The Balika Vadhus of Bombay

Crime

The Balika Vadhus of Bombay

Illustration: Akshita Monga

R

ashmi’s house sits on the edge of a fetid nullah, filled with waste of unknown measure and molecule. A menacing moat stands between Sathe Nagar and the rest of the world. Sathe Nagar is one of the many shanty towns, which make up the Mankhurd-Govandi slums in eastern Mumbai. They all clump hodgepodge, one over another, at the base of the Deonar dumping grounds, the toxic sprawl where the metropolis deposits its wastes. The only way in and out of Sathe Nagar is a wooden plank placed precariously over it. Visitors have to walk in a single file over the plank and a misstep could mean getting dunked into the squelching, stinking sprawl beneath. Even if you survive the plank, the smell follows you into the cluster of homes, which sit on the other side.

The squalor around does not seem to have touched Rashmi. The dusky 14-year-old, with sharp features and a delicate gold nose ring, sits happily in her shanty, telling me excitedly about her wedding preparations that went down last month. Her small hands still decorated with the orange imprint of fading mehendi gesture animatedly, as she tells me about the beautiful red lehenga with heavy gota work that she had bought for her nikah ceremony.

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Her elder sister got married two years ago and Rashmi knew that she was next, when her neighbours started bringing up names and photographs of young men. The vision of a wedding and a groom, were not unwelcome to the young girl. It excited her greatly, this break in her otherwise daily drudge as a domestic help in nearby Chembur.

The idea of the wedding has so enamoured this teen that the thought of marriage has not even entered her mind.  “Jaisa filmon main hota haina waise,” she says, when I ask her, her voice suddenly coy. Rashmi, even now, has no idea about the man she was about to marry, not even a glimpse of the labourer from West Bengal who was to be her husband. She remembers vaguely seeing a photograph, but when I quiz her about him she seems uninterested. She wants to talk about the lehenga.

Two men in their early 20s, both gardeners, who practised their trade in the rural interiors of Maharashtra, were chosen as suitable matches by “helpful” neighbours. The same neighbours insisted that the two sisters were not underage.

But Rashmi never got to wear the red lehenga. Childline, a non-profit that works for protection of children’s rights, intervened on a tip-off from a relative, just days before the nikah and Rashmi was whisked away to a shelter for young women. She would be released only when her parents promised to send her back to school.

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Popular imagination maintains that child marriage is an evil restricted to the hinterland of Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, or Rajasthan, where people refuse to let go of an outmoded, damaging tradition. But the practice is rampant right here, in modern Mumbai, the city of dreams, steel towers, sky apartments, and sea links.

All the chrome and glitter of Mumbai is far away from this maze of a mishappen suburbia, which still does not have a proper drainage system and where clean water is a rare commodity; the legal age of marriage is a number which means nothing. The wasteland has the lowest human development index in the city and one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. Young brides become young mothers who regularly lose children to malnutrition and disease. Girls as young as 12 become child brides here.

Just a few weeks before Rashmi’s aborted wedding, two sisters were rescued while on their way to the altar. The sisters were hostile. When they were asked about their age, they told the police that they were 20 and 21 years old respectively.

The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 defines “child” as a female who has not completed eighteen years of age and a male who is not yet twenty-one years old. The two girls did not look like they had crossed that threshold. But they insisted that they wanted to leave and get married to the two young men, who too had been taken into custody.

“Hamara naam kharab ho gaya, ab kaun shaadi karega hamse,” was the biggest fear. A marriage, however disadvantageous, looked like the ticket out of the deprivation, which surrounded them. The sisters lived in the slums with their grandmother and three younger siblings. Their parents had passed away years ago and it was the on scraps of the already impoverished neighbourhood that they survived. Marriage then, seemed like a solution to everything. Marriage, at least, seemed to promise regular food.

Two men in their early 20s, both gardeners, who practised their trade in the rural interiors of Maharashtra, were chosen as suitable matches by “helpful” neighbours. The same neighbours insisted that the two sisters were not underage. They insisted they had known the girl for some two decades, they were sure. “Itne saal kahan par the, jab bhook se mar rahe the yeh log,” they turned to rescuers with anger.

The rescuers refused to engage. They whisked the girls away to a shelter where they would be tested using bone density to gauge their real age. At the shelter, they were offered food and water, but they refused. It was their wedding day and they did not want to break the customary fast. The results came in that very day. The girls were 15 years old.

Rashmi wasn’t like the two sisters. Her circumstances were perhaps not as dire. She didn’t protest the crushing of her wedding dreams. She’d got to live most of them through the lehenga and the meagre trousseau that had been collected for her. It doesn’t matter to her that the actual wedding didn’t work out.

Like most young girls, Rashmi has quickly moved onto new plans. She now hopes to finish school and get a job. Her parents are too scared to attempt another round until she reaches the legal age. Marriage will happen when it does. And hopefully at that time, Rashmi will be excited about more than just her lehenga.

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