That day, I woke up feeling like an absolute piece of garbage. I grabbed my water-bottle (which was empty, I realised, four hours later, when I began dizzily stumbling in search of some water) and camera bag, and rushed out.
I was part of a documentary-making team – and we were shooting a segment on abuse in Delhi. Our agenda for the day was visiting a girls’ rehabilitation centre. After some circling of the streets of Delhi, we arrived at the lane, which led to the centre. It was jam-packed with men, drunkenly dozing off on their motorcycles. I wondered why so many of them chose this particular lane to stick around, and why the frequency of these drunk people increased as we approached the centre. But once we were there, we had to wade through a group of drunk and disorderly men, wistfully gazing at the centre. It became apparent that their presence was not coincidental – they had chosen to camp themselves there.
The building was unquestionably dilapidated. It was a mixture of the drabbest greys and beiges, and featured multiple broken windows and a lazily-locked iron gate. We had to bend before we entered, to get past the chains holding the gates. Funnily enough, they were quite redundant.
After climbing five flights of stairs, we finally arrived at the home. Locked doors greeted us. After some frantic knocking, two doors and a metal grate gave way to the rehabilitation centre. The lighting was abysmal, with only two small windows. The white tiles in the bathroom were browned in the corners, and the sleeping room reeked of an amalgamation of bodily fluids. There were some faint sounds of muffled crying, but all that was put aside once we introduced ourselves.
I’m no socialiser – so I stood awkwardly in a corner, while my teammates introduced themselves to the girls. They were all aged between five and 17. I was gazing over at them, watching them introduce themselves to us. One girl was missing her mother – she hadn’t seen her in two years, and so she lay there, with her head in the lap of her best friend. After some friendly ice-breaking games, we were ready to begin interviewing them. Before we could explain, however, one of the quieter girls spoke up.
“I’m Niyati*. I did not introduce myself.”
We were slightly taken aback, shocked at how we failed to take note of having skipped over someone. We apologised for not noticing earlier – and Niyati sat back down, happy that she had made her presence known.
Niyati was a small girl with short, brown hair and brown eyes, which constantly drooped. She did not laugh with the other girls, and sat with her knees up and her arms around them. It became apparent that she did not want to let her guard down.
She wasn’t the only one. I had distanced myself from the interactions, and consoled my general fear of social interaction by reminding myself that I was just here to shoot.
When we took a snack-break, I was adjusting my camera lens when I felt a tug on my shirt. It was Niyati.
“I want you to take my interview.”
I tried explaining to her that I wasn’t going to be the one asking the questions, but she insisted. Reluctantly, I sat her down, while a teammate recorded.
I began by asking her simple questions – how old she was, where she grew up, what her favorite food was. I kept it largely impersonal. I knew that when she felt comfortable, she would transition to her story herself. And she did. “I’m here because I killed someone.”
“Why did you kill him?”
“I didn’t realise that I was actually going to kill him. I had just woken up, got my daily dose of ‘smack’ (heroin), and walked out of my house to get some bread for my mother. He started following me, and forced me into a small lane. He tried putting his hands under my skirt, and the next thing I knew, I had taken the nearest brick and smashed his head with it.”
“So he was trying to rape you?”
She hesitated. She began pulling her shirtsleeves down, shifting my attention towards the gashes on her wrist. They were largely healed, but a few still flared with an angry hue of red. I could tell they were recent.
“I don’t know what this word means, didi. This happens to our mothers and sisters in their homes, and we don’t call it rape then.”
“Why didn’t you tell the police about this?”
“Which police officer is going to believe a drug addict? I was so high at the time, I thought I had imagined all of it. Besides, I was destined to walk this path.”
“So you think you deserve this?”
“I let my family down. I let the people who loved me the most down. I disgraced my family name. My own mother doesn’t visit me anymore. Of course, I deserve this.”
“Do you want things to change?”
“You can’t change destiny.”
She was trying not to show us her tears, and kept furiously wiping her eyes. “It’s the dust from sitting near the window,” she kept fervently whispering.
“Why did you cut yourself?”
“Because I want to erase myself.”
We decided to stop the interview there. I’m not sure if it was because she was inconsolable, or I was. But we both knew that these were too many emotions for a day, and agreed to stop. Before we left, she came up to me and asked, “Do you think life will give me a second chance?”
I didn’t know how to explain to a 14-year-old girl that there was a long life with innumerable opportunities ahead of her.
If you think this is a story about pity, you’re horribly mistaken. Niyati, and girls like her, have seen far too much to be consoled by pity. If you take away anything from here, take away rage. Let it be known that we have managed to desecrate the most innocent amongst us. At every step of the way, our criminal justice system fails 99% of the people. For girls like Niyati, the problem isn’t the delaying of justice – it is the complete absence of it.
There is no denying the fact that accessing justice in one of the largest economies in the world is a privilege reserved for the higher classes of society, who can afford to buy off reluctant police officers, who would rather partake in an afternoon snooze than file a First Information Report.
What is most ironic is our excessive focus on retribution, not realising that the ones repenting the most are the victims.
*The name has been changed for to protect the identity of the person. Niyati, in Hindi, means fate.
Featured image used for representative purposes only.
If you are a survivor, parent or guardian who wants to seek help for child sexual abuse, or know someone who might, you can dial 1098 for CHILDLINE (a 24-hour national helpline) or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also call NGO Arpan on their helpline 091-98190-86444, for counselling support.