A hostile atmosphere and rescue of a 16-year-old girl

The 16-year-old tribal girl’s fate was sealed in a room with no door. 

She was now like a caged bird. She would not be able to come out of the tiny room . Four walls and a slab roof were raised.   Before the last portion of a wall was constructed, she was sent into the room. That was to be the end of her contact with the world.

Like others of her age, she would no longer be able to run around and play. Like others in her community, she would not be able to join in the celebratory dances.

The girl was now deprived of all her freedom. The  parents and family were fine with it. The relatives were happy. The man who celebrated this most was the girl’s brother-in-law.  He had constructed what he described as a temple and the living deity was the girl. She was no idol. She was a living person, breathing. If the room was sealed without even as much as a door, where would she get air to breathe? Good question. Would she be deprived of food too? Was this not practically burying her alive?

It was in her brother-in-law’s interest to keep her alive. So, he provided a window, about one feet by one feet. It was sealed with a grill. Through that the girl was given food to eat to survive.

Word spread about this in the neighbouring villages. People started making a trip to visit the deity and pay their obeisance. The village gained fame. The notoriety of the brother-in-law was more than evident for someone sitting like me in Hyderabad.

I decided to make a trip to this village in Mahbubnagar. I took a bus with my photographer. This was during 1997-98. I made enquiries in Hyderabad itself on how to reach the village. The bus would stop close to the village. I got down the bus. Would it take five minutes to walk to reach the village? “How close is it,” I asked people on the road. “Koothakotha dooram,” the first man responded. He had given the right answer. This is what I had come to know  before I started from Hyderabad. The literal meaning is that it was as close as  the sound of a bird’s cry could be heard. “Walkable?” I asked. “Walkable,” those on the road said. I heard the chirping of birds. I heard the cry of the crow. Going by that, I should have reached the village in 10 minutes, if not five. “Which way to the village?” I asked passersby. “Proceed straight,” they guided. “How far?” “Just ahead of those big trees visible.” There was no village there. “You have to walk slightly further,” I was told. I walked slightly further. I could only see the road expanding before me.

The journey was more arduous than I had imagined. It took one and a half hours to reach the village – by walk. Midway, a question arose. If this is how long it will take to reach the village, how would we be able to spend enough time there and return back to catch what would probably be the last bus towards evening to take us back to Hyderabad? “There’s no turning back,” I told myself. The purpose had to be achieved.

The village was lively. There was a trickle of people. I was given directions to the house of the girl’s parents. They took me to  show their daughter enclosed in a room. “Food is given to her from the window,” they told me. I had questions. What about nature’s call? “She uses the room itself,” was the answer.

I asked them to call the girl so that I could speak to her. They did not. They did not want to. But I wanted to speak to the girl. I was disallowed. Then I sought to know if she indeed was there in the room? That is when they called out to her and she responded in a low voice. But she would not come face to face to the window. She was not allowed to.

How could it be acceptable to the family, the relatives and people of the Thanda (a lambada hamlet) to enclose a girl in a small room and cut of her contact with the outside world? But everyone seemed okay with the arrangement. Okay was not okay for me.

I went around speaking with more people in the village as to what they thought of this. Some shied away from the question. This, for me, was a good sign. If some people were refusing to answer, it meant there were hiding their genuine opinions, which went against the popular opinion. Refusing to express an opinion was an indication that they had an opinion. I went around casually speaking to more people in the village. This time the questions were not piercing. The questions were not to sound interrogative. Chatting up casually was the best thing to do.

The villain, it turned out, was her brother-in-law. The mastermind had a clever plan, as it turned out. He had gone to Bombay to make a living as a construction worker. “He kept coming and going to Bombay. And now he intends to settle in the village itself,” a villager told me. The intent was clear. A hundi that was kept near the room said it all. People coming from the villages nearby would make an offering. That would be his source of earning.

It was to get this money that he conceived this idea of making a deity of the girl. This was criminal intent. This was a clear case of exploitation of a girl. My probe was complete now. I was  keen on to rush back to Hyderabad. Would I get a bus? The weather seemed pleasant. It was cloudy and the walk back was not difficult, more so because my mind was light because of the information that I had been able to gather.

The wind was not pleasant anymore. It was more like a gale. So strong was the wind that I had to run for cover. My photographer and I took refuge under a tree. The danger was that the tree would probably get uprooted because of the wind. There were no houses close by. No vehicles were passing that way. No shelter around. The tree became unreliable for protection.

My feet were literally giving way because of the heavy wind that was blowing. It was clear that we would be swept away. There was to be no doubt about it. Not realising this was foolishness. Before we ran into this tumultuous weather, we came across another journalist friend, who was headed to the village that had come from. I wondered about his safety. As for me, I decided to lie down now. I held on to the grass and ground. Resisted the strong wind.  There was a high chance that we would get blown away by the mind and land somewhere – alive or not was another question.

We held on to dear life. The wind subsided after a harrowing experience that we went through. Reached Hyderabad. Published the story in the newspaper. The exploitation of the girl was highlighted. The administration promptly responded. The girl was set free from the cage of walls that had been built for her by her greedy brother-in-law who wanted to make money through her. The reports that my other journalist friend wrote and what we reported were more than enough for the authorities to understand what was going on in the Thanda.  

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