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Child, interrupted

Children in Nithari have a new bedtime ritual. When they refuse to turn in for the day, their parents say, “Sleep, or Moninder will come and get you.” Neha Tara Mehta, tells us more.

delhi Updated: Dec 23, 2007 00:17 IST
Neha Tara Mehta

Children in Nithari have a new bedtime ritual. When they refuse to turn in for the day, their parents say, “Sleep, or Moninder will come and get you.” Sleep descends on the frightened children quickly thereafter — and so do the nightmares.

It has been nearly a year since the village — and the world — woke up to the horror of skeletal remains of 15 children being unearthed from a drain in a rich businessman’s backyard in Noida’s upscale Sector 31. D-5, Moninder Singh Pandher’s bungalow bordering Nithari went on to become the global metaphor for the defiling of innocent lives. Even as the trial against Moninder and his Man Friday, Surinder Koli continues, much has changed for the children of Nithari who managed to escape ending up as shards of bone, pieces of flesh and tattered clothes in a drain.

Paranoid parenting
With each skeleton that was unearthed at D-5, out came the skeleton that we as a nation had stashed away collectively in our cupboards — that of rampant child sex abuse in the country. But Nithari’s parents — many of them migrants eking out a living as cooks, dhobis, maids, gardeners and construction workers in the affluent Sector 31 — still won’t talk to their children about the evils of child sex abuse. Too unlettered to know that they live in a country where children are sexually abused more than anywhere else in the world, with one child under 16 being raped every 155th minute, they just know what they have learnt the brutal way: strangers cannot be trusted with their children. And that danger often lurks close
to home.

Since they can’t bring themselves to teach their children about good touch versus bad touch, they point towards D-5 and tell them that those who stray far from home will be butchered and their organs sold. They teach their children to fear an invisible predator who they are convinced is on the prowl for their child. “If the guru is in jail, ten of his chelas must still be around to pick up our children,” says Kamla, a maid in a Sector 31 kothi, who goes to work only after locking up her three children.

Nithari’s children aren’t allowed to play anymore. If they do, it’s almost always under their parents’ worried eyes — close to home or school. If they manage to sneak out and go to their favourite parks, it is never with the same abandon as before. If they are a few minutes late from school, irate parents turn up in droves and accuse teachers of kidnapping them.

The fear has rubbed onto the kids. “It’s not just our parents who stop us. We don’t want to go far off ourselves anymore,” says Vinod, 11. Till a year ago, he used to go to Sector 31 to pick ber from the parks. That’s a strict no-no now. “I don’t want to end up as a skeleton in a drain, with my kidneys sold off,” he says gravely. Thirteen-year-old Karan has stopped going to his favourite chole ki dukaan, a stone’s throw from D-5. “I hear children screaming when I cross the Khooni Kothi and feel breathless and giddy,” he says.

Cracks in the community
Child-care has cleaved the intensely parochial migrants. The Bengalis don’t trust fellow Bengalis with their children anymore, the Biharis the Biharis, the Oriyas the Oriyas, the Nepalis the Nepalis, the Rajasthanis the Rajasthanis. “You don’t know who the enemy is anymore. It’s the people close to you who can hurt you the most,” says Roshni, an Oriya mother, who works as a construction worker. She doesn’t need to read the Ministry of Women and Child Development report on child sex abuse to know that many child offenders are known to children and trusted by them. She has stopped her children from eating at the neighbour’s place. “What if they drug the children?”
she asks.

But it’s mostly the kothiwalas that these migrants say they can’t trust anymore. The cooks, dhobis, maids, gardeners and construction workers say they came to the big city to give their children a Better Life, but would rather give them a Safe Life now by returning to their native villages. The kothiwalas have their own angst. “Last year, I had 150 students from all over Noida coming to the tuition center I run in my house. Now, I have less than 15. Nobody wants to send their children to Sector 31 anymore,” says a Sector 31 resident.
And in a country obsessed with fair girls, Nithari is perhaps the only village that doesn’t want its girls to be fair. “It was only the fair ones who were picked up. Like my daughter Jyoti — who was as fair and beautiful as the children in the kothis. Now the other parents don’t let their fair children out of sight,” says Jhabbu Lal, a dhobi who ironed Moninder’s clothes — before his daughter ended up in the
latter’s drain.

Growing up on conspiracy theories
It’s difficult to get the children of Nithari to talk to you — since all strangers are to be distrusted. But once you win their trust, you realise that as far as they are concerned, investigations into the serial killings aren’t necessary. Every other child here is a sleuth in his or her own right, fed by inaccurate information peddled by misinformed peers. The adults don’t explain things to the children, so they have formed their own half-baked theories to make sense of what actually happened in D-5. “Those men used to spy on the children through a car with double mirrors. They could see the children — but the children couldn’t see them. They also had a sound-proof house — so nobody heard the children scream,” says Kamla, 9.

And since the adults are too shy to talk about child sex abuse, the children’s favourite conspiracy theory is that the killings were a result of a huge organ-selling racket. “That man made so much money by selling children’s livers that he could raise a palace in Noida,” says Nandini, a class VI student.

But why — you ask them — were the children picked up? “Because children are god’s form,” says Rahul, 14. His brother Jatin, 12, counters him, “Children don’t know what is right and what is wrong, so they are easy to attract with sweets and toys.” Jatin reasons that the children will be safe only when they become adults. “That’s when they will learn to pick out the good people from the bad ones. Also, they will then be earning themselves and won’t be tempted to take gifts from strangers.”

Living in an infamous place
The trauma of living in a place as infamous as Nithari threatens to precipitate into a serious complex for the children. “Nothing seems right here anymore,” says Sonali, 9. “When we go out of Nithari, no rickshawallah wants to bring us back,” says Rohit, a class V student. “I went for a wedding in Rajasthan and everyone there said, ‘You have come from the Khooni Kothi.’ So now, if anyone asks where I live, I will simply say — I live in Noida. Not Nithari,” says Sangeeta, 10. That, to her, does not amount to telling a lie — something she stopped doing a year ago. “I lied a lot earlier. Now I am scared that if I lie, someone will come and kill me and sell my body parts.”

But not telling lies hasn’t put an end to Sangeeta’s nightmares of dead, mutilated children and men with daggers. And until she is helped, the ghosts may continue to crowd the young child’s fragile egg-shell mind.

(Some names have been changed)