Ichchhamoti. Literally, the capricious woman. A river that constitutes the no person’s land between much of Satkhira district of Bangladesh and North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal on the Indian side of the border. The first few yarns in this column will be trailing some lost footprints in villages along this river. Villages close to the border. Villages with a deep relationship with the river of whims – an intimacy of joys and pleasures and livelihoods; an intimacy of fear, woes and losses as well.
Our trail starts in a little known village in the Sandeshkhali I block of North 24 Parganas district. A village devastated by the second edition of Cyclone Aila in 2009. Some journey it was! An early morning start in a hired car – but that comfort was to last for less than half the journey. Off the car to get onto one ferry boat to cross one river – then some distance on a van rickshaw, a four-wheeled passenger-carrying adaptation of bicycles typical in rural Bengal – then on another boat to cross another river…The early morning breakfast had long been digested…Sweating profusely in the scorching heat, the hottest day that summer in 2010 as this columnist was later to learn, I was chewing puffed rice with cucumber slices on another van rickshaw that was to reach me to my destination.
But it did not. The last couple of kilometres did not have a road for even the van rickshaw to travel. A road was just being built in the Aila devastated area and walking along that road was a nightmare even under that merciless May sun. Spending two strenuous hours to cover just those last two kilometres taught me that dry silt can be like quicksand where your feet sink as in sponge and have to be dragged out for the next step.
A small mud hut right on the bank of Ichchhamoti. The last house in the village. The coolness of the thatched roof was supplemented by the glass of fresh lime water cooled in an earthen pitcher that the elderly woman, the lone resident of that hut, brought me. Gone was my urban middle class paranoia about the quality of water from a hand pump in the absolute bliss that this simple offering brought to my perched body.
Would that little girl receive this cooling drink every summer day from her maternal grandmother before she went to Kolkata – I wondered. She had grown up with this grandmother ever since she was a toddler because her mother had a boy child even before this one had completed two and found it difficult to manage both. So, the toddler’s journey began in infancy, really. But her journey to school remained confined to the ‘khichdi school’ only. ‘I would be busy working in the fields to make both ends meet for her and me. Who would ensure that she gets ready on time for school and attend classes?’ – stated the elderly lady by way of explanation for the little girl never being enrolled in a formal school.
But the child embarked on an important voyage at the ripe age of 12. She was sent off to Kolkata to work as a domestic help and earn her own dowry. A voyage that would leave her ‘missing’ even after three years. The grandmother had really left no stones unturned to trace her granddaughter. The local police station – at a distance that needs the whole day to complete travel to and fro from this village and the princely sum of Rs 60.00 – both a challenge for a daily wage earner – refused to lodge a First Information Report against the neighbour who had taken the girl with the promise of getting her engaged as a domestic help in a ‘caring household’ in the capital of the state. The elderly woman had not given up. She went to the Panchayat; garnered local support; travelled to the Women’s Cell in the Police Control Room in Kolkata…The man did get arrested, only to be freed on bail three months later since the local police did not submit a proper charge sheet.
As this columnist started back on her arduous trek back to the van rickshaw, a scene missed earlier dawned. In that little village of abject poverty visible in every small mud hut, only one house was being transformed into a concrete one. ‘That’s his house’ – pointed the wailing grandmother with accusing fingers. In the corruption that allowed the owner to be the richest man in a devastated village, the unpunished trafficker of one little girl from this village and maybe many more from neighbouring ones – the footprints of a little 12-year old got lost. Maybe never to be found; maybe rescued several years down the line from some brothel somewhere in the country, or even in a gulf country – hardened into a young woman with complete lack of faith in the world of adults; maybe she would retrace her steps herself one day to come with lures for other young girls in the starving village to travel with her to an unknown destination of dreams.
‘Oh when will we ever learn?’ This columnist has no answers in a country where the conviction rate of traffickers had gone down by 45% between 2012 and 2013, as per the latest data available.
 ‘Khichdi’ is a mixed dish of rice and pulses served in the ICDS centres in Bengal – leading to these centres being colloquially referred to as ‘khichdi school’. The Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) is a welfare scheme of the Government of India aimed at ensuring nutrition, healthcare and pre-school education to 0 – 6 year old children and their mothers.