Dr Manorama's answer to my request to see Krishnaveni was, "No, you can't." It came as a rude shock, for she was such a lovely person and had not said 'no' to me before.
"But why, doctor?"
"Because," she said, picking her words carefully, "she is far away from all of us. She passed away a week ago."
For a moment, I couldn't respond To statisticians, Krishnaveni was just an addition to the more than one million AIDS orphans in India. But to Dr Manorama, she and Ravi were a part of life; a part of the arduous journey she began 10 years ago.
Krishnaveni and Ravi were among the 50 sick children from an orphanage brought to the Government Hospital for Children. They were found to be AIDS patients -- which changed everything.
Till then, they had a home. That is to say, an orphanage and an ayah to take care of them. But after they were diagnosed HIV positive, the orphanage refused to take them back. And at the hospital, they were shunned by everyone, including the staff.
Krishnaveni was four-and-a-half years old then, Ravi two-and-a-half. Ravi bled from his ears continuously, there was a huge abscess on his face, and Krishnaveni had multiple abscesses all over her body. Both of them suffered from dementia.
Unable to bear their plight, Dr Manorama, a pediatric gastroenterologist, decided to shift them to her private nursing home. There, Krishnaveni behaved more like an animal, defecating and urinating all over the place; she was a highly insecure and emotionally disturbed child. Ravi was silent and withdrawn, and everybody thought he was deaf and dumb.
Dr Manorama decided to adopt the children and take care of them. But no 'normal' woman was willing to touch them. Finally, an HIV positive sex worker was employed to look after them.
Thanks to her care, both Krishnaveni and Ravi became normal in their behaviour in six months. It was then that Dr Manorama realised children afflicted with AIDS also can get better with proper care. Thus, the Community Health Education Society Ashram was born, the first home in Chennai for AIDS orphans.
I met Krishnaveni and Ravi first in early 1997 at the CHES Ashram. By then they had been cured of all external diseases. Both smiled a lot and Ravi was not silent any more. But they were very shy.
It was believed then that AIDS orphans would not live long, perhaps only till the age of 11 or 12. As I met Dr Manorama quite often, I knew both the kids were doing well, contrary to expectations.
But when I met them in 2002, I was in for a big surprise. Both Krishnaveni and Ravi had grown so big I couldn't recognise them. Thanks to the school run by Udavum Karangal, a non-governmental organisation for abandoned children, both got the opportunity to go to school. And they looked no different from normal children.
In her pink frock, Krishnaveni looked lovely, though physically, she was not as big as other 14-year-olds. But nobody could say she was afflicted with a deadly disease. It was with a twinkle in her eyes that she told me how she felt when she first went out of the four walls of the ashram to school, how she enjoyed taking a public transport bus, and how much she loved playing with other children.
Krishnaveni had started dreaming too, like any other teenager. She told me she loved dresses. Pink was her favourite colour. She wanted to be a schoolteacher when she grew up. She loved Tamil literature and she wanted to read lots of Tamil books. I enjoyed listening to her little dreams, and we chatted for a very long time that day.
When I narrated Krishnaveni's dreams, Dr. Manorama said, "When they came here, I was told they would not live beyond 12. Krishnaveni is 14 now and Ravi 11. But we haven't told them about their HIV status. Krishnaveni is a beautiful teenager. Soon, she may fall in love with a boy. I do not know how she will react when we break the news to her..."
Dr Manorama was scared to face that day. She didn't have to, for the day never came.
Krishnaveni had to write just one more exam. But she refused to get up in the morning, complaining of body pain. Those at the CHES and Dr Manorama had to force her to go to school for that exam. She returned in the evening with the same complaint and refused to get up from bed. She requested Dr Manorama to take her to her house.
Krishanveni got up as if she had no ailment when she knew she was going to Dr Manorama's house. She sat with them at the dining table, had her food, talked merrily to everyone. When it was time for her to return to CHES, she lay down and refused to get up.
This continued for a couple of days. She would get up without any trouble if she was to go to Dr Manorama's home. But the moment she was back to the ashram, she would go to bed. It still puzzles Dr Manorama why she behaved that way.
None of the tests showed any new infection. None of the specialists could find anything wrong with her, Dr Manorama remembered.
On the seventh day, she died. A silent death. Quite an unlikely death for an HIV positive.
I remember what she said while glancing through a book, "This ashram is not my home. This is only a hostel. I wish I had my parents. I wish I had a home. I wish I had a pond in my house. I wish I had lots of fish and lilies in the pond. I wish I had lots of books to read."
Ravi, who was listening to her, said, "No, this is our home. Who told you this is not our home?"
Perhaps, it was this yearning of hers for a home that made her walk the last time to Dr Manorama's house.
Illustration: Lynette Menezes