by Rahul Pandita
Telangana: In January this year, the Ministry of Home Affairs advised state governments to launch an operation to trace and rescue children caught in perilous and illegal situations such as trafficking or forced labour. In that month alone, the police in Telangana’s Ranga Reddy district rescued over 300 children. In February, they found a girl who was two when, eight years ago, her father sold her into servitude for two hundred rupees.
Beyond the meta-nationalism of Bharat Mata, here is Sunitha’s story. It is what Roland Barthes called “the third meaning” – something that goes beyond the informational and the symbolic, something that pricks you.
Sunitha wants to look at you properly. But she doesn’t. It is as if she fears that you will go away if she does that. She wants you to be around. She wants your arm around her; the packet after packet of biscuits she has been consuming at a children’s home in Hyderabad has satiated the pangs of hunger, but she is still hungry for love, or at least some display of it.
The children’s home is quite depressing. The building itself is old; it is bereft of colour or anything else that could bring cheer. Unkempt corridors lead to locked gates. The main cemented courtyard looks like a jail compound. In the reception, above the main door, a picture of Rabindranath Tagore is tilted on a damp, flaky wall and has perhaps remained so for years. This is what will remain home for Sunitha till June after which she will be shifted to another government shelter in Telangana’s Ranga Reddy district. It is in Ranga Reddy where the police rescued Sunitha a few months ago. But her story begins eight years ago; it is when a woman called Basamma and her husband took a train from the district’s Basheerabad to Mumbai.
Basheerabad is the largest mandal (tehsil) in Ranga Reddy, around 130 kilometres from Hyderabad. On its west lies Karnataka’s Gulbarga district. Basamma, who is from Gulbarga, was ten when she was married to a man from Basheerabad. The couple was poor and worked as agricultural labourers in Andhra Pradesh. But it did not bring them enough money. In 2008, Basamma and her husband decided to look for work in Mumbai. They took a train from Wadi junction in Gulbarga that falls in the Mumbai route. They spent a few days begging around the Mumbai railway station.
One day, Basamma says, a man approached them at the station. He said he had heard them speaking in Telugu and that he was from Andhra, too. And then he pointed towards a young girl child, about two years old, whose hand he held. He said his wife had died and that he wanted Basamma to have his daughter. “He said he hadn’t eaten anything for days and that we should give him some money,” says Basamma. They felt bad for the man, she says, and her husband gave the man two hundred rupees. “He thanked us and said that they should consider this money as the price of the girl,” says Basamma.
After the man left, Basamma and her husband stayed in Mumbai for another two months where they taught the girl to beg. The girl’s father had said she was named Sunitha. Basamma decided to call her Puja.
At the children’s home in Hyderabad, Sunitha says she does not like it at all. “I do not feel good,” she says. After she was ‘bought’ by Basamma and her husband, the three of them returned to Basheerabad. Sunitha was delegated to Basamma’s old in-laws in Basheerabad’s Manthati village. “She [Basamma] said I have to serve them if I have to have a roof over my head and one meal a day,” recalls Sunitha. She was told that her mother had abandoned her. So, at the age of two, Sunitha learnt how to fight sleep and wake up at four every morning. She washed clothes and cleaned the house, and then went out in the village from house to house to beg for leftovers. She cooked for the family upon her return and then went to the nearby Tandur town to beg the entire day. On a good day, she returned with hundred rupees.
Basamma has two grown-up children. After the boy who Sunitha calls brother got married, she was sent with the couple to Hyderabad to serve them. But after a few months, the wife asked her husband to get rid of Sunitha. So she was sent back to Manthati where her servitude continued. This remained her life for eight years till one day when the Ranga Reddy police received a call on its child rescue helpline.
When Ranga Reddy’s Superintendent of Police, Rema Rajeshwari, came to know about Sunitha in February this year, Operation Smile had been on for almost two months. In January itself, her teams had rescued over 300 children, about half of them working as bonded labourers in brick kilns. The call on the helpline came from someone from Tandur bus stand. It said that a girl named Puja was in bad shape as she had been forced to beg by a family. Sub-Inspector Abhishek Chaturvedi went to the bus stand and spoke to her. But she could not tell him much. He spoke to her anyway and asked her if she wanted to study. “She said yes, so we got her admitted into a government school,” says Chaturvedi.
But the very next day, Sunitha was back at the bus stand. This time, Chaturvedi followed her to her home and came to know the whole story. He arrested Basamma and her husband and her father-in-law, while Sunitha was sent to the children’s home in Hyderabad. The three accused are out on bail now.
In Manthati, Basamma says it was a mistake taking ‘Puja’ from that unknown man in Mumbai. At the children’s home, Sunitha says she does not want to go back. Referring to Basamma’s in-laws as her grandparents, she says they must hate her because of this case. Also, she says, her mother (Basamma) hit her badly.
Sunitha wants to look at you. After an hour or so, she does; but she does not want you to know that she is looking at you. So her gaze remains fleeting. As of now, she wonders if she could become a doctor. Somehow it seems important to her. “That way I can trace my parents,” she says.
“Will you come again to meet me?” she asks. It is then that she looks at you properly.
Rahul Pandita is a 2015 Yale World Fellow and the author of, among others, Our Moon has Blood Clots : The Exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits. He tweets @rahulpandita.