She felt something brush against her, pushing her, as if getting closer and closer, rubbing on her tiny little frame, engulfing her whole. It wasn’t something. It was someone. Trying to slide their hands underneath her cotton camisole, touching her soft, bare skin, lifting the only piece of clothing she had been wearing on that summer night to cope with the heat. A hand went up against her back as fingers slowly tried reaching the slight bulge on her chest from behind. She remained stiff and pretended to be asleep or dead, whatever would trick the man into getting away from her, but nothing did. She shifted her weight and turned around, this time trying to let him know she could wake up any moment, believing this would probably make him go away, but that didn’t either. She slowly opened her eyes and held on to the wandering hand with all her might that searched violently underneath her camisole. Not knowing what he was looking for, she finally asked, “What are you doing?” One hand now pressed against her mouth, the other wrapped around her waist, squeezing her little body as she gasped for air. “I’m going to scream”, she said frightened, trying to free her mouth from his grip. It was too dark to see, but she knew who it was, “You’re doing no such thing!” the unapologetic voice whispered.
Indira jerked in her sleep and immediately forced her eyes open. Staring at the ceiling, she realized where she was. She sat up straight and wiped a drop of tear that escaped from the corner of her left eye. She got down from the bed, pulled out the curtains, and opened the windows, letting the warm sun rays come in, waiting until she could feel its warmth soak into her flesh. She looked at the boxes that lay all around the bedroom, under her bed, on the floor, carefully packed, taped, and labeled. Boxes that made the entire house look like a conveyer belt with unclaimed baggage, and felt satisfied. Soon this was all going to be over. Soon.
It had been about two years since Indira started working full time for a small NGO called ‘Asha’ in Bangalore. They held workshops, training, and counseling sessions for sexually abused children in remote areas in and around Karnataka. Her therapist had encouraged her to volunteer. She said it would help her come to terms with the reality, accept the past for what it was, and move on. Indira wasn’t too sure though, she didn’t know whether she did it for the kids or herself. But what started as volunteering had turned into a job over barely six months. She sympathized with the kids, of course. But didn’t know if sympathy alone was enough or even right. All she knew was she had to get away from it all. Not the kids. But the city. She had been saving up for years now, about five to be precise, and the loan could cover for rest. She had it all planned out. Cranebrook Academy of Art had accepted her application, and her visa was approved. The only other source of funds that remained was what she inherited from her father. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. Her therapist had asked her once if she thought running away was going to help her. She shrugged, saying she didn’t care if it did.
Indira got into the auto-rickshaw and plugged the headphones into her ears. With the music blaring, she could no longer hear the thoughts inside her head. She watched shopkeepers open up shops. School kids getting on their school buses. People sipping on tea as they inhaled smoke from their cigarettes along the sidewalks and began preparing for the day yet to come. Oblivious to its upcoming events, but continuing anyway. She wished she could do that, take each day as it comes, but she thought being prepared was always better than being vulnerable. To anything. Passing by the busy traffic, she got lost in thought, making the same plans over and over as she did in her head.
“Hey Meera,” Indira greeted her colleague as she walked towards her desk getting into the office.
“Hey Indira, Good morning,” Meera said automatically, stressing on the ‘good’.
“So what do we have today?” she asked and placed her bag on the table.
“You don’t waste a second, do you?” said Meera complacently.
Indira shook her head. “We can’t afford to do that, can we?” and smiled.
“Here you go”, and handed her a folder.
“What’s this?” she asked as she flipped through the neatly filed documents.
“They rescued a nine-year-old. All of the details are in that folder.”
“Who did? A girl I’m assuming?”
“The school teacher. And yes, a little girl,” Meera paused for a minute before speaking again, “She ran away from home and managed to find the class teacher. Prakash I think he said his name was”.
“And?” Indira waited in anticipation.
“She had been raped by the uncle. Multiple times. She ran away because they stopped sending her to school.”
“How did she manage to escape?”
Meera raised her eyebrows and pouted her lips in uncertainty, “You should talk to this guy Prakash. He has been calling non-stop.”
Indira nodded, dialing the number on her phone that she found in the contact sheet within the folder.
“Prakash? This is Indira from Asha,”
“Thank god! I thought you people would never call,” the man sounded like he was in a hurry.
Indira waited until he spoke again, giving him time to catch his breath.
“The girl is with me but, I can’t keep her here very long. Her family is going to come looking for her.”
“Could you please explain in detail?”
“I can’t explain everything. Not now. We’re wasting too much time. Can someone pick her up? I gave the address to another woman I spoke to earlier.”
“Can you come to Bangalore?” Indira asked instead.
“I don’t own a vehicle. If I go to the bus stand now, people are going to notice. I can’t promise, but I can try. My friend has a car. You have to help her or, this is going to be on your hands,” he begged and accused at the same time.
“Fine, we will wait till the evening. If you can’t make it, I’ll send someone over to Bellary. But you’ll have to bring her to the city.” The line went dead. She assumed he heard what she said.
“What did you find out?” Meera asked from the edge of her seat, noticing when Indira got off the phone.
“He is trying to bring her over. If not, we will have to ask Mohan to pick her up”.
Meera nodded, and Indira took a deep breath. She started going over Childline’s legal guidelines on runaway children, rape victims, and adoption on her computer. All of them applied to this child.
“Here take this”, the man handed her a five hundred rupee note. “Now, you can’t utter a single word,” he said, placing a finger on her lip. She looked at the crisp note stuffed in her fist, and before she could say anything, the man walked away. He came again at night, but this time Indira was prepared. She placed her hand carefully under her pillow where she hid the knife, and as he got closer, her grip got firmer. She pushed the bottle on the bed stand hoping, her aunt would hear it fall and wake up. But she didn’t. She drew out the knife from underneath her pillow and pointed it at the man. It almost cut his face. “What have you got there? Are you going to kill me?” She shivered at his smirk. “I’m going to scream. I’m going to tell everyone”, she managed to say. The man got out of her bed and left. She was shaking like a leaf after a storm.
Prakash didn’t make it the previous day, but he reached Bangalore the next morning. Indira noticed the little girl sitting on the bench at the reception, curled up, knees to her chest, arms wrapped around her knees. She had the most beautiful eyes that sat within the deepest hollows Indira had ever seen. Her clothes looked like they hadn’t been washed in years, like the rest of her body.
“Come in please,” she invited them both into one of the cabins. “Please take a seat,” and pointed towards the chairs.
“You have to help her,” he pleaded without caring to sit or wait for her to ask another question. “And I can’t be here too long. They will find out I had something to do with this. It’s not safe for her back in the village.”
“What do you want us to do?” she said hesitantly, looking at the little girl. Gooey mucus nested in the gap between her dirty nose and cracked lips. “We don’t shelter rescued kids, we only…”
“But you could, you could keep her with you,” he said, expectantly, before Indira could finish her sentence.
“I can’t do that. There are going to be legal altercations.”
“Just for some time, maybe a week? I can’t keep her with me, nor can I be found missing from school. I have to go back tonight”.
“I’m not even here this week. I’m moving out of the city. Out of the country, if that matters. But that’s not the question. Anyway, the point is I’m not going to be here to look after her”.
“Please…” he urged, his hands folded like he was on a church bench.
“Fine, I’ll see what I can do. We will have to figure something out.”
Prakash smiled weakly, his eyes gleaming with hope.
“Thank you!” he said, reaching for Indira’s hands. She pulled away instantly.
“What about her parents, her mother or father, aren’t they going to be worried?”
Prakash shook his head, and Indira concluded she had no one judging by the despair on his face. “I’ll see you soon,” he said, his gaze fixed at the little girl, and walked out the door.
Indira looked at the girl who didn’t have an expression. Just pure hopelessness or, that’s what she assumed. As if she didn’t care what happened next.
“Come here,” she said, extending her hand in invitation.
The girl walked around the table and stood next to Indira, looking away, towards the open window.
“You don’t have to be afraid. We are going to take care of you. Prakash sir is going to make sure you are fine.”
She didn’t seem to believe her.
“Now, are you going to tell me your name?”
“Indu,” she replied.
This must be a sick joke, Indira thought.
“Well Indu, my name is Indira. You can call me Indu if you like. My mom used to call me that,” she said, wiping her nostrils and wrapped her arms around Indu in an embrace.
She snuffled, then nodded.
“Are you hungry? What do you like to eat?”
“Some milk please.”
“Milk and cookies it is then.”
Indu didn’t seem to understand the second word.
Indira walked towards Meera’s desk, invading her privacy, leaving Indu to eat in the next room. Like her, Indu didn’t seem to like company while she ate.
“Meera, I need you to keep the girl for a week,” she announced.
Meera looked surprised, “You know I can’t do that, I have my in-laws living with me! You know very well they aren’t going to understand”.
“Well, I can’t keep her either. I have to leave in five days. You knew I was leaving.”
“Then why did you let her stay? You should have sent her back with the teacher guy.”
Indira didn’t have an answer to her question.
“I just couldn’t,” she didn’t bother to explain.
“Postpone your tickets maybe?”
“The fall batch starts in two weeks, and if I don’t make it now, I’ll have to wait until next year to even apply!”
“I don’t have any advice if that’s what you’re hoping to get out of me,” Meera said bluntly.
“No, I understand”.
“There are thousands of kids like her. You can’t expect to save each one of them, Indira.”
“Well, at least I can save this one.”
“You didn’t like the cookies?” Indira asked the little girl, noticing the half-eaten biscuit, just when Mohan, the office boy, walked in to clear the plates.
“My stomach hurts,” she said in a whisper.
“Does it hurt anywhere else?”
Indu didn’t say a word, but Indira understood her reluctance.
“Show me where it hurts?”
Indu straightened her legs and let them hang loosely from the chair. Her feet couldn’t touch the floor. She looked down without pointing at anything.
“Mohan, can you please get an auto? We’re going to the hospital,” she said lifting the child.
“Yes, madam,” Mohan left the plates as they were and ran out the door.