When Dipti, 14, came out of the Sai Baba temple near the Ghatkopar (junction) signal, she stood speechless. A few metres away stood someone familiar yet strange, her head tonsured, a tattoo on her forehead, a brass locket hanging from a black string around her neck. She held a begging bowl. Her eyes spoke of pain.
As Dipti took a closer look, her worst fears were realised. It was Parvati, her best friend from school, who had gone missing on March 22. The two had met that very day, spending the evening together and sharing panipuri near 90 feet road, before waving goodbye to each other.
When Dipti called out her name, Parvati stood still, her eyes wild with fear: “They are watching. They will catch you too, torture you and make you beg like me. Go away,” her transformed friend entreated. Shocked, Dipti ran home. She narrated everything to her father.
By the next morning, Dipti had persuaded her father to accompany her to the same spot, with a few local policemen. And sure enough, Parvati was there. The police officers took Parvati with them, and drove her to the children’s home at Dongri. The next day, a middle-aged woman, who called herself Jenabai, came to claim her and a few others also rescued from Dharavi. Seeing her, Parvati became hysterical.
“One of our volunteers understood what she was saying in Tamil,” said Navnath Kamble, rescue programme manager of Pratham. “Parvati revealed that Jenabai had kidnapped her and tortured her for days, before forcing her into begging,” Kamble said. The Dongri police was informed and Jenabai was taken into custody. Following her interrogation, the police apprehended her fivemember gang, which ran the begging racket. The rescuers learnt about the brutality that the gang members subjected the children to, before thrusting them into begging and living off their earnings. The gang consisted of three women and two men.
The sustained torture broke the spirit of these children, who never attempted to flee, or ask for help.
After Parvati, a native of Tamil Nadu, lost her mother, her father sent her to Mumbai to live with her aunt, eight months before she was kidnapped. She was enrolled in a local municipal school where Tamil was taught. “She understands only Tamil,” said Sharmistha Khandagle, prevention programme coordinator for Pratham. On the day she went missing, Parvati, after parting ways with Dipti, lost her way. Disoriented, she wandered about, the language barrier preventing her from asking for help. “Jenabai and her gang, who are always on the lookout for such children, trapped her,” said Khandagle.
Parvati told the police she was lodged in an isolated place, the location of which was later traced to Ramabai Colony in Ghatkopar.
“They gave me food on the first day. But from the second day, it became infrequent. I would be hit repeatedly with a wooden plank, and they would brand my body with a red-hot rod. The torture continued for about a week,” she told Khandagle.
Before she was put into begging, her head was tonsured. A tattoo was etched on her forehead. “The tattoo is a mark of that tribe. That is how they managed to erase her identity completely,” said Kamble.
(Names of children have been changed to protect their identity)