Lost and Found
by Nidhi Mahesh

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Lost in the huge piles of files … her muffled cries echoed in the high ceiling room filled with scattered desks and empty chairs… the overpowering stale smell of damp walls, covered with intricate patterns of ages old cobwebs completed the picture. There she was, behind an old type writer. Head bowed on the desk, shoulders drooping in distress.

The chaos outside the door had given me a fair warning… this is not a simple cut and paste story…. But somewhere I had a feeling, there is much more to it than what has been told to me.

She did not look up as I approached her. I noticed she huddled tighter as I walked in, hugging herself in stiff clasp, a posture indicating self defense. I reached her and waited for her to look up. But she did not. I cleared my throat to announce my arrival, she did not acknowledge it.

I finally patted her shoulder lightly and greeted her with what I thought was bright “Hello Shagufta!” No response to this either. Her head remained bowed, shoulders constricted in a rigid wrap.

I had to adopt the direct approach… “hey listen, I am here to know from you what happened. I have been given a version by those people who called me here, but I have a feeling you might have something different to say, you can tell me…”

She looked up at that, eyes brimming with tears… fear written large over them….cheek red and lips fluffy with too much of crying… she was a kid, insecure, unsure and defenseless. One look at that vulnerable child and I could realize I have made a big mistake; I am where I am not supposed to be. But I am here now and there is nothing much I can do than go ahead with the process.

“See, you can talk to me. Tell me what happened. You are safe”, I tried assuring her.

She went on sobbing and looking at me with doubt in her eyes. I pulled a chair and sat beside her, holding her slim, ice cold palms in my hands. A voice inside me warned, I should back out while I can. I am not supposed to do this. I am here on a purpose. I am here on duty.

I could see suspicion and a thin wave of faith chase around in her eyes… I waited for one to settle down… I could feel her palms relaxing in my hold… her sobs started receding. “I want to go home”, she said, finally. “I do not want to go to the place they are taking me. Please send me home”, her voice had a desperate pleading tone…

“Where is your home?”
“How come you are here? Did you get lost or something? Who brought you here?” The inquisition started. But by now I was able to instill some amount of trust in her, she was willing to talk.
“I came here to find work. The school has stopped my scholarship this year and my father says he cannot afford to pay for my education. I ran away from home because I wanted to study. I thought I will work here and study side by side. I do not want to sit at home…”, it all came pouring out… punctuated with a sob here and there.

“Do you know anyone here? Did you come here with someone?” I asked.

“I came alone. I had an address; my father’s friend had once given it to my brother saying that if he ever needed a job he can go there. I went to this place, somewhere in Zakaria Street. But that uncle was not there. No one could help me. I could not understand where to go. I had heard about Dharamtala… so I asked people directions for the place. Someone gave me a bus number and I came here. I thought I would ask for some work, but I got lost…. There are so many lanes… so many big roads. I got scared.” The façade of bravery was slipping… the child was coming out…

“How come you landed up here?” I wanted her to go on, but my query brought in fresh tears… after the sobs subsided she told me her version of the story… my reason for being here…

“I was scared, I had very little money. I was thinking whether to go back home. Baba would beat me black and blue….” More tears rolled down accompanied by loud sobs as she pictured her father chasing her with a cane in hand…“I did not know what to do, I had little money, not even enough to go back. I was very worried and scared and then it started raining badly… I looked for a shelter and came to stand under the covered portico of this building. It kept on raining and I sat on the steps. I started crying. Some people came and asked me what happened… I said I am lost. I came here to work... and then they started speaking among themselves and brought me up here. I thought they will send me home. But then I heard them say they will send me to Police Station… “,

She started howling now, crying uncontrollably. The fear of Police shaking her to the core. “I do not want to go to jail…. I know I should not have run away from home… but I only wanted to continue going to school…” she said in between sobs… blabbering now.

I was in a fix. What am I to do? I was told this is a potential headline story… a muslim girl duped by some pimp, rescued by hindu men… now on her way to nunnery at Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s mission. But here I find a different story altogether!!

“Why do you want to become a nun?” I asked her to clear my doubt… In response she looked at me with a bland expression, unable to comprehend what I said… “Why do you want to go to Mother Teresa’s missionary?” I rephrased my question… “I do not want to go anywhere… I want to go home…”, the girl started crying again. “But I am told you wanted to go to Mother’s House and offer yourself for the service of God…” I insisted.

“No…” came the vehement denial. “When I told them I do not want to be taken to police, they said that I need to go to Mother’s House then, I said, I will go anywhere but to police….I want to go home…” the girl explained in between sobs.

The picture was becoming clearer now. This government officer, in whose office this girl was sitting right now, had been my old source. Always over zealous. Always trying to push a story. But I never thought he could go to this level. He had added all possible twists and turns to make this story saleable. Thankfully, he had given me this story “exclusively”, meaning no more TV crews would be chasing this poor girl.

Of course there was no story here, if you go by the girl’s version. And I found it more trustworthy than my source’s juicy concoction. I just could not make it into a story; my conscience will not let me do it. But besides, there was this question of getting this girl out of here. I was sure, if I leave her here, this man will try selling the story to some other channel and someone or the other will buy it. This girl will end up in a juvenile home or Mother’s ashram, both unsuitable for a child like her.

I knew I should simply walk out of the place, tell my source there is no story and leave it at that. But I could not. I found myself asking that girl, “Can you trust me? Do you want to come with me?” She stared at me for long moments, confused, undecided. I wish she would not have said what she eventually did.. “I will come with you.”

I could feel her grip on my arm tighten as we emerged out of that colonial era office. A crowd of people waited anxiously outside. I signaled to my source to come aside, while I asked my crew to pack up and move to the car. The crowd was confused. There were loud murmurs. One even asked disappointedly, “will there be no shooting?’

I walked past these over anxious men with the girl in tow, down the large, cracking wooden staircase, our combined steps echoing in the high columns. He was waiting for me at the landing.

“I cannot shoot here… I am taking her with me to the studio… I will take care of the rest… you have done quite a lot. Thanks. Do not bother yourself anymore”, I told him in a matter of fact tone, trying hard to hide sarcasm.
He could not see the sarcasm anyway, too worried of loosing credit for a great sensational story…

“But madam, this is the place of happening… don’t you need visuals… witness…. Will you not interview the rescuers… I told you they are hindu… this girl is a muslim…”

It was too much now… how could he go on with his stupid concoction …

“I know what I need…” I almost shouted at him.

“But..”, he opened his mouth to protest but I was already striding down towards the exit.

He came running behind us. “Madam, we must call police”… he said panting.

“I told you I will take care of all that. You don’t worry”, I said, almost pushing the girl inside the car. Before he could say something more, I got in to the vehicle and asked the driver to move on.

                                                            *           *           *           *

                                                            *           *           *           *

The girl was finally free of her overzealous rescuers. But where do I take her now? I found myself asking the driver to drop me home, instead of the office. My crew was taken by surprise.

“Be sure of what you are doing… we can land in trouble if police is involved”, Sam, my cameraman did not want to take any chance.

“Don’t worry, I take full responsibility. You people move on. I will take her home. She needs some rest and then we will figure out what to do.” I spoke calmly, while inside I too was apprehensive.

“You cannot do that you know. What if a police complain is lodged against you… we do not know her, what if she belongs to any naxal or terrorist group. It is possible, you know. Did we not do that story some time back about extremist groups recruiting young kids in their network? Besides, she is a minor, what if a case is filed for her disappearance and you are framed for abducting her or something?”

My cameraman was truly worried now. I understood his concern. But I was not willing to buy his theory. “You need a break Sam dear… you are too much into the stories we cover,” I tried to brush him off with humor.

“See, you cannot be so careless… you of all people should know what could be the risk involved… have you forgotten how one of our colleague got himself arrested while following a girl trafficking story?” Sam was adamant

“But we are not doing any story.” I insisted

“Exactly. Why are we taking her with us? There is no story. Leave it there.’ He pushed his point.

I looked at the girl, staring outside the window. She looked more relaxed now, unaware of the argument that was going on beside her. We were talking in Bangla, of course she could not understand.

“Can we not see beyond a story…”, I said, sadly. Something in my tone could connect to Sam. He stopped the argument but did caution me. “You are being impulsive, you know. Just don’t land in trouble.”

                                                            *           *           *           *

                                                            *           *           *           *

She looked much better now. Much relaxed. Sitting quietly on the sofa, engrossed deeply in the soap airing on the television.

“I want to speak to your family.” I announced.

She looked up, startled. Suddenly she was disoriented.

“There is no need. You just put me on a train to Benaras, I will go home.” She said.

“How do I know that you will go home? What if you go somewhere else? I am responsible for you now and I do not want any trouble”, some of my anxiety was showing now. She was visibly uncomfortable.

“We do not have a phone at home.” She said eyes downcast.

I could make out she was trying to evade me. Why was she reluctant to reveal about her family? Why was she preventing me from contacting them?

“You would have some way of reaching your parents. There would be a neighbor or a friend who can give them a message. Give my phone number and ask them to contact me.’ I persisted.

“My father will loose face in the community. Please do not push this anymore. I realize I made a mistake. Please let me go. I will go home.” She was suddenly charged up. She got up from the sofa, picked up her bag and started rummaging through its contents. Finally she took out a geometry box. I was looking at her in half amusement, half desperation. What did she need the geometry box for? She opened the box and from it emerged some rolled up ten rupee notes. She was counting those notes over and over again and certainly they were not adding up to what was required to get going.

“I have some money, not enough to buy a train ticket… just help me buy a ticket…”, she said in croaked voice holding out the crumpled notes in her palm…

I was taken aback. I could feel what this child must have been going through. She put up a brave act running away from home with some meager savings, to find a way to continue study. But faced with hard reality, she lost way. I was overwhelmed. Her innocence and vulnerability making me all the more anxious to put her out of misery. I went and sat beside her. Taking those carefully saved notes from her hands, I put them back in her precious geometry box.

“See, I will send you home, I just need to make sure you reach there safely. Make me speak to someone in your family and I will make sure you are home fast and safe. I promise.” I told her solemnly, even my voice was shaking with emotions difficult to hide any longer.

She kept quiet for sometime and then said, “I will give you my neighbor’s number. You can ask them to call my mother. But please don’t tell them it is about me running away from home…. My family will be disgraced.” She pleaded.

The impulse of running away from home had finally given way to rationale. The child was growing up eventually!

I spoke to her mother, told her that her daughter is with me… in brief I gave her the account of the day’s events and insisted that I want to make sure she goes home, can someone come to pick her up?

Her response got me confused. She was speaking in monosyllables. There was no shock or concern in her voice even after finding out that her daughter has landed in such a mess. Exasperated I left my number with her and hung up.

Shagufta’s stare was fixed on me for the entire period that I was speaking to her mother, trying to decipher the content of the conversation…

“I do not understand. Your family seems to be unconcerned that you are here?” I was thinking aloud, not actually expecting the girl to understand this strange behavior any better.

“Maybe, there was someone around,” she offered.

My contemplation was cut short by the ring on my phone. It was her father.

“Thank you madam for your help. Please put her on a train. I will receive her here and call you once I take her home.” A strong baritone suggested. I could feel the undercurrents. The voice had a unique blend of emotions, anger, relief, pain, confusion… all rolled into one.

“I can send her by the night train, she will reach by morning. But I still feel, it is better if someone could come here to take her home. She has gone through quite a tough time.” I suggested.

“She has grown up beyond her age, if she can go on her own, she should return on her own. She should be grateful I am letting her come back…” the voice thundered on the other side.

“See, there is no point in getting angry… please do not be harsh on her… she did make a mistake, but she has realized that… she has learnt her lesson, hard way though… “, I tried to calm him down, apprehensive that Shagufta will get wrong signals if she picked up the threads of the conversation. As it is she was trembling with fear, staring at me unblinking as I spoke to her father. I squeezed her shoulder, in a gesture of assurance.

“I do not know if she learnt any lesson, but we surely did … I am sorry, you are being inconvenienced, but please take her to railway station and put her on a train to Banaras.” He said, anger giving way to sarcasm now.

“Ok, I will…”, I thought better of prolonging the conversation but I could not help myself from adding.. “er… one request sir, please do not discontinue her study… I know it could be difficult for you but…”

“Is that why she has gone there…” the surprised voice cut me short. “I told her I cannot afford to send all of them to school,” he paused to explain.. “I have six children… four of them sons… she is the third one. She is good in study… she has been getting scholarships every year… I never paid a penny for her education…”… the voice on the other side was quivering with emotion… anger now was replaced by remorse…
“Now the madrasa trust has decided to stop scholarship for lack of funds… I told her I cannot send all my children to study… but I never said that she will be the one to loose out… my poor child”..

I was relieved to hear this account. Shagufta was watching the interplay of various emotions on my face. Her hands tightly gripping my elbow.

“You can tell her this on your own… she will feel much better…” with this I offered the receiver to Shagufta… she refused to take it, apprehensive of reprimand from her strict sounding father…. But I forced it in her hands anyway…

“abba…” she said in a feeble, scared voice…. And then there was a long conversation, punctuated with sobs and smiles…all interwoven… words tumbled out in incoherent jumble…

Her broad smile as she waved from the window as the train made its slow but decisive journey outward is still imprinted in my memory.

Shagufta went home, back to her family, back to school. But my source till this day reminds me, I had lost a great exclusive headline story!!

Nidhi Mahesh
April 19, 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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