ROBIN
CHAURASIYA

Founder, Kranti school, IN

Published Date: 8th March 2016

Open Windows | in conversation with

Heera-Robin-Chaurasiya
ROBIN
CHAURASIYA
Founder, Kranti school, IN

March 8th, 2016

It is a story that clearly explains the fundamentals of life—acceptance, compassion, and equality. The protagonist of this story calibrates the right portions of high thinking and bold actions and converges them to create a fertile and soulful environment for marginalized children from Mumbai’s red-light areas. In the home she has lovingly created, she taps into a special place in the children’s souls and offers them an outlet for curiosity and creativity. These possibilities combined with her investment and guidance enables children to break free from the shackles imposed by society.

Robin Chaurasiya, the founder of Kranti, an NGO [Non-governmental organization], has turned her pain into power—one that empowers the daughters of sex workers to fly to great heights. Equally important, she is educating the shackled educated—she is stretching our perspective on what being human is all about. Her vision has earned her a nomination for the Global Teacher Prize 2016.

Robin’s is a story of love, and from love beauty blossoms.

 

What connects you to the children of Kamathipura—the injustice and pain you suffered or is it something else?

Robin Chaurasiya — It’s the isolation I felt as a teen, someone facing different types of abuse, not knowing what to do about being lesbian, etc. Teenagers in rough situations have so few adults to help them, but I wanted to make sure that these girls would have the necessary resources. Not that Kranti can support or help all the girls we reach out to, but it’s a start.

 

What were your fears stepping into this territory?

Not being able to support Kranti financially after taking on the burden to run a household; not being trusted by the community, especially if people found out that I’m lesbian; losing girls or not doing “enough” for them.

 

How do you tackle your fears?

Honestly, I don’t have any fears anymore. I guess all my deepest fears have come to pass— we’ve struggled through months of no income and had to borrow money from friends, all of Kamathipura now knows I’m lesbian, and we’ve had to kick out several girls from Kranti and several left of their own accord. The world goes on.

 

What roles did Bani Das and Vandana Katti play in establishing Kranti?

I consider Bani to be one of the co-founders of Kranti. There were 3 of us—me, Bani and a 16-year-old girl sex worker who was 19 at the time we started Kranti. Bani and I met at this other NGO where she was working, and she was conducting raids, and getting the girls out of the brothels. And I was doing the work in the house, a houseful of 16, 18 girls. Things functioned without actual training; nothing that the girls had fun with. They were learning the ABC’s and silaie (Stitching) and papad making (a type of Indian chips) and achar making (pickle making). But nothing that looked at their talents or valued them as individuals. We were just talking, “Yes, one day we will have our own NGO and will offer the girls this class, and they are going to travel,” and these kind of big dreams. And after two years we decided to go for it.

 

It was Bani and you having these big dreams?

There was one girl at this NGO where we were both working. She was one of the girls Bani had rescued from a raid. And she was very intelligent, strong, and mature.

She was the girl who drove me to say that these girls have this passion within them and this concept of Kranti, that every girl is an agent of social change. This girl taught me that all of these girls, whether they are trafficked or whether they are sex workers or whatever they are, that they have the passion for changing the situation.

That the other girls do not have to go through this, so that my daughter will live a better life, you know all of those things. She was the reason for the social change agent component in play. So all of us with these different life experiences came together with this idea for Kranti. We started five years ago. And Bani has been a very instrumental part of my life and Kranti from the beginning.

 

What was the transition like, from the US to India? Was it difficult to adjust to life in India?

It was not the “India type” of adjustments that were difficult; it was moving to a new city kind of feeling. I am used to moving a lot, but just rebuilding that community, it was such a struggle. With the first few girls that we got in, most had severe mental health issues. I felt so out of my league sometimes, like, “What on earth was I thinking?” I have got these girls cutting themselves, and I don’t have an idea where to find a therapist, those kinds of things. It took a good 6 to 8 months for Mumbai to start feeling like home.

For me, it is important to have a clear community and to connect with different types of people. And it also takes a while to find the right therapist for the girls and the right organizations to partner with and all the right people. So that took a while to come together as it would in any city.

Did you have an idea of how you were going to structure Kranti or did you get to India and say: “I want to restructure my life, and this is what I want to do?”

Bani I met in 2008, and that was when we started talking about having an NGO, “We are going to do this, and our girls are going to do this.” That is the way we had always envisioned it—this is not a workplace we go to; we are going to live with the kids. We often say, “These are my daughters, mere bache (children],” and I want to live that out. You cannot say, “These are my kids,” and go back to your home, where your kids get a different opportunity, and a different lifestyle and then you go to work somewhere where these kids are given something different.

If these are your children, you live with them, share food with them, you share life with them, you do the best possible you can to raise them, right? And that’s what we are doing. We take that very seriously. To live with our kids is very true for us.

 

Do you miss not having a “normal family” and how do you cope with the emotions that come with this loss and other complexities of life?

No. I don’t consciously miss it. I suppose on a deeper level I do which is why I’ve chosen to make my own family. The fact that on some level I was looking for a different type of family and Kranti is what I am going to look back on—how the last five years have gone…I cannot be happier or luckier or more satisfied in life with the family we have built, you know.

 

Thank you for your spirit, for creating this new family and for showing that it does not work out the same way for everyone, but we can go ahead and rebuild our own family.

On how many levels does mental illness within a family affect a child?

Every level imaginable. But I won’t consider it entirely negative. On the one hand, my mother’s schizophrenia is the reason for a lot of my problems and insecurities, but it’s also the reason I studied psychology and became an extremely resilient individual. As with all things, it depends on how we choose to perceive events in our life. Obviously, for younger children, they don’t have an option and have to create coping mechanisms. But as we get older, we can choose options like therapy and reframe our past and maybe eventually even be thankful for it.

We require all of our staff at Kranti to have therapy because we are all works in progress and in an environment where we are working with traumatized teenagers. It’s important to be working on ourselves and not adding more baggage to the kids’ lives. Just as with most types of abuse, emotional abuse due to a mental illness also runs in a cycle, and someone has to choose to break it. And I don’t think most people with mental illness realize the impact it will have on their kids. I think everyone in the world needs therapy.

 

Have people tried dissuading you from owning your roots, of coming from a family with mental illness?

Of course. Especially in India, people don’t want to talk about mental illness as an illness; they pass it off as evil spirit problems or just something that a person can change if they wanted to change. Strangely enough, I’ve made a lot of close friends in Mumbai who happen to have similar situations—being abused in the family and also having a parent with a mental illness. Either it’s much more widespread than we realize or they are millions of parents out there with undiagnosed mental illnesses.

Where do you find the strength to overcome the apathy of society?

This used to bother me a lot more in the past. The last couple years I’ve turned a lot to meditation and made peace with the fact that I can’t do anything about the world’s apathy. We can only take responsibility for our actions, and there is no point in being upset by what others do. This is still hard, of course, especially when you see violence or discrimination. But honestly, I’ve come a long ways in my ability to feel compassion (and pity) for the perpetrators instead of anger. I truly believe that the strength we need can only be found within ourselves, not from the outside.

 

How do the children navigate between Kamathipura, the world they come from and the world you are affording them?

Some girls adjust quite naturally and can change worlds easily. I love seeing them run around New York and Mumbai with the same confidence. To see them order French food, Italian coffee…and still treat their home/family/community with as much love and respect as they used to…they are quite exceptional humans in this sense.

How do their mothers’ and siblings deal with their new life? Are they entirely supportive, or do they deal with pangs of resentment?

Families are always difficult. I think the siblings are mostly supportive and excited, not jealous or resentful. We do have a few moms with some severe mental health issues, schizophrenia, drug abuse, borderline personality disorder, etc. These women aren’t always in the best place to make decisions, but sometimes they want their daughters “back” because they don’t want them traveling, they think it’s time to marry them off, or in the case of one girl, her mother wants to traffic her. But overall, families are quite supportive and excited for the girls.

 

What range of psychological scars do these children suffer?

Everything. From being “normal” to extreme things like psychosis, schizophrenia, hallucinations, impulse control disorders, personality disorders…everything. Some girls respond well to therapy, and some take years to make the tiniest of progress. We have several types of therapy that we try, including art therapy, dance movement therapy, cognitive based therapy, mindfulness therapy…it’s hard to find the right thing for the right person, but we just keep trying. We have quite a few girls with self-harm issues.

 

When you know abuse as a way of life, you find comfort in it. Are some girls wired to go back to abuse?

Yes. Therapy is a process. It works at different rates for different people. We have this one girl in particular. Her mom is trying to traffic her. She married her off when she was nine, and this girl got pregnant. It is a long, long story. Today, her therapist was coming to our house, and she said: “Hey, I want to go out for a couple of hours.” I should have know that the moment she says that she wants to go out, and the therapist is coming, this was her escaping. She did not come back in time for the therapist.

This girl talks a lot about being confused sometimes, the difference between love and sex, “I don’t know when somebody is using me or abusing me.” She is 19, but she is very much stuck in this 9 to 10-year-old understanding. She does have mental health issues and disabilities, but she is just stuck in this place of thinking that people having sex with her is them showing love.

 

Was it a conscious decision to have girls and not boys at Kranti. Boys are raped and sexually assaulted too.

Of course. It was a subconscious decision, to work with girls. It is an easier thing to say, I am a woman and live in this house and have a family. Subconsciously I was trying to heal myself by starting Kranti. With girls, I am specifically trying to help a younger you.

So I did not necessarily see it at that point. But if you had asked me five years ago, I would have said girls face a lot more marginalization than boys do and they don’t have many opportunities or resources or access to opportunities, which is still true.

During the time I have been doing this work, I have seen so much of the perspective of what happens to boys. Some of these girls have younger brothers and one year you see them, and they are just cute little 10-year-olds, and then three years later they are hardcore drug dealers who are in and out of jail. And it just makes you realize the additional level of vulnerabilities that girls do not have. The girls’ vulnerabilities are different, but boys are just as vulnerable. And of course, in retrospect, if someone ever wanted to start a Kranti for boys, I am one hundred percent supportive, but I just don’t happen to be the kind of person who is going to deal with boys.

 

I wanted to get your perspective on violence against boys.

There are a lot of organizations that are starting to work much more openly and much more extensively on research on child sexual abuse in India. And now it’s just coming out that there are so many boys and men. The number of girls being abused is just outrageous. 80 to 90 percent of girls get sexually abused but then on top of that it is pretty shocking to realize that 50 percent of boys are also facing it. It is huge. It is huge, huge, huge.

And it is not talked about. Rape is something that is in the paper all the time. You see it constantly. With boys, it is a hushed environment because it is happening mostly in the families.

I have quite a few friends who are activists who work on child sexual abuse, a couple of whom are gay. They happen to have been abused as kids, but you know, all of these situations occurred within the family. So I think there is this additional stigma; people do not want to come out about it.

 

Why do we refer to rape and sexual assault as a man thing, a father thing, an uncle thing when it is equally a woman thing, a mother thing, a grandmother thing—evil resides in both sexes.

I am not going to say disbelief, but it is so complicated, Women are victims in so many ways and are portrayed to be victims to the point that they cannot even fathom the concept of a female serial killer or a rapist.

We just have a hard time with those stereotypes that we have in our minds. A couple of the girls have told me about their mom’s sexually abusing them. And it comes out; it is evident in the anger and hatred they have towards their mother. And with these girls who told us about their mom’s sexually abusing them, nobody believes them when they try to share this. So the girls feel very helpless.

And these crimes perpetrate because the women who sexually assault and rape know that nobody is going to believe the children.

Yeah, sometimes. I am not saying that this is the intention that one sets out with, but it is true. Especially when it is a mother, people do not really want to believe that.

 

How are these two girls coping? Are they healing differently compared to the girls who have been abused by men?

When you look at Bandana, for example, she has three daughters. Regardless of how difficult life was, how little money she had, she still loved these kids. They are a family, and even if they are struggling through hard times, we are still struggling as a family. And when that component is missing that just throws everything out the window, a child’s security, their confidence, their everything, every sense of stability they could have possibly had doesn’t exist.

Both of these girls have severe mental health issues. One has borderline personality disorder, and I am sure you know this comes from having a very dysfunctional family. And sexual abuse of any nature in a family sends kids on a troublesome path. Borderline personality is often the result of the lack of stability in a family. It is hard no matter who it is, and there is definitely the extra component when it comes to mothers sexually abusing the daughter.

Robin, we are talking about the challenges and abuses faced by girls who live in red light areas. But the same issues, to a greater degree, exist in the educated class. But they project a perfect world—that abuse and violence are problems of the poor and illiterate. Does it help that people like you and me are talking about these issues?

Exactly. I made some really, really close friends here; I would say about four or five, who surprisingly have been sexually abused as kids within the families. One of them has a mother who has schizophrenia, who committed suicide recently. So it is interesting—who is attracted to Kranti, and to volunteer with Kranti. These are people from the highest classes of Mumbai. The richest people in Mumbai, some of the well-known families and last names in the city. And they are being abused in their homes, they are being abused by their uncles, their servants. Abuse knows no class, no boundaries, nothing, absolutely nothing. It is worldwide. Everyone is vulnerable; everyone is susceptible.

Imagine the number of people who are going through abuse, whether it is class or caste, even what religion or wherever they are from, and how is it possible that the world is set up in this way that the majority of Indian’s have experienced sexual abuse. It’s huge; it’s absolutely huge.

 

The question often asked is: “Why is someone talking about it after 30, 40, 50 years.” But it takes a long time to open up, right?

Yeah. Sometimes it takes time. At Kranti, seeing one or two of these girls talking about being abused by the dad…all of a sudden you are 35 or 40-years-old, and now you want to talk about it. Sometimes I talk to the kids about how lucky they are that they managed to experience therapy at such an early age. For us, to come across even in our twenties, that is pretty early too. But imagine the number of people who are in their 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s who have never dealt with these issues, and we just pretend like it is gone and it is in the past. But it never, never, never leaves you.

 

You have faced, and continue to face, stigmatization—treated disrespectfully and denied a place to rent, among other things. I too face stigmatization from the most inferior educated specimens of society—they expect me to be a perfect picture—beautiful but brain dead and spineless (like them). Your daughters from Kamathipura have the additional baggage of being sexually abused as well as their mothers or fathers’ being in the sex industry. How do you deal with stigmatization on an everyday basis?

The hard thing is that the work that we are trying to do is completely undoing that stigma. It is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you do not want to talk about it because you know you are going to face discrimination and on the other hand if I am not going to talk about it who is?

True.

And how are people going to realize that we are just normal people? The connection between me being a lesbian and these kids, where is it coming from? If you don’t know that your neighbor is lesbian, how are you going to realize they are normal?

 

Your sexual orientation is a non-issue to me. You know what I mean?

Right. And it is irrelevant who your mom is or what work she does. It is also irrelevant what your past is and in the end when we talk about human rights you should have access to opportunities and all of those things just because you are human, not because you came from this background or that background. You had this particular past or whatever it may be. Many times that is what people see.

 

Are there days when your work-life takes a toll on you?

Of course. I am trying to meditate. Meditation has been my thing lately.

 

I understand, but I am sure there are days when you feel drained out and wonder how you are going to pull through.

I have to say those days are less and less. There used to be some really dark days. I remember the last house that we were in, and we went to see the Minister of Women and Children Affairs, no one was taking us seriously. Who on earth are we supposed to appeal to and the next day we had to get out of that house. We had two or three moms who had been doing sex work, so we sent the girls back to the rooms. Like three or four girls to each mom. I remember it was monsoon season, and I was just standing in front of the government headquarters here in Mumbai and standing there crying. Like, what is going to happen? But in the end, all of those experiences come by and make you realize that you will make it. You will. And that is something I want the kids to be able to be resilient on how to handle life.

 

You can’t have a down day, can you Robin, because you are the one who infuses the children with strength and hope.

I have my down days. Everyone shuts up and leaves me alone. When I look back at the last year, I do feel like I have found my grounding in meditation, things don’t seem as severe. The downtimes don’t just don’t look like the end of the world anymore; before they used to. Like when we were kicked out of the house. We were kicked out again the following year, but it just wasn’t such big as a deal that time. We were going to find a way.

What drives Robin?

I feel had you asked this five years ago, I would have said it is my anger and that I can’t tolerate the injustice part anymore—it drives me. I would have said, “I am there to set the world straight, that everyone is equal, and these girls are so deserving of the opportunities just as much as other people are.” It was something that drove me.

Now, I have to say that this whole concept of meditation has really changed my perspective on what equality means to me.

 

And what is it?

When I talk to my fellow activists, they don’t understand this concept of equality with love and compassion. And to me, five years ago I couldn’t have understood this either. It is hard to explain to somebody the limited amount of progress that you make as an activist through anger. What if we were able to undo those last ten years and see the results had you fought for equality through love and compassion. And I have very much seen in the past two years, the type of people I can influence because I am speaking from a place of compassion rather than speaking from a place of, “You should understand this or you should treat these girls like this.” When I come to the conversation from the place of wanting to understand that person and giving them space of what they want to believe (because they have lived a very different life from what I have lived), it is a different conversation. I find those conversations much more positive, I feel like I see a lot more change in people, and I am able to influence them so much more than when I used to approach things from anger.

 

What was the moment that defined your power?

If I had to pick one moment, it would be the when the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law [A United States policy on service by gays, lesbians, and bisexuals in the military that lasted until September 20, 2011] changed. My friends and I had been campaigning with all the energy we had—we handcuffed ourselves to the White House fence and stage sit-ins. And the work that we had done with the media, to see it come to fruition, was this feeling of wow, like the civil rights movements and all these things…activism is well and alive.

How we go about it and the fact that we can become a force that can change laws. That was a very powerful moment for me, and something that I brought back to Kranti. As well as, trying to teach these girls there is a force within you, and you are a force to reckon with. Hopefully, they will all go about using it in positive ways instead of negative ways. But you are definitely a force to reckon with—every girl, every person, has it within us—and you need to be able to use that force well.

 

Who do you turn to for advice?

This has also changed in the past couple of years. I would turn to my well-known fellow activists who are a bit older and who have spent a lot of time doing this type of work. And now, I find myself turning inwards a lot more. Sometimes, life is just testing you. We had a moment a couple of months ago, where the police came and picked three girls and me up and took us to the police station in the middle of the night. They were beating the crap out of me.

 

They actually beat you?

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

Robin, you say that so calmly.

[Laughter]. Yes, but the funny thing was that as much as you speak with friends, I contacted a couple of my friends just before this incident happened and they gave me a couple of legal people to call, in the end, you are in the police station alone, right?

 

Right.

I had a friend who ended up calling from the US Consulate because I am still a US citizen. But I still have those moments of being completely alone, locked in a room. What can you possibly do besides turn inwards? There is nowhere for us to turn, right?

 

True.

Even those moments, sitting in front of the government crying, they make you realize that all that you can do and the only power there is in the world is within you. You cannot expect anyone else to solve the problems you are facing. You can’t expect someone to come along and save the day for you.

And Kranti is not me; Kranti is a million people all over the world. Millions and millions of people have helped these girls who have helped us in so many ways, so I am not negating any of that. But needing your strength and being alone in that police station, you have to turn to yourself.

I recorded this whole incident. I happened to have my phone, and I recorded the whole incident, and you could hear them hitting me. I had sent the recording to a couple of people because I wanted to make sure that other people had access to it had it got deleted from my phone. They were saying to me, “How were you so calm?” And I think had I not been turning inwards, I would have been very angry. I would have been reacting differently. But, I guess sometimes, you also know that you are responsible for these three kids. You have to give them strength. You have to be the person they can turn to. And that also gives you strength sometimes. So one it is inwards. And two, it is probably the girls.

 

How does your voice affect your everyday life in India?

What I really hate about it is, yes, I am a lesbian, but I am very much a woman. And I hate this concept of people thinking of me as lesbian or people who sometimes think of me as transgender or something. And the idea that it is okay because she is lesbian; this idea that I am not really a woman. You know?

 

Yes.

That really, really, really disturbs me, even now. I know it shouldn’t, that is not my problem, that is the other person’s problem. I think it has been the hardest to deal within my family. There are so many men within my family who believe they should have control over my life. This concept—I live for myself, and I live by my rules, and you have zero control over me—is a very strange concept for them. And you see this all over right, all sorts of family relationships and dynamics.

I think it is not so much the world that puts the pressure on you, family and close people who have these expectations of what they should be able to control, and what they should have rights to and that kind of thing. The family is really hard to deal with. Just this concept of us—they have thought of us as American’s, a foreigner type of thing. My uncle, for example, telling me what to do with my mom and me saying, “No that’s not what I am going to do. I think I know better, and I am going to do this.” That is just something that is unheard of.

And sometimes relationships change, and things change as well, and sometimes my uncles come to me for financial help, to help them with their daughters’ education, you know. And sometimes that is nice to see as well. It is not all negative. It is a lot of change and a lot of progress. But we are all just works in progress, right. Just as much as I am a work in progress, my uncles are a work in progress. They are also changing a lot of their beliefs. I can give them credit for that at least.

 

I feel the younger generation is brainwashed into believing that connectedness is all about technology. Can they ever comprehend authentic connectedness?

I don’t see that happening, to be honest. Kranti is very much an exception. I have to say that we as a family spend so much time talking and sharing and listening and being connected. And with these girls, it is easy because they are living with their best friends. That is very different from kids who bond on Facebook and on the phone or that kind of thing.

But I do think that this whole story has been sold to our generation and the younger generation as well—success equals money and a home and a car. And so many people are buying into that. Particularly in droves in India, to the point that I cannot imagine that I don’t know how we are going to go about undoing it.

Intuitively we all know that the things that make us happy are close relationships, having friends we can trust, those are the things that make us happy.

And it is not buying a new car that makes us happy, and yet, we have just been conned into believing it.

I have no idea or no vision of how this is going to change. I have to say that for everyone it’s their journey. You have to ask: “Do you want to chase your life chasing money or do you wish to spend your life chasing really good relationships?” No one, when they were dying said, “Oh, I wish I had worked more.” Right? Everyone says, “I wish I had spent more time with this person. I wish I had forgiven this person. I wish I had listened to this person.” Those are things to learn from. But, we can’t use mass media to ensure everyone learns these things. Everyone is going to come to it when they come to it.

 

On one hand, we want people who bring about positive transformation, yet we resent their “outer” success. Have you come across people who resent you for your success and the fame that comes with building something concrete?

I am sure you know this, but in India, there is a lot of competition amongst NGO’s, just in terms of the population you work with. So for example, there are three or four NGO’s working in this red light area, and there is a lot of competition amongst them. Their workers will go out and talk trash about another NGO: “Don’t go to their programs, come to our programs.” It becomes such a game about money. We are supposed to be working together to empower this community. This is the problem with organizations.

With Kranti, we say that it should be obsolete in 20 years. We shouldn’t need a Kranti if we are doing our work correctly. Our job is to empower the community to have access to these resources and opportunities without having to leave their home. Why do the girls have to leave that red light area and come to live in Kranti to have access to these things? The idea is that Kamathipura is a place where these things exist.

When we get into “my NGO” this and that, we lose sight of what we were originally supposed to be working towards. Eventually, it becomes more about sustaining the NGO and growing the NGO than about building the community. We definitely had to face a lot, lot, lot of s*&# from a lot of other organizations. People were complaining, of course, the number one was, “Robin is lesbian.” Other things like, “Oh, they let the girls have boyfriends and wear shorts.”

One of the phrases that they say about Kranti in the red light area is, “Yahan per reh kar randi banne wale the, Kranti mein jakar pade lekhe randi banege (They would have become prostitutes in Kamathipura, now they will become educated prostitutes in Kranti).

 

[We both laugh. It’s ridiculous.]

It is so entertaining but this really speaks volumes about their mentality. About what these girls should do or what they should be allowed to do.

We want to empower people in their communities, but we don’t want to empower them too much. This girl is allowed to go to school and learn English, but she better not be taking my daughter’s place in a university.

Take the domestic help in India, the attitude toward them is one of control and false dependency. I will give you x, y and z, but I will keep you feeling inferior as I don’t want you to learn anything better; I don’t want you or your children to come up because then I will have to clean up after myself and learn things I am incapable of learning.

Absolutely. And I know people employed in domestic work, and when the domestic helps daughter gets into a better university than the employer’s daughter than it is tata (Bye bye), we don’t want to see you. You have been working for us for 20 years, but we never want to see your face again. These stories are so common in India. Those people need to reflect on themselves and what they actually want for people in life.

 

Talking about wanting for others, tell me about the girls from Kamathipura, they want to go back and set up shop in Kamathipura, to empower others.

There are three girls, the oldest girls, in particular. They all have different talents and wish to bring their skills to Kamathipura. They want to set up a community center. They want to give these girls the opportunities that they didn’t have before. They wish to build this space, so the girls don’t have to leave their community to have access to these things. How do we create a space within the community that empowers them, so we don’t need these 50 NGO’s working in the area? A couple of the girls are passionate about working only in that community and a lot of the other girls just want to commute. What they can bring along on their journey whether they are painters or whether they want to be journalists or whatever, but definitely, they all have this component of what do I want to give back?

We try to instill with this concept that Kranti empowers girls from the red light areas to become agents of social change. Whatever path you walk in life, whatever it is, whether you are a dancer, a vet, a journalist, how are you giving back. It is intrinsically within every girl. We do a lot of work to set the path.

 

Do you have a dream that is bigger than Kranti? And where do you see yourself 10, 20, 30 years from now?

[Laughs]. Does enlightenment count as a dream?

 

Of course.

[More laughter]. Oh god, I think in the bigger scheme of things, it is just not about these girls. And that is the funny part—that I come to this as somebody facing a different kind of marginalization than what these girls are facing, yet having so much in common with them. So it is more about how we create an eco-system where this is not just about the girls from the red light area, that it is about marginalized youth in general.

There are so many systems to change, whether it is the education system, the legal system, there are a million systems that need changing. I believe that these girls and the marginalized youth, in general, are the future leaders of that change. I want to see India’s systems and global systems internalize. I know this is vague but rather than setting up systems that perpetuate discrimination, perpetuate hierarchy—if I live that long, the next 20, 30 years—I would like to innovate systems that are more about equality and human rights and less about money and power. So who knows what is going to happen in my lifetime.

My personal goal is enlightenment. Everyone jokes that I am going to go and become a monk and sit on top of a mountain after a few years. But I have just started to believe in this concept that if you want to do anything for people, you should work on yourself. Because that is the biggest gift that you can give to the world is being somebody who is kind and compassionate and a good person. And I really want to develop that within myself to have a greater capacity to reach more people and to help people better.

 

 

 

IN THE MIDST OF LOVE AND LIFE

We steal from the world in every possible way, maintaining environments that bring grave harm to children. With the same appetite, we turn the blame on these children, on the grounds of their truth—a world of poverty and cruelty created by us. Not satiated, we disrobe them of their dignity and strip them of their human rights through their lifetime.

In the bargain of discriminating children, the ignorant educated put a seal on their lives that accurately defines them—personal failures. This mindset can change once you feel an innate need to protect your soul. You will discover that the essentials of life—caring, security, and belonging, are not reserved for select individuals—they are the birthright of every child, to live the full spectrum of life. With this realization, you will be equipped to apply your soulfulness to all children with great diligence.

In my time spent at Kranti, I experienced Robin’s influence—the children, infused with a culture of positivity and hope, gleamed as they waltzed through an environment accosted with life force. From meditation to yoga, education to chores, and therapy sessions to outings, they covered it all. And in this busyness, typical of teenagers, there was room for tantrums and negotiations, with loads of theatrics!

Robin-Chaurasiya-Kranti

Robin, along with the co-founders of Kranti, Bani Das and Vandana Katti, and the children are comfortable with the contrasts they live with—of where they come from and the world they are creating. There is tremendous power in this way of thinking and being. This process builds resilience and fortitude.

One would expect the children to be ashamed, shy, or awkward. Quite the contrary—in spite of their backgrounds and the challenges (that come with various forms of abuse, abandonment, and mental illness), each one is self-assured, with a distinct personality. For instance, Mahek, the baby of the family, though initially quiet, was quick to reveal her talkative self. Interestingly, her hands and legs move just as fast as her mouth. Then there is Farah. Her silence speaks a thousand words, and her actions convey responsibility. No wonder she is a teacher. Kavita is robust. Like her handwriting, she is open and flowing. And when she sings, you stop and listen. She is training to be a singer. The sincerest of the family is Vandana Katti. Placing her trust in me, she recounted bits of her sad life and expressed pride in her daughters (Kavita and Shewta). In spite of her life journey, she is filled with emotional richness—I feel it in the love she extended in person and in the note she had Kavita write. The list goes on. Each person’s gestures and expressions—of joy and confidence, and even sadness—come from the backbone of support they have and their exposure to the world of possibilities.

As I observed them, I couldn’t help but think of the countless children left behind in Kamathipura and similar areas worldwide. I am sure mothers (and fathers) are wracked with guilt knowing that all they can provide their children are atrocious conditions. If only this opportunity and dignity were extended to other children.

In the midst of the chaos and non-stop talking, much to my fascination, things were getting accomplished, including pending passport paperwork for their upcoming trip to Dubai. The excitement in the air was palpable! It was magnified with the girls regaling stories—who could chomp down a dozen bananas in one go, the selfie addict with aspirations of becoming a model, and the few who had mastered the art of cursing (This one caught me off-guard, in a good way!). We rumbled with laughter as they shared their life, unfiltered.

Just as I relished their victories, hopes, and joys, I felt their pain. It whispered through compelling words in their diaries, it spoke through distant glazed looks, it announced itself as unchained tears flowed, it delivered when the body curled, and the mouth smiled (in an attempt to mask the pain). Each non-verbal gesture talked about angst, sorrow, and injustice. Without a doubt, I saw what society denies them. It is telling, the countless excuses the educated make to remain “less than” but not ONE REASON to be “more than” in life.

The children’s curriculum includes writing diary, solving puzzles, creative writing, current affairs, sex-education, geography, as well as other subjects that are crucial tools to navigate through the world. But there is more to it than the obvious—as I recollected the moments spent with the children, it became evident that the foundation of their curriculum lies in acceptance, dignity of life and unconditional love—special brushes that guide a child to paint beauty on the canvas of their inner world.

Heera

 

 

To learn more about Kranti please visit their website.

 

 

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