A naked light bulb swings above an older man as he heaves over a young girl’s body. A torn curtain flutters in the breeze. The first man leaves and one more walks to the bed. A woman in a green sari screams ‘Naina, Naina’ as she rushes towards a house in a dirty alley called Coolie Para in Katihar. The little girl looks out from behind a barred window, as a man smashes the woman’s head into a water tank.
I watch from my seat in an auditorium in New York as the brothel manager drags the little girl away from the window. I am at the premiere of a movie called Meena, directed by former “Charlie’s Angel”, Lucy Liu. The girl at the window is Naina and the woman in the green sari is her mother, Meena, seven years ago.
Another scene flashes on the screen. A woman gets off a police van, marches into the brothel to Naina and says she is Ruchira, come to take her away.
The surreal experience of watching myself on a screen recedes, as my mind wanders to Lalten Bazar, a makeshift red-light area lit by oil lamps, in the middle of a dirty flood zone, with huts made of bamboo sheets and beds divided by torn saris. Eight years ago, chatting on a string-bed outside her hut, Meena had told me how the same man who had pimped her to hundreds of men when she was eight, was now pimping her daughter, Naina. We resolved to get Naina out.
I did not tell Meena that I knew as little about police complaints and judicial processes as her. Or that my grand plan was to rent a car, show up at the police station and with the help of the English language and an outdated press card, browbeat the reluctant superintendent of police into busting the brothel.
We did get Naina out, but the officer disappeared after taking us to the police station. Hungry and hot, we waited in the twilight for a word from him. A hostile mob from the Coolie Para stood outside. We passed time, swatting mosquitoes and texting friends in high places. A journalist friend living nearby showed up with a few street theatre activists.
Next day the sessions judge refused to give Naina’s custody to Meena, saying she was a woman of “bad” character. However, he wanted to return Naina to the pimp because she had referred to him as ‘Papa’. I ran out and found a lawyer typing under a tree and retained him on the spot.
Our lawyer did not know the law! But then neither did the judge. I decided to argue for custody myself. I made up sections of the law on the spot. Sections that we got into a real law last year. I quoted from the UN Protocol and the Swedish law and invented clauses of the IPC. At one point, I asked the judge if he had any proof, except his mother’s validation that he was her son. Our fate hung in balance as a hushed court and an angry judge stared at me.
At night I called an editor in Patna, an MP in Delhi, and a nationally known constitutional lawyer. They got a quote from the advocate-general saying that the law should be interpreted in the child’s best interest. As a face-saver Naina’s custody was given to the state of Bihar — neither to the pimp nor to the mother.
There was no children’s home in Katihar. The police would take her to Patna. We were loath to let Naina out of our sight. With no money and no ticket, we hopped onto the train with the police.
Naina was angry with her mother for first abandoning her, with us for then rescuing her and with the government for putting her into a children’s jail. She was frustrated by the alphabets she had to learn and the numbers she had to count. She bit another girl in the shelter, threatened to commit suicide, refused to meet her mother. Inmates in the shelter beat her.
I began to wonder what was the point? Maybe it was better to let her waste away in the brothel. The world had nothing to offer her. The mother stopped talking to me, the daughter stopped talking to me. My ego made me stubborn, to prove that prostitutes could rescue their daughters, that prostituted daughters could start new lives and that all injustices could be turned around. I coaxed, cajoled, yelled, shouted, but hung in there with tuitions, medical treatment and counselling for mother and daughter. A parallel thought process on the larger futility of it all was futile.
I was right.
In just seven years, Meena has moved out of the red-light area and now owns a thatched hut with a bamboo fence. Two school-bicycles of her younger daughters lean against a wall. Naina can read and write in English, Hindi and Bengali, blogs occasionally, has found her own husband and has a one-year-old son. The pimp and the brothel manager are in jail.
When the lady from UNICEF in the after-movie panel said I was an unsung hero, I did not feel unsung, but alone. No one could rescue me from the sense of alienation I felt from a world that did this to many Meenas and Nainas all the time.
Later at the reception, an upmarket Jewish dentist offered to do my dental work as a gesture of solidarity. Getting my teeth fixed in his fancy designer office on Madison Avenue, I realised that this was only one of Meena and Naina’s gifts to me.
(Ruchira Gupta is the founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide and a former Telegraph journalist)