The ten men team had completed its training in Pachmarhi. Then they went to Nagpur as labor, along with their families. There they split into various groups and kept moving from one contractor to another. Four out of them just surveyed the city, in search for Tulsi. Every morning and evening, I would come out of the forest to the temple and call Bajrang to get daily updates. Bajrang had been trained to take notes of locations covered and daily activities. I also got some useful local contacts from Mr.Thakur and Dau, those who knew the nitty gritty of money lenders and traffickers. We left them alone, fearing a loss of trail.
After twenty days of search, there was no clue. We were not left with many options but to expose ourselves.
I decided to move to Nagpur and meet about twelve labor contractors, four beer and dance bar mafia and a few large money lenders. Each one was a reference from one of the three channels, the third one being Vedi. I had asked him also to use his boss' contacts in Nagpur.
I arrived in Nagpur Station on Twenty first of September, early morning. First I went looking for Amma, half expecting to find her. But she was there, in the same spot. She had a larger bundle of clothes next to her, as the winter was approaching. She did not notice me even as I sat next to her. I asked her, “Amma, chai?” Without looking, her natural words were, “Beta, please get some biscuits also for this old lady.” I said, “Amma, this time you are looking much younger.”
Then she noticed and stared at me through her thick soda glasses. Then she smiled. An old woman’s smile can lift any burden. She said, “You came after long. Is it an official tour?”
I said, “Amma, I don’t have a job anymore. I am working on a project in a village near Bhopal.” Our conversation continued. She remembered that I had gone to Rishikesh for her.
Meanwhile the Chai vendor sent a boy with three teacups. There was a girl sitting close to us on a nearby bench. He had mistaken the girl to be with me. Since the tea was already poured in the cups, the tea boy insisted that we consume it. I agreed and requested the girl to take it. She was hesitating to take it but the tea boy refused to pour it back into his kettle. Then she accepted it and said, “Thanks,” in a subdued voice.
I realized that the girl had been keenly listening to our conversation all this while. By now, she had also become interested in our talks.
I had been there for an hour. All this while, that girl had been waiting listlessly. She had not reacted to any train announcement but was quite content to sit there. I asked her, “Where are you going?”
She replied, without looking this way, “Mumbai.” I said, “Trains to Mumbai come on a different platform.” She said, “Okay,” but she did not intend to move. I had a good look at her. She had sharp features but looked famished and expressionless. She had good traditional Rajasthani clothes, and looked well groomed. ‘Must be something going on in her life’ I thought. I gave a biscuit packet to the girl and one to Amma. This time she took the packet without much fuss.
I took out a portrait of Tulsi and Muniya, and showed it to Amma. I said, hoping for a miracle, “Amma, I am trying to find this woman and child.” Amma looked at it for a while, and said, “I have not seen them here.”
“Who are you looking for?” The girl asked in a cold threatening manner from a distance.
I said, “A woman in her twenties. She has a girl child aged five or six but looks smaller. She had left a tribal village and didn’t return.”
The girl’s expressions changed. She relaxed and asked, “Do you work for an NGO?” I said, “No. I used to do a job and then tried some business. Now I do some social work. I know many people closely in this tribal village.”
She commented, “These villagers are very bad to women.” I smiled and said, “It is not true for tribal villages. Probably, you are thinking of villages in Rajasthan.”
She immediately recoiled back into her safety zone, and said, “I didn’t mean Rajasthan.” I guessed that she had run away from her home, probably in Rajasthan. But I didn’t say anything about it.
I just told her, “Don’t worry. I am not interested in your story. I have my cup full of problems. You can rest here as long as you want. No one here would disturb you as long as you are next to Amma. She can fix a spot.” I turned to Amma and asked, “Correct Amma?”Amma replied, “Yes.”
I said to Amma, “Now I have to leave; will come back when free.”
I got up and went a few steps but came back and asked the girl, “Do you have money for food etc?” Since morning, I had not seen her buy anything-tea, water, or anything to eat. She nodded affirmatively. But then I could see her eyes getting moist.
I asked her gently, “What is your plan?” She said, “Do you know someone here who can find me a temporary job?” She took out her certificates and last job letter. She had an MBA and had worked till recently in procurement for a large organic food chain in Noida. I didn’t ask why she had left a good one and was struggling like this. I told, “Why don’t you apply online in a large company? Out here you will get field jobs and very low paying ones.”
She wanted to discuss, away from fellow benchers. We took leave from Amma and went to a nearby food stall. We ordered vada pav. The she narrated, “I can’t work in a place where they will be able to locate me.” I tried to guess, “Running from forced marriage?”
Without saying anything, her eyes had swelled. She couldn’t control her tears. Then she stiffened and asked me, “If you know of a small job, tell me.”
I told her in equally blunt manner, “No one will give you even a small job without knowing the reason for your situation or calling up your last employer. Be practical.”
She said, “I don’t want my employer or my family or anyone else to know my whereabouts.” Then she narrated her situation. She was a Rajasthani Rajput. She was the youngest of seven children, and the fourth girl child. Her family still lived in their old settlement in Jaisalmer. After her education, she had joined a job in Noida. Her village elders back in Jaisalmer had found a relation for her in Haryana, and everything was arranged between their families. The groom had ancestral properties, but little education. A marriage was a matter of honor for their community, and refusals were met with reprisal.
Such clans, especially where ties are in Haryana, are still notorious for murdering anyone who went out of their system, especially girls marrying outside the clan. Many executions had happened years after leaving the clan, once the girl or boy or the couple was traced.
After due thought, she decided to flee. She did not even inform her employer. She had been on the run for last four days. It seemed that her family had given her up. Not going with the clan posed a threat to their properties and other children’s well being and marriages.
In these four days, she first hid in Delhi with office friends. Then sensing danger, she fled to Chandigarh and then came down to Nagpur. She kept getting calls from the local police station in Jaisalmer and from other men threatening her. With police station’s help, they had been tracing her cell phone movement. In one of the calls, they told about her location and that they were soon going to get to her.
I asked her, “Has your cell been on all this while?” She said, “Yes.”
Then I explained to her how they must be tracking her cell. I said, “Then they know you are at Nagpur station since morning. You switch it off now and change the cell phone and the SIM. Leave this place now.” I told her as I moved on.
Her decision to avoid applying to a large organization made sense now. In today’s world, she would have been easily traced there.
I went up the ramp thinking about her. ‘I am leaving a troubled person without doing more. If she could get over the current stress, then she will sail through’ I thought.
And then I went back. I asked her, “What is your name?” She said, “Piya.”
“Piya, I cannot do much for you but for now I can help. You come with me.” My mind was working fast. We went to the current reservation window, and took a reservation in a train going to Mumbai. We boarded the train and I asked her to keep her cell on. After about half an hour, I asked her to switch it off. Then we got down at the next station and took a bus back to Nagpur. “At least for some time, they will search for you in Mumbai,” I told her.
With the help of an auto driver, we found a decent serviced apartment only for women. I told her to stay here for some days and that I would get a new cell for her. Then I went and lodged myself in Hotel Rajhans near the station. Bajrang and a few others were also staying in the same hotel, while other families from the village were staying nearby.
The rooms were functional and quite cheap, with home cooked food. It was already noon. I hurriedly called up the folks on my reference list. I got appointments from them. They were spread over next two days. We decided that most of the villagers camping in Nagpur could now leave for home. Multiple copies of the sketches and physical details of Tulsi and Muniya were prepared to be handed over to the reference folks. Then I took one cell phone from the team and went in the evening to Piya.
I had noticed that all along she was never scared. I asked her, “Did you feel fear at any time?” She replied, “No. I have lived with dangers ever since I was born. I have been very angry with my society but never afraid. They can kill me but not get what they want. But while you were traveling with me, I was afraid about anyone harming you because of me.”
I smiled and told her about my journey to this situation. My spirit was no less free than hers.
Before leaving, I cautioned her, “Don’t go to any ATM or branch. Your location will be revealed to that Thana. They might pass it on.” She gasped, “No one would find me now. I don’t think they would chase me that much.”
I said, “Don’t be complacent. You don’t understand the psychology of such people.”
Next day, I went to the first appointment. He was one Mr.Mahajan, a builder, money lender and a social worker associated with some right wing groups. He had a nice office and many cars but was very short on manners. “Tell why you are here?” he asked.
I explained our search to him. His reaction was, “In this city, thousands come and go each week. Where will you find one woman and child?”
I just asked, “I just need to know if your syndicate had hired her or lent money to her. That much information will be of great help.”
He asked me to leave the sketches and information with his secretary, and he would call back if there was any information. Then I left his office.
That was the general tenor of all the meetings. Some guys were warm while some appreciated our task. But I thought all of them found it to be a lost cause. There were so many cases of disappearance across the country, where relatives would do a frenetic search like ours, but ultimately give up.
Next four days passed while I waited for someone to call back. I spent the idle time with Piya and Amma, looking at the passing trains. Both of them would be equally eager to know if someone called back. Amma suggested many tona-tutkas (black magic) to find Tulsi. She even bought one tabeez for me, from a sales boy at the station. Her financial plans were also laid bare to us. For the coming Diwali, she had been trying to add five thousand rupees for her grandchildren, but was still half way there. Piya quietly went to an ATM and gave her the balance. Amma promised to return and took it. Upon knowing this, I was upset with Piya, “You could have asked me for cash. You might have undone all our good work. Now they will trace you. Anyhow, Amma’s family will blow away the amount in no time.”
She said, “Why should I live with this fear? In a way, their purpose is served if I fear them.”
I said, “You should not be bothered about how well they are doing. You should only worry about yourself.”
So our few days passed. Piya was completely enamored by my description of our village and the things that trust could do.
More than anything else, she was quite keen to know more about the life in a forest tribal village. When I told her that my work was over and it was time to leave, she suggested, “I can work to grow some natural products and herbs in the villages. There will be a lot of demand from large cities.”
I said, “You can. I also think it will change their situation. But don’t start something to leave it midway.”
She then suggested taking Amma along. Her suggestion appeared to be in jest, but I had been looking for an elderly person for the formal trust. The idea of God woman Amma had tremendous appeal in my thoughts. The problem was convincing her to leave the place and then to give her some role.
I made the proposal to Amma. She immediately asked, “How much will you pay me?”
I said, “Free food, a nice place to stay and seventy five rupees a day. You will save all of it. We will increase the payment after seeing your work.”
Then she had a doubt, “What if you don’t pay or take away the cash when I leave?”
I assured her, “You can take one month advance here itself. Piya has already given you that. Then we can give the amount to your son every month if you want that. The place is only six hours from here, he can come and take it.”
Then she had more inertia, “But I am going to my village to meet my son's family for Diwali.”
I said, “Amma, they all will come running here if they know you are giving five thousand. They will only leave after counting it twice. If you allow, I can send someone and call them here by tomorrow.”
She did not reply. She had moved to next doubt. The money offered was too much to ignore, so her mind worked fast -before understanding my replies, it moved to next doubt.
She asked, “What can I now do in this age?” I said, “You already work from morning to night. In our work also, you will need to remain seated like this. There are many folks in the world who are not happy. You will just need to assure them and talk to them. When there is free time, you pray.”
She had moved to another doubt, “But if I leave this place for long, someone else will occupy it. No, I cannot come with you.” She said with finality.
I said, “Let me permanently book this place for you. Then you will have no more reasons left.”
I went to the Railway police constable on beat, informed him about Amma's dilemma and gave him a note of five hundred. He came along and told Amma, “Amma, even if you don’t come for an year, I will keep this place. You go with babuji. If you don’t like the work, you come back.”
With the force of a constable behind her, Amma had no doubts left. I immediately gave her a note of hundred to seal the agreement.
All three of us and Bajrang were to travel next day. But late in the night of fourth day, I got a call from Mahajan. He said, “Come to my office in the morning. There is some information.”
It was a good omen. Next morning, I and Bajrang reached his office at ten, Mahajan was not there but his secretary introduced us to another man. This man had given a ten thousand rupee loan to Tulsi in July. It was for three months at fifty rupees per day interest. But she had disappeared without repaying. Now her three months were getting over.
“Where did she go, did you try to find out?” I asked.
He said, “She had malaria when she had come to me. She left the site work and vanished with another group. I didn’t try to find out much as these guys were not good. It was a small amount and I got a part back from her dues left with the contractor.”
I asked, showing him the sketch, “Did you see this small girl with her?”
He replied in negative. Then I said, “You mentioned that this group she went with is not good. You must have known about them.”
He said, “Sir, if I knew more, I would get them caught. They are like shadows and keep shifting their men from place to place. You cannot make out who worked on her mind. But if there is a child involved, I suggest you check out Bhusaval, Daund and Manmad, around railway stations. A lot of loose children collect around these places.” Then he wished us good luck.
Immediately, three groups were formed to go these stations. I, Piya and another tribal man went to Daund. It was around six hours from Nagpur. We reached there by evening and lodged just outside the station.
The site was horrible and brought tears to my eyes - children all within age group of three to ten, begging, playing and fighting in the yard and on platforms. They didn’t seem famished as there was plenty of waste food as it was a railway junction.
The sheer degree of inhumanity troubled me to the core. Some of the elder ones had already been addicted to the thinner. Their clothes were rag tags and dirty, their families were gone, but being too small they seemed happy with their state. The scene must have been seen often by many politicians, officials and judges and rich folks but all had turned a blind eye.
All children seemed free, and not under any force. In their group, they felt safe. But I knew an unseen ring was around them. It would take a lot of legal and dangerous street fight to get their life back. There were many organizations trying and doing a good work; I decided to contact and help them whenever possible.
Piya asked, “Should we report to the police?” I said, “See those constables and these officials roaming around. They already see this. I think we will be harming the children by showing active interest. It should be informed to those who can help.”
After two days, we returned empty handed from Daund. Other teams also had nothing to report except similar scenes. On 30th of September, 2008, exactly one year from the day when a new life was given to me, all of us left by evening train to Sohagpur.
I was sad and quiet. Piya and Amma were sitting next to me. I was returning with two ladies, though not the ones I had gone looking for.