"For Someone Who Has No One"

Snehalaya | July 2024

Girish was just a boy struggling through 8th grade arithmetic when he first noticed the girls his own age working in the brothels of Ahmednagar. Though thoroughly forbidden, he cut through the red-light area every day on his way to an extracurricular math program—the shortest route to getting ahead, ironically. It was there he became familiar with the vast injustices endured by the girls, witnessing their tears and tremors.

The temptation to turn away at this moment is hardwired in us. At best it’s an act of protest, repulsed by the grotesque and horrific, as we should be. Stories like this present an uncomfortable confrontation with the shame of what we humans do to each other and our seeming helplessness to stop it. But Girish’s story, if it is anything, is a simple story of a boy who chose not to look away. The commitment and courage stemming from the simplest of choices can encourage each of us—the whole world over—in boldness and care, if we let it.

“Someone should do something”

Through 8th, 9th and 10th grade Girish took the same route to the same math program—always looking, always listening. “Sometimes they were crying. Sometimes they were beaten. Sometimes I saw a lot of people take one girl and rape her…that shouting and that crying…the treatment and the torture of the girls—like putting chili powder in their vagina, beating them if they say ‘no’ to a customer, or the girls all having syphilis and gonorrhea or infections on their body and still being forced to do the prostitution, or pregnant—seven or eight months—but still people are forcing her to have sex with them,” says Girish. I see it all flash across his face, the horrors and indignities hollowing out precious lives.

“I thought that they should come with me to school, they have a right…” he shakes his head. “I was just thinking someone should do something, but I didn’t know what I could do as a student. It was a very deep pain or wound in my heart.”

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Motorbikes drive through the streets of Ahmednagar.

Settled in 1490, Ahmednagar is one of the oldest cities in India and geographically, “the heart of our state of Maharashtra,” says Girish. Here, soldiers and officers come for training from all over the country and these army recruits are the main clientele for the red-light areas. That’s of course not the only factor though, Girish explains, the caste system has something to do with it as well. There is one community in particular—a nomadic tribe—who are used for the flesh trade. “They do the prostitution as a caste profession,” says Girish. “You can say these girls and women are mostly used for these purposes.” They’re born into it, with few (if any, ever) alternate paths.

During college, Girish became friends with a person of this tribe and was invited to visit the friend’s home—an honor not frequently or widely extended. When he went to his home, Girish saw his friend’s younger sister (16 or 17 years old), his mother (maybe 40-42), and grandmother (about 70) all doing prostitution. “All the male community was just sitting out taking the money and sending customers to their family members. When I saw that I was shocked and I asked my friend, ‘Are you not getting angry?! Someone is sending customers for your sister, your mother, your grandmother!’ He said that it's a caste system, and if I utter a single word, they will kill me or they will beat me.”

Girish wanted nothing but to flee. “I didn't want to keep any contact, any relation with these people. I knew I can't change them, and I don't want them to change me,” he says emphatically. “But then a very painful thought came in my mind—because it's someone else’s mother, sister and grandmother, I can see it and just say, ‘Oh this is bad, this is wrong,’ or some other words of no solace then just give up the subject and live my life, and I can congratulate myself for being sensitive. But if I see my sister, my mother, my grandmother experiencing all these atrocities—what will be my response to the situation? So, the answer came, ‘I will do something.’”

“Truly speaking, it's not a social cause,” says Girish. “It's actually a personal thing. For a long time, I was doing nothing. I was thinking that someone should do something, but when no one wanted to do anything, I said, ‘Let us begin. Let us do at least a small act.’” Everything that has happened since—everything named Snehalaya—traces back to that one choice driven by guilt in November of 1988. What began as a shortcut turned into the long road of a life calling.

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Girish Kulkarni poses for a portrait on Snehalaya's campus.

“I just wanted to make myself free from that guilt that I'm not doing anything. I was not aware that this will grow as an institution. This is just my response to the situations, to the things which I saw as a child.”

Girish Kulkarni, Founder, Snehalaya

The First Two

“In India there are a lot of people facing trouble who need support: tribal women, widows, destitutes, rape victims, Dalits, differently abled people,” says Girish. “But I asked myself, who is the last last? These are women in prostitution and their children—people don't have any sympathy for them.”

Girish thought he might work with the women to help them develop alternative livelihoods, but they weren’t interested in this—they weren’t worried about themselves. “Their life is already spoiled,” he remembers them saying. Their concern was for their children.

Often the youngest are kept below the bed as their mother does her work with customers above. “The children experience all of these things—some horrible things—and customers also abuse boys or girls in the red-light area, so the women complain because they are not in a situation to protect their kids,” one sister tells me.

That was their desperate plea: Please, take our kids.

‘Okay, two kids,’ Girish thought. That was all, that was enough, that was his dream—his guilt would be assuaged, he would have ‘done his part.’ But with snacks, activities and a nonexploitative caregiver, two kids quickly turned to twenty. “After a month and a half, there were a lot of children coming to me from the red-light areas and they're calling me brother or sir or papa or uncle,” he says incredulously. “So, this all changed my world. I was thinking to start small, but it has gradually become a lot of people joining hands. And I think it's maybe the plan of the Almighty (or however you call it).”

Pointing to a framed photo hanging on the wall of his office, Girish is quick to acknowledge that his parents were very patient and accommodating during this time, allowing him to make a hostel of their family home. He had no grand plan, no financing, just a deep commitment that whatever he could do, he would do. “But I will tell you one thing,” he laughs, “I was in search of land because there were twenty kids, and I didn’t have enough space in my home to keep more, but there was more demand.”

(Right) The frame of the first building on Snehalaya's land in 1989. (Left) The entrance to Snehalaya's complex in 2024.

With that, in January 1989, the work officially began. Girish named it Snehalaya (pronounced sneh-halya)—home of love.

His dream drew sympathy and support from many friends, local businesses, a major landowner, as well as social change-oriented students eager to challenge injustice. That’s how Shyam—then a law student—got involved, and Bhushan, one of Snehalaya’s founding members and an (if not the) historian of Ahmednagar. From crisis intervention to rehabilitation, brothel raids to legal battles, education to job training, Snehalaya has been steady and creative in the face of tragic dehumanization since those earliest days more than 35 years ago.

In 1993, for example, HIV hit Ahmednagar hard and left the community of sex workers even more stigmatized and disadvantaged. Still today the fear of contagion is rampant, making it difficult for people with HIV to get a job or be admitted to public schools. At first Snehalaya focused on basic interventions, like educating sex workers in prevention and ensuring access to regular testing and requisite medicine. Then, in 1995 Snehalaya led raids in the red-light areas to rescue minors forced into sex work. “Then we created a home for trafficked women. Then when schools denied admission to our children, we started our own school,” recounts Girish. “We always give a response to a challenge, instead of reaction.”

Response instead of reaction. Here Girish draws inspiration from a long line of Indian activists, including of course Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution and from the Dalit community—“The Nelson Mandela of India,” Girish says. But Snehalaya, I think, looks most like Baba Amte’s work: “He started the work for leprosy patients before the independence (1947). He has created the biggest village of all cured leprosy patients—6,000 people. They're the best welders, machinists, electricians, carpenters…” says Girish. “He always says that you should not dream like a beggar—whatever you get, you should accept it, but you should dream like a king.”

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Girish talks with residents of Snehalaya's Girl's Dormitory on the steps of their new building.

During Covid, when it became apparent that migrant workers walking from Pune and Mumbai were passing quite close by, Snehalaya set up a roadside stall and had water, food, medical care, new shoes for people who'd worn out their shoes… “They saw 40,000 people in a three- or four-week period,” says Joyce Connolly, CEO of Snehalaya UK. “Literally people walking home to West Bengal—that's still a long way [from here]. That's the beauty of Snehalaya—that immediate response and creative solutions to issues.”

“So many times people ask me, who will fund this? From where will resources come?” says Girish. “But I always have a strong belief that the question is, do you believe your way of response to a challenge is right, ethical, legal? Then God has his own ways to give you support.”


“I got into this business at a very young age,” says Jaya. She’s my age now, with smile lines around her storied eyes, but was only seven or eight years old when her widowed father married her off. “My husband didn’t like me,” she says, “so he went away to his second wife. Then my friend took me to Mumbai and sold me.” Against the odds, she escaped, ran away, and began selling sex on the streets of Mumbai, then Pune, then Shevgaon to survive. 

Shevgaon is a small city several hours east of Mumbai where we sit together, knee to knee, in the spacious but dimly lit one-room community center in the red-light neighborhood of Shivajinagar. Left bewildered at the bus stop that first night, Jaya had no idea where she was and couldn’t read the signs. “This woman just brought me and handed me to this keeper, Janaka Bai.” Janaka, a brothel owner, forcibly kept her working and hardly fed. “My keeper used to take all my money—she wouldn’t even give me a rupee. She would only give me an afternoon meal at 4 p.m. and the evening supper at one in the morning,” says Jaya. “I somehow did the business for ten or so years before Snehalaya.”

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Jaya walks through the red-light neighborhood of Shivajinagar where she used to work.

At first Snehalaya was a joke, a jeer to Jaya and the other sex workers. The brothel keepers spread rumors that Snehalaya only wanted to sell girls for themselves, so there was plenty of skepticism.

“She,” nodding to a portrait hanging high on the wall behind me, “Shubhangi Baravkar Madam, was the one who brought Snehalaya here,” says Jaya. “She used to tell us to come for the Bachatgat (self-help group). But we didn’t go. At the time, you know, we had this youthfulness in us,” she flashes a mischievous smile. “You know how it is.”

When Shubhangi would invite Jaya and her friends to the self-help group, they would laugh at her and say rude things. “‘Just leave it woman! Stay in that crazy office. This is an office for people with AIDS—you and the office can stay there! Why are you coming to call us?’” Jaya reenacts her sneers. “This went on for a while, until one day we thought, ‘Let’s go, let’s at least see what she wants to say.’ So just like that one or two of us came to her. One day, we came and sat,” Jaya recalls. “She told us about Snehalaya—about the work that Snehalaya does for our women, how it works to ensure that young women [minors] don’t come. And if there is an injustice being committed against a woman, if someone is forcibly making girls do business, then it takes action against that keeper. She told us about sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS, how to put on a condom.”

Through Shubhangi Snehalaya got them identification cards, voting cards, and even a ration card, “enough to be able to have at least two meals,” says Jaya. Further, without a father’s identification, their children were not accepted into the public schools. So Snehalaya drafted a letter for the women stating the mother is both the mother and father, and the children were granted admission.

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Jaya poses for a portrait outside the community center in the red-light neighborhood of Shivajinagar.

“Even though she was married with a husband, she was doing this kind of work with Snehalaya,” Jaya reflects with admiration. Truth is, Shubhangi’s husband used to beat her in front of all the women at the community center—making an example of her as she cared for the rights and dignity of others. Eventually he killed her, which left an even deeper impression and imprint of gratitude and respect on the hearts of all the women—it’s why her portrait is hung so high, I think.

Inspired by the work of Shubhangi and others, it's been 15 years since Jaya started shifting her focus from paying customers to caring for other sex workers as a staff person with Snehalaya. She effectively leads an informal workers’ union whereby the women protect each other’s health and dignity by enforcing the regular use of condoms and ensuring access to regular health checkups. Every morning Jaya meets the women at the center and takes account of the previous night’s events. If there are fights or someone is beaten, Jaya cares for them all through it. If a brothel owner needs to be confronted, she leads the way.

When a new woman comes to the area to ‘sit for work’, Jaya and the other sisters are among the first to check on her situation. “Is she new? Is she young?” says Jaya. “If she is underage, then we don’t keep her here. We make the keeper send her back to her village.” Ahmednagar is the only district in all of India to not allow children to be kept in brothels or exploited for sex work, and much of that legal battle was led by Snehalaya’s team, including Shyam, who sits across from me translating for Jaya and I.

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A bustling market not far from the red-light neighborhood of Shivajinagar.

“We fought a battle for eight years,” says Girish, “and ultimately all these rapists—including police, government officials, lawyers—they all were given double life imprisonment. It was confirmed by the high court and the supreme court, so it has created a tremendous threat [to brothel owners].” The case was recorded in Indian law books in 2006. “If you go to Mumbai, if you go to Delhi, you'll find many minors, but you'll not find minors in prostitution here in Ahmednagar district.”

BitterSweet readers undoubtedly know that brothel keeping and trafficking is big business. Today, at markets in Sochi, Calais, the Northeast Indian states, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, girls are purchased for 10,000-15,000 rupees ($120-$180) then circulated all over India—hired out for 15 rupees (less than $0.20). Of that, 70-75% is kept by the brothel keepers, pimps, police, et cetera. “Normally it's all illiterate women and girls,” says Girish. “They're cheated—even if they do some 15 customers, they don't have enough money to satisfy the needs of their kids or themselves.”

“No one was interested in helping sex workers. They were the untouchables,” says Joyce. “People feel like it's their choice. They made their bed, they can lie in it, but Girish was able to convince people that, ‘No, you need to treat these women with dignity and respect.’ And he did.”

“When I was in need, I had no one,” says Jaya. “I had to do the business. I mean, I have two brothers, I have relatives, but no one asked after me. There was no one to take care of me. There wasn’t anyone to support me. That’s why I got into this work. Why do you think I have held so tightly onto Snehalaya? It’s because of this.”

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Jaya poses for a portrait outside the community center in the red-light neighborhood of Shivajinagar.

“I had no one, but now Snehalaya stands firm for everything we need. This organization is like the mother and the father for someone who has no one.”

Jaya Jogdand, Snehalaya

A Small Thing

“Now, suppose that they don’t want to stay in the business,” says Jaya, “Snehalaya gives us training. Just now I couldn’t sign my own name”—referring to a few moments earlier when I’d asked her to sign a media release form in her native Marathi language—“So, Snehalaya opened a women’s school here to give training to women, to teach us. Most of the women can now sign their names.”

There are 23 projects currently operating within Snehalaya, each a decision to accept a particular challenge as an opportunity to create a solution and take responsibility. “Every project is a response to a problem or challenge we faced,” says Girish. “It is started first and then we've tried to find the resources. It's always passion which drives everything.”

It’s safe to assume that’s how the radio station got started as well. Recognizing a need for culture-building and community-led programming in its native Marathi tongue, Snehalaya launched Radio Nagar 90.4, which recently transitioned into 24/7 programming after nearly 15 years broadcasting. Today Radio Nagar 90.4 has over 400,000 listeners who tune in to hear inspirational programs geared towards education, challenging accepted social norms, and destigmatizing topics such as HIV.

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Dr. Priti Bhombe poses for a portrait outside of her office.

Dr. Priti Bhombe was one of the station’s first employees. Though born and raised in Ahmednagar, she had not heard of Snehalaya until reading an advertisement in the newspaper about its new community radio program in 2010. Having spent fifteen years as a medical doctor, running her own practice as well as her father’s 20-bed hospital, she was itching for a creative side project and new learning opportunity. “When this advertisement suddenly popped up, I said, why not?

She applied for the Radio Jockey position—overqualified in life, inexperienced in radio—and got the position. Script writing for two hours a day quickly evolved into hosting shows then managing and leading programs, allowing Priti to wind down the medical practice she’d grown tired of. “I really loved it. I got to meet so many people from different walks of life, different subjects to talk about and understand how great people are and how small I am,” she laughs. “Working with Snehalaya and radio, I got my own identity. I could come out of the shadow of my father and become something which I am now proud of. That's what Snehalaya does for people.”

Six years with the radio station prepared Priti for a next new frontier: fundraising. Now, instead of asking the questions, she’s charged with answering them: You have 23 different projects—we don't see the connection between them, please explain that. How do so many projects operate? Don't you think that this is a bit haphazard? How many staff do you have? Why do you need so many? You have five buses, why do you need another?

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One of Snehalaya's organic farmers at work in the greenhouse.

“Usually they have a prejudice in their mind that we may not have a system, a hierarchy, standard operating procedures, and so on,” says Priti. “So when I tell them that we have all this in place, they are a bit amazed.”

While its evolution has been undeniably spontaneous, there is an obvious orchestration and an array of high-quality outcomes easily seen by anyone who visits. Snehalaya has more than 300 full-time employees caring for 400 students and dozens of women in rehabilitation. They are staffing a small hospital on campus (tailored for specific needs of people living with HIV) and providing three meals a day to more than 400 people using organic produce grown on nearby farms that are, in their own way, helping people heal. It’s an ecosystem—a beautiful one.

“Within two days we will have a harvest of approximately 20 kilos of cucumber,” says Soda, a lead agriculturist overseeing Snehalaya’s 40-acre farm. "Besides cucumber, we have bitter gourd, bottle gourd, sponge gourd, lady gourd, finger chilies, cluster bean. We have some leafy vegetables with brinjal (eggplant), onion, cabbage, cauliflower, garlic, tomatoes, zucchini yellow and green." In total the farm produces about 100 kg of vegetables each week, ensuring Snehalaya’s kitchen is freshly stocked.

“If you ask me, when the donor understands what I'm talking about and feels the same passion for our beneficiaries—for the girls, for the women—that is the best moment,” says Priti. “When they really understand what we are doing and why we are doing it and then they agree, ‘yes, we will join you in your mission and we will support you financially,’ I think that is the best part.”

Eight years since her first fundraising pitch and thousands of answered questions later, Priti has become Secretary to the Board for Snehalaya. “When I work in Snehalaya, I feel that it is giving some meaning, some substance to my life.”

“You can't do everything, but you can always do a small thing.”

Girish Kulkarni, Founder, Snehalaya

“This is all my family”

Barely fourteen Priya is delicately built and gutsy, destined for the stage of Indian Idol, if practice pays off and wishing makes it so. Her feet dangle, stretching to barely scuff the floor as she describes her favorite features of Snehalaya English Medium School where she is enrolled in the 9th grade: the library, teachers, music hall... “When I was little, I used to sleep in the hammock swing. I couldn’t fall asleep until my mother sang to me,” she smiles, looking down at her knees. So shy, she seems, yet she wants to be a singer: “Like soft and classical. Light music…and Qawwalis (a South Asian type of Islamic devotional singing).”

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Priya poses for a portrait outside her school's music classroom.

Brave enough for the bright lights, Priya has twice participated in street plays as part of Snehalaya's annual Malala Day activities to promote girls' education. Each year the Malala team travels to different corners of Ahmednagar District using the story of the world's youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Malala Yousafzai, an education activist shot in the head by the Taliban and exiled from her native Pakistan when she was just fifteen. “I love her play. I wish that I could be like Malala,” Priya says. “She was the only girl in Pakistan who raised her voice for girls’ education and fought against the Taliban. I wish at least that I can teach other girls.” Now, having been formally interviewed and selected by a committee of her peers, Priya is a proud Malala Peer Mentor and will have her chance to guide younger girls in matters of education and building healthy habits. She is the definition of overjoyed and, I can tell, has every intention of taking her responsibilities seriously.

Though family reunification is always a hope and priority when Snehalaya accepts a child into their care, it isn’t always possible. In Priya's case, it was her late uncle who first noticed when his sister’s mental illness ravaged her wellness and degraded her ability to feed or care for her daughter. Seeing seven-year-old Priya hungry and put out on the street he arranged for her to be admitted to Snehalaya where she would be housed, fed, nurtured, educated, and provided opportunities. He passed away a few years later, while Priya's mother found care and shelter in Snehalaya’s group home for people living with debilitating mental health disorders.

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Priya, in the school library.

“They help me with education and clothing, food, a place to stay,” says Priya. “Also, they support us when we have any difficulties. And not just me, but all the girls and boys.”

“If you take a good look,” says Jaya, “you’ll see that many women’s children have grown up in Snehalaya. No one lent me a hand like this. No one said, ‘We’re your mother, we’re your father,’ but they took care of us—Snehalaya did. Today, if Snehalaya wasn’t standing by me, then I would have been drunk, played cards, eaten tobacco, and died. But Snehalaya showed me to how to stay alive, how to live,” says Jaya. “And they told me to fight, not to be afraid.”

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Teen girls from the Snehalaya residential program relax together before dinner.

“We won’t let the new generation get into this business. This I have firmly decided.”

Jaya Jogdand

Rather than scaling its operation across other districts and states, Snehalaya has taken to inspiring and training others instead of replicating itself. Already 24 new organizations and social entrepreneurs have started in other parts of the country, modeled after but not governed or directed by Snehalaya.

“We have youth camps where we invite people from all over the state to share our sort of vision and mission work,” says Joyce. “We give them the models, we handhold, but it's very much, ‘This is your project, go do good.’”

Uchal Foundation is one such organization. Founded in 2018 by Sachin Kar, Uchal serves children of sugar cane workers in Ahmednagar. In addition to brutal working conditions requiring frequent migration (exacerbated by the fact that this is an especially drought-prone area), children of this community suffer from malnutrition and lack of hygiene. It’s normal for girls to drop out of school after 4th grade for lack of safe transportation, and for women’s uteruses to be surgically removed for something as benign as a backache or menstrual pain. It’s not uncommon for women to give birth and be back in the fields cutting cane the next day, which can lead to disastrous outcomes for both mother and child.

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Children's clothes dry in the courtyard of the Uchal Foundation Children's Home.

A child of sugar cane workers himself, Sachin knows, “Their parents work very hard and have a very miserable life. My hope is this generation should have good education, good quality of life, and sustain in this country as a good person and with better opportunities.” Soon Uchal Foundation will be expanding their facility to accommodate more than 500 students—considerably more than the 50 they are currently caring for—with room, board, and education, a model similar to Snehalaya’s.

“We don't want to work in every slum in India. It's not our dream,” says Girish. “Our dream is we can create the role model of this red-light area work and we will inspire more and more people to start the similar work in their own cities and villages. By this way, we can think of a bigger change.”

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Teen girls from the residential program play cricket in the evening.

All across the world, Jaya says, “We should create livelihoods for these women sex workers and their children too; for the homeless on the street; those mentally ill whom people ignore. A sense of humanity should be built in people, throughout the world. So that is my expectation from the American NGO’s. That you should work alongside us—the women who sell their bodies for work—the way Snehalaya does. Tell her.”

As Priya sits beside me sharing her Indian Idol dreams, I’m reminded of Girish’s ‘one small act’ and a loving mother’s ask—please, take our kids. Priya smiles softly, “I think of Snehalaya as home. This is all my family,” she says. “Ever since I came here, I have had the chance to learn a lot of things. And in this organization, there are many invisible hands that support us.”

“Today we are here; we don't know about tomorrow,” says Girish. “So whatever I want to do, the right time is right now. If I lose this moment, tomorrow I will get some other opportunities but the opportunities and time I lose today, I will not get it again.”

“Whenever you are confused, ask two questions to yourself: If not me, then who? And if not now, then when?”

Girish Kulkarni, Founder, Snehalaya

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An older Snehalaya girl walks with her younger 'sister'.

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Editor's Note

This is a story that lingers long after it's absorbed. As a parent there are few things more heart-rending than the sacrificial love behind the plea, please, take our kids. And while it tugs at heartstrings, it also convicts. Challenged by Girish's courage, may we also have the fortitude to not look away from the suffering before us, from the someone who has no one—If not me, then who?

We are beyond grateful to Snehelaya, for the good they do and the love they embody. We are also thankful that in the midst of so much, they graciously chose to host our team—it's no small lift to coordinate a film.

A story like this requires an extra level of invested time, energy, and tenacity from our creative team. We are grateful for Dave, Kate, Erica, and Brandon, for how they gave of themselves to surface the beauty and hope they found at Snehalaya.

Above all, we are grateful to Girish's simple yes, 30-odd years ago, from which so much life has sprung, and without which there would be no story.

AM Headshot Eric Baker

Avery Marks

Features Editor

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