Motihari is a non-descript town nearly five hours by road from Patna, the capital of Bihar. It is near the border with Nepal, the border being just hardly fifty kilometers away. The road is dusty and paved with many a ‘gaddhas’ or holes that our driver told us, “One has to avoid if one has to avoid a back pain early in life and I have to drive endlessly on these roads. That is why the Netas (politicians) come here by helicopter.”
“Gandhi came here hundred years ago,” he reminded me, “to start his movement to fight for the rights of the landless laborers because of the very nature of the people of this area. Then this area was more popularly known as the East Champaran.”
When our forefathers started their movement they may have imagined that a hundred years from now there would be a fair and just society from the very soil they were trying to arouse the conscience of a nation. How would it strike them to know that the very place where they started their movement for freedom and it took roots would itself one day turn into a den for criminals, human traffickers and a society that turns a blind eye to young girls being sold with impunity in the name of entertainment. The entertainment that people of Motihari and whole of Bihar, and now large parts of Uttar Pradesh want is called the ‘culture of orchestras’, or dance parties that have now become integral part of every kind of function ranging from marriage functions, birthdays, in schools and even political gatherings that scream against anyone and everyone. ‘Entertain us with young girls dancing before you get our attention’, seems to be the new mantra.
I was going there with a team as we had got information that two girls were smuggled across from Nepal to be made to dance in a party. Her aunt, an old woman of eighty hadn’t received her call and had got worried and told her friend who told a man from our organization that the last call from her was from Bihar where it was abruptly cut by someone. In the background she had heard loud garish music going on with the laughter of people but her niece was crying.
We rescued fifteen girls with the help of a police team that made a raid in the early morning hours at several homes of traffickers. The village was still sleepy as the team descended upon the homes and got the girls out. The team had expected only two girls being kept in there but it came out that there were fifteen girls with almost a third of them being minors. Full credit goes to the team who planned for weeks, doing surveillance and planning the raid at times risking their lives.
As the girls were brought out one by one, the one whose going missing started our search looked at us with a vacant eye. “Last I was sold for ninety thousand rupees.”
“No, we have not come to sell you. You are free now.”
“Free?” she looked at us vacantly. The word had no meaning for her.
“No, we have not come to sell you. We are police and you will go back home.”
As the meaning slowly dawned on her she at first went silent and then began to speak. “A man had said there is good job in India for me. It is about catering and I will earn enough to get a good meal but when I came here, they locked me up and beat me and said that I will have to dance and pay back the money with which I was bought.”
“No, human beings cannot be bought and sold.” An inner rage came from nowhere as I and the woman counselor started talking to her. “Cattles can be sold, a house can be sold, a human being cannot be sold,” we explained. She gazed vacantly at our display of rage.
“But so many girls are sold everyday and have to pay back the traffickers,” she answered.
“It is wrong,” we stumble for an answer knowing that she and I come from different universes and a reality that is not shared.
I noticed her hands as we talked. Sangeeta (name changed) tried to cover her frail hands. I asked the woman counselor with me to gently pick up her hand and show me. Her eyes were vacant and a little terrified as she took out her hands from the under the ‘pallu’(part of sari draped over the shoulders) and showed us. It was full of blade marks. Slowly the reality unfolded. “I did it because I didn’t want to dance and the man beat me with a broom.” The reality had become intolerable for her to bear. In her village she was not getting enough to eat and her parents had sold her but showing off her body in front of men, the idea was more intolerable. “The ‘ghagra’ (long skirt) they asked me to wear, the top I was asked to wear, I can’t imagine doing it.”
I was reminded of a statement I had heard long ago from a feminist scholar, “The dignity of a woman is inherent and more fundamental than even survival.” For those who believe it is poverty that makes people do abominable things, these girls are a proof that the human spirit is resilient and human beings have a dignity that transcends class and every other barrier.”
There were atleast fifty cut marks on her forearm. “You have a find a space that is empty. I did it on every inch of my skin, over many days. Most of the girls do it,” she told us. “Each time I felt miserable, I cut myself.”
“So, did it help when you did it?”
“Yes, it felt better for a while.”
I noticed the first sign of tears as she was talking about it. I nodded my head. They don’t talk about it amongst themselves, it is so banal. “When everyone does it what is so unusual.”
I was again reminded of a statement by Ellie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate, “In the concentration camps the abominable became banal and the banal became abominable. So what was the big deal anyway? Who amongst us would dream of talking about it?”
The pain that comes from self-cutting makes those facing an intolerable reality feel alive for the moment and is a better option than slowly getting dead inside. Trauma psychology tells us about the inner experiences of women who are assaulted and find no route of escape from that inner prison.
“Will you promise that you will never do it again?”
She smiled ruefully at me, her silence having a hundred meanings saying only if such a reality is not presented to me again.
I was extremely careful while talking to her. There was a wisp of a memory, a guilt that I have still not come to terms with after all these years. I didn’t want to remind her of any pain that was unbearable for her and a recollection that may bring in a flood of memories that she may find it difficult to contain. Years ago, once while taking a therapy group with young girls in a shelter home, one girl had started talking about her experience of torture. Unknowing to me, the girl sitting opposite me had kept her hand hidden below the table and cut herself with a blade that she had been carrying. There was no pain on her face during the whole time. She had looked at me and even smiled a few times. “I can do it anytime, doing anything else at the same time.” Multitasking but with a poignant reminder how the human mind can dissociate and hide an intolerable reality inside while pretending to be normal.
Since that interview I had made one rule that I follow till this day. I will never interview survivors with a table in-between us.
My attention was brought back to the present as the girls one by one began to tell us about their dance. They often began their dance late in the night wearing skimpy clothes. They shared that they gyrated to Bhojpuri, Haryanvi and Hindi songs. The songs have highly suggestive lyrics that cover a wide range of physical sensation of sexual feelings that arise in the body and the way a teenage girl deals with those rising sensations in her body. No need to say that they are all written from the viewpoint of a man, of what his fantasies are about what a teenage girl feels.
And it is young teenage girls who are smuggled to dance to bring those fantasies alive for men all over Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. As one police officer told me seeing my anger, albeit smilingly, “There are two conditions when a marriage happens in these parts. The bridegroom’s party must raise so much dust while coming for marriage that no grass can grow on that path again for generations and a dance of ‘randis’ (prostitutes) that goes all night and makes every man at the marriage exhausted with desire. But now it also happens in school parties, in political gatherings.
This is the culture, you see. They all want to see the half-naked bodies of teenage girls at these gatherings gyrating to music. And there are hundreds of such orchestra parties running these shows at thousands of marriages and parties all over Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The number is staggering.”
I saw their eyes as they talked. They looked dead to me. If you try to look deeper in them, you would feel you come across what we psychologists call ‘a praecox’ feeling as if you were talking to a wall. Their bodies looked fragmented as if in a million pieces and like a glass piece shattered and lying scattered all over. Will they become whole again, mentally and physically and get therapy to find meaning in life again? I doubt. The world they come back to is as insensitive as it was when they had left it.
I saw it as we took them to the court. Hordes of men gathered around them as our team and a few policemen tried to keep them away. “Saari randion ko uthake laye hain,” a man next to me had told his friend as they started counting the number of girls. And the girls sat huddled up covering their faces and waiting for an insensitive criminal justice system to begin its proceedings.
“I have got hundred other things to do,” the Judge told us as the girls waited surrounded by people all around in the corridor. Their chance to give their statements came in the evening after waiting for seven hours.
“You know after we ate food in the police station, one of the staff got the whole room washed and cleaned.” Her words had a poignancy that belied her maturity of sixteen years. She had begun to understand the way people looked at her, notwithstanding the ideas of freedom and all esoteric words we had used in the counseling with her.
“You know men leer at me when I dance. There are policemen, judges, teachers, everyone who comes to watch us.”
“How do you know he is judge?”
“I have heard the host say ‘judge saab ke liye kursi lao’ (bring a chair for the judge). There are even grandfathers holding the hands of their grandchildren who point out to me. The children see the way their grandfathers look at me and they start doing the same to me. My boss suggests that I do more gyrations looking at them.”
Is it any wonder why the number of rape cases in our country are growing and intellectuals don’t find an answer, I wonder.
“Would you ever allow your daughter to do this? I asked Suneeta (name changed). She vigorously nodded her head saying she would rather die than let any girl come into this profession. “You think these hands are weak,” she said showing her cut marks with pride. “They helped me survive. I once even beat up an old man who tried to get on stage and dance with me. I pushed him hard and he fell down,” she said giggling.
Several years ago I had gone to the marriage of an acquaintance’s son in Delhi – Uttar Pradesh border. Proudly he had told me, “My son didn’t demand a SUV but said that he wants the best orchestra. It’s a once in a lifetime thing anyway.” As he brought me to the front row I had noticed some elderly men sitting with their families. Then a girl came garishly dressed in a small ghagra and blouse and danced to a song. The words of the song were ‘one by one, sabko milega (everyone will get it), one by one’. As she danced and gestured the crowd clapped and roared and threw money at her. I had walked away, feeling ashamed at being part of such a crowd even momentarily but what had surprised me the most was the acceptance by the crowd of this vulgarity. No one including whole families said a word and watched with glee.
So when did our society become so soul-less? How is it that places which were once the origin and reverberated with the cries of freedom and justice turn into hotbeds of debauchery and insanity of seeing teenaged girls almost children as sexual objects? Why do sixteen year olds like Suneeta have to dance in front of leering men in marriage parties surrounded by their sisters, wives and children who say nothing to their men? How does a society permit such a blatant violation of the bodies of its teenage girls, who have hundred dreams in their eyes?
It is time we as a society ask our conscience collectively and individually some hard questions. Is this is the culture we want to grow on our soil? Should we be passive onlookers to the sale of human beings and that of young girls across our back yard? If we don’t stop it now then a day will come sooner than later when we will wonder why it became the problem it did……Till then the vacant eyes of Sangeeta and Suneeta will keep looking at us for answers.