Lost, not found
Three years ago, Sajda Khatoon, 15, was gradually replacing the contents of her battered tin trunk. Over the course of several months, the teenager discarded her dolls and toys to make room for nail polish and lipstick.
"Our little girl was growing up," said her father Salil Ahmed Khatoon, 60, who lives in a two-room house in a slum in Varanasi, where he also owns a darning shop. "She was becoming a woman."
Then one summer day Sajda vanished.
She was home alone; her mother was away visiting her parents, while her father and her brother were at the shop. They returned in the evening to an empty house.
All night, the family knocked on doors of neighbours in the slum and called relatives. But nobody had heard from Sajda.
"I almost couldn't breathe that night," said Momina Khatoon, 55, her mother.
Sajda is among thousands of Indian children who go missing every year. In Varanasi alone, 27 children went missing in 2010, according to Guriya, a local non-profit group that is a partner of Child Rights and You, a national NGO.
More than 60,000 children were reported missing in India in 2009, a 35% increase from 44,000 in 2004, according to Bachpan Bachao Andolan, a Delhi-based non-profit group. (See 'How many missing?' on the right.) Also, only 40 per cent of these children are eventually traced.
Part of the problem is the police's handling of cases of missing children. When Sajda's mother, Momina went to the police to report her daughter missing, for instance, the police refused to file a first information report, or FIR. Instead, they merely made a station diary entry. The police are duty-bound to investigate an FIR but not a station diary entry. (See 'What do the police do?' on the right.)
Another problem is that the vast majority of missing children come from working-class families, who lack the networks and resources to help in an investigation. (They also lack the resources to closely supervise their children, which explains why more of them go missing in the first place.)
Sajda's parents, for instance, had just one photograph of their daughter, a passport-sized one on her Class 8 report card showing a plump teenager with her hair neatly tied back in a ponytail. Momina was upset when the constables at a police station in Jaitapura, a district in Varanasi, refused to investigate her complaint.
"They said, 'She must be around. Don't worry'," Momina claimed. "My daughter could have been taken anywhere. How could I sit quiet?"
Momina has every reason to worry. North-eastern Uttar Pradesh, with its porous 800-kilometre border with Nepal, is one of India's child-trafficking hot spots, according to a report on missing children published last month by Child Rights and You.
The big trafficking routes begin in Nepal and Bangladesh, go through India, and culminate in the Gulf states and European countries. For instance, girls from Nepal end up as sex workers, boys from India end up in the Gulf states as riders in illegal camel races. About five lakh children under 18 are part of India's sex trade, according to the Child Rights and You report. (See 'What happens to them?' on the right.)
Despite the police's indifference, Momina returned to the station every three days, forcing them to at least appear to do something.
A constable slyly remarked to her that instead of looking for Sajda she should look for a young boy who had also disappeared around the same time, implying that Sajda had run away with him, Momina said.
But nothing concrete happened, so Momina decided to do something herself. "I met every young boy's mother in the area. I interrogated all her friends," she said. "I wanted to leave no lead unexplored."
Three months later, with the help of Child Rights and You, the police rescued a thirteen-year-old girl, a native of a neighbouring district in Varanasi, from a brothel in Mumbai and brought her back home. This girl said she had seen Sajda lying drugged on a couch in the same brothel. "I thought I'd found her," said Momina.
She was wrong.
Three months after this incident, the police finally filed an FIR about Sajda's disappearance.
A year later, another relative claimed that he had spotted Sajda dancing with eunuchs at a fair in Delhi. The next day, Momina travelled to Delhi and visited the fair. She also scoured the city's red light districts, showing everyone she could the lone photo of her daughter.
For Momina, going to Delhi has now become an annual ritual. "I go back every year to the same fair to look for Sajda," she said. "I've made at least a hundred copies of her photograph."
At home, Sajda's trunk lies just the way she left it three years ago; only, her nail paints have dried up, the bottles now sharing space with copies of letters that her parents have written to various authorities, including to Uttar Pradesh's chief minister Mayawati.
Momina fears that the only photograph she has of Sajda will soon be of little help.
"She must have grown up now," he father said. "She must look like her mother."
On certain days, he is convinced that Sajda is dead. "I see her mangled body in my dreams," he said. "But on others, she comes and sings to me."
Her mother nods her head. "She is alive. She is alive."