The first person I met while I was in the waiting room was a young girl, Anju*. She was about fifteen; she was beautiful. Anju complimented me on my dress and told me that she could dress as well as me, if she wanted to. “I can look prettier than you too,” she said. “I'm sure you can,” I agreed.
Suddenly, she clutched my hand and pressed a slip of paper into my hand. “Please call this number, and tell them to take me away from this terrible place. Please,” she pleaded.
I was flabbergasted to put it mildly. I was totally unprepared for this. Anju went on to tell me that she was a top student at a local NGO-run school. She assured me that she was completely normal and she was kidnapped and being held there against her will.
Anju said she was being abused by the volunteers at the center and that experiments were conducted on her. She also told me that she was subjected to shock treatments as a punishment and that she was kept so constantly drugged that she lost whole days and weeks of her life.
Before I jumped into any conclusions, during the interview that followed, I expressed an interest - "That's a pretty girl outside. Is she really a patient or does she work here?". The founder readily gave me Anju's case file. She also requested me to visit Anju whenever I could, since they encouraged the patients to interact with the world outside as much as possible.
The case file reported that she came from a dysfunctional family. Her father was a pimp and her mother a sex worker. Anju had been inducted into prostitution as a young child. Her mental balance lost, she was rescued when a 'customer' reported her to the center.
Repeated attempts to rehabilitate her proved unsuccessful as she was confused about whether she wanted to stay at the asylum or return to her family. Every attempt to reunite her with her parents put her right back on the streets turning tricks.
During my visits, I saw that the patients were not kept locked and many of them, including Anju, could move freely outside. There was a telephone in the visitor's hall which anyone could use. It was not locked and the visitor's hall was often empty and Anju spent a lot of her time alone there. I figured that she could make that call if she wanted to. I also found out that the school Anju mentioned had never existed.
I didn't call the number she gave me, but I went back and visited Anju several times. The next time I met her, she praised the institution and told me that they had saved her. The next time round, she seemed to hate it there. Her conversations and her file confused me completely and apart from a few visits, I did not try to get her out of there. She seemed safer there.
Possibly her case file was entirely true. In which case, I did the right thing by not calling the number she asked me to. Abused people do try to get back to the familiarity of their abusers. Possibly her story is true, in which case I passed judgement and turned my back on someone that reached out to me.
After a while, I moved to a different place and could not continue the visits. But Anju is often in my thoughts and prayers. And to this day, 11 years later, I still wonder. Was Anju paranoid delusional? Was she trapped?
Another, more disturbing incident happened during the process of my own divorce. I was waiting to see my lawyer when a lovely young woman with a beautiful 2-year-old in her arms stepped past me. They were so lovely – the both of them – that I turned to look. The little girl Ken's age at that time.
While talking to me later, my lawyer and I were discussing divorce cases in general when she gave me the shocking statistics that only about 3 per cent of women who work up the courage to meet a lawyer actually follow through till the divorce. Many drop off at some point; so arduous is the process.
Without realising that I had seen and noticed her previous client, she told me about that woman, Meera*. Meera was an only child in the second year of her B.A. when her father passed away. According to the family custom, she was married off within six months of his death to a Dubai-based businessman, who had lost both his parents.
With no relatives to speak of, Meera and her mother sold whatever little property they had and handed it to Meera's husband for investment. Mother and daughter moved into his luxurious flat and he returned to Dubai. Apart from a visit when the child was about a week old, Meera had not met her husband and was looking forward to his visit two years later.
A few days into his long-awaited visit, Meera discovered that he was sexually abusing her daughter. She had no job, her education was incomplete; she and her mother were completely dependent on this man for their daily bread and shelter. They had no relatives on both sides to turn to. The day I saw her was her first visit to the lawyer; the abuse had been going on for the last 10 days - the duration of his visit. She was afraid to confront him and wanted to explore her options.
The lawyer adviced her to move to a woman's shelter immediately and file a police complaint and a case against her husband and offered to help. When I met her the next time, I asked her about Meera. After leaving that day,saying that she would think about it, Meera had never returned. She had left no contact details, so the lawyer could not follow up either. Sadly, the lawyer was not surprised. She said that this was quite common.
Moving out and taking her husband to Court was a bigger challenge for Meera than accepting what was happening to her daughter. I can close my eyes and see that child in her yellow frock and I hope that Meera did leave with her or that that entire episode was just a misunderstanding.
The challenge for women like Meera who have literally given their all to the men in their lives is the paucity of options. She had an old dependant mother and a little baby girl. She had been clearly raised in a cocoon of wealth and sanskaar. She was a "family woman." She had no money and no identity of her own. She probably had no idea where to start.
The moment a person moves out of the shelter of the family, the options that are open to them are bleak. Abused at home, further abused at various 'shelters' and 'institutions' that they have been placed at, it is the lack of economic freedom that drive these women back into the clutches of the men who abuse them.
The reasons these shelters are so ineffective are clear. Many of these orphanages, shelters and centers are dependent on local businessmen and political leaders for funding and permissions. Unscrupulous persons among them look upon the inmates as a harem, negating the purpose of the existence of such institutions.
While some founders, managers and trustees do try to stand up to them, the pressure is too high and they believe that sacrificing a few children to serve the larger interests of the rest is alright. A little like the widow ashram in Deepa Mehta's Water that prostituted one widow so that the rest could eat and live with dignity.
In these cases, local police, staff and even the social workers who volunteer are aware of the situation, but do nothing to stop this. In any case, where else can these vulnerable people go? Is it better to stay in one of these shelters and be preyed upon occasionally or stay on the streets and be subjected to harassment every day?
Educated people satisfy their consciences with organising a lunch or dinner for inmates in shelters and orphanages. Many prefer to send the money and don't even visit to ensure that the “feast” is served. It requires persistence and determination to get to the root of the issue. And if you do, what then?
A small tip of the iceberg was visible in the Anchorage Orphanage case. This was widely reported but justice was not served here. The arthouse film Manorama – Six Feet Under, focusses the issue on child trafficking in Indian orphanages. However, children continue to be vulnerable - both in India and abroad.
What can we do? Volunteer regularly? And even if we open a can of worms, what then? I have no idea. It would be wonderful to think that we can make the change. The media can make the change. To quote the Jessica Lal case. But that is just one case. The rest of India is yet to get its chance at justice.