Chandrasekhar has not had it easy. Hunger, homelessness - he has seen it all. Thanks to Balatejassu, he could dream and hope. He recently scored nearly 95 percent in class 12.
The story of 17-year-old Nagineni Chandrasekhar is a rare one. Chandrasekhar, who lives in Tenali town of Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh, recently scored 949 marks out of 1,000 and stood second in class 12 at the Sri Sai Educational Institution. But that's not all.
At 11 Chandrasekhar had fled the home of his sister and brother-in-law for the freedom to hope. His farmer father was dead, and mother had taken up a job in Kuwait to repay debts. His sister who lives in Cuddapah district got him jobs at the local grocery store and phone booth where he had to work from 7 am to 9.30 pm for Rupees 500 (about 10 US dollars) a month. All the money went to his relatives.
He yearned to join his mother in Kuwait and hoped to find a driver's job there. For which, he needed money to take driving lessons. So he escaped. He got a job of cleaning utensils and tables at a road side restaurant in Tirupati city. The owner was stingy and wasn't ready to pay proper wages. So he left to live and work on railway platforms of Tirupati, Tenali and Vijaywada cities.
Brand new challenges
At the railway stations he met kids who would coax him to sniff whiteners.
"They couldn't succeed. I didn't want to do whiteners. I wanted to be with my mother. I had just that plan, and was working towards it. Also, my father had died of a heart attack because of alcoholism. Of course, I was scared of habits that drown people in trouble," explains Chandrasekhar.
He survived by selling toys and reserving berths for passengers in trains. Sometimes the police came, and beat him up for they wanted to throw homeless kids out of the station. Often he would quench his hunger by drinking water.
"To save my earnings, I decided to skip one meal every day,"reveals Chandrasekhar.
One day government officials forcibly took him to the state children's home meant for platform kids in Tirupati.
Balatejassu finds him
Then luck struck. Balatejassu counsellors met him at the government run shelter, as they provide counselling to children at state centres also.
Balatejassu is an ActionAid initiative that has seven shelters for runaway kids in six cities of Andhra Pradesh: Hyderabad, Vishakapatnam, Tirupati, Gudur, Tenali and Warangal. Balatejassu means 'radiant children'. The shelters provide food and safe havens to over 100 children.
Their counsellors tried bringing Chandrasekhar and his family back together, but Chandrasekhar ran away a second time, this time to Tenali railway station, where he again took to selling toys. For three years, he went in and out of trains, vending his wares, but often coming back to Balatejassu shelter in Tenali to interact with staff and friends, eat food, rest and store his savings. That was his oasis and home.
"I felt comfortable there," he says.
Friendly interactions with staff and counsellors encouraged him to take up studies for brighter prospects.
"One of the daily activities at the shelter is 'Bala Sabha' (Children's Parliament). Here the counsellors helped me understand the importance of education," says Chandrsekhar.
Balatejassu staff got in touch with Rammohan Rao, the principal of Sri Sai Educational Institution, who agreed to provide free education and hostel facilities to this determined child.
No looking back
Chandrasekhar took to studies like fish to water, and has never looked back since then.
"The principal used to encourage me to score better, and the Balatejassu team gave me constant guidance. I started studying for almost 15 hours a day. Even most of Sundays would go in books," Chandrasekhar says. But it was not all work and no play. Readily, he used to spend summer vacations at the shelter, where children get to play carom, cricket and chess, watch TV, go for picnics and sessions on child rights.
For undergraduate studies, Chandrasekhar would like to take up engineering. These days he is studying hard for the entrance tests.
So, what does he think of the recent spate of interviews in the local TV channels and newspapers? "My struggles have taught me the significance of being down to earth. With all these Q&As, and publicity around me, I feel more responsible towards achieving my goal," he explains. A local news channel dubbed him 'Tenali's Slumdog Millionaire'.
"I would not miss an opportunity to share my experiences with other runaway kids. I would ask them to hope. I would tell them whitener may give them happiness while they sniff it, but it would spoil their life for ever. I would suggest that they stay away from addictive substances and work hard at studies or vocational training for a golden future."
Not surprisingly, Chandrasekhar would like to open a home for children in difficult circumstances when he grows up. His inspiration is Balatejassu.
"Balatejassu is a temple to me," he adds.
Text :Anjali Lal Gupta/ActionAid