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By the time she was 24, Devi had lived more than most do in an entire lifetime. Born in a Brahmin upper-class family in a small village in Uttar Pradesh, fair and beautiful, 16-year-old Devi fell in love with a young 19-year-old Hindu boy from a lower caste who visited her home for odd jobs regularly. She eloped with him and landed up in Surat.
Her family – her father was the pujari of the village – chose to take revenge from the boy's family. They had them beaten mercilessly and the boy's sister was molested. Faced with daily threats and persecution, the boy's elder brother tracked down the couple and persuaded them to come home. Devi faced the wrath of her family and was married off within weeks without being consulted to a local goon; who, on discovering her past, abandoned her. Afraid of the stigma, the parents decided to send her off to stay with her married older sister in Maharashtra. Devi had the onset of depression and the symptoms were beginning to show but no one noticed.
Her sister was expecting her second child and her sister's husband used the opportunity to draw Devi into a forced, abusive and illicit relationship. The sister tried intervening and then, worried for her own marriage, insisted her husband finds someone for Devi to marry.
The husband chose an employee of his, an orphan with a slight physical disability, and Devi was married off for the second time – again without her consent. She bore two children and, one day, Devi picked up her younger child and threw him down the balcony. Why? Devi was mentally unstable.
She had begun hiding things at home and laughing without reason when she met strangers, including men. Her husband read her behavior as that of a "wanton" woman and beat her. And then, one night, Devi vanished.
A few weeks later, Devi found herself at the URJA crisis center at Mumbai's Dadar area. It took six months for the people who run URJA to prise her story out of her. Devi was unstable, she had escaped her home, had lived on some railway platforms, been raped by several men – she wasn't sure how many – while she lived on trains, and finally rescued as she sat shivering on a railway platform by a Muslim rickshaw driver who brought her to URJA. Devi was no more than 24.
This, she tells me, is quite "run of the mill" for URJA (inner strength). The founder of URJA, Deepali Vandana's, voice breaks my reverie. I am sitting on the floor shell-shocked. Was this a true story or am I listening to some horror story? I have read stories like this sometimes in the newspapers but usually, they seemed unreal even in print. One just dismisses them – they don't sound true.
But now, Devi is living at one of URJA's apartments. I can't really pretend she's not real. It's taking me an eon to swallow her story. For it to sink into my brain. Deepali probably thinks I am slow or something. Can it be possible that someone goes through all this in a span of just eight years and before she has turned 25? Was Devi fabricating the whole thing to gain sympathy? Are Deepali and her colleague Charu exaggerating for some inexplicable reason – just to magnify the horror of it all?
But I look into their eyes and I can see they are not lying. They are just recounting what happened. And Devi certainly wasn't fabricating anything. She was in no shape to. Subsequent physical examinations showed how damaged her uterus was from overuse. All the marks on her body were evidence of what she had borne. She was grim and silent. She couldn't fully recall her children or explain all that had happened to her.
Devi came to URJA in 2012. URJA has done everything possible for her. They have time and again contacted her family. The parents say she is "dead" for them. Her sister pleads she cannot help. URJA paid for her husband's travel to Mumbai and he met Devi but he's uncertain if she can be a mother to their children or a proper wife to him. He can't come to terms with her mental problems and would rather move on. She now works for a salary of Rs 8,000 a month at a packaging company in Mumbai.
If Devi's story is remarkable and sad, Deepali's own story is remarkable and happy. The daughter of a municipal sweeper and a Dalit, Deepali was 18 years old when she started to take her life into her own hands. Her parents were uneducated but aware of the importance of education so she and all her siblings studied and finished school.
As a girl growing up in Mumbai, Deepali often noticed all kinds of differences and discrimination – she was less welcome in some of her friend's homes than other girls appeared to be, they ate and dressed differently from her. She often felt excluded and she couldn't understand why. "When Ganpati came to their houses, I was often left out," she explains. She would feel hurt but she couldn't fully comprehend why.
As the eldest child of six, Deepali started working early to support her family. After finishing Class 12 and a diploma in childcare, she started teaching in 2000 at a salary of Rs 1,200 a month with Saathi – an NGO that worked in Mumbai with street children. For 12 years, Deepali worked at this NGO, expanding her role from teaching to becoming a programme director. She represented them at the district and state level and learnt a lot in the process herself.
A thought that often came to her was this: many of the children she worked with came from less marginalised and at times financially better-off families than she. Why then did these children find themselves on the road – either abandoned or run-away? Nothing would induce her to ever leave her family.
At some point, the penny dropped. The children may be fed but they were often from dysfunctional families. They may have had parents but no love, nurturing or imparting of any values. Often, the children left to escape abusive parents.
And therein lay the difference. Deepali's parents loved her, cared for all their children and taught them the right values. "My father would often tell me: even if you have a single grain of rice, you must divide and share it with someone who doesn't have even that," she recounts.
Yet, at times, as a growing child, Deepali admits she felt resentment and anger at the discrimination she perceived. She says she remembers the film 'Bandit Queen' being released and she could relate to her situation and reactions quite well. "Of course, she had been sexually assaulted. We may not have faced sexual assault but I do think I faced assaults of all other kinds," she adds.
Deepali's experience with the NGO taught her a lot but it made her question even more. One thing she realised was that despite so many people and NGOs working on problems like poverty reduction, social inclusion and so on, the problems only seemed to be magnifying, not going away.
She began to question why and, soon, she realised that her own NGO and most others were working on the "effect" and not the "cause". Her own organisation was trying to rehabilitate children but it didn't go deep to attack the cause. Why were the children running away or escaping? Why were these problems acuter in specific communities? As she once told her founder: "We can help 500, 1000 or even 10,000 children but who will stem the tide."
She also noticed that many of the people running NGOs were from upper classes and while many were genuine in their efforts, many were also in it for the power game or to win approval and accolades. At times, their motives seemed less than clear. Did they truly understand what it meant to come from these communities, to face the discrimination and the travails they faced? She wasn't sure.
A third thing she noticed was that there were hundreds of NGOs, agencies and even international bodies working on children, their rights, and well-being. But what happens to that child once she becomes an adult – 18 and above? Don't those who are above 18 also need help? "Nobody seemed to want to work with grown-ups – people who can question you and argue with you. Working with children is the easiest as they simply believe you and trust you. So a lot of organisations were taking the easier way out focusing on children or the girl child," she observes.
Deepali argues that girls – many are between 16-30 years - who come to URJA are often very suspicious. Along with treating them, URJA has to win their trust. So it's harder to work with them but someone has to do it. "In some sense, the process is participative," she explains. She prefers working "with" rather than "for" the girls.
URJA's focus is to work with "young" girls because they have a lot of energy that needs channelising. And this, she says, from personal experience. Deepali herself came from a marginalised community, had hordes of energy as a youngster and feels that if she had not got the right guidance, love, and mentorship that she was fortunate to get, she could have gone astray herself. "There was an aggression in me towards society and sometimes I think I could have even ended up joining the Naxal movement had I not been channelised and guided the way I was," she says.
The seed of URJA had already begun to grow in Deepali's brain by 2011. In 2012, Deepali put together her savings (despite earning only Rs 10,000, she managed to put away some money every month and had a saving of Rs 72,000, which she used to build the corpus for URJA), some money her father agreed to contribute from his retirement gratuity, and some money raised with the support of funding agencies, and URJA was established.
URJA's main aim is to offer a life with dignity to battered, bruised and beaten women when all other avenues are closed. The NGO first accommodates new girls at its crisis center in Dadar where I am sitting. The space houses 11-12 girls at a time and they usually stay for a maximum of six months at the crisis center undergoing mental and physical assessments. Then they move to a short-stay apartment – 6-7 girls to one flat – and they usually stay there for a minimum of one year. Some bounce back early and some take time.
It has worked with around 350 women since. Most of the girls and women who land in the crisis center have been abused – often sexually – either in their parental home or their married one. In some cases, the girls are asked to leave the house. In others, circumstances are created so that she opts to leave. Often, they roam the streets and face further sexual abuse then. A majority of them suffer from mental issues by the time they find URJA.
After mentoring and stabilising their condition, URJA helps them find jobs. Some want to go back home and URJA helps with the family counseling. They even send a social worker back to their villages with them to help them settle in again if need be. "Sometimes they refuse to take the girl back due to the stigma associated with her having left home," explains Charu. Charu works as a fundraiser for URJA, a tough assignment as they try to meet their yearly expenses of almost Rs 10 million (Rs 1 crore) through donations and grants.
Deepali herself has got married along the way and, realising the importance of education, she finished her bachelor's degree in psychology and economics and a master's in economics from Mumbai University. When we meet, she is pursuing an MBA at Jamnalal Bajaj through evening classes. She's 36 but her appetite for learning and bettering herself is undiminished.
We have finished chatting but Deepali and Charu tell me other girls' life stories and I am engrossed. Rape is a common theme in the stories but some sound inhuman. Lives of girls often destroyed by their own fathers, brothers, husbands and even mothers. Stories that, as a mother, I find hard to come to terms with.
But I inhabit a different world and at the moment it feels like I inhabit a different planet. I take a look at the crisis center before I leave. It's a small but clean space. There are 10-11 girls around and they look normal. No one is sobbing or crying or appears particularly disturbed. Yet here they are, robbed of so many things we take for granted. Family-less, friend-less, love-less and in many cases hope-less.
I have spent many more hours than I had anticipated at URJA but suddenly time seems irrelevant. My next appointment, day, week, month and year, all seem irrelevant. But I plod on and reach the next venue. The person I meet after URJA asks me how my last meeting was. I am at a loss for words.
Poscript: Devi's name is changed to protect her identity.