Friday, June 19, 2015

Nafisa's Story

Married, at 18, to a man her family chose for her. The first few months of Nafisa's married life passed quite well. An attentive husband who bought her a lot of jewelry, in laws didn’t seem to be out-and-out monsters. She had hopes of an average, happy life. All that changed in a few months though. Her husband began to assault and abuse her physically. Her in-laws began persecuting her to get money from her parents. When she tried to tell her parents about it, she was advised to “adjust”. She was told to make her violent marriage and home work, as her elder sister had been doing for many years.

Two years later, when the torture became unbearable, she finally left her marital home to return to her parents. She filed a case against her husband under 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). She countered her parents’ resistance to all the “legal mess” by handling her court appearances and legal procedures by herself. But, it proved much harder than she had imagined. Just the cost of regular travels to and from the city to appear before the court was making a huge dent into what money she had. She began to be worried.

This was when she met Bani. A seemingly concerned woman, Bani became friendly with Nafisa and soon asked if she wanted work. It would be domestic help work, to help with her financial needs. The only catch, of course, was that it would not be in Kolkata, or West Bengal. She would be able to visit home once every couple of months. After a lot of thought, and overcoming her parents’ reluctance, Nafisa agreed. She left home to meet Bani at Ballygunge station. From there she accompanied Bani to Howrah station to meet her soon-to-be employers.

On the way there, she ate some sweets Bani gave her. The next thing she knew, she was in a train. Bani was nowhere to be seen, but very much in evidence were her husband and her brother in law. This was her “punishment” her husband said, for daring to file a case against him. “Withdraw the case or face the consequences”. She passed out again to wake up in a brothel in Budhwarpeth, Pune.

Nafisa says she is lucky, compared to many others in similar situations, and she is. While she was at the brothel, she was starved, and beaten, but she didn't have to entertain clients. Before she could be forced to, she was rescued in a police raid. Seven days after she arrived, Nafisa left the brothel to go into a shelter home. From there she was eventually returned home.

Nafisa’s anger and trauma found a way to express themselves through registering a case against her traffickers. Nafisa continues to fight, and takes the initiative to bravely drive her own case. She travels to police stations and courts far from home, through dangerous and lonely routes. When Sanjog began to research her legal case in 2013, we found that no progress had been made beyond the registering of the FIR. There wasn’t even a charge-sheet, and no movement had been made to investigate. After much prodding, in 2014, a charge-sheet was finally filed, and an investigation also began around the same time.

However, none of it took cognizance of the role of Bani as trafficker. Her name was missing from the charge-sheet, and there had been no attempt to locate her. Since Bani was the main link between Nafisa and the trafficking by her husband and brother-in-law, Nafisa filed a Naraazi petition. (this is a protest petition, which can be lodged by complainant against the report filed by police when there are gaps, or when the complainant does not agree with the laws applied, and so on) . After this, the court has ordered a re-investigation into her case.

Today, Nafisa is fighting on many fronts. There is a pressure to “settle” the 498A and the maintenance case she has against her husband, to deal with the family and social pressure to get married again. There is the trafficking case, in West Bengal, and in Pune. She has to travel to pune again, soon. She must give evidence to have the brothel manager convicted and punished.

Every time she has a court date, she loses money not only on travel but also the income from her small shop. She is socially isolated in her village. All the women her age are busy with their homes and children. She is trying to build a relationship, but afraid of being betrayed by the man she trusts. Her husband, recently, has put a price on her head. He is offering a reward to anyone who kills her.

Yet, in the midst of all this, Nafisa is balancing home, shop (set up through the Kaarya Programme run by Sanjog), and her legal commitments. And, the once shy, uncommunicative Nafisa keeps coming back to Kaarya training meets (in spite of the lost money, time, and the extra effort).

She feels that she can guide the “new girls” on what to watch out for when they open their own small businesses. She loves the taste of freedom she gets from these outings, where she can wear leggings, go shopping in Gariahat, get a breath of fresh air away from her mountain of daily stresses.

She can help others change their lives. She is a 'motivator' and a 'reflector' for many of the other survivors and adults who work with her. She can get them to think about their values and mindsets.

“Earlier I did not have courage,” she says, “but my anger and persistence have helped me to be courageous. I realized that only anger and persistence will not help me to grow and be successful in life , money and friends are also important. I have found both money and friends from all of you and that is the reason I have been able to walk this successful journey and for this I am really thankful to all of you. I hope all of you will always be my friends.”

To know more about Sanjog India, and what it does to support girls like Nafisa, visit

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Nilofer's Story

2013, Uthhaan – Sanjog’s leadership workshop for survivors of trafficking who have made it back home to help survivors build resilience. A 17 year old Nilofer walked in. After being trafficked, rescued, and returned to her village, with nine months of her life “missing” from the tranquil flow it had been BEFORE, she had a lot to deal with. Quiet, unassuming, and a little faded into the background, she didn’t seem to participate much in the proceedings. She broke down many times during the workshop, but never seemed to see the need to explain herself or her reactions; never seemed to see a need to find excuses for her emotions

Uma, the facilitator loved this strength in her, although the social worker working with Nilofer seemed surprised and worried. “She’s such a brilliant girl!” he said, “She has so much potential! Why won’t she participate! Why won’t she put herself forward?” Uma thought that was Okay; that Nilofer seemed to get a lot out of the program without the “expected” reactions and forms of participation; and that she should be free to set her own pace in her journey.

When Nilofer returned to her village, she kept in touch with Sanjog, promising to let Uma know when she found her “answers” to what happiness was, what made her happy now, what she needed to do or get to feel happy. Uma had told the girls about Vincent Van Gogh, who associated the colour yellow with happiness. When he painted something he wanted to appear happy, he painted it in yellow. When he was depressed, he sometimes drank yellow paint in an attempt, he told people, to make his internal organs yellow – and therefore happy. So Nilofer left to look for her “yellow” things
In the meantime, the struggle to get her back into school continued back home. Not surprisingly, with community reactions to what had happened to her and what she had been through, the school was reluctant to let her come back, although the stated, official reason was the gap that she had had to take. They said she would not be able to make it up, so what was the point? Nilofer and her social worker refused to take no for an answer.

One of her “happy” things was to go back to school, to her class, to the teachers who had loved this bright student, so Nilofer struggled on. When she did manage to get back to school though, nothing was as she had thought it would be “ja bhebechhilam ta holona” (what I thought didn’t happen) she told Uma on the phone. Everything was the same, yet nothing was. The classroom was the same, but her friends had moved on to another class. The teachers were the same but the love they once had had been replaced by discomfort and disgust. The same girls were still her neighbours but they no longer wanted to be her friends. Where the friends were the same she could see their cringing, talking about her behind her back, out of her sight.

At the second workshop, Nilofer opened up a little more, spoke out more. “I have some of the answers” she would say, “but they are not what I expected”. Things she thought would make her happy seemed to have lost their magical power somewhere along the way, in her nightmare nine months. But she was a lot stronger in her approach now. Uma could joke and kid and argue with her without constantly walking on eggshells. She had gone from “someone who had to be taken care of” by Sanjog and social workers to someone who could interact as an equal, as someone taking back control of her life and her decisions.

Her father had always been a big strength for Nilofer. Despite the conservative religious and community background, he had always recognized her potential and stood firmly by her decision to study. He was her pillar. But now, the pillar had fallen. She could see the constant pain in his eyes, his discomfort at facing or talking about her recent past. That was a big blow. When the father who dreamt of big degrees and higher education for her started saying “why bother with this now? Why do you want to go back to school? What’s the use of studying anymore?” Nilofer broke a little inside.
School proved to be something it never had been before – it was hard. From an ace student who sailed through her exams easily, Nilofer found herself transformed into a struggler. The gap, and the mental emotional trauma, made it very difficult for her to catch up. It was obvious she needed help, a private tutor. Finding one who would be willing to tutor her, and the money to pay them, was another struggle in a life already rife with battles small and large. She knocked on door after door, went from institution to institution trying to find grant money, scholarships, a sewing machine to run at night so she could earn enough to pay for tuitions, all to no avail. Nilofer broke a little more.

Uma suggested she tutor others, to make enough to pay for her lessons. After all, Uma said, Nilofer was a brilliant student. Tutoring some school kids should be no trouble for her, and it would give her the money she needed to take her own education further. Nilofer put the word out, tried to find students. The community blocked her out and parents refused to send their kids to be tutored by her. Another crack appeared in the walls.

The tutor they found, at long last, helpfully suggested she find “other ways” to pay him. After all, why does a girl “like her” need money for such things? The walls crumbled a little more.
A few months later, Uma had to visit Nilofer at the hospital. She had tried to kill herself. Before Uma could ask anything, before anyone could think of anything to say, Nilofer’s pained, frustrated cry rang out “didi! I can’t find the yellow paint!”

Today is another day. Today Nilofer has passed her higher secondary exams and is looking forward to going to college. (“Can I didi? Do you think I can do this?) She has a job offer to teach in a small school recently started by her social worker (“Think didi! Me! A teacher!”). And she has dreams of finding time to study nursing (“Everyone tells me I am a caring girl; that I will make a good nurse”). She is wearing colours again. She spends time on her appearance. She dresses up. “Come visit didi,” she insists “but don’t come directly to my house like all these people. Come to the station and call me. I will come to get you, to take you to my home.” Maybe that is her way of showing that Sanjog is different to her than all the other presences in her life. That Uma means enough to be personally welcomed and escorted.

But, most importantly, she wants to return for her third session of Utthaan. Why? Is she still looking for that elusive yellow paint? Is she still chasing that chimera called happiness? “These three days are ENOUGH” she says. “ENOUGH to give me so much”. She has learned so much from it. She says she has learnt when to give up. When to say enough, and choose a different path. When to fight on. This time, Nilofer will return as a facilitator. This time Nilofer will give back to girls like her. This time Nilofer will be ENOUGH!

To know more about Sanjog India, and what it does to support girls like Nilofer, visit

Monday, June 1, 2015

Not so Fab-india

The new Fabindia outlet at Metropolis Mall, Highland Park, Kolkata lets the whole franchise down.

I have been a confirmed fan of Fabindia for over two decades now. In Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, and Hyderabad, i have bought a whole lot of my most favourite outfits at Fabindia stores. I love their fabrics, their colours, their styles, i love how simple and sober and classy the clothes are, i love how wonderfully comfortable and cool-in-summer they are, and i absolutely love how long they last (i am still wearing some short kurtas bought 15 years ago) even under the heaviest roughest use.

So, when i took my monkey to watch a movie at the Metropolis Mall yesterday, i was delighted to see a new Fabindia store on the ground floor level. Brand new, the store seemed to be the answer to all my clothing woes, and so close to home! As soon as we were out of the movie, therefore, i headed straight for the store, fully intending to stock up on outfits to wear to my new volunteering job, happily humming to myself in the surety of finding the right sizes and perfect fits in fabrics that would breathe and make me feel fabulous!

Sadly, barely 15 mins later, i was walking out fuming! It seemed all great at first, articulate, polished, classy looking older woman at the counter (my very favourite sort), and seemingly helpful staff. In no time i had three men's short kurtas picked out (yes, those are the ones i like), and was headed to the women's “tunic” section for a few more outfits. And THAT's when things progressed rapidly downhill. The sales person helping me so far (not that i needed much help, given that i knew exactly what i wanted and in what size and whatish colours) handed me over to another person who would “show madam the tunics”.

Sadly, unlike Fabindia stores in Mumbai, Pune and so on, all available sizes did not find representation on the shelves, with Extrasmall having the lion's share of available space, and medium and large taking up the rest, with no visible sign of anything “extra”. So, the guy supposedly helping me went off to find me tunics in extra-large (men's sizes are numbered, women's have these strange categories. So, while i can find a 40 and 42 on the men's shelves, without help, i must helplessly wait around for some employee to fetch me an extra large from some unspecified hidden storage area for the women's tunics)

And that was that. I stood and waited, and waited, and waited, for the elusive extra-large tunics, only to find, at the end of 10 mins or so, that the guy who was supposed to help me had happily gone off to show some “palajos” to another customer without a word to me, and never mind my tunics. I looked around, saw three other employees within earshot who seemed not to be doing much, and started asking “is someone showing me those tunics?” They neither met my gaze nor answered, nor moved to help.

So i dumped my preselected kurtas near the counter, said “if they do not wish to serve customers then let them wear their own clothes” and walked out. A little while later the woman behind the counter left (i found out later from my man that she had had a call from home about an emergency. Soon, a store manager type person approached, and i decided that if he was coming to apologise, i would accept the apology and go back and buy the kurtas and maybe a few tunics (i REALLY, REALLY wanted them!).

Instead of a simple apology, and a request to come back, i got excuses. “madam was called out” so if the owner leaves, the entire store is going to shut down? All the employees are going to stop working? “sorry madam this other customer came in” so if new customers come in, older ones will just be abandoned to fend for themselves? In situations where they can't fend (would be happy to help myself to the clothes, actually prefer that, if only the clothes were ON the shelves)?

Needless to say, i Didn't go back in, and i Didn't buy those clothes i wanted. And i am probably never going into another Fabindia store in kolkata. Who loses out? Sure, i lose out on a few nice clothes, but i can always find other clothes. Fabindia lost a longterm, loyal customer. Maybe they need to start training employees better? Or put some machinery in place to ensure the proper customer service mentality across cities and across outlets? Can they afford to let the Kolkata syndrome cut into their customer goodwill?