The Girl from Chhukha

22 / 08 / 2013

With author Anne Ostby’s permission, we have included an excerpt from the new book Town of Love, published by Spinifex Press. The novel paints a vivid picture of some of the world’s most vulnerable women and children – the Indian women of the Nat caste, the ‘untouchables’, forced into prostitution from a young age to be the breadwinners for their families. These women face a life of poverty and violence not of their choosing. The excerpt below follows the character Tamanna’s heartbreaking recollections of her childhood experiences. 

Victorian Women’s Trust Executive Director Mary Crooks will be joining Anne Ostby alongside Kelly Hinton, Dr. Caroline Norma and Dr. Renate Klein for a discussion on the book and its issues at the event ‘Contagious Justice’. Town of Love can be ordered directly from Spinifex Press, and is also available at Readings and Dymocks on Collins Street (and Dymocks at Fed Square during the Melbourne Writers Festival). 

To buy the book, Victorian Women’s Trust members or Sheilas readers can email Spinifex direct on women@spinifexpress.com.au or call (03) 9329 6088 with credit card details. Mention ‘Contagious Justice’ or the Victorian Women’s Trust and get it at the special price of $20 (RRP is $26.95) and including free postage – thank you Spinifex Press.


From ‘Town of Love’, by Anne Ostby

Tamanna knew the trip would take all day, and it was possible she wouldn’t make it back that night. She had confided in Amina, no one else, knowing her friend would cover for her at the kindergarten. True, she couldn’t afford to lose a day’s wages, but there was no way around it. Roshan was the one who took note of the teachers’ attendance, which was closely monitored by Pukaar. The two kindergarten employees had been thoroughly trained in the rules of the workforce: only those who showed up and worked their hours would receive their allotted wages.

Pukaar – the name of the organisation said it all: a cry for help, a beacon flare. A call to action, an outstretched hand. To the women of Prem Nagar and their children. To those who believed that karma could be reversed and lives could be transformed. In the meagre early days three years ago, when Rukmini and Darya had walked from house to house in the Town of Love and doors were slammed in their faces, no one could have predicted this, Tamanna thought as she headed towards the bus station.

The two kajas, the outsider women, had become familiar faces in the Town of Love, but it had taken time. The aid organisation had its headquarters in Delhi, and had slowly and deliberately worked to get a foothold in Prem Nagar. Had taken baby steps towards trustbuilding and cooperation, not least through employing local staff, both men and women. Saleem, Tamanna thought. She couldn’t quite decide whether she thought hiring Saleem had been a mistake or an inspired move on the organisation’s part. The young Nat man from Khawaspur had plenty of baggage; no one knew and understood the inner workings of the flesh trade quite like Fauzia’s brother. Saleem’s insider’s knowledge was a huge asset for Pukaar, no doubt, Tamanna thought. Still, Prem Nagar had branded him a traitor, a heavy and inescapable burden to bear. Saleem’s name on Pukaar’s payroll might be both a curse and a blessing for them.

But Rukmini had been sure. ‘We need Saleem,’ she had said. ‘He knows the system inside out, who could help us more than him?’

Pukaar’s managing director was based in the capital city, a lawyer by background. After the intense initial months when she had been here in Bihar full-time, Rukmini was now constantly on the road on the organisation’s behalf. In and out of Delhi, back and forth to the offices in Kolkata and Mumbai, her daily agenda always full of the struggles of the women bought and sold, a plea for assistance always on the tip of her tongue. There was a bed ready for her at all times in the tiny second-floor room above the Forbesganj office whenever she came to visit; but it was Darya, the short, energetic aid worker with the thick eyeglasses, who had the Prem Nagar dust truly ingrained in the fabric of her clothes. She is the one who knows everything about us, Tamanna thought as she turned the corner and entered the bus station where the massive vehicles stood revving their engines, engulfed in their own exhaust. Darya didi, Rukmini didi, she thought, surprised by the tears welling up within her. You lifted me up. I won’t forget it. The three hundred rupees in Tamanna’s purse let her buy a bus ticket to Katihar with a carefree heart. She was used to going without food, and the feeling of urgency had turned her stomach into a hard knot anyway. She couldn’t feel hunger this morning. She was wearing her green sari, greyish-green with tiny embroidered flowers, the closest thing to a modest, suitable outfit that she owned. But she knew that walking through the streets of Kuli Pada in Katihar, she would still feel like a randi. The dirt she could never scrub off, the stench of the past.

The bus driver was old and asked no questions. The woman beside her wore a dark purple sari; she dozed intermittently, her head softly thudding against the window. Tamanna knew she would be stuck on the clammy plastic seat for the next several hours, and she closed her eyes too, yearning for sleep. Kicked her sandals off – they were pinching her feet – and gingerly curled her aching toes. The road was pothole after pothole, and the driver carefully wove between the gaping pits, patiently putting the miles behind them one by one, rarely exceeding the pace of a slow stroll. Still, the occasional slam on the brakes jerked her awake. At one point the entire surface of the road was cracked open in a ten-foot-wide chasm, and everyone had to step off while the driver manoeuvered the dilapidated bus along the very edge of the road, ensuring safe passage.

It was the end of May and time for rabi, the first harvest. They drove past enormous fields of tall, thin jute stalks, maize and wheat, lush yellow meadows of mustard oil plants. There was plenty of traffic despite the poor upkeep of the roads, trucks roaring past with double axles in long rows under their garishly painted bodies. Weary cyclists, with rags wrapped around their heads to shield them from the burning sun, pedalled unrelentingly forward on black metal frames, bony legs jutting out from the folds of their lungis. Occasionally, overflowing piles of yellow maize were spread out on the road, laid out to dry in meticulous rectangular patches on the asphalt. The traffic veered politely aside into the oncoming lane for a moment, leaving the boy assigned to guard duty alone with his harvested riches.

As the hours went by and the bus inched closer, the knot in her stomach began to ache more and more. She tried not to think of how many times and in what condition she had travelled on these roads before. Tried to become another Tamanna, a stranger to these places. She had no wish to revisit the little girl ferried back and forth between Jabbar Aslam’s relatives and acquaintances, always in secret haste, always with the feeling that something worse was still in store.

She didn’t want to look out the window, but couldn’t stop herself. Knew that at the next bus stop on the left a small road curved in towards Basantpur, the town that reeked of homemade liquor, where she was held for months at the age of ten. Here, where the river flooded each year, the paddy from the fields yielded plenty of husks: waste for the farmers, raw material for the Nats who produced cheap liquor from it. Tamanna remembered a bed under a window, a red blanket she had called her own. She had got used to the name Tamanna by then, as well as to Hindi. The eight-year-old Hasina, who had been dragged onboard the bus at the outskirts of Chhukha, spoke only Nepali, but after a few months the wooden cane on her spine had made it clear that not a word should leave her mouth unless it was in Hindi. For Jabbar Aslam, as for all Nats, religion was a cape to be turned in the wind: those at the bottom of the ladder could not afford the luxury of firm convictions, with gods or with people. The neighbours would be sure to notice a strange, new little girl who said daily prayers in the blue house where everyone knew what went on.

She remembered Mumtaz Begum’s hands best of all. It was Jabbar’s mother who had kept the girl under close and constant scrutiny with her beady black eyes. No rod or hairbrush had been needed to keep Tamanna in check; the crooked fingers with yellowed fingernails had served as both threat and punishment. Bony, rockhard fingers that pressed bruises into her skinny upper arms, yanked bread out of her hands, delivered lightning-quick slaps across her face. Even now, Tamanna thought, twenty years and an eternity later, I still remember the feeling that followed the slap: my stinging cheek, my hand automatically flying up to my face. My throat still burns dry because I just don’t understand. Standing in an unfamiliar kitchen with an old woman slapping me across the face. I didn’t understand why, and I didn’t want to be there.

After a few weeks – or was it months? Tamanna wasn’t sure – Mumtaz at last felt sure that the girl wouldn’t try to run away, and took her out grocery shopping. The nearest little market lay just around the corner: a vegetable stand or two, oil sold in reused plastic bottles, a few dusty packets of candy and chewing gum. The butcher had been their last stop of the day and Mumtaz had pulled the girl’s tiny hand hard, ‘Come on now, hurry up!’ The tug had made Tamanna stumble, and as her knee hit the ground she let out an instinctive cry, ‘Allah!’ A suspicious glare had dissolved the courteous shopkeeper’s smile in the face of the large man with the meat-cleaver, ‘Who is that girl with you, Mumtaz Begum?’ Another tug of the hand as the old woman had hurried her along without missing a beat, ‘A relative. She’s just a relative.’

Many years later Tamanna found out that the butcher was not so easily fooled: What was a little girl so obviously raised in a Muslim house doing with the brothel madam? Only now did she know that he had gone to the police and reported his suspicions, only now did she realise that it had led to a raid on the blue house – what else could the chief inspector have done? But with money comes friends in high places, and Jabbar had been tipped off by one of his very best and well-positioned: the sergeant in the anteroom, who supplemented his modest policeman’s salary with a monthly bonus from the blue house. And free access to soft, frightened young bodies.

She remembered the days that followed, at the Doms’, with painful clarity. Jabbar had shoved a wad of rupees into the hands of the lowest-of-the-low family, whose daily bread consisted of dirt and sewage, and had ordered them to keep her hidden away, out of sight. The revolting stench that had wafted through the house, clinging to their clothes, the blankets they had piled on top of her, the kitchen reeking of filth – Tamanna couldn’t remember eating a bite of food in the week she had spent there.

The bus rolled on and on, buildings appearing more frequently now in between the fields and pastures, and traffic began to accumulate. Katihar was the only town with railway access for hundreds of miles, and many of the trucks were headed for the big cargo depot below the train station. Tamanna clutched her purse in her lap and swallowed drily, wishing she had a little water or piece of candy to suck on. She wouldn’t, couldn’t bear to follow little Hasina further along these roads, but this unstoppable journey of memory surged forward.

New hasty escapes, new hiding places, new aunts and uncles to house her ‘for a little while.’ On her dark inner voyage Tamanna stopped for a moment at a place filled with sunshine: at Mister’s house, that was what she had called him. A tall, nearly bald man with kind eyes and a hand that stroked her hair quickly when no one was watching. Tamanna recalled listening to the voices of Mister and his wife coursing through the kitchen as he tried to find a way to get her home – she was sure of it, Mister was trying to get her home to Amma. ‘A mistake!’ She could still hear his voice, deep, insistent. ‘The girl was a bad investment in the first place, her family will never stop looking for her. We should let her go – she’ll never be of any use to Jabbar Aslam!’ Tamanna had sat on the floor rinsing beans in a metal bowl, she remembered how she had forced her fingers to keep working: snap-pling, snap-pling, without stopping, even when the wife had hissed back furiously, ‘Are you crazy? They are paying us good money to keep her! If they don’t find her here when they come for her, Jabbar will kill us.’

The bus jerked over to the right to avoid hitting a man pulling a wooden cart. Had she invented it in the rosy haze of hindsight, or had they really formed an alliance, Mister and her? Had she dreamed up the stories he told, the plans the two of them made for getting her safely home? The dreams that turned out to be just that, on the day Jabbar was back on their doorstep with a message for the couple whom he had paid handsomely to hide his precious investment. ‘Mother is sick, I have to take the girl to go see her at once!’

She still didn’t know whether Mumtaz Begum really was ill that day, nor did she remember how she had avoided being shoved into the car – was it Mister who had sent her out the door with a whispered command to go hide, just before Jabbar’s entourage arrived? Was it a secret glance between them that told her: ‘Hurry, go, run off into the woods?’ At least she didn’t have to hear Jabbar’s rage when he found out she was missing, or witness the subsequent retribution. Only much later had she found out that Mister had been beaten black and blue when his wife sobbingly revealed her husband’s soft spot for the girl from Chhukha. How, pleading forgiveness for Mister’s foolish sentimentality, she had promised that the girl would not be left out of her sight for a minute, day or night. Tamanna swayed with her eyes closed, the old fear shooting up inside her as her thoughts jumped to the moment a few weeks later when Jabbar stood in the doorway yet again, the familiar cold gaze down on her, the hand that never, ever released its iron grip on her arm. As always, he took her, snatched her up, shuttled her farther and farther from home.

Two years, three years, four years, running from place to place. Much later, Tamanna learned that the people looking for her had sometimes been only a day or an hour behind them, but Jabbar Aslam had always stayed one step ahead, month after month, year after year. Hasina, ‘the beautiful one’, had grown paler and paler and disappeared entirely. Tamanna had taken her place, speaking Hindi and, in spite of herself, had grown into the pretty young girl he had invested in. The fruit had finally become ripe for harvest.

Had she always known what was in store? Dhanda, the flesh trade, prostitution – Tamanna had never once said the word out loud to herself. She had accepted even the myth of the money tree wholesale; had sat wide-eyed and absorbed the words dripping like honey from the lips of the woman in front of her. ‘Do you know what we’ll do in Katihar, Tamanna? We’ll plant a money tree. A golden money tree that bears fruit all year round. We’ll water it and prune it; we’ll look after it and make sure it thrives every day. A money tree that grows gold, Tamanna. Don’t you want a share of that?’

The woman who had come with Jabbar to pick her up had glittering threads woven into her dupatta, and full, shimmering lips. Her henna-dyed fingertips were soft, with no cracks or calluses, and the strappy sandals on her feet were adorned with sparkly rhinestones. She had stretched out her hand: ‘A money tree, Tamanna. In Katihar.’

A money tree, who wouldn’t want to help harvest that? How could she have known that she was to be both the tree and the gardener?

But with one eye we always see what lies in shadow, with one ear we always hear the silent words that fall between sentences. So when Tamanna stood facing Mumtaz Begum’s quivering jowls once more, hearing the money tree explained to her in no uncertain terms, her emotion was one of dreaded recognition, not shock and surprise. ‘We are Nats. Our daughters all take passengers. That’s what you’ll be doing now too.’

The answer she would keep repeating to herself, year after year, found its voice: ‘Never! I’ll never do it!’

First, they had simply locked her in; then the beatings had started. Was there anything in the house that hadn’t been used to hit her? Poles and canes, shoes and tools and chairs, belts and electric cables – once Jabbar’s brother had beaten her so long and hard with a screwdriver that she stumbled and fell into a wall, knocking her shoulder out of its socket. Later, a tray of food had been shoved into the room where she had sat locked up, all alone. Tamanna remembered sitting on the floor and refusing to eat with her left hand, the dirty one – the right one hung forward at a grotesque angle, dangling limp and useless from the dislocated joint; she couldn’t lift it. In tears, she had lain down on her stomach and tried to slurp the food from her plate without using her left hand. She had been beaten black and blue, but she wouldn’t be dirty.

Rumours of Mumtaz Begum’s new girl had spread quickly in Katihar, and the passengers had come, their pockets bulging with money. An auction offering up the right to tear a hymen apart. Time after time, they had come to fetch her from the girls’ room on the second floor, had paraded her around in heavy makeup and dangling earrings. Tamanna could still hear Mumtaz Begum wheezing as she shoved her towards the crowd. ‘Smile now! No one likes a sad-faced girl!’

She had never got to know her final sale price, what the highest bid had been for the body of a 12-year-old. Tamanna squeezed her eyes shut and clenched her fists, pressing them down into the yellow bus seat. Didn’t want to remember, couldn’t ever forget the night they let the victorious bidder into the room with her, the door slamming shut behind him. She had screamed, a loud, sharp scream, like an animal warning its enemy not to come any closer. He had tried to approach her with words at first, with assurances and persuasions. She had responded with noises, sounds of rejection, hatred, and fear. He had finally got tired of it and had pressed her into a corner, grabbing at her forcefully, roaring at her to shut up. Tamanna had grown four arms, eight, twelve, had hit back as hard as she could with all of them, screaming and kicking, her knee in his groin, biting, digging sharp fingernails into his hands with a piercing, unbroken wail.

It had been the passenger who was left with his back against the wall and a sheepish, embarrassed look on his face when Mumtaz Begum unlocked the door. Tamanna had thrown herself at the old woman and burst out into the hall before the madam had even stepped into the room, pounding her fists against another door until somebody had let her in. She needed water, needed to wash herself, right away! There were traces of his skin under her fingernails.

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