There are 153 million children worldwide who are orphans with an estimated 31 million orphans living in India. Yet, we never hear our elected officials, whether in India or the United States, discuss their plight; the plight of children who have no one looking out for them.
The loss of parents leaves children vulnerable to exploitation, and more often than not, their problems are left forgotten. Instead, the media would focus on what name-brand clothes a celebrity’s child is wearing, rather than the plight of the children fighting for survival.
You wouldn’t pick at a still-healing wound; it would hurt you. Then why would we pick at the emotional wounds that people bear? The loss of parents not only leaves children vulnerable to trauma, but the loss itself leaves a mark on children. Yet, we constantly remind them of that loss, that trauma. This is particularly evident in Hindi (India’s national language), which refers to orphans as ‘anath‘.
‘Nath‘ – the Hindi word derives from the Sanskrit ‘natha‘ meaning lord, protector or master. The prefix ‘a-‘ means ‘without’. For example, if ‘shudh‘ in Hindi means pure, then ‘ashudh‘ would mean impure or without purity.
So, ‘anath‘ literally means ‘without protection, without god.’
‘Anath‘ literally reminds them that they are without something. Yes, they have faced an unimaginable loss, but that doesn’t mean they should be reminded of that loss being referred to as literally ‘without god or Protection’. For that matter, what gives society the right to say that a child is ‘without god, without protection’.
A child saw his parents murdered; his siblings killed and is then forced to flee for his life. The child eventually makes his way to New Delhi, where he struggles to find his way in life. He finally decides to join the army only to fail on his first attempt, but he perseveres until he successfully gains entrance on his fourth attempt.
The army then introduces the young man who previously “didn’t even know what running was or the Olympics” to sports. This is a true story. It is Milkha Singh’s story, an ‘anath‘ or a child ‘without god and protection’, who eventually became known as the ‘Flying Sikh’. Milkha Singh was indeed tragically orphaned during the India-Pakistan partition violence when his parents and siblings were killed. But did that make him ‘without god or without protection’?
Milkha Singh did serve as a witness to his family’s murder, but he also triumphed in the face of great tragedy and adversity to become a revered Indian sports icon. He was the first gold medalist at the Commonwealth Games from an independent India and set multiple national records as an Indian track and field sprinter.
Even though it has been decades since his retirement, he remains a source of inspiration and pride for Indians. No, he was not ‘without god’. In fact, no child is ‘without god or god’s protection’. So, how can we refer to millions of children as ‘anath‘?
I understand that people may not see the difference between the English term ‘orphan‘ and Hindi word for it – ‘anath‘. The term “orphan” solely refers to children whose parents have died – it is a neutral term of its own standing even though the meaning of the term orphan has a negative connotation. However, ‘anath‘ essentially fuses two words together to literally refer to children as ‘without god’s protection or love’.
It is simply not right. That child is not ‘without god’ simply because they have lost their parents. In fact, god resides in each and every person, inside each and every soul. The Hindu Vedic scriptures could not have said that a child who has lost their parents is a child without god not when the core belief of Hinduism is that god is in everyone and that everyone is in god.
It is clear that the term ‘anath‘ itself reflects societal flaws and perceptions rather than the societal ideals we should strive for.
It is imperative that we change how the Hindi language refers to orphans. Children are precious, they are our future, and we need to acknowledge that.
On that note, not only should we recognize the struggles faced by orphans, but also salute those who have fought for the rights of these forgotten children.
Sindhutai Sapkal, the ‘Mother of Orphans,’ was a recipient of the Padma Shri Award 2021 (the highest civilian award for Indians) for adopting close to 2,000 orphans. She took on the responsibility of keeping a dozen orphans fed even as she struggled to survive by begging on the streets.
She protected the children from prowling predators and provided a family to them even as unconventional it was on the streets. Eventually, she devoted her entire life to orphans. And the orphans who lived on the streets with her are now doctors and lawyers.
Some have continued her legacy of compassion by giving a home to the orphans. Sindhutai Sapkal would never say that her children were ‘without god’s protection or blessings’. Then why do we? It is time that Indian scholars change how we refer to orphans in the Indian language. To remember that they are not just ‘without’.