Raidak. A tributary of river Brahmaputra, Raidak flows through a landmass separated by three international borders: Bhutan, India, Bangladesh. Its Indian part is limited to two northern districts of West Bengal: Coochbehar and Jalpaiguri. A little girl lived in a remote village in Jalpaiguri, some 4 – 5 kilometres away from the banks of the Raidak. One of the typical villages in this district in the foothills of the Himalayas – quiet, green and poor – mostly. This little girl’s family was no different. The main bread-earner was the girl’s father: Collecting soil from the banks of the Raidak, sifting them to separate the stone chips, and then supplying them to a contractor. Payment by the weight of the stone chips. Naturally, every member of the family – children above 5/6 years included – needed to join in. Monotonous and strenuous work that leaves one’s back aching and hands chapped. Semi starvation and malnutrition were realities that children n such situations grow up with and our little girl was no exception.
She was an exceptional girl, though, insofar as she loved going to school; she enjoyed her studies; and dreamt of a life that not too many girls in her village dared to – her own elder sisters included. And she believed school education followed by higher studies was a means towards realising her dreams. So, she studied with care and stood first in class.
It is hardly surprising that this girl’s world would be shattered when her life situation forced her to drop out of school to substitute her father as the main breadwinner of the family. Her two elder sisters were married by then. Her only elder brother had married and separated from the parents. She was in Class VII and her father was crippled through an accident – rendered unable to engage in any income-earning again. Her mother needed to spend much time looking after her father, who needed help in most of the activities necessary for sheer survival. Who, then, would feed this family of three? Her books shelved, her uniform folded and locked away in a trunk – our little girl, by then a teenager, had to start going to the banks of the Raidak to sift soil and collect stone chips – her mother helping her only now and then.
Her back ache became permanent; her palms – roughened from doing this work since a rather tender age – became incurably cracked; and her resolve grew. One day, she left home for work, but walked to the nearest bus stand instead, to take a bus to the nearest station. In her bag that day, she carried her work tools, of course; but had also packed the few clothes she had; her books; and a little money that she had saved from her earnings over the months. Her heart cried for her hapless and helpless parents – but she kept telling them in her mind that she was doing this as much for them as for herself. She would finish her education; get a decent job and return to ensure that her parents never had to starve again. Her thirteen-year old mind had no qualms about the possible absurdity of this dream. That her parents might die in the mean time never even surfaced in her thoughts. And, she had no doubt whatsoever that in the great big city of Siliguri – the largest in northern West Bengal – she would find a family kind enough to give her shelter and help her continue her studies if she did all their house chores.
I met her six years later; at a shelter home in Jalpaiguri town. She was 19; had completed her tenth standard school-leaving exam and was preparing for the twelfth standard one. The shelter home was impressed enough by her to employ her as House Mother to enable her to continue living there despite becoming post 18 years of age. Home she had no intention of returning to, till she was a graduate with a good job. ‘One of my brothers-in-law is a professional burglar who keeps going in and out of jail. The other one is in prison as a rapist. Do you think I’d have a future anyway different from my sisters’ had I stayed at home?’
I’d met her family before meeting her – her parents, the married elder brother who had returned home after the girl went missing, his wife, and their four-year old daughter. Her mother kept lamenting her youngest daughter’s refusal to return home. ‘She’s well past 18. If she doesn’t get married now, what will happen to her? Who’ll look after her when we are gone?’ As I listened to this elderly woman’s wails, I kept wondering for how longer this myth about marriage being the only way to security for every child born female would continue! How could the mother forget the nature of her two sons-in-law and the life of hell that her elder daughters must be living? Why wasn’t she happy that her youngest was trying to curve out a future of self-reliance for herself? Why didn’t she remember that it was her little girl who had taken charge to feed herself and her parents after her father’s accident?
The father, however, bragged – but in that bragging was a lot of affection for his youngest, I must admit. The family had, apparently, been offered Rupees 500,000 by someone who had claimed to have come all the way from Mumbai – only to cajole the family into withdrawing the case of trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation they had lodged. ‘But I refused. We’ve starved before and we’ll starve again if necessary. But I wouldn’t accept money from those who sold my daughter to the sex trade!’ ‘If you did, I’d have been able to set up a good business of my own by now’ – grumbled the elder brother as he cycled away for work. ‘Lot of results that case is going to get us! She doesn’t even know the name of the man who had trafficked her!’
Unlike many other such poor rural families – this mobility impaired father had insisted on lodging a missing diary after the girl had left, which she – the girl – changed into a trafficking case after her rescue and institutionalisation. Her journey to the shelter home had been punctuated by two years of forced sex work in Kamatipura, the largest red light area of Mumbai, famed to be the financial capital of India and the home of Bollywood, of course! She had been taken there and sold to a madam by a middle-aged gentleman she had met on her train to Siliguri. A man who pretended to be the kind-hearted soul she was searching for and promised to enrol her in boarding school in Mumbai.
As I was preparing to leave, the daughter-in-law of the house, silent all this while, whispered to my ears: ‘I always tell my daughter to be like her youngest aunt and no one else. Not even me. Tell her this when you meet her please. What courage and determination! I’m sure my sister-in-law will be the first woman graduate from this village.’
I walked away with one thought clouding my mind: how many more young dreams will have to be truncated like this before we can devise some competency in our anti-trafficking programmes? How many more rescues do we need before we shift from our protectionist strategies that fail completely to put the dreamy adolescent mind and its capacity to take risks for materialising those dreams at the centrestage?