by Nidhi Mahesh

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H er face was a mask. There were no emotions at display. Her expression was bland. Almost three quarters of the hour had elapsed in this journey, and her lips had not moved once. There had been a nod or two in response to my attempts at small talk. But I had been continually failing to break her reserve and get her to speak.

She was unusually quiet for a girl of fifteen. Giving up my attempt to converse, I started observing her. Clad in a bright yellow synthetic salwar kameez, her hair tied in a fierce bun at the base of her nape, as if being punished for having grown, red and green glass bangles making an occasional jingle in the slim brown wrists, as she twisted long brown fingers with bright red painted tips in a tighter clasp at her lap… The loud colorful façade was in strong contrast to her subdued personality. I tried reading her eyes; big and black, the most outstanding feature in an otherwise plain face. There was a hint of red at the corners, suggesting a shower not too long ago. But right now the emotions were in tight reign. How could such a young girl be so emotionally disciplined, yet so vulnerable!

She was looking at the passing country side with cold disinterest. There was no sense of happiness at the homecoming, no anticipation, no joy. She was going home after almost sixteen months in gruesome bondage. But there was no feeling of freedom about her. There was not even a reflection of relief at her fortunate escape from the flesh shop, where she was holed up all these months. If not overflowing gratitude, I expected some way of acknowledgement for the efforts of her rescuers. But she, it seemed, had decided to let silence do the talking.

It was a special story we were shooting and we needed far more footage and content than the regular stuff. And given her cold, calm posture, I was apprehensive if I would be able to get enough for the opening sequence I was planning. I was doing a special feature on girls trafficking in West Bengal and Ajmera was my case study. Through her I aimed to exhibit the plight of young girls in the poor neighborhoods of southern Bengal. I had been on the look out for the right profile to begin the feature with, and finally after weeks of pursuit, I found her. She was recently rescued from a brothel in Mumbai and was being taken back to her home by a NGO. I wanted to record this journey for my feature and therefore accompanying Ajmera to her relations.

We were almost there. The bare paddy fields and dusty kuccha roads signaled that we have entered the impoverished underbelly of a flourishing urban economy. There were hoards of children running after our vehicles as we whizzed past bumpy lanes, their brown bare skin shone in bright sunlight. Women folk peeped at us from behind their covered faces. Bare chested men threw curious and apprehensive glances at us as we got down near a barren field.

Ajmera gave no sign of enthusiasm. My camera crew was busy focusing on her expressionless face, in hope of some exhibition of emotion. She silently got down from the car and pointed towards a lane. A dusty narrow row of mud houses, coated ornamentally with cow dung, roofs thatched with dried hay. Suddenly there was a flurry of activity around us. People had gathered in a matter of moments. We were the center of attention, every one was watching every move we made, and the noise of cumulative whispers was rising with every step we took towards Ajmera’s home.

Surprisingly though no one came forward to greet the girl. We kept following Ajmera’s slow, cautious steps till she stopped in front of a thatch-roofed double storied mud house. A middle aged woman was sitting at the front veranda of the house. As we approached she looked up from the pile of grains she was shifting. There was a glint of recognition in her eyes as she hastily pulled up the corner of her sari to cover her face from the strangers.

“Pisi…” Ajmera mumbled, almost under breath and threw herself in the arms of the woman… for the first time since morning I saw Ajmera giving free reign to emotions held under iron control. It was a touching scene. The two ladies hugged each other in pain and relief, muffled groans and soothing words came out intertwined with each other… for few moments there was hush around us. Everyone, it seemed, was too moved by this unexpected reunion.

“Ajmera…” the calm was broken by the wail of an old lady approaching the duo with painful steps, assisted by a crooked tree branch serving as a walking stick.

Ajmera turned to her and there was a surge of fresh tears as she ran to meet her grand mother half way. Loud wails of relief echoed in the quiet afternoon. We too were misty eyed. Sudha, the lady from the NGO, had a happy smile on her face that spelt satisfaction at a work well done. She now approached Ajmera’s aunt with the small bag containing the girl’s meager belongings to complete the formalities of the happy reunion and we got busy recording the happy scene around us.

Ajmera had miraculously transformed. The smile that she now gave us brightened her entire persona. She looked a fifteen year old once again. We decided to record her statement now, capturing her joy at homecoming. She told us how she was duped by a relative, a distant uncle who told her family that he is going to get her a job as housemaid in Delhi. He had given a few hundred rupees as advance payment of salary to her father as he took her away from the village. When she reached Sealdah station, she found there were many more girls, some her age, some younger. Her mind got suspicious, but by then it was too late. She along with other girls, was hurled in a van and taken to an undisclosed place, she later learnt to be Sonagachi, the biggest mandi of flesh trade in Asia, in the heart of Kolkata. After a few weeks of ordeal there, she was sent to Pune and then finally to Mumbai. She was fortunate to be rescued when the police aided by a NGO raided the brothel a week back.

We then spoke to her grandmother; the lady could hardly speak for the tears of joy that rolled unabatedly down her wrinkled cheek. She was shocked at the horrendous experience the teenager went through, but at the same time relieved that she was finally free and home.

She told us Ajmera was the only daughter of her eldest son. Her mother died when she was only a year old. Her father, a drunkard, re-married and abandoned the child. From then on Ajmera was brought up by her. But now old and frail she was dependant on her daughter and son in law and Ajmera too was entrusted in their care. Life was tough for the young girl, forced to do all the daily chores unassisted, but the girl was brave and managed everything well enough, leaving little room for complain. The old lady was not happy to send her young and vulnerable grand daughter to work in some big city but she had to give in to her son in law, as she had no source of sustenance on her own. But now that the girl is back from the jaws of hell, she will not let her face anymore torture, she resolved.

While we were interviewing the old lady, a couple of men had entered the scene and were shouting at the top of their lungs, hurling abuses and threatening my crew with dire consequences if we took one more shot. We were taken a back by their fury and tried to find their points of concern. Unwilling to listen or to talk, those two men insisted we moved out without a word and also tried physically hauling out Ajmera as well. This took us by surprise. By now my crew had also got agitated and started giving back as good as they got. The duel finally got the two men to cool off enough to give us reasons for the outburst.

We finally got to know that of the two boisterous men, one was Ajmera’s father and the other her uncle. The two hardly ever crossed the shadow of each other, but today they had come together for a “cause”, they claimed. Ajmera, according to them, had been living in sin and therefore had become a fallen woman. She could not be taken back in the house or the village for that matter.

I was shocked. Instead of sympathizing with the child, these men, her father and uncle, her blood relations, were decrying her to be a fallen woman? How pathetic the world can get, how unjust!! An uncontrollable rage got hold of me. Story forgotten, I threatened these men with police complain if they as much as touched the girl or denied her right to the house and dignity. But the men were not to be cowed down. Their unreasonable voice was joined by vociferous support of the gathered crowd. A big tamasha was on show and everyone was keen to make the most of it.

We, that is me, my crew and Sudha were fast becoming a minority in chorus of raised voices demanding Ajmera be taken away from the village. She would pollute the young girls of the neighborhood; she was now an evil spirit to have returned from the life of hell. Our reasons and logic failed to impress the cumulative wisdom of near illiterate, unrelenting, over-eager crowd, hell bent on delivering instant justice. They were not willing to listen anything contrary to their belief, their custom, their tradition and religion. But I could not understand how giving shelter and warmth to a troubled child can be contrary to any religion or belief!!

By now almost entire village had gathered and the tamasha was at its peak. It was becoming increasingly difficult for me to communicate to the hoard of unreasonable men, claiming to be defending their morality by attacking the dignity of a defenseless child. Ajmera hugging her old grandmother was witnessing the scene with open horror. The old lady was sobbing uncontrollably, her speech incoherent, her frail hands desperately trying to console her vulnerable child, offering a flimsy shelter in the face of this unreasonable attack.

Their vulnerability compelled me to fight on, but a tap on my shoulder made me halt the debate. Sudha took me away from the crowd, in a now deserted lane. Ajmera’s aunt was standing there, crying helplessly. She held my arms tightly and broke into loud sobs as soon as I reached her. Both I and Sudha tried to calm her down and after much effort, we could finally get her to speak.

She pleaded with us to take Ajmera back. I got angry and was not willing to listen to her. I blamed her of taking side of her unreasonable husband and abandoning a child who was entrusted in her care. This brought on another series of loud sobs. Sudha then told me that the reason the lady wants us to take Ajmera back was quite different. She told me Ajmera will have a fate worse than what she had gone through if we forcefully leave her here. She was already getting lusty advances from the men in the village including her uncle before she was sent off with that thug. And now that she has been already disgraced in their eyes, she will be more vulnerable. She will have no security or dignity. It would be better if we try to get her rehabilitated in one of the homes meant for such children.

But does she not have a right to her own home? Why does she need to be disgraced and humiliated by her own people? Why would she be penalized for the crime of someone else? In this case are not her father and uncle responsible for the injustice meted out to her? Why should they be allowed to go scott free while this poor child faces the misery?

These questions kept bothering me all the while on our journey back. Ajmera had gone back to her shell once again. Her face was blank once more; a stony silence engulfed her, stare fixed on the fast moving scenery outside. She calmly accepted her fate. She had not said a word since we told her we were taking her back with us. Sudha filled her with enthusiastic details on the home she would be put up in. But once again, we failed to break in on her reserve. She showed no enthusiasm for her new life, nor was she complaining of deception she just had at the hands of her own people. Silence once again was her language that I am sure, not many would be able to decipher.

I still made the news story, trying to explain the trauma of the young girl, hoping to expose the hypocrisy in our society. The story got aired. Once. Twice. Through out the day in fact. And then it was forgotten. I do not know if any viewer got to feel the pain Ajmera went through. I do not know if anyone noticed this sorry tale at all in the crowd of glitzy news items. But in my mind, Ajmera still lives. She might have found a shelter in a rehabilitation home, but the fact that we backed out and allowed a group of foul speaking men to run rough shod on her rights still bothers me. And I know Ajmera is not the only one, we fail thousands of young girls everyday. We allow their rights to be undermined in trade of some short term relief. But for how long? How long Ajmera will live under some borrowed shelter? When will she go home?

Nidhi Mahesh
April 10, 2007


Stories by this Author :
* A Sentational Story
* Lost and Found
* Ajmera
* Gobindo
* Mirage
* Mithun's Mother
* Resilience
* Defending the Indefensible…

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