Days of poring over sensationalized media reports of the busted child trafficking racket in the capital had done nothing to illuminate any creative corner of my brain. It was, then, that Life, the over tried teacher, sick of giving subtle hints to an unheeding me, dealt me a hard hand.
I had been roving the corridors of the Safdarjung hospital for a good hour and a half- when the ambulance sirens ripped through the silence hanging over the place. I was, anyway, feeling nauseous of the smell of bleach when twenty-two half-dead women were wheeled to the several six-bed public wards on the third floor of the hospital. My olfactory senses, however, diverted my attention to a frail girl, hardly twelve, with burn marks extending down her neck to her whole body.
Under the charred skin, that had taken on a transparent scabby appearance, beat a stubborn heart, intent on keeping the girl alive. I had been trying to get the receptionist, more plastic than the water-purifier in the place, to get me to the ward for a long while now. When I looked up at her in anticipation, she shot me a disgusted ‘it-isn’t-time-yet’ look and immersed herself in her registers. I sat down again, subjecting my nostrils to the fetid smell, braving myself against the urge to throw up. After the pleasure of watching me wrestle with my nausea for a good two hours, the plastic woman at the desk gave me a cursory nod that meant ‘go’.
As I walked slowly in the direction of the public ward, I started to calculate the probability of this visit being a fruitful one. I sucked at math, anyway, so I quickened my steps, trying not to get distracted by the big blue signs, with their dust men peeking from corners to catch a glimpse of a clearly not-belonging visitor- me!
When I reached the ward, I found the nurse attending the same girl I had noticed in the hallway. As I inched closer, I heard the girl’s quiet breathing turning to a panting gasp. She sucked at the air like it had suddenly become thick and was too difficult to draw in. The nurse quickly shot her an injection and asked me to clear out of there, as she went to get a doctor. I stood at the far corner, looking at the girl who had suddenly become the focal point of my visit. I no longer cared to look about the ‘functional’ ward, differentiate the unaffected staff from those whose concerns never wavered or even feel my own stifled being in the stuffy atmosphere! All I cared about was the girl with eyes frozen like a winter puddle, shorn of warmth- the girl who seemed like she had resolved to defeat her stubborn heart from pounding endlessly within her, as if pulling her farther away from the end that’s her destination. I wished, in that moment, to hold her delicate hand plugged into several machines and tell her that it isn’t all hopeless. And yet, when I did get a chance I couldn’t.
Two days later, I was in the hospital again- ready to talk to the girl who had faced such brutal monstrosities that I had a mere peripheral, voyeuristic understanding of. I was told that the girl’s name is Laxmi and she was one of the worst cases of the trafficking lot. My eyes moistened at the sight of the young girl, so defeated at the hands of fate. She was looking at some invisible pattern on the ceiling, when my touch made her recoil with a start. I told her that I wouldn’t hurt her and I was here to help. She smiled a distant smile, rebuffed at the words that might have been the bait! Unable to string together any words that might help, I sat beside her bed, donning a perhaps goofy smile, as my only aid. After an hour of immensely disturbed sleep, she came around.
Me: Would you be okay talking about it?
Laxmi: (nods silently, continuing to stare into the distance)
For some reason, I did not feel like asking her any questions I had planned to pop nor scribble away in my jumbo binder. I laid aside my binder and placed my hand on hers’, telling her I didn’t need to intrude in my own silent way. It was as if the warmth of a humane touch melted away, that frozen surface, in her eyes, making some tears escape those sad eyes. And with those flowing tears came the words.
Laxmi: It was the allure of a well-paying job that made my parents (daily wage laborers) agree to send off one of the ‘mouths to feed’ fend for itself. However, the man who promised the job took me to a dismantled house, with sagging steps and walls of the color of ash.
Inside were two dingy rooms, one lined after the other like railway compartments. We stood in the first room, where a middle-aged man sat, with a misplaced, somewhat-vicious looking smile on his face. The inner room, not quite visible, was exuding a foul smell, like an abattoir.
I shot a quizzical look to Rahman Bhaiya (that’s what I called him) and proceeded to survey the bizarre surroundings again. While Rahman Bhaiya pressed my hand in a reassuring gesture, I had a hard time downing the ‘strange reality’ that surrounded me.
My instinct told me that something was amiss and it was just a matter of a few ticks of the clock, before it was evinced by the turn of events. Not only was I handed over to the man who was waiting when we entered, but Rahman bhaiya pocketed a fat wad of green in exchange.
It took a second to dispel the foggy clouds of my consciousness and register what had happened. I screamed and howled and called for Bhaiya to not do this to me- but he left, without as much as a second glance in my direction. And before I knew, I was pinned down to the mattress in the corner, my wrists in a grasp much stronger than I could grapple with and my body weighed down by a force far too greater than my own retaliatory one.
The man tore my clothes and pushed himself inside of me, filling the bed between my thighs, pounding against my insides again and again until he was satisfied he had claimed me like a good worth the price he paid for! He then got up, dressed and left me groveling on the bloodstained mattress, writhing in agony.
In the wee hours of the morning, Rahman Bhaiya came back and brought in the strong stench of alcohol with me. He, then, feasted on the easy prey lying before him and kicked me after he was done. He asked me to get up and get dressed for another customer for the evening.
The pain throbbed inside me, as if someone had their hands inside me, squeezing my organs. When it waned, I tried to move, but it returned at my movement, punishing me for something I hadn’t even been a willing participant of.
I was kicked again for my refusal to budge and I pulled myself up and dragged myself to the other room. The room had taken on the pallor of the dead women on the floor. There was one, with her eyes wide open, her dull, gray flesh, once alive, being feasted upon by insects and another, cut open from her waist down, with her hands around her womb, maybe in an attempt to protect her unborn progeny!
Horrified, I wanted to scream my lungs out but I wasn’t even capable of that. I sat, there, crying myself out when another series of blows followed! My next conscious memory was of being in the first room again, naked and feeling a sharp, stinging pain in my abdomen. I looked around and found no trace of another being.
What followed next was an unsuccessful attempt at escape. It resulted in further physical and psychological disfiguration. Soon, the violation of my body and spirit became a daily routine, in return for some scraps of food. Soon, more girls were brought in- the inner room cleared to accommodate more business simultaneously, and a string of violent atrocities inflicted on our bodies caused something within our souls to bleed profusely.
Our pain brought us together and helped to forge a connection that did help to ‘suffer’ these times. It was, when Priya, an educated girl from Delhi, decided to change the situation that we began to hope! And it was her courage that got [NGO name withheld] to rescue us.
I thought she had reached the end of her story and was beginning to mouth some words when she spoke again.
Laxmi: And you must think didi (the first time she acknowledged me as someone close and safe) that it was the end of suffering. But it wasn’t. They traced our families and asked them to come over but you don’t see anyone around, do you? I am not accepted in my own home- I am, in my own village, a pariah- a ‘damaged good,’ as they call me.
And I presume that is what I shall always be- a DAMAGED GOOD! All of us, in that hell, had by some miracle amassed some strength and willpower to brave the horrors, take the risk and SURVIVE! Survive- so we could return to a life of ‘normalcy.’ But that is denied to us- because we were victims to the monstrosities that weren’t our fault in the first place. In our society, victims who survive, remain victims. Because survivors are always victims! And we have no home- because that home is hell for a ‘damaged good.’ A damaged good sullies the ‘good name’ of the family. And like I said, no survivor is a survivor- she is always a victim!
She had finished her story, in an unaffected tone but I had teared up. Some unknown pain gnawed at my insides, knowing that she had ripped apart the threads that formed the TRUTH of our social fabric, uncovering its naked ‘shame.’
It appalls me to live in a society where men feel entitled to a woman’s ‘body’ to exercise the unabashed rights of the ‘ever-undeniable’ rights of the male libido. It sickens me to think that any attempt to thwart such an effort results in an uninhibited exercise of sheer brute force and violence to exert power and impose control over women. I am disgusted by the continuing instances of crimes perpetrated against children, girls and women- fueled by the misguided sense of entitlement and engendering acts of uncouth violence.
But I am also disappointed in something that transgresses the landscape rife with such heinous acts of barbarity- the land we call ‘home.’ The home the victims of such monstrosities want to return to. The ‘home’ that Laxmi rightfully called ‘hell.’ I am disappointed by the social response to the victim/survivor dichotomy. Why is repatriation and reintegration so difficult for these victims? They haven’t been complicit in the complex web of social processes that engender such crimes. Then, why is their transition from a ‘victim’ to ‘survivor’ refused validation? And, if we could scrape off the veneer of our ‘hypocritical’ social responses completely, why should they need validation at all? These questions have haunted me ever since my meeting with Laxmi. But I fail to pin answers! I fail to see hope in a society that refuses to accept my brave survivor sisters as citizens worthy of a life of dignity.
I did not make any video on the subject, as I realized that wasn’t going to change the lens we, as a society, deploy to view these ‘apparently unfortunate’ crimes or the struggle of our brave and beautiful SURVIVORS either! It would be just another video shared, re-shared, liked, commented upon, tweeted about and lost in the crowd! So, until I know for sure, I shall keep looking for answers! And hope, this piece inspires you to do the same!
As for Laxmi, I exhorted her to join the NGO that rescued her group and have been in touch since. She is far along the healing process and is doing well, in her mission to prevent children from being a prey to the hungry falcon of trafficking and help the victims SURVIVE!