Manish was found by police in a village near the city of Mathura in Uttar Pradesh on June 28. He is with his mother and will return to school in time for the start of the new term. Thanks to everyone who offered their support.
He runs up to me and stops about two feet out from where I’m standing. We’re opposite each other. He holds his arms out and reaches across to my hands. He doesn’t want to hold them, but he starts tugging on them, expecting me to do something. I nod for a reaction, half teasing and half grinning, and he tugs harder.
He wants me to give him a centrifugal swing around. I sit down. He pulls me back up, making sure I’m in the right position to start before repositioning himself in front of me, arms outstretched and tugging on my hands. Five seconds after I start, he starts screaming for me to stop.
Manish is about eight or nine. He spent nine months living with me and other children at the hostel until his mother took him home for summer. He’s due back next week to start the school year, when he’ll be reunited with his friends.
Manish is mentally disabled. We’re not sure why. He has signs of trauma to his head but we can’t be sure where they came from. The scars are repeated across many of our children; in several cases they are signs of earlier attempts to fix their condition with surgery.
His mother may have had difficulty during child birth or lacked vital vitamins and minerals during pregnancy. Or he may have not been adequately provided for in his early months of development after child birth. I’m not an expert on maternal health or the assessment of children, but these are some common causes of mental and developmental disabilities.
Mental disability varies from child to child. Some children have conditions that can be easily identified; cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. Some have conditions that our psychologists can diagnose and offer treatment for; severe cases of autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Some children simply live with mental disability; their brains have not developed in a way that we would call normal.
Manish has a mental disability.
He’s an adorable child, tiny for his age; his last check-in weighed him at 19kg. It means he’s easy to swing around. It also means he’s pushed around by older children easily. But there’s no need, he’s harmless. I’ve never seen him hit another child and he’s rarely involved in fights. He doesn’t run from danger, he screams at danger – hoping that I or one of the caretakers will come to help.
Manish can’t talk. He can make noises, but he has no language skills. He communicates with gestures and odd noises. It’s difficult to apply what he’s saying to what’s going on, but he can identify pictures, signs, and people. When he recognizes something he’ll point at it; accompanied by a ‘wojuwa’ noise that can’t be transliterated. Maybe it’s more, ‘woogwaa’. It’s an exciting time for him.
Because of his inability to perceive and interact with the world the same way we do, Manish is incapable of supporting himself. He’s slowly learning how to accommodate his basic needs. He can attend to the toilet, get himself water, and get into bed by himself. But he finds it difficult to prioritise or conduct other tasks. That’s why he’s here, to develop basic skills we learn in early childhood, skills we take for granted. And for school.
Manish picks his friends. He’s not as selective as some of the children but has trusted allies. I like to think I’m one of those; the staff often joke that he is my ‘beta’ (my son), and I don’t dispute that he’s one of my favorites. But his mother works on the campus, which makes it awkward when it comes to treats, bedtime, and discipline. Every morning when I open my door to the chaos of the hostel courtyard, he’ll come running to me and climb up my body until I have no choice but to carry him to get chai. Often, he’s the one who wakes me up with incessant banging on my door.
Last winter I made a series of poster boards with pictures of activities the hostel children had taken part in. It’s his favorite. He’ll spend forever trying to see the pictures, clambering up my body to get a better look, pointing at friends and making trademark noises. He has other hobbies; playing in the sand pit, filling metal cups with sand, adding water, and making a complete mess of the hostel. He likes to dance too, although he takes a bit of encouragement. His dance moves are spectacular.
Like all the children, Manish has tantrums. He’s reasonable over small injustices, even causing problems for other children; stealing their chai or food. He’s like a leprechaun; physically harmless, but a completely devilish enterprise when it comes to getting what he wants.
But when Manish is reprimanded things turn ugly. It’s a rule on campus that we don’t hit the children – ever. But children hit each other. Likewise his mother – a care-taker for girl residents – breaks this rule regularly. It’s difficult to challenge the bond between mother and child but I make clear what is best for Manish. Outside the safe space provided by the hostel I won’t stop her hitting her son. But while they both live here, I can’t let it happen.
I don’t get on with her mother. I have accused her of prioritizing herself – selfishly – over the needs of her child and the female children she is responsible for. Other staff have called her careless. But most importantly, I’m dismayed at the lack of support she shows for her distraught child on those occasions when he is upset, those moments when he turns to me and not her.
Manish’s tantrums are an awful experience. His screams are ear-piercing. His disability becomes apparent and alarming.
In rages of upset and injustice, he begins hitting his head against hard surfaces, kneeling on the ground and head-butting the floor and walls. He’ll continue after blood starts running down his face, causing more pain and leading to more of the same. In all my year, it’s been one of the most difficult things to work with. Worse is that those responsible for his upset – other children and his mother – find his self-harming theatrics due punishment for his misbehavior.
At these times I try my hardest to comfort him, picking him up so he can’t harm himself. He tries to bang his head against mine. It’s frustrating and disheartening to consider the damage he’s causing himself. Is he taking steps backwards?
Luckily, it doesn’t take long to calm him down; I usually make for the nearest photographs or pictures to distract him, and within seconds he mindlessly points at things he recognizes, uttering his trademark ‘woojuwa’.
It’s this bond that makes Manish my ‘beta’. I love him all the more for the challenges he gives me, his diverse needs. In an environment where his is undermined by peers, ignored by his mother, and constantly battling against a world that was not built for him, I find comfort in being able to support him. I love him like a son. Saying good-bye to him in May, when his mother took him home for summer, was difficult.
On June 15 Manish Guru went missing.
His family lost him during a trip to the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh, where they were visiting relatives in the rural district of Mathura.
Manish has no way of identifying himself to people. His arm bears his name in the devanagari script, a name he shares with countless children and adults. Uttar Pradesh rivals Rajasthan in poverty, social injustice, and the ineffectiveness of police forces to conduct basic operations. Manish has gone missing in an environment that does little to help find him.
Manish’s family have spent ten days searching for him. He no longer has a father, and I never got on well with his mother. Am I angry at her? Do I blame her? Probably. But she is his mother, I can barely imagine the anguish she is facing now as she searches for her only child.
She remains in Mathura with her family, but ten days later people are losing hope that they, or the authorities in the poorly governed district of Mathura, will find him. Manish is an incredibly vulnerable child, he is not able to resist abuse or understand that it is wrong. He is not able to seek help. He is an easy target.
I always thought that if something happened to any of my children it would be an accident caused by their wrong-doing, their misbehavior, or their inability to look after themselves. I never dreamed it would be through neglect.
Manish was found by police on June 28. He will return to school in time for the start of the new term.