This is the story of a mother's perseverance to find her 12-year-old daughter, who was rescued from human trafficking after five long years.
Trigger Warning: Mentions of rape, sexual and physical abuse. *All identities in the story have been kept anonymous.
It was a regular morning in October 2014. I was getting ready to go to school with my younger brother. My mother seemed disconnected that day like her mind was elsewhere. I could hear the utensils fall in the kitchen and saw my father getting irritated with all the commotion.
My mother was hurrying with her tasks that morning. She quickly got my brother ready for school and kept me back saying she needed some help at home. My father sauntered out of the house, in search of his next drink perhaps and as soon as he turned around the corner, my mother grabbed her money pouch and me and dashed out of our house.
We got into a tuk-tuk and travelled for about 40 minutes before we reached our destination. It was a new place for me. Looked dirty and had such a rotten smell to it. It still makes my stomach churn. With her saree pallu, my mother covered her face, held my forearm tightly and marched into the lanes. It felt like she had been here before, she knew exactly where to go.
A few kilometres later we were standing outside a small house. A kind-looking man opened the door and ushered us in. At this point, I started to feel scared. This was unlike my mother, she did not usually behave like this. I wondered what had got into her.
We were made to sit in one corner and there were others like us in that room, all huddled together.
My mother retrieved her money pouch and handed a thick wad of money to that man. He stood before us counting it and smiled at me once he was done. He looked at Ma and said we would be moving from there soon. I remember holding on to Ma real tight. I kept whispering, asking her what was happening, she kept stroking my hair assuring me that things would be fine.
By noon I had started feeling hungry. There was another child younger than me in that room. I remember his face; his nose was leaking and a fly kept sitting on his nose. He swatted it away a few times and then gave up. I can’t remember when but I fell asleep soon after. I was awakened when I heard people talking loudly in the room.
Two other men had come in and were looking at all the women in that room. They came and stood near Ma and me. They pointed to Ma and said something about her faring well. We were asked to leave the room and were shoved into a van. Ma asked me to keep quiet and she continued to tell me that we were going towards a better life.
We drove in that van for the next few hours. We were given no water and I remember how dry and parched my throat and lips felt. I kept running my tongue over my lips to keep them from getting dry. It did not work.
By dusk, we had reached a river. Ma continued to avert my gaze and kept looking ahead. She was afraid but tried hard to conceal that fear from me. Her assurances to me felt more like assurances she was giving herself.
As it got darker, we were hurled into a little boat. There was no space to move, we were asked to crouch down and stay in that position. Even breathing was difficult. I stuck to Ma like glue, I refused to let go of her hand. After what seemed like hours, we finally arrived. I had no idea where but someone on that boat mentioned West Bengal. Ma and I got off the boat and the man who had brought us here put us into another van.
Ma seemed relieved. She kept kissing my hand saying she will give me a better life, that I deserved better. I still did not know what she was doing or why we had come to West Bengal.
From the Frying Pan to The Fire
Ma was Baba’s second wife. Unbeknownst to me then, baba would drink a lot and often get very violent with Ma. There was nothing that we could do to stop him. If we tried, we often got a beating as well. One part of me understood why Ma would want to leave that life behind but what about leaving my brothers and sister? Why did she have to take me with her?
We arrived in West Bengal tired, hungry and lost. We had no one to call our own. The man who brought us across the river said he would take us somewhere safe. He smelled really bad, I felt uncomfortable around him. After yet another van journey where we were shoved under the seats and asked to keep quiet, we arrived in Kolkata.
I had only heard about this city. It seemed a lot like home and yet there was something different about it. We were taken to a dingy house and kept there for almost two weeks. Every time Ma asked them when she could start working the man would tell her to be patient. He would tell her that there is a lot of paperwork that needed to be sorted before she could start work. This went on for a while and finally, they loaded us into a bus and took us to Mumbai.
Ma was promised a job there. She was told that she would work in a house where I would be allowed to stay. She was even promised that the house owners would pay for my school education. Ma was so happy, I remember. She believed everything that the man told her. Little did she know that it was all a lie, and we were about to be thrown into hell.
Mumbai, they say, is the city of dreams but for Ma and me it became the city of our nightmares. It was in Mumbai that for the first time a man touched me and forcefully entered me. I was raped while Ma was made to watch. Then they raped her and made me watch. They were brutal. I bled, I cried, howled but they showed no mercy. Five men took turns raping us.
Ma was 44 and I was just 12 but it did not matter to them. For the men, our bodies were just the same; a means to pleasure.
After a few days of this Ma and I were taken to several brothels around Mumbai to be sold. Fortunately for us, several raids were being conducted then and no one was willing to risk getting new people into the brothels. We kept being paraded but no one bought us.
I started developing hatred towards Ma. I questioned her reasons for doing this to me. Why did she bring me to this hell and make me go through such torture? I wanted to get as far away from her as possible.
‘I was drugged and always kept under sedation.’
Since none of the brothels bought us, we were taken to a private residence where men would come visit. We were drugged, injected with many kinds of medicines to keep us feeling drowsy. In that [unconscious] state, men would have sex with us and leave. After a point, I didn’t even know what was happening to me. My anger towards Ma kept increasing with every man who touched me.
Little did I know that she was going through her own share of pain and guilt. She was finally sold to a brothel in one of Mumbai’s red-light districts and just like that, one day, Ma was not around anymore.
Life after Ma and I split was worse. Earlier every time the men would force themselves on me, Ma would come to me later and hold me close. Now I was truly alone. My anger towards Ma was still there but now I was also scared of what I would do without her. I was taken back to the private residence and kept there.
I was beaten, abused and raped so many times over. I even got pregnant. All of 12, I was pregnant and had no idea what was happening to my body. The men refused to take me to a hospital and instead administered some medicines to make me abort the foetus. It did not work, I did not have an abortion. That angered the men and they started kicking my stomach and hurting me until I started bleeding and lost the foetus.
I would lie awake at night, both cursing and yearning for Ma.
‘I was taken from one city to another.’
None of the brothels wanted to keep me. I was a liability to them. Every time I mustered the courage to fight or complain they would threaten me saying I am an illegal immigrant in this country and that they would have me jailed.
Maybe I should have spoken up and the trauma I lived through for four years would not be there.
From Mumbai, I was taken to Delhi and sold to multiple agents. This cycle continued. I had lost Ma to Mumbai and had no way of contacting her. I didn’t know whether she was even alive. I hoped she was. From Delhi, I was taken to Bareilly where the agents continued to sell my body every evening. I had stopped feeling or caring. I was living from one day to another.
I lived this life for three years. In the interim, I had forgotten Ma. I forgot that she was the one who brought me to this hell. My mind would often wander to the happy days I spent with my siblings in my village in Bangladesh. Things were bad there, yes, but this was so much worse. I would make up stories about what they would be doing and how they would all welcome me back home someday.
Purnata’s rescue mission
While the daughter was going through hell, the mother was struggling as well to cope with the guilt of losing her daughter to a prostitution ring. The realisation that she had ruined her daughter’s life, when all she wanted was to give her a better life, kept gnawing at her.
Even as she continued to work in a brothel in Mumbai not knowing where and how her daughter was, her search never ceased. Her yearning to find her was strong.
It was then that she found Purnata, an organisation that works on a comprehensive human trafficking prevention strategy through a collaborative and holistic approach to ending the flesh trade. She approached them with hope and apprehension in equal measure. She had no photograph or documentation with her to prove that she was her daughter.
Operational in Mumbai and Kolkata, the team including Anagha Khandagle made valiant efforts to trace the daughter and unite them. Speaking to The Better India, Anagha says, “From filing a First Information Report (FIR) in January 2018 to tapping into our extensive informer network and then travelling to Delhi and Bareilly, we did it all to try and find the girl.”
At every stage, the team encountered problems and Anagha shares how the operation they had undertaken took close to 12 months. Even when they rescued the girl, Anagha shares that she was half the girl that she was when she came from Bangladesh.
“Besides losing all self-worth, she was brutally beaten and subjected to unmentionable torture. From having to serve the customers when she was on her period to being given sedatives and narcotic substances to keep her under control, it was hell for her.”
After she was rescued Anagha says that she would spend hours sitting in a corner staring into space. Slowly, she started talking about all the atrocities she had to undergo. “Not being given food to being asked to sleep without any warm clothing or even a sheet in the peak winter,” says Anagha.
But after almost five years, the mother was reunited with the daughter and it was “bittersweet”.
She adds, “It was after all at the insistence of the mother that we started looking for the daughter. If not for the mother we would never have found her.”
On 25 April 2022, the daughter was reunited with her family in Bangladesh. The team at Purnata accompanied her there to ensure that she got home safely. They tell us that the girl is recovering and while the process will take a long time, she is in a happier space now.
Purnata also runs a training centre and rehabilitation home, where victims are offered opportunities to dream of a better life. You can reach team Purnata here.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)