Rashmi Kuchhal, Co-Founder Of HIV+ Kids’ Home, Rays, Dreams POSITIVE For HER Kids
- JWB Post
- September 16, 2015
The JWB squad is always on the move to discover motivational and hard-working women across Jaipur who are doing brilliantly well in their lives. Today, we speak of one such woman, who has not only achieved extraordinaire in her own life, but is also illuminating the lives of many unfortunate HIV-positive kids. Meet Rashmi Kuchhal, founder of Handi Restaurant, Jaipur, and Co-Founder of Rays, an NGO for HIV positive children.
While we waited at the restaurant to meet her, we only wondered, what it is about this superpower of women, that they effortlessly balance so many things simultaneously! Well, this conversation of mine with Rashmi may spill out the beans for you, because it certainly did for me. Read on.
Tell me about yourself.
I come from a family of freedom fighters. My mother was one of the first travel agents to start tourism in Jaipur, despite not knowing how to speak English. She took tuitions, learned English, and expanded the business, such that, it spread all over Rajasthan. This was a fertile source of inspiration for me. After getting married at a young age, my husband and I started Handi owing to my passion for cooking.
So, most of your work happened after marriage?
Yes. We started on a very small scale with merely two tables and very few dishes on the menu. I used to cook and serve.
Nope. There was just this one boy who helped us at the household. Slowly and gradually as the work expanded, we got an entire team. After some time, we opened up Copper Chimney.
All this was quite some time back, right?
Yeah. Handi happened sometime around 1983.
Not at all favorable! They wouldn’t take any advice or suggestions coming from me, even though I was the one behind all the recipes at Handi. I used to have a tiff quite often with such people, and with the passage of time, they did give me that respect.
How did your NGO Rays come into the picture?
Rays happened pretty late when the business was well settled, when my children had grown up, when they had started handling the business. I had this feeling that all of this was being taken care of, and now I had to do something else. It was in my persona.
That is when my friend, Captain Gurinder Virk, stepped in the scene. Both of us thought of opening up an orphanage, and while we were visiting a pre-established one, we met a child who had been rejected. On inquiring, we came to know that the child was HIV positive. That is when we resolved to open a home for HIV positive kids.
What were the difficulties that came your way in the process of establishing Rays?
There were plenty of them. HIV is a big stigma amongst people. They are so scared, so scared, that you cannot imagine! They do not want to interact with the HIV positive … don’t want to give their homes on rent to such people. I ask them, what are you afraid of? That your walls will catch HIV?
But, all aside, you know what the biggest challenge is? These HIV+ kids. They come with such a negative approach in life. It is not an easy task to mould their minds in the right direction.
They must always be in need of a lot of care, both in terms of medication and affection, right?
Yes. When we started, there were just 4 children and a small room. Gradually, kids kept pouring in. Today we have 57 children living in two homes with ten caretakers, who are also HIV+. That is why all of us prefer to call it a POSITIVE home.
So, how exactly is a child admitted into Rays?
A child who wants to join Rays has to secure permission from the CWC (Child Welfare Committee). A lot of hospitals know us, and when parents with HIV positive kids approach these hospitals, they refer them to us. Then we guide them to get the permission from CWC. When a child comes to us, we get his/her thorough medical checkup done. And after 3 months, when the child is comfortable in his new surroundings, we get him/her admitted to the school.
… You know Priya, people come up and ask me why do I send these kids to private schools, thereby adding to the expenses? I tell them that I am ready to spend extra, ready to pitch in my money, but not ready to compromise with the quality of their education.
While we are talking about the financial aspect, tell me how do you arrange funds to run the home?
Funds are always a problem because there is always ‘N’ number of expenses. And people are reluctant in donating for HIV kids because they consider it a waste of money. I’ll tell you an incident. There is this man who is into a lot of charity work. One day he came up to me and said, ‘One never comes to know about HIV kids, they may or may not be alive tomorrow.’ I told him, are you sure about yourself, whether you will be alive tomorrow or not? By donating for these children you are at least contributing in letting them have a good quality of life for whatsoever time they are alive.
Even since, that man has been a regular visitor at Rays. Other than him, we get some donations from some of Captain Virk’s friends, and we contribute our money too.
So, what is the next big thing?
Captain Virk: We are planning to open up a third home. We have the permission from the government to have these kids with us only till they turn 18. But, we are worried what will happen to them after that, where they will go, what they will do…
Rashmi: It stirs me to the core to think that these children will leave us. We are so attached to them; they are so attached to us. Rays is like a life-support for me. If I don’t go there, I feel like I have not received my oxygen for the day.
Captain Virk: We are also thinking of ways to create employment opportunities for them. We are trying to tie up with some corporates that could take in these kids for on the job training as an apprentice, once the kids pass 12th grade.
Rashmi: Maybe we will also absorb them in one way or the other in our own business. We are into the hotel industry too. These kids can vouch for jobs which are safe, where there is no blood contact, such as drivers, bell boys, room service, etc.
Tell me more about the kids! How do they address you?
They call me Badi Maa! Many a times they would call me on the phone and sing shero-shayaris! Then when it is someone’s birthday, he/she would ask me to make their favorite dish. When my mother visits, it becomes like an event for them. They hear stories of freedom fighting from her. We celebrate festivals together, we live like a family. On Diwali, some of the kids come to stay with me at my house.
Captain Virk: You see, on Diwali all the kids go to their own families. But some of them do not have any place to go. They are orphans. So, they go and stay with her.
Rashmi: We also take them for excursions whenever our financial conditions allow us. We’ve taken them before to Amritsar, Rishikesh, Dharamsala, and Delhi. You know, these kids were so excited to sit in a train for the first time! On realizing what a burger is, on seeing the hills, on seeing a lake for the first time! These little-little things are such big joys for these children.
When we were going to Dharamsala, I’d asked the kids and the caretakers to pack warm clothes, and all of them were making fun of me for this. Even when we were in the train, they teased as to why I had made their bags heavy with warm clothes. But just as we got to the hills, one of my boys excitedly said, “ Badi Maa, yahan kitni thand hai! Lagta hai bhagwaan ne yahan adrishya AC lagaya hai!”
And the joy with which she spoke about the kids was as pure as their innocence.
What about the parents of these kids. Are they cooperative?
Some of them do not even bother to come and ask about the child’s progress. A lot of the kids come from rural areas, and we have also seen some cases where parents keep their HIV kids at home just for the sake of the fixed amount of money that the govt. offers for the medication of such kids. The condition they are kept in is disheartening.
Her voice took an autumnal tone. She spoke in hushed sounds as if even the thought of negligence towards such kids was appalling to her.
That is why I don’t allow more than 15 days as summer vacation. Because they don’t get proper food or hygiene or medication, and then they come back in bad shape… we have to restart the health cycle in such cases.
What is the best compliment that you have received from the kids?
There is not a compliment as such, but a fond memory. Some time back we had hired a tutor for the kids. Now this guy was brilliant, but something went wrong with him. He started being a bit aggressive with the kids. So I told him we didn’t want him there. Probably on the last day, this tutor spoke bad things about me. All the kids were quiet but this one six-year old child…he got so agitated… that he got up and yelled at the tutor: Meri maa ke liye kuch bola toh mujhse bura koi nahi hoga.
The next day when I went, the chap came running to me, hugged me and cried. He said, last year when his own mother died, he didn’t feel this bad than what he felt yesterday when the tutor spoke badly of me.
I did notice Rashmi’s gleaming eyes as she narrated this incident.
It does. But then I guess it’s all about priorities at the end of the day. For me, Rays comes above all, second, my business, and third, my home. You know, quite often my grandchildren complain that I love the kids at Rays more than I love them. To be honest, I do. Because my grandchildren have their own parents and me, but these kids, they don’t have anyone.
Captain Virk has been a great support through all this. We have departments divided amongst us.
Before I say something, I want to question. Why are the HIV positive kids left out? Have you ever heard of them in the budget? Have you seen people talking about them? Have you seen anything about them on social media? When so much is being done for women empowerment, girl child, special kids, old people, why not for them?
This was something to think about. Her expressions clearly reflected how much the ignorance towards these kids irked her heart!
These are lovely kids with just an HIV tag on them. Please don’t brand them. Please don’t treat them like untouchables. Treat them like humans. Give them love, accept them. Give them confidence that they are important and that they are capable. Let them dream… dream big.
When I go to them, they have so many things to talk about, so many stories to tell me, so many secrets to share. I feel so good and happy that they trust me. If you come and interact with them, you will feel the same warmth and happiness.
Picture Courtesy: Pallav Bhargava