Amsavalli stands as a beacon of hope for HIV positive children and women

“Ammaaaaa,” shriek the children at Jheevan, the home for HIV-positive kids and adults run by Sharanalayam, when they see Amsavalli. She runs up to them, starts a game of kolakolaya mundirika and holds a quiz to test their general knowledge.

The kids share an easy camaraderie with 39-year-old Amsa. When they came in, most of them were scrawny and ill. Amsa and the staff wondered if they would survive. But, good food, medicine and lots of care later, the children thrived. Today, many go to school. They are aware of their condition and take precautions to stay safe.

Amsa also counsels traumatised women who walk into Jheevan after testing positive. She helps them regain confidence and gives them hope.

Twelve years ago, it was Amsa who needed counselling. “Where do I even begin?” she asks, her eyes filling up. “Do I tell you of how I grew up petted and pampered in Palani as the only daughter in a house full of sons? Or, of the number of wedding proposals I turned down? Or, of how I was married off to the wrong man?”

Amsa still can't forget the day she was diagnosed positive. Her son was about three and she had a huge boil on her leg. “I thought it was cancer.” Eventually, she figured out she got the virus from her husband, a bus conductor, who had visited a sex worker when Amsa had gone home for her delivery.

“It was a huge shock. It was like being handed down a life sentence for no fault of mine. I went into a shell. I presumed my child was also positive. My brother-in-law asked us to go somewhere and die. We travelled to Chennai, Puducherry, Bangalore, even to Kashi, to end our lives. But, each time, something came in the way. Finally, we returned home, to discover my son was not HIV positive. I had come so close to snuffing out his life!”

That was when Amsa was taken in by Vanitha Rengaraj of Sharanalayam. She and her husband were the initial inmates of Jheevan. Amsa's son, now a teenager, is in Dhaya, the home for abandoned and orphaned children. Her husband soon died. Her brothers and mother visit occasionally.

Amsa got a grip on her life. “I had a place to stay. I was given nutritious food. I had access to Antiretroviral Therapy (ART). What else did I need? I decided to mentor the girls and women coming here for treatment.” She became amma to all the orphaned children abandoned at the doorsteps of Jeevan by relatives. “Some don't have the heart, other's the money,” she says.

Radha, 21, speaks about how Amsa fed her biscuits soaked in milk to keep her alive when she first came six years ago. Anu, 15, came in five years ago, with an open wound on her feet that refused to heal. Mangai, 14, was brought her by her paati when she was 10. She had tuberculosis and was sinking. Today, she speaks about what her amma has taught her.

“If I get hurt, I must ask the nurse akka for cotton and bandage, wipe the blood, tie the wound and drop the cotton in the special bin,” she says. Amsa also teaches the girls who've attained puberty about hygiene.

“When I see women who've given up, I tell them my story, tell them that death will come when it has to. We can't live in constant fear of it,” says Amsa, who has studied up to Class IX.

Amsa hopes people will learn to be honest in their relationships. “Marriage is based on trust. No partner must hurt the other this way. Everyone must live like Rama and Seetha,” she says. Amsa wishes there was more societal acceptance too. “You can touch me. Nothing will happen. But, how many know this? I can't go to a hotel, tell people I'm HIV positive and expect to be served. That must change.”

Her only wish? “My son must study well, earn well and prove to those who banished us from their lives that we've managed to not just survive, but live well.”

(The names of the children have been changed)