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And then there was a fairy tale

Once in a blue moon, in a red light area, a girl is rescued by a knight in shining armour' On one such enchanted, moonlit night began the fairy tale love story of Laxmi Lala ' a 19-year-old girl from a Calcutta slum, who was lured with the promise of a job and sold to a brothel in Pune ' and Imran Khan, a 22-year-old retailer of steel kitchen furniture in Maharashtra, who eventually helped her escape.

Sitting on a mat on the floor of Laxmi’s pavement hut, along a railway track in Dhakuria in south Calcutta, Laxmi and Imran remember the first time they had met. Laxmi doesn’t recall the moon being blue that night. But what she does remember, shuddering slightly, is the dim blue light of the night bulb in the dark, dingy room where every evening she had to wait her turn to be chosen by a ‘customer’.

“The men would be seated there and we would have to stand in front of them, so that they could take their pick,” she says. “This boy, whom I had never seen before, was sitting there with his head down. He was with four or five other men who were regulars at the brothel, and they were telling him to select one of us. But he just kept looking down, so his friends were laughing at him. It was obvious that he had been coaxed into coming there and that it was the first time that he had come to such a ‘dirty’ place.”

For Laxmi, it was love at first sight. “He was so different from the others who came there.” Interestingly, he was the last person Laxmi thought would succeed in helping her escape. “I used to plead with all my customers to help me get away. But no one did. I tried to run away several times, but each time, I got caught. They beat me and locked me up. And this boy looked like he needed help himself. So I wanted to take him to my room and comfort him.”

When Imran did finally look up, after his friends had disappeared to different rooms, there were only two girls left in the room ' Laxmi and another one. Imran called the other one. “I was so angry with him,” Laxmi remembers. “But fortunately for me, the other girl decided to play hard to get. She just left the room.”

The first words that Imran said to Laxmi, were, “Why did she reject me'” Two other questions followed:

“What are you so scared of'” Laxmi asked.

“Am I going to get AIDS'” Imran asked.

That was the beginning of a friendship, which, Laxmi says, filled the void of not having her family around. “I used to long to see my parents,” she says. Her father, Sadhu Lala, is a rickshaw puller and mother, Dolly, is a domestic help in Calcutta. “I yearned to come home, and be with people who loved me. But when Imran came to visit me, I felt happy. He liked being with me too and dropped in often. He brought me perfumes and jewellery. I saved money from what I earned and bought shirts for him,” says Laxmi.

Then one day, Imran told the brothel-keepers that he wanted to “buy” Laxmi and offered them Rs 35,000 for her. This raised their hackles and they told him to stay away. But their resolve to run away was only strengthened by this.

“If you want to flee from a red light area, don’t do it in the dark. Wait till it’s light. When the rest of the world awakens, everyone goes to sleep in a brothel,” says Imran, speaking for the first time.

So they waited till the moonless night of May 21 gave way to dawn.

It was 7:30 in the morning on May 22, 2005. The din of the previous night’s drunken revelry faded gradually as the customers left one by one and the inmates of the brothel retired to their respective rooms to catch a few hours of sleep.

But Imran did not leave. He hid in Laxmi’s room, waiting for the coast to clear. He peered nervously out of the creaking window of her tiny cubicle which opened out onto a long corridor. It was empty except for one “auntie,” who was spreading out her bedding on the floor, at the end of the corridor, blocking the entrance ' and exit ' to the main landing of the staircase.

“After arranging her bedding on the floor and before going off to sleep, she was in the habit of going to the loo. We knew that was our only chance to make a run for it,” Laxmi says.

“I was gripped by fear,” Imran recalls.

“Yes, for a moment, it seemed like I was rescuing him,” Laxmi jokes.

But the boy who refused to look up one night is today a hero in the eyes of everyone. After they came to Calcutta ' they decided to come to this city because Laxmi’s parents work here ' the NGO Diganta took them under its wings. Says social worker Utpal Roy, director of Diganta, “We will be organising their wedding next month. A tale of courage such as theirs deserves to have a happy ending.”

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