Domestic violence survivors in a shelter. A young woman who grew up on the street. A Bollywood star. What do they have in common? Why do we think walls help?
By Chatura Rao
“Between midnight and 4am is the most frightening time for a girl sleeping in the open,” says 22-year-old Farida Sheikh, who was born and raised on the street. ”Any passing drunk can grope her breast, thigh, yoni…” Farida touches herself matter-of-factly as she explains. ”But the question I ask is how safe are women even within their homes?”
She has reason to ask this, sitting as we are at Urja Trust, close to Dadar station, at the arterial centre of Mumbai. It is a green-walled, two-storey cottage which serves as a shelter home for girls and women in distress, who have no other place to live.
Posters of women’s emancipation are tacked on a soft board by the front door, which is deep within a porch. Beyond is a cosy room with an attached kitchen. I glance at the posters, but only in passing, more interested in the antics of two small children playing in the tiny, tree-shaded yard outside.
Their mothers are among the young women who sit on the low wall of the porch and on scattered plastic chairs in the yard. Some study tenth and twelfth grade portions from note and textbooks, others chat in low voices with each other. They pause to look at me curiously when I first come in. As I remove my sandals at the porch, a couple of them tentatively return my smile.
A friend, who is a mental health counsellor at Urja, has sent me to meet the girls. ”Just speak with them,” she urged, when I said that I felt awkward about the difference in our situations. I have a home to go back to.
”Tell them what it is like to be a writer. I want them to meet as many people as possible from various walks of life,” she explains, ”so they know it is possible…”
”What is possible?” I interrupt.
”To find a path… To gain,” she says, “an independent identity, despite all they’ve been through.”
I’ve read the literature before coming here. It says, “almost 70 percent of girls who leave home are forced out by their families and 30 percent opt to leave home themselves, but it is important to understand that both situations arise from dysfunctional families, difficult circumstances, and abuse.”
Still unsure, I ask if I can speak with a couple of them, to understand their circumstances a little better. I am allowed an interview with 32-year-old Lakshmi, who has lived at the Urja shelter for a year and half.
Lakshmi and I drag chairs to the leaf-strewn concrete patch on the other side of the Urja porch wall. As we move our chairs this way and that to avoid sun spots, her eyes stray often to her child playing a few feet away.
”Before marriage,” she says, “I schooled at our local Gujarati-medium school, which has only up to the seventh standard. After this my father and brothers said they didn’t have the time to drop and pick me up from the senior school that is further away. I could not be sent alone, since I was fair and pretty. I might get into trouble. So they kept me at home.”
Lakshmi is homeless and without a livelihood. Others decided her destiny then, but now she alone must decide her path from among the choices that Urja Trust can offer her.
Lakshmi’s story raises, for me, essential questions of how she is to rebuild a broken faith in society, and a new, never-before faith in herself.
I came to Urja Trust expecting to meet women like Lakshmi, victims of an unkind patriarchy, but am wholly unprepared for Farida. I first spot her walking shoulder-to-shoulder with Leela Patade, a senior social worker here. Farida does the lion’s share of the talking, while Leela mostly nods. Farida seems a ward, of sorts, to her.
The young woman has light brown hair and eyes, and a snub-nose. In a pair of fitting jeans and an oversized checked shirt over a singlet, she seems no different from a middle-class college student. Except for a certain freedom in the way she moves and an unconservative idea she airs within ten minutes of meeting me.
”The girls who come here,” Farida says, indicating with a tilt of her head, the women sitting in the porch, ”have quite some options. Urja helps you choose who you want to be. But many cling to the memory of that one love or marital relationship that went wrong, and refuse to move on. A man-woman relationship is just one aspect of a person’s life. More important is personal growth and developing an independent identity. Not as a woman in traditional roles, but as a human being.”
Farida lived on a stretch of pavement in south Mumbai till she was 14 years old. Since then, she’s lived in shelter homes (including Urja’s), as well as private and government hostels that they arranged for her to stay at, so she could pass her tenth and twelfth standard exams without distraction. She now shares an apartment with two other girls in Virar, a suburb in northwest Mumbai, is doing her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and working part-time.
During subsequent interviews, I take Lakshmi and Farida’s permission to write about them. I promise them anonymity. Each pauses to think, and then states clearly, jaw-squared, that she wishes to be named; that she has nothing to hide.
So, Lakshmi is her real name.
”My name is Lakshmi Chauhan,” she says. ”Before marriage I was Lakshmi Vaghela. I am an orphan. I belong to the Gujarati Hindu community. I have three daughters.” One of Lakshmi’s friends try to playfully distract her youngest, Bhavya, from coming over to the porch wall, on the other side of which Lakshmi and I sit.
The little girl has straggly hair and is barefoot, in a clean frock. She foils her keeper and dodges her way over to us, clambering onto Lakshmi’s lap. For most of our conversation, she sits quietly: I’m aware of her slightly frowning, serious brown-eyed gaze on me, her singular lack of movement once she has found her mother’s knee.
Lakshmi seems younger than 32, with a delicate build, straight brown hair tucked neatly back in a bun, pale in a simple green salwar kameez. There is both fragility and strength in the slim arms, and in the hands that stay on the little girl, stilling, reassuring.
”My mother died when I was a year and half old. In 2003, when I was 21, I lost my father, too. A woman who attended my father’s funeral, asked for my hand in marriage for her nephew. She was insistent. She said he had studied away from Mumbai and would get a good job with the Municipality, just like his father had. In 2007, I was married to him. At first, my husband and in-laws were kind to me. Then they began to set rules: stay veiled, don’t speak to anybody, don’t go out of the house, stay in and do all the housework. I said to myself, it’s okay. Such is a woman’s life. But when I was pregnant with my first daughter I found out [my husband] was having an affair with his own cousin sister. When I protested, he started beating me up. My own brothers did not believe this was true and looked on me with suspicion.
”I realised they were not good people, this family I had married into. They spoke foul language and watched pornography. But what could I do? In Hindu families, once you’re married, you don’t leave that home until you die. I left my husband’s home once when the abuse got intolerable. My brothers discouraged legal action. So we complained to the Gujarati Samaj, even went to the police, but eventually, when everyone assured me that my husband would reform, I returned to him. I thought: our little girl is so lovable, he will reform and be a good father to her. But the beatings continued. He did not go to work. He would demand sex at any time and beat me up if I refused. My in-laws said I had to obey my husband. Because he was my husband, I had to do whatever he said. They began to torture me for the 5 lakh rupees that my father had left me in bank deposits, and all the more because I had produced a daughter.
”I had a second child, because my husband hoped for a son. Then during an unwanted third pregnancy, the family would not give me more than two meals a day. They restricted my access to my other children and I had to do all the housework even though I was very weak from the beatings.”
Finally, a five-month pregnant Lakshmi was thrown out of home with her two little children. She went to live with her brother who admitted her in hospital for treatment. She was severely anaemic. When she had a third daughter, Bhavya, her husband stated that the child was not his, and refused to take them back home.
”I filed an FIR against my husband. The police would call me to the station every two weeks, but he would not turn up. ‘What can we do!’ they’d say. ‘We can hardly force him to come here!’ I appealed to the Gujarati Samaj – the elders and women’s groups – but he would not take me back.”
”You wanted to return to the home where they were ill-treating you?” I can’t hide my surprise.
”My husband has taken away my two older girls, who are just seven and four years old! When they were born he would not even look at them. He would not take them to a doctor if they fell ill nor even buy clothes for them to wear. He would beat them if they came to me at night… They’re made to do housework, spoken to harshly, and never taken even to the park to play. The younger child has been withdrawn from school.
I wanted to go back for their sake, but the people at Urja Trust convinced me to stay here and fight for them. If I go back to my husband, I might contract an STD or HIV, since he is promiscuous… or he could even kill me. Out here, I have a hope of rebuilding my life. My third child is in school already. I don’t need anything for myself, but my two girls… My husband might sexually abuse them. I fear greatly for their safety.” Her voice peters off.
And what about you? I ask. How will you heal from your personal trauma, of abuse, beatings and… I don’t say the word ”rape”. But her slight body stiffens with what I’ve unintentionally evoked, and I’m immediately uneasy.
”When I think of what I’ve been through,” she says, slowly, ”my eyes fill up… my heart is heavy.” Abruptly, she gets up and goes to her child who has toddled away.
Rizwana Nulwala, mental health counsellor to Lakshmi and other women at Urja Trust, says that while home should be a place of freedom and nurturing, abuse of varying degrees are perpetrated within its walls.
“In middle-class homes where hitting is taboo,” she explains, “a partner may withhold care and affection. This kind of deprivation, coupled with taunts and verbal harassment, are also a form of abuse. Women under these circumstances suffer for years on end because, among the middle-class, it is also taboo to leave.”
In middle-class homes too, hitting goes. I am reminded of calls that were exchanged late one night 13 years ago. My friend K, 30 years old then, homemaker and mother to a three-year-old, had mentioned in a subdued, anxious way at a girls lunch-out that her doctor husband was quick to slap her. “Of course, I’m to blame,” she added, “because I don’t remember what he needs me to do sometimes. Or sometimes I am tired and lose patience so I ask an extra question or my tone is a little snappy.” I was alarmed and asked how long this had been going on for. She said, from their dating days, but lately he got angry more easily.
One night soon after, she called about midnight saying that he had beaten her with his belt, buckle side out. My husband phoned her’s (they were friends) and asked him why he was doing this, and to stop. The man at the other end was unrecognisable from the one we knew socially: intelligent, liberal-minded and charming. Drunk and abusive, he said that his wife was “a low caste woman he’d rescued from the gutter (of her circumstances)”, and he would do what he felt like.
We called K back and said we were coming to fetch her. She refused. After the calls, her husband made her take her clothes off, saying they belonged to him – what did she earn anyway – and forced her almost naked, into the deserted apartment corridor to crouch and cry there till he felt certain she had learnt her lesson for airing what were ‘private, domestic’ matters.
These are things that no doubt K tries her best to put behind her, or bury beneath memories of better times with her man. She didn’t leave him, although there were more such brutal acts of humiliation. She feared that he would take the child away since she had no means of support. And ‘home’ for she who had left her family in faraway Rameshwaram over a decade ago, could only be realised with this husband. She hoped he’d change.
Should a woman continue in an unequal power equation at the cost of her health and happiness? What can she do to change the balance of power? I decided to put this question to someone who comes from a different socio-cultural set-up from both Lakshmi and K.
Sitting astride a bench that serves for dining chairs in her tastefully sparse, sunlit apartment in Andheri West, Mumbai, an area that houses many of her peers and colleagues, actress Arpita (not her real name), known for her sensitive and diverse portrayal of women in Hindi and English cinema, says that although she was financially independent of her Producer-Director partner, she hesitated for years to leave their failing marriage.
Arpita’s face is scrubbed clean of make-up, long legs graceful in harem pants and arms, toned and bare in a grey cotton vest this morning. We go to the kitchen where she heats water to make green tea. There is no maid, although her cook arrives shortly after we begin talking. Arpita tells me she’s had a lot of trouble getting this apartment to rent, although it belongs to a friend. In Mumbai, your religion and marital status are scrutinised by the pillars of authority in housing society committees, and it’s a test that takes sweet talk, begging and sometimes a white lie or two, to pass. Arpita’s mother had to present herself at the housing society meetings and assure them that her now-single daughter does not live alone. She too lives here with her!
Arpita tells me all this quite cheerfully. She’s grateful to have a roof over her head, and for the hard-won ease of heart. In the months leading up to her separation, at a social gathering she was withdrawn and pale under the heavy make-up. The rumour about her marriage seemed to be true… but nobody asked her. A marriage is a private thing.
“When we were first married, I wanted to nurture him and our relationship. But as time passed and things were not harmonious, I began to try to please him. I would not go out with my friends unless he came along. I would wait for him all night if he didn’t return from work or a party. I steadily lost confidence in my ability to be my own person. When he said derogatory things about my talent, I began to believe him. Then when the relationship got worse despite all my efforts to save it, I was worried about our public image. Privately too, I wondered, if I move out, will I be welcome anywhere else? Will I be safe out there? I guess I stopped seeing myself as an individual.”
A year after she left the home they shared, she says finds joy in the smallest of things she does independently. She is thinking for herself again. She even opted out of a new relationship, when she found herself falling into the old patterns of behaviour.
It might come down to the question of how a woman sees herself. The mirror is not without skewed perspectives, however: What we are taught about our bodies, and our right over it, is one of these facets.
“A woman often tolerates sexual violence from her husband,” Rizwana explains, “because in a traditional marriage set up, within the bedroom anything goes! However, the degree of abuse may be severe enough to force her out of home.”
Recovery from trauma happens slowly, even in an environment of nurturance. “A victim of abuse must speak about what happened to her to a trained counsellor, who can help her make sense of it,” Rizwana explains. “Alongside, she is medically treated for cuts, burns and injuries, since abusers tend to injure or mark their victims on their private areas. She is treated for sexually transmitted diseases, mental or any other illness she may be suffering from as a result of prolonged exposure to stressful circumstances.” As important, is what she calls a “therapeutic environment” in which the victim sees stories of positive change, is exposed to new possibilities… is encouraged to dream of who she would like to be.
A World Health Organisation 2013 report, Global and regional estimates of violence against women, finds that, “Worldwide, almost one third (30%) of all women who have been in a relationship have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner. [They] are 16% more likely to have a low-birth-weight baby. They are more than twice as likely to have an abortion, almost twice as likely to experience depression, and, in some regions, are 1.5 times more likely to acquire HIV, as compared to women who have not experienced partner violence.”
People who suffer intimate partner abuse are twice as susceptible to serious health problems. Abuse changes the direction of a person’s life, sends her to a place she did not mean to go.
* * *
After I interview Lakshmi for the first time, I find out that Ujwala Kadrekar, a Socio-Legal Consultant, is to conduct a training session for the Matunga Zone police, about the myths and realities of domestic violence and about the provisions of the Domestic Violence (DV) Act. She helped to draft the DV Act when she was part of Indira Jaising’s Lawyers Collective. Curious about the institutions that might safeguard women like Lakshmi and K, I attend it.
Nearly two hours late for the 9.30am session, about 60 policemen and women, smart in their pressed khakhi uniforms, trickle in. They seem at once reluctant and mildly curious. Kadrekar begins her address, but the exhaust fans lined along the upper wall of the high ceilinged hall, as well as the huge standing fans in full spin, render her voice inaudible. Once some of the fans have been turned off, and I can hear her words, I realise that Ujwala has a passion for her subject – women’s rights from a human rights perspective, as she terms it. She manages to jog the most bored policeman to attention by asking the right questions.
She educates them, first, about the law.
In Marathi, she explains, the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 was the first law to recognize harassment, in terms of the giving and receiving of dowry. Even today, every 52 cases of dowry deaths see just one conviction.
”Dowry death” in the Indian Penal Code was specifically recognized under Section 304B, in 1986. Then there is Section 498A under the Indian Penal Code, which grants a maximum term of three years in jail and a fine to be levied on the husband and in-laws of a woman who claims mental and physical cruelty. The rate of conviction under this is between 2.5 and 3 percent.
The reasons for such low rates of conviction could be traced in part to the Court’s attitude. On December 8, 2014, Chief Justices HL Dattu and AK Sikri of the Supreme Court of India offered advice to women who report mental and physical torture: ”When you file complaints under Section 498A, be circumspect and truthful. Do not drag old parents if they had no role in causing any harassment to you. You unnecessarily involve old people in your complaint, you end up ruining the marriage.” Instructions to not “drag old parents” (even in its phrasing) suggests a bias and whatever it takes, “the marriage” it seems, must be saved from ruin.
Speaking to me another day, Ujwala ascribes the near negligible conviction rate of Section 498A to the police’s attitude. “In our country, most women (even women like you and I!) will not step into a police station, except under extreme duress, to complain against a man with whom she has an intimate relationship. Knowing this to be true, the police, if they see any signs of mental or physical cruelty, must immediately file a complaint on her behalf. Instead, most often, they summon her husband to the police station and ”counsel” both parties. They warn him to stop beating her. They then send the woman back with her husband, forcing her to negotiate with a violent situation, alone. Are the police trained counsellors?” She asks, adding with practical logic, ”The man is likely to turn further violent, since he has been admonished into taking her back. Will the State take responsibility for the after-effects of a failed reconciliation?”
Law enforcers are part of society and State, so Ujwala now puts forth questions to her audience.
”Which are the common complaints that men bring to the police station?”
Beating. Robbery. Cheating. Murder, they volunteer.
”And what do women come to the police station to report?” she asks.
Mental torture, starvation, beating, they reply.
”What else do women complain about?” She asks again. She phrases the question in different ways, urging them to be frank.
When they don’t speak, she asks, ”How about dowry? And do they report rape? Why won’t you even say the words?” she asks stridently over their silence.
”What occurs within the home is viewed by our society as ‘private’. But please understand that domestic violence is really a violation of an individual’s human rights.”
Ujwala ends on an impassioned plea to the policemen and women to be more understanding towards women who come in to report violence. ”Please invoke the Domestic Violence Act of 2005. It provides women (including those in live-in relationships) with monetary and medical relief, the right to continue to reside in the shared household, alternative accomodation if she wants to move out, child custody, and protection from further harassment.”
Some of the members of the audience come to meet her later over slices of cake, dhoklas, and tea. They tell her that the session was interesting. Two people draw her aside. A couple more ask if they can phone her later. Ujwala regularly has policemen and women approach her for legal advice on violence that their sisters, daughters, or they themselves, are facing.
* * *
So when do the police actually file a case? When does the Court pass a directive?
Lakshmi’s tale, I find out, is punctuated by a gross subversion of the State’s duty towards her. Leela Patade explains her case. ”Abused by her husband and in-laws, Lakshmi left home with her two children, pregnant with her third. Her husband filed a case of kidnapping against her. Now, how can a kidnap complaint even be lodged against a mother who has custody of her own kids?
”Based on his complaint, Lakshmi was issued summons to appear, with the children, before a Chief Judicial Magistrate in Vasai Court, in a suburb north of Mumbai. When she did not, the Magistrate directed the police to conduct a search at her relatives’ place and produce her and the children before the Court. The police did this. Once Lakshmi was before him, the Magistrate, without inquiring into the matter at all, simply ordered the handing over of the older two children (her husband claims the third child is not his) to the man.”
Lakshmi is still appearing before the Court to answer for kidnapping her own children, even though the children have been in her husband’s custody for the past year and half. He refuses to withdraw the case and won’t allow her to meet them.
”Lakshmi’s case has so far been represented by a lawyer from the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA), Government-provided, free legal service. The lawyer has made no headway at all in the past year and half. We are seeking a Roznama (sessions record of each hearing so far) from the Vasai Court. We will definitely be asking for accountability from the head of NALSA. How many women like Lakshmi, already in distressed circumstances, must be getting tortured further by corrupt or careless lawyers!”
Meanwhile, on February 10, Lakshmi and Urja Trust switched to a more proactive tack. In consultation with lawyers from the Human Rights Law Network, they filed a custody claim, for her older girls, at the Family Court in Bandra.
Among the options that Urja Trust offered her, Lakshmi chose to study further. They registered her for coaching classes a year and half ago. She is taking her Class 10 Board exams, even as I tell her story. Leela directs me not to talk with her about her children for a while.
“Lakshmi,” she says, “must stop worrying about her girls for a few days, and focus on passing her exams instead.”
* * *
Farida was born beyond walls, on the street, to parents who were born and raised on the street. A ”scholarship” of Rs 150 per month from the Indian Association for Promotion of Adoption & Child Welfare put her through her initial years of study. She began to visit the day care centre of an NGO called Saathi when she was ten years old, and at 14, packed two sets of clothes in a plastic bag and shifted into their shelter.
”I hated living on the street. My father would drink and abuse my mother and me. He would beat me up, sometimes even feed me chillies. My grandmother lived in a slum and I used to go stay with her as much as I could. My family still lives on the street. There you don’t have obligations of tradition, religion and caste, and no overheads of rent or electricity bills. You live a day at a time and have no further ambition. A young girl pairs up with a man early. I worry about my 16 and 18-year-old sisters. I tried, recently, to move them into my flat but they returned to the street in four days.”
Farida seems candid about her background, the first time I meet her, so I ask if I may see her home and meet her mother. ”Sure,” she says. ”But will you be comfortable coming there with me?” The lines between ‘housed’ and ‘homeless’ are invisible, but almost inviolate in this city.
Three weeks later, we board a local train to Mumbai Central. Her mother calls several times along the way, to check on our progress. I hear Farida asking her if she has arranged everything properly, at their home.
”What is she arranging?” I ask, curiously.
”She’s shifting her customers away from our space,” Farida grins. ”She runs a gambling business. Customers pay her about Rs 20 for each game. With the money she earns, she even helps me out with the rent on my flat.”
We emerge from Mumbai Central station and cross a main street of fast-moving traffic. On the wide, neat pavement flanking the bus depot, not pausing in her step, Farida nods curtly to a man resting tiredly against some boxes. ”My father,” she informs me stiffly over her shoulder. ”He has tuberculosis, so he’s pretty quiet these days.” I attempt an awkward smile at him. He looks back at me, confused.
We are, I realise suddenly, in Farida’s home. Over her father’s head are colourful clothes drying on a clothesline tied between a pole and a bus stop. A few feet away, pots and pans and provisions are neatly piled. The gamblers are not to be seen. Farida indicates with a look that they have been shifted to the other side of the parked taxis.
Farida’s mother, Kammo, bustles over. She has a big smile and kohl-lined eyes. She’s wearing a well-stitched salwar kameez, has large rings in her ears and thick hair drawn into a bun. The only sign that belies her middle-class appearance is the turning aside and spitting of betel nut juice. Her eyes dart often towards the taxis behind which her customers play and she disappears a couple of times to check on the progress of the game.
Kammo and Farida tell me about their home as we share a bottle of Mirinda that Kammo has fetched from a store across the busy street. They’ve seated me at the bus stop, which, I can’t help observing, doubles as a kind of living room. Kammo hardly speaks, only smiles widely when I ask her if she’s proud of Farida who is about to write her first year Bachelor of Arts (in Psychology) exams.
She only speaks to tell me that she was born on the street and is so habituated to the constant sound of traffic that she would not be able to live within walls.
”Do you feel safe in the open?” I ask.
”It’s safe,” she shrugs. ”We know everything about this place,” she waves a hand in the direction of the pavement.
I’m in the inner rooms of the poor. As a writer, this is not the first time I’ve accessed the personal spaces of their lives. But standing here I am piercingly aware that when I cover stories about middle-class or upper crust people, I set up euphemisms and aliases to mask identities. The mirror is turned my way on this wide-open street with its generous homeless.
She points at the two furry black stray dogs. ”These are ours. They protect us and our belongings.” Nair Hospital, a government facility is close by. She took Farida’s father there when he got sick. They use the public toilet nearby for their ablutions. Kammo bids us goodbye at the gigantic gates of Mumbai Central station, a stone’s throw away from her ‘home’.
”My mother is just 38 years old,” Farida tells me on the train back to Virar where she now lives. ”She was 15 when I was born. We are more like friends. I used to tell my mother to leave my father, but she opted to stay. My father would abuse her earlier, but over the years, his drinking (alcohol) made him weak. She’s stronger than him now. She takes care of him and he doesn’t abuse her anymore.” Not walled-in as deeply by traditional gender roles, Kammo has shifted the balance of power, to give herself the space to breathe.
“I got my parents married three years ago,” Farida recounts, “because I needed some legal identity papers. I had none. But the Maulvi who married them, asked me for Rs 8,000 to produce a marriage license. So I let it go. Documentation of identity is a big problem when you try to become independent…”
Many of the women at Urja Trust, including Lakshmi are troubled by this. In several cases, Leela says, not just personal valuables like gold jewellery, but crucial documents like a Voter ID, PAN Card, passport, bank documents, and academic reports are still in the homes they’ve abruptly left. “There is a great need for a centralized system of record-keeping of the citizenry,” she shakes her head. “We managed to procure a copy of Lakshmi’s school-leaving certificate from her old school, which worked as proof-of-age. Some years ago she had secretly photocopied her bank passbook, which has her home address. With these, she’s been registered to take the tenth standard State Board exams.”
In more ways than one, it is not easy to pick up the pieces. Still they work at it, a day at the time. I’m moved by the courage with which women like Lakshmi and Farida fight the odds stacked against them. Traditionally, the home is their domain. Walled-out, what is home to them now?
A half smile on her lips, Lakshmi replies, ”A home is a place of your own. It’s where your parents are. If, like me, you don’t have parents, then it could be where your husband and his parents are… I left one home and was torn away from the other.” Rallying around, almost as if to console herself, she says, “But I have this shelter. The people here are both mother and father to me. This place is my home.”
What is home, I ask Farida then. “I don’t have a very good answer for you,” she replies in her clear voice, after some thought. “But here it is. A home is where your blood relatives live. Even if it has no roof and walls, it is still home.”
“But when I need comfort and strength, I come here.” She looks in the direction of the peeling green house with its lines of clothes drying and empty buckets; the leaf-littered yard, with its motley women. “Here I feel that I too own something. A bit of peace.”
In April this year, Farida was suspended from college for poor attendance. The Principal said they supported ‘underprivileged students’ but refused to take into consideration that the girl is a first generation learner. She has joined college again and is regular. After a serious bout of depression, she moved back into the Urja shelter, where they make sure she stays emotionally stable.
Lakshmi failed the tenth standard exams. She has not seen her daughters in two years and this distresses her. She interned at the Taj Mahal Hotel for three months and has been offered a job as a trainee. But because she has no identity documents in her own possession, she must wait until the Aadhar Card she’s applied for, comes through.
Chatura Rao writes fiction for children and adults. ‘The Case of Disappearing Colour’, ‘Meanwhile Upriver’, ‘Growing Up in Pandupur’, ‘Nabiya’, and short stories too, are published by Puffin, Scholastic, Penguin, Young Zubaan and Tulika Books. She freelances for scroll.in, Yahoo! Originals and Open magazine. Under construction…being adjusted and altered a little each day.