Shoba* had a big sister she looked up to. After she hit puberty, celebrated in some cultures, she dropped out of school because her school did not have a clean washroom. She joined her big sister at her workplace.
Asha* worked at the local dance bar. She was employed there by her sister-in-law. A man tried to solicit sexual favours from Shoba, merely 14 at the time, but she refused, protected by her Didi (meaning “big sister” in Hindi), Asha. But, one day, Asha, after succumbing injuries due to a fall, without adequate medical care, died.
Shoba was trafficked a few months later to Delhi where she was raped by not 1, but 11 men.
Shoba is 28 today, barely a year older to me. She is forced to live with her sister-in-law and brother, the people who trafficked her. Shoba’s daughter has just been molested and threatened to be sold, if she doesn’t comply to the demands of her uncle and his son.
I had a dream a few days ago wherein some time machine had been initiated and we went back to the time when my parents had first bought their house in 1998, when I was just 10 years old. Suddenly, the house was empty. I was reminded of the time that has passed since we first bought the house. When I woke up, all I could do was think of our house.
I remember moving into the house when it was brand new. When we first saw the house, it came with an empty plot next to it, which my father insisted on buying. We had a huge house warming party. I remember the day so well. There was gulab jamuns for dessert. So many people in that house! My mom and dad had decided to name the house Elhanan, which meant “God’s gracious good gift.”
The empty plot was efficiently converted into a beautiful garden by my dad. About 12 years after we bought that house, that garden had the most beautiful avocado tree I’d seen, 2 jackfruit trees, a mango tree, a banana tree, and several small plants.
I have several memories of that house, which became my home for 8 years. There was that one telephone call, while I looked out the window into our garden, where I was told my mom got a job, which would make her a banker for the next 15 years and counting. I remember the Easter celebration at home, where my uncle would lovingly hide Easter eggs in our garden for my cousins and I to hunt for them. I remember the fight my dad and I had over a boy. I remember Jazz coming home for the first time (our dog, who was only 7 months old when he came home) and everyone except for my brother and I being afraid of him. Now, Jazz is close to the two people who were once scared to walk past him – my dad and mom. I remember the day my brother walked down the stairs with a mug covering his face and my mom spitting out the tea she was drinking when he removed the mug to reveal his that he had shaved for the first time. I remember the time when instead of moving forward, my dad had accidentally pressed the reverse gear and went zipping backwards on the road outside out home.
I remember the guests, the gifts, the happy moments and the sad. I remember the food my mom cooked in that house – when we would have birthday parties, to other gatherings, she would cook up a feast. I remember the Sundays when my dad would make this amazing Kesari Bhaath (Sheera, or a sweet semolina dish) for me. I remember eating the guavas plucked fresh from our garden.
That house also saw us through the toughest times – when my dad lost his job, when my mom discovered she was diabetic, when my dad found out he had high cholesterol, when my brother and I took turns to get into trouble, when I flunked my final semester in law college, when we would fight, when one of us was heart broken over the words of the other.
Elhanan, our home, had the perfect mix of sweet, sour and bitter memories. Some memories move me to tears, while some make me guffaw.
During the time I lived there, I always complained about the house. It wasn’t posh enough for me. I thought that this house wasn’t good enough.
While I was fighting with my dad about my male friends, Shoba had been trafficked, and had several abortions. While I was enjoying the fruits of my father’s garden, Shoba had given birth to her first child.
Shoba and my paths crossed recently, when I had a chance to meet her and hear about her life. I realized something. Elhanan was my safe house. No one could harm me there and if they did, I just had to tell my dad, who I knew would protect me. I had a safe house to run to.
Shoba didn’t and doesn’t have a safe house to go to.
Her story is just one among many, who are trafficked and treated worse than her. There’s no such thing as a safe house. The place they are serving 8 to 10 customers a day becomes their home, and the person who gets the bulk of their earnings, becomes their safety.
I’ve always taken my home for granted. I’ve rarely been grateful and mostly complained about how my house isn’t good enough, always expecting something bigger and better. But after hearing about Shoba, I began to see how the house I used to live in with my parents, and the tiny 1 BHK I live in now with my husband is a blessing. I began to see the depravity of my own heart, which seeks safety in bigger homes, while girls continue to vanish because of no options but to be sold.
I have a dream. I want to be able to build safe homes for young women and children, who would have the financial capacity through alternate means of livelihoods to sustain themselves, without handing their lives over to unsafe futures. I don’t know how or when or whether this dream will come to pass.
But I have one assurance. No matter how broken this earth, a bigger and better home awaits, a new home, where no girl will be touched inappropriately and no child is afraid of its own.
[*] Names changed to protect their identity.
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