“When I first started to teach in this school, I was told that I should not worry about my past…”
I was repeating the script several times in front of the mirror. I had the ‘all important’ TED talk that day. To be honest, my organizers and students were more excited about it than I was. At my age and after everything, impressing people didn’t seem important to me. But yes, if my talk helped in spreading awareness about our work and some contribution came in because of that, then I was game.
It was almost 7am. After making two cups of tea, I gently nudged Deep awake. He held me close by my waist and took a deep breath of my body. This was his morning ritual. He said my scent charged him up for the day. Looking at my face he smiled.
“A bit.” I handed him the cup and sat beside him.
“You know what you have to say and I know you are fearless.”
I laughed. “Yes, I’m not easily scared but when it comes to delivering a speech because my famous author husband has written a bestseller that is based on my life, I do feel a bit concerned whether I’d be able to live up to the expectations.”
“You know how I regard you, Naina. I am just an author but you’re a superhero. My book doesn’t even begin to justice to the person that you are.”
“You don’t need to put me on a pedestal.” I hugged him.
After breakfast, we got ready for school. Other than his writing, Deep taught English in my school and I looked after the administration. This was the school where I started teaching almost twenty years ago after I was rescued from a red light area in Kolkata.
There was a commotion the moment I entered the school.
The supervisor came charging like a colourful ball of energy. I loved this girl–small and plump– looking at her no one would ever guess the years of abuse she received from her own father!
“Ma’am, there is a girl…escaped…crying…” She managed these few words in between catching up on her breath.
“Calm down, Pia.” I smiled.
“A girl had escaped from her house because they were selling her and she has reached the school.”
I went upstairs to my room where, like a scared kitten, she was huddled in the corner. I put my hand on her head.
She turned around surprised and then she held my hand and all her collective tears of fear and relief seemed to pour out. Her name was Reshma and they lived in a nearby slum. Despite their abject poverty, Reshma scored top marks in school. However, her alcoholic father was against her studies and as soon as her mother succumbed to tuberculosis, he had been planning to get rid of Reshma.
The night before, on her way to the common toilet, she heard her dad finalizing the transaction of her body in a quiet corner under the street light. She pretended to sleep when he returned, and then at 4 am she stole out of bed and just ran here as fast as her legs would carry her.
I sighed. Yet another girl to fight for. But how long can I keep doing it?
I asked my supervisor to take care of her. I suddenly had an idea about that day’s speech. Let me talk to Deep first.
“Hmm” Dip pushed his glasses up his nose as has been his endearing habit since the time we met at his book release fifteen years ago. “That is a good idea but you really seem intent on making this talk all fun and rainbows, huh…”
Dip’s voice choked midway.
I hugged him. “Don’t see it that way, please. You know how difficult it is to make most people sympathetic for a cause. I just want to show them how even a bit of help from their side can go a long way to continue what I’d started. How they can help to make a real difference to these lives that have survived from being trampled under boots of greed and exploitation.”
“I understand your intentions, Naina…but it is so difficult to come to terms with the fact that…”
“Darling, despite all the storms, you know how grateful I am to life for bringing me closer to you. We had more than our fair share of togetherness. Why do you keep doing this to yourself and to me? Come on, chin up.”
We smiled at each other before proceeding with the rest of the morning at the school.
The auditorium was jam packed that evening. I pulled my sari’s pallu tightly around my shoulders in order to stop the trembling. Little Reshma was already there with the makeup artists lightly powdering her face.
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I’m honoured to be able to stand on this wonderful and influential TED platform to deliver some of my thoughts. Heartfelt thanks to all of you for joining me.”
I gently closed my eyes to the applause in the background. Like a focused image, all I could see was that hospital bed where I opened my eyes after the nightmare and was assured that I didn’t have to spread my legs against my wishes anymore.
And then, I forgot my nervousness.
“When I first started to teach in this school, I was told that I should not worry about my past. They thought I was ashamed of my past and wanted to bury it under layers of unused memories. How little they understood me. Hello, I’m Naina.
“One day, when I was twenty and awaiting my graduation results, five men from a neighbouring construction site gang raped me. That’d still be a happy story if their leader, the supervisor of the site, hadn’t been a middleman in a human trafficking circle.
“So, he sold me to a pimp who ran a brothel. Day in day out they’d keep me drugged and there’d be men of various shapes, sizes, colours, and ages coming inside my room and raping me. Sometimes, when the effect of the drug ebbed off, I’d protest to which my pimp always had his sturdy leather belt handy.
“Ironically for them and luckily for me, my mother worked with an NGO that helped abused women. With the help of her contacts and influence they found me after a month and then they rescued me along with the other girls in that brothel.
“Lying on my hospital bed for almost a month, while undergoing treatments and mental counselling, I came to know that I had topped the state level Bachelor’s degree examination in English. My mother felt I should continue with my Masters but somehow this experience had awakened something within.
“I wanted to study further but alongside I wanted to help others like me. My life till the rapes had been like any other girl of my age where my prime concerns revolved around a pimple, a romantic crush, or some marks in an examination.
“Now, I knew I had three choices. To let this experience define the rest of my life and live a life full of grief and hatred. To avoid it, and go settle somewhere far where no one knew me. Or to wear my battle scars with pride and show other survivors like me that the rest of their lives could be brand new –just the way they wanted it to be. So, I opted for the third choice. And you know what? Once you stop worrying what the world will think of you, your life will become that much easier to live.
“I started work at my mother’s shelter. During the course of my work there, I realized that post their rescue, these women needed something more than to just get by. Why can’t they study like other girls? What can they not do once they’re truly empowered? So, along with the vocational school that was already in place, I started a school for educating them. I was the English teacher and with the improved infrastructure, I found more people willing to teach other subjects. A part of the funds that was raised from the handicrafts that these women made were spent on their education. But this was a question of a lot of money. So, I needed to expand our business beyond the local fairs and exhibitions.
“We opened our own website. We tied up with online retailers and our products started selling in different parts of India. We sold organic food, beauty products, clothing made of organic cotton, and decorative items. Earlier we were doing it all but the reach was so less. Slowly, our products gained an international reputation. I’m proud to say that our virgin coconut oil and our natural beauty treatments are bestsellers even in the West now.
“And while doing all this I realized why I was raped. I’d have been another girl aspiring for her future, living in her own cocoon of comfort and convenience. This incident taught me what I was capable of giving, what I was capable of doing, and most importantly, what I was capable of Being. This might come as a shock for you, but sometimes I thank the Universe for that dark phase of my life that acted as a turning point.
“My dear audience, never take any incident for granted. As the Buddha says, ‘Every experience, no matter how bad it seems, holds within in a blessing of some kind. The goal is to find it.’ I found it and the rest, as they say, is history.
“However, today I am here to tell you about another such experience, too. Something which other than my husband, no one is aware of, till now. Just a week back, I was diagnosed with stage four cancer. The doctor says I have around a year left. I don’t tell this to you to gain your sympathy or praises. I want you all to understand that the Show must go on…and all of you together need to carry forth this legacy of giving the SAME opportunity to women who want to learn and who are no different than the rest of the privileged class. Promise me today, that together we will make a difference. I don’t only talk about contributions here. I’m talking about more teachers. Join our online portals to teach for even a couple of hours a week. Give these girls the opportunity to work in business, in science, in literature. Show them they can be whatever they choose to be. That they have not been stamped ‘rejected’ by the mainstream society but they are a living, breathing part of it.
“In this lifetime I have learnt an important lesson. Every action of ours has a much greater impact than we choose to believe. Make your living count. Today, when I am almost on the verge of saying “goodbye world”, I have no regrets. You wouldn’t too, if you choose to make your actions count. This morning, a little girl came to me. Come on the stage, Reshma.
“Reshma ran away because her father was selling her to prostitution. We have to start the legal battle for her and this is just the beginning. I had two choices. To think about my health condition and turn her away. Or, to tell myself, one more life can be changed if I fight a little more. I chose the latter.
“You choose your lives, dear friends. So, choose wisely. Thank you.”
As I descended the stage to be showered with hugs and tears, I took a moment to turn back and look at Reshma. Her smile once again reminded me something that I’ve been reflecting on lately, how my life had been a truly Blessed one.