They tried their best to convince me otherwise, but I was determined. I fought with them and came here.”
Latha, who’s from Mayiladuthurai, came here 20 years ago. “My parents got me married when I was young, but I left home within one week because that relationship didn’t work. I started staying with my chithi and began working with them. There, two guys from this village had also come to work. I heard about this place from them and I came here,” she says.
For Vasanthi, her love for kids brought her here. “I first read about this place in a newspaper, and came here to check it out. It’s been 26 years,” she reminisces, “I am from a place near Kanchipuram, and my brother-in-law, who is in Thiruvotriyur, dropped me here. I told them that I wanted to spend my time with kids, and they got me here.”
One of the youngest mothers, Uma Devi was just 25 when she became a mother to over 10 kids. “I came in 2008 and I have raised 10 kids already,” she says with a smile, “I came to Chennai for a case and oru madam indha edatha pathi sonnanga. I felt at peace when I came here. I’m from a village near Vellore, and my parents feared how I would survive in a city away from home. They wanted me to get married and settle down. But I didn’t like that concept and came over here.”
Kasthuri says that single women, mostly in the age group of 25-35, are preferred because “ it’s easier to train them if they are young”.
Ask her if she remembers the first time she held her child, and she grins, “On my first day here, they gave me a one-month-old baby to take care of. When I took her in my hands, it was an exhilarating feeling. It was as if my whole world was in my hands.” She adds, “I really loved it here from the minute I stepped in. It’s a great environment to be around. After training for a year, I’ve been in this house for the last 24 years and have gotten eight daughters and three sons married. They have their own children, too.”
On Vasanthi’s first day here, she was introduced to 15 kids who belonged to the same age. “Varisaya, azhaga irundhanga,” she says, “It was such an amazing feeling. I was in house number 8 then. Iduppula oru kuzhandhaiyum, madila oru kuzhandhaiyuma azhaga irundhudhu,” she says, “I didn’t know how to cook then. I was training with the mother, who was in house number 3. There was this eight-month-old girl, Thulasi. She was a sweetheart; paduthave matta. Paruppum neiyyum sadhathula vittu kudutha, samatha saapiduva. I was there for three months, and then I went to Delhi for training. Just as my training was getting over, one of the mothers in Chennai retired. So I immediately came here and became a mother to seven girls!”
Latha has 27 kids who stay away from her, and she has eight children who live with her. “Inga oru kashtamum illa, yenna ishtapattudhan vandhen. I’ve my own house, my own kids who call me amma… what else do I want? I have given my daughters in marriage; one stays in Tirunelveli, another is in Coonoor. Two girls are in Chennai…. And then, there’s another girl who is studying audiology. I’ve been slightly busy now, getting two of my daughters’ admission in college and school,” she says.
Uma admits she was very scared initially because she had the responsibility of bringing up children who belonged to varied age groups. “I had to take decisions for the entire household and it was a huge responsibility. But I got help from senior mothers. My kids have also been such darlings; my 15 children have now all grown up and I’m super proud of them,” she beams.
A day in their life
Latha says their days are no different from what happens in other households. Kasthuri adds, “We wake up at 5am, and cook breakfast. Then, I start getting the kids ready for school. It will be 10am by then. And then, there will be household work to finish, and in the afternoons, we read books or go out for our work. And then once the kids come home by 5pm, it’s back to giving them snacks and sending them off to play.”
Latha says, “I can proudly say that I’ve brought up my children well. Whenever I come home, either after buying vegetables or finishing work at the bank, they bring me lemon juice. Nalla per edukkanum… While the boys start staying outside in a house after they turn 10, they move to the youth house after they cross 13. Girls stay with us till they are 18, and we help them find a good a hostel after that. So, it’s important that they learn discipline from a young age.”
There’s no life beyond these kids
They might be staying away from their biological families, but these mothers tell us that for them, these kids are their life. “I learnt so many things after I became a mother. I learnt to cook, I learnt to talk! En kozhandhainga ellam seriyana vaalu. But they are very caring; they cry if I cry, they laugh if I laugh. What more do I need?” asks Vasanthi. “Not just my kids, others also love me to bits. They call me chithi,” Uma chips in.
“Once you come here, you treat all kids as your own. You can’t differentiate between them…,” Kasthuri adds, “My parents have made peace with what I chose for myself. In fact, they adore these kids. For them, they are grandparents, and they pamper them to the hilt. These kids… koottukulla batharama iruppanga. Apparam parandhu povanga. Aana parandhu ponalum thirumba vandhu nammala kootittu povanga.”
Vasanthi also spends her kids’ annual holidays with her family. “My parents are no more, but when they were around, we used to visit them at least once a month. My kids would spend their annual holidays with them, and we would return just five days before schools reopened. We, mothers, retire at the age of 60. After that, I want to be somewhere near so that I can be around these kids. In fact, so many of those who have retired stay with the kids they raised. This bond that we share is above everything else for us,” she signs off.