[Reader-list] a childhood beyond the redlight

miriam chandy miriamchandy at yahoo.com
Fri Jul 30 17:36:50 IST 2004

finally wrote up a first hand acct of our first wk
shop with rescued minor sex workers in St Catherine's

St Catherine’s Home

We walk past the wrought iron gate and into a lush
green haven. St Catherine’s home, could very well be
the equivalent of the `garden of eden’ in the western
suburbs of  Mumbai.
Kalyani and I are pinching ourselves partly because we
can’t believe our eyes and partly because we have the
first whiff of a likely workshop. It has been three
months of fieldwork yet no opportunity to meet and
interact with the subjects of our research project. 
Today there is the first glimmer of a workshop. Anson
Thomas had called Kalyani and told her to contact Sr
Cecily as he had already put in a word for us. Our
excitement is palpable…finally there will be voices
and faces to the children we had read about from
newspaper clippings and heard about from social
activists. Finally we will have the opportunity to
forge our own bonds and understand issues first hand.

Maybe we would even meet the child who inspired this
journey – Sapna…

We wind our way up the curving road, that snakes past
a playground and old-fashioned bungalows spread
horizontally with long corridors unlike other
buildings in mumbai that grow floor upon floor to save
on space.

Sr Cecily is a sprightly nun who radiates an
infectious dynamism. She doesn’t have the holier than
thou disposition that I have grown to associate with
nuns through my convent education…

She scans the proposals we have typed out, asks a few
questions and then smiles cheerfully “ so when do you
want to hold the workshops?” We finalise dates and
then begin to chat…

She reveals the dramatic story behind this shelter for
minor sex workers. “  We were primarily a home for
destitute women. In ’99 we were woken up in the night
when police vans arrived with girls they had rescued
from a brothel raid. There was no place to house
them…so they were asking that we keep 160 of them!” We
ask whether Sr Cecily is referring to the ’99 raid
when over 400 girls were rescued? “ Yes!! O my it was
chaos… The girls were already angry and aggressive
because of the way the police handled them. They
mistook my brown saree and blouse for a police uniform
and O God! “ she breaks off unable to find words…

“It’s only the next day that they realized they are
not in a police station and I am no police woman. One
girl asked me `tum log alag hai?’ ( are you different
from them?)  I had no way to explain what a nun is so
I said `haanh mein bhagwan ki aurat hoon’ (yes, I’m a
woman of god)”, she bursts into splutters as she
remembers her awkward interpretation…We laugh along.
Even now Sr Cecily speaks Hindi that sounds like
Malayalam…6 years ago she must have been in quite a

“ The girls needed attention…some had TB, a couple
were pregnant and some had HIV. There were girls with
skin infections and big boils, we had to have 6 nuns
and 2 to 3 visiting doctors on the job”.

Sr Cecily barely coped with the ’99 predicament…but
one year later she coaxes the management of St
Catherine’s home to begin a shelter for rescued minor
sex workers. Today the shelter can house as many as 24
girls. “ How long are they here? What happens after?”,
we want to know. “6 girls have been repatriated, the
majority find work as domestic help. One girl recently
got married…”, she beams. We didn’t realize that the
`marriage’ was being quoted as a success story, only
later when we meet the girls we realize just how
important they perceive it to be.

“ what about Sapna?”, I ask…Sr Cecily’s face clouds
up, she stops mid sentence and almost looks like she
will not answer. I realize I have touched a raw chord
and defend myself “ we read Sapna’s accounts with the
child welfare commission…” Sr Cecily is nodding but
not responding, “ we met Sangita Punekar from ADVAIT
and she told us that Sapna is here and that she is a
difficult child to handle…she said she has many
psychological problems?” Sr Cecily looks up, she
realizes that we know about the complications involved
in rehabilitating girls rescued from brothels. She is
willing to speak about Sapna

“ Sapna has many problems…she steals. She gets
frustrated and slits her wrists. No doubt she is
brave. She wanted to give her account to the police,
she wanted other girls like her to be rescued…She went
back to her village and got her stepmother arrested
but it was all revenge. It is anger and a feeling of
rejection. She can never get over the fact that her
family sold her”.

Someone is knocking on the office door. “ sister,
chai?”, a pretty dimpled girl is holding a tray with 3
cups of steaming tea. Sister Cecily calls her in and
introduces her to us as Nandini. The girl smiles
brightly, places the tray on the table and than asks
whether she can leave? Sister Cecily nods.

As soon as Nandini is out of ear shot Sr Cecily tells
us “ See this girl Nandini? She is from Karnataka,
only today I spoke to her parents…but they are
refusing to speak to her or take her back. It’s very
sad…you know she was not even 1 day in a brothel”. We
look puzzled…” Yeah, she ran away from home, she
stayed with her cousin for sometime and the very day
she landed up in a brothel…it so happened there was
raid and she was rescued. But her parents say she ran
away and they will have nothing to do with her. This
is the toughest thing…Imagine the feeling of

We can’t imagine…

“ The girl has suppressed her anger. It is there but
she does not show it. I’ve been telling her she must
forget her family and concentrate on her studies. But
she wants to keep trying…” Nandini we learn is doing
well at the open national school program she has been
enrolled in. She has got two double promotions and is
already in the 9th standard. Despite her sense of
rejection, Sr Cecily feels Nandini is coping.

Sapna on the other hand proves to be far more
difficult to handle. “ Soon after she was brought
here, she was given counseling and her progress was
fantastic. It is after she got involved in the case
that she began to go down hill”.

Sapna could not adapt to the institutionalization
process. She constantly complained that the rules were
too strict. Sr Cecily tells us that she often ran away
to do `majaa’ a common past time with all Sr Cecily’s
wards. `Majaa’ for the girls is a quick escapade where
a girl gets a boy to take them to the movies or buy
small gifts in exchange for sexual favours. Sr Cecily
confesses that she copes with the `majaa sessions’
because she can’t put a stop to it. Most of the girls
return to the home of their own accord and Sr Cecily
has found her own explanations  “ Most of them have
not known parental love…in fact they have known no
love. This boy-girl love is the only version they

“ So is Sapna still with you?” my persistent
journalistic instinct will not let up. “ No, she has
opted to stay out in a hostel on her own”, Sr Cecily
reveals to our disappointment.

“ I enrolled her in a one month, house keeping course
and managed to get her a job with Mac Donald’s. She
earns Rs 2500 a month…but now the outlet is calling me
up and complaining that she has begun stealing…” Sr
Cecily is distressed by Sapna’s troubled behaviour. It
seems no easy task to give these girls an alternative

“ O no! even if I have to find them a job as a
domestic servant people want guarantees ` do they have
HIV, will they be friendly with boys? How can I give
answers…these are children. Now I refuse to tell their
background”. In the face of societal taboo Sr Cecily
has to hide the background of the children. A society
that deems prostitution illegal but provides very few

We drink up our tea and then Sr Cecily takes us into
the girls hostel to introduce us to the girls. We are
nervous and excited…

First meeting

The spotless floor gleams as it leads down a corridor
and into a large room with no furniture besides 2
computers placed on tables. A film song crackles
through the speakers attached to the computer and a
group of girls are huddled around the monitor. “ Can
you call the other girls? Where are they?”, Sr Cecily
asks a frail looking girl, who is extremely well
groomed. She simpers, pouts and is finally persuaded
to summon the others.

“ She is Babita…she is slightly older than the others.
She is doing a beautician’s course”, Sister Cecily
tells us.

A handful of girls straggle in, Sister Cecily sends
them to call others. After many requests and envoys
besides Babita…there are 10 faces studying Kalyani and

Sr Cecily explains that we would be holding a 2-day
workshop in a few days time. Kalyani and I try to
guage what they know of art and drama…more than that
we are gauging their enthusiasm. Sr Cecily had warned
us that the favourite response is “ kantal lagega” (
“sounds boring…”).

“ kuch poochna hai?” (any questions?), Kalyani asks.
This is the moment of reckoning…I am a little wary of
the questions we could be asked. One girl asks “ Didi
apne shaadi kiya?” (Are you married?). She has spotted
Kalyani’s mangalsutra. Kalyani is taken aback for a
minute and then says “ hanh hanh…aur yeh didi bhi” (
yes, and she is married too), pointing to me.

A collective response of  “oohs”! A barrage of
questions “ how long have you been married?”, “ do you
have children?”, “ do you stay with your husband or is
Kalyani your room mate?” and then a voice rises above
the rest  “ when did you get married”. “ when I was 27
years old” I reply.

Another round of  “oohs”! A bright girl with a golden
tooth splutters “ You can get married at that age?!”
All the others burst into peals of laughter.

The ice is broken…and the only inkling we have of the
St Catherine’s girls is that they can’t wait to get

That’s until our 2 day workshop.

The workshop
A raucous cop and robber game is in progress. Everyone
has drawn lots…the girl with the joker on her card is
the robber. She tries to kill everyone else by winking
at them without getting caught.

The highly effective robber has already killed 5
Vijaya is a tomboyish girl who refuses to be separated
from Lakshmi. They declare that they will catch the
robber or die together!
Accusations are flying madly…

Only one girl is not part of the mayhem. Babita
refuses to play. She says she is too grown up for
silly games. She sits on the desk and watches on
…laughing occasionally until her eyes meet mine. She
stops abruptly.

“ This is your last game and then we will do an art
exercise” I anonounce…collective groans. The girls
seem to be having a whale of a time, after all I
remind myself…they are children who missed out on the
silly joys of childhood.

Scraps of bright printed cloth material, open bottles
of poster paint and smears of fevicol strew the floor.
The girls are making self-portraits with thumb
impressions. The part they seem to be enjoying is
choosing and designing clothes out of scraps of cloth
piled in the center. Vijaya is almost done…the other
girls hold up her card and hoot with laughter. A close
enough depiction of Vijaya – ram rod straight, shirt
and pant with no frills attached!! “ See even here she
looks like a boy na Didi?” giggles Lakshmi her
inseparable friend. Lakshmi has made no headway
herself because she cannot seem to pick out the
perfect shade of purple for her outfit.

All the other girls are designing elaborate ghagra
cholis, lehengas and there are one or two pinafores. I
remember I had picked up sequins and glitter tubes
which I pull out of my bag…An instant hit!! Even
Babita who had refused to be a part of the card making
exercise…is enticed by the glitter tubes. She sidles
up and sits besides gold-toothed Shaina and volunteers
to adorn her picture with jewellery.

Sapna is a plump, pleasant faced girl. She had waddled
around lazily through the cop and robber game but now
she calls me to see her picture. Even as she squeezes
a glitter tube dry to create earrings and necklace for
her portrait, she declares “ yeh main nahin hoon.
Mujhe makeup shakeup pasand nahin hai” (This is not
me. I hate makeup shakeup) . “ Very good picture” I
tell Sapna not to flatter her but because this kamchor
certainly has an artistic streak! She beams with
delight and says that it is the spitting image of her
sister Renuka.
Many empty glitter tubes later…the girls are told to
exchange cards and write a message for each other.
Cards are exchanged but Seema is the only girl who is
refusing to let her card out of her hands. Fatima, her
teacher who has come to help us out with the workshop
explains that she is fairly new and doesn’t trust
anyone to write anything nice about her. Tears well up
in Seema’s eyes, she holds her card stubbornly to her
chest and refuses even sweet natured Nandini to
inscribe her card. Finally Fatima intervenes and
offers to inscribe the card. Seema reluctantly agrees.

“ My dearest friend,
I don’t know how I would have coped if it weren’t for
you. Thank you. I pray that you find happiness and
respect. “ reads the message for Vijaya

“ Babita helps everyone but when she was ill, no one
went to ask how she was? This makes her feel sad”
declares Shaina in her message for Babita 

The messages reveal a fragile sisterhood …drawn from
diverse states, the girls barely speak and understand
a common language. Rescued from Mumbai’s red light
areas they are only beginning to understand each other
in the common shelter -  St Catherine’s home. 

“ Seema
When you smile the whole world lights up! You look
beautiful”, reads Fatima out of Seema’s card. 

We troupe in for lunch, a degree of warmth has crept

Seema has not stopped smiling ever since she read the
message in her card.

A hymn is being sung before lunch. Sapna who is seated
next to me whispers “ mein Bengali hoon isliye mein
yeh Christian gaana nahin gatein.” (I am Bengali, that
is why I am not singing this Christian hymn). I nod,
understanding fully well the dilemma of children
growing up in a Christian institution. Through out my
convent education I have questioned why communal
prayers cannot be addressed to `God’ rather than
`Jesus’? A simple step that safeguards against 
`conversion’ accusations, baseless as they maybe in
the larger context of charity work that is
accomplished by missionaries.

Sr Cecily asks “ whose turn is it to cook today?” “
Seems and Shaina”, is the collective response. Shaina
corrects them “ Na…it is Vijaya’s turn. I just felt
like cooking”. Sister Cecily asks “ why did you cook?
Let Vijaya cook once in a way”. Vijaya is making a
face and signaling that she hates the thought. Shaina
pipes up “ I didn’t cook because it is Vijaya’s turn.
I don’t know how it is but every time I feel like
cooking it haapens to be Vijaya’s turn”. The response
baffles even Sr Cecily. We slurp our dal, rice, papad,
vegetable and pickle greedily, content to make small

A game of dumb charades is in progress. Babita has
boycotted the session. Seema volunteers to act ,

She is given the word `maa or mother’. She thinks for
a second and then walks around swinging her arms.
`walk’, `soldier’…wild guesses. Kalyani and I exchange
puzzled glances. I whisper in Seema’s ear to hold a
child or baby in her arms. She frowns and then nods.
She rocks an imaginary baby in her arms violently.
`maa’ yell the girls in unison. Seema beams, they all
rag her for her inadequate portrayal. Seema is

We begin to improvise the dumb charade sessions. We
ask the girls to share memories associated with a
word. The word is: hunger.

No one really wants to share a memory. “ No one has a
memory? No one has been hungry?”, Kalyani coaxes

A sullen silence and then a voice mumbles, “ hunger
everyone has been but so what?”

Then Seema again to the rescue, recounts “ Didi I
remember once there was a family in my village with 3
children. The father used to drink and beat up the
wife. The children were always hungry and the baby was
crying. I gave the baby some food…”

Kalyani is relieved “ Very good. Thanks for sharing
Seems…anyone else?”

Still a sullen silence and a few glares at Seems.

Kalyani swiftly shifts gear to the next word: sweets

Suddenly there are more tales…of stealing sweets from
tiffin boxes and stealing money to buy sweets.


A series of tales of missing school to play by the
river, in the field, in the market are shared. In all
the stories it is the mother who gives the child a
sound spanking. No serious matter to the girls it
seems…as the girls giggle after every tale.

Only 3-4 girls are opening up. The rest are still
maintaining a sullen silence.


Shaina’s hand is waving in the air. She has a story
that her mother always told her “ there is a kauva
(crow) and a kabootar (pigeon), who are great
friends…”. The kabootar gets into a series of scrapes
where the crow flies to the rescue. Each scrape is
narrated with great enthusiasm and some degree it
seems of improvisation. The other girls are not
impressed, they are visibly wilting and there are some
whispers of the dreaded “ kantaal hai” . Even Shaina’s
steam is running out as the chorus gets more and more
audible. She cuts the story short “ anyway the moral
of the story is that the crow also feels sad and the
kabootar should have been there as a friend.”

Kalyani and I realize that we need to shift gears
completely. The girls are evidently not comfortable
with sharing…maybe they are not yet comfortable with
us or maybe they have blocked off whole sections of
their past, so that they can move on?

We resort to playing a game. A tactic we find a useful
aid every time the energy levels dip over the next two

Two days when we get to know 10 girls…We see their ups
and downs…

Babita who wants to be `grown up’, above it all and
yet yearns to feel included. She comes back for the
second day, morning session. Kalyani tells her “ you
made me very happy by taking part.” She stays the
entire day simpering, sulking and taking part…

Shaina, always finds a way to do her own thing. In a
block printing session she is determined to print
without blocks. She leaves for an eye appointment on
the first day of the workshop. The second day she has
glasses and she is sulking for the better part of the
day because she hates them. She is persuading Sr
Cecily to get rid of her golden tooth ( a fashion
statement in the brothel she was in). Nandini chips in
to explain why she suddenly wants to get rid of the
tooth, “ We went to buy T shirts and shaina kept
bargaining for the price saying we have no money. The
shop keeper told her how can she say that when she has
a gold tooth?”. Shaina is giggling and so are the

Nandini, Firdaus and Renuka who are doing so well in
school that they have been given double promotions.
Renuka does such a meticulous block print that her
napkin looks professional. Firdaus tells us that she
recently won an elocution contest organized by the
seminary for all it’s various institutions. She made
an impromptu speech. Before we leave she shows us the
graphics she has been experimenting with in Corel draw
and paintbrush software.

Seema and Prema who are so excited that Kalyani and I
grew up in Bangalore and know about the film stars
they love. Any opportunity they can they sidle up
between sessions and share film plots about
Shivrajkumar, son of thespian actor Rajkumar, their
current heartthrob. Fatima whispers “ I can’t believe
Seema is talking so much!!”

Vijaya would rather be `Vijay’. Popular with everyone,
she is accepted and teased for being different. She
likes the attention! She also likes English.

“ I hate English”, her best buddy Lakshmi declares. “
It is so difficult I only like Marathi!” 
Sapna avoids physical exertion but realizes her
artistic skills have been noticed. She does a spunky
block print that defies any symmetry. After Firdous
has shown us her computer graphics, she sneaks us into
her bedroom (neat and cheery) to show us a pink lace
purse we are tatting.

Even as Firdaus is making another oratorical
performance in thanking us at the end of two days,
Kalyani and I know our lives have been touched.
Suddenly at the back of my head are even more
disturbing questions:

How can most of these girls end up domestic servants?
Firdous who likes oration and designing software?
Sapna who loves colour and spends every spare moment

How come more than half the group comes from
Karnataka? Both Kalyani and I have been proud of
growing up in Bangalore with its cosmpolitan culture
and `silicon valley’ image? Does such an extreme
reality co exist in this prosperous state,a
desperation that can drive parents to sell their

These girls are moody yet charming. Have fragile self
esteem and yet seem on the whole well adjusted. Yet Sr
Cecily tells us they often try to kill themselves.
Sapna herself opted to live outside St Catherine’s

There seems to be a far more complex story behind the
psyche of these rescued minors. We hope to learn
through the rest of our journey.






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