I have never met anyone of royalty before, but last week I couldn’t help but feel that I was in the presence of nobility. Maybe it was her dignified gait, her confident posture, her thoughtful responses; I don’t know. I kept thinking that in another setting this woman would have made a fine queen, a fine prime minister, ruling with strength and compassion; If not a queen or prime minister, then in yet another setting, certainly a teacher who would pass on to her students her yearning to learn. But in the setting into which she was born, she, through no choice of her own, became a prostitute. As I listened to Shanti tell her story, I kept thinking evil had deprived the world of a noble and powerful woman from her rightful place in this world.
Shanti was born in Nepal and married by the age of 12, but she continued to live with her parents. As culture dictated, she would go and live with her husband and his family at the age of 16, when she grew from a girl to a woman, the same age that girls in other parts of the world would be celebrating their sweet sixteen’s. Plans unravelled when her parents died shortly after the marriage ceremony. She was forced to move to her husband’s home at the age of 12. Shanti, a young child, mourning the loss of both her parents, scared of her new surroundings, found a female member of her new husband’s family to be especially kind and attentive. Shanti trusted her, a trust that would lead to the greatest betrayal in her life. The trust was used as bait to sell Shanti into the brothels of Mumbai.
I didn’t have to prompt Shanti to share her story or ask probing questions. She sat down and talked for almost an hour without pausing. Decades later, the pain of that betrayal was still fresh and raw. We came in contact with Shanti through her daughters who are with us at the Academy. Her only concern in revealing her story was about the impact it might have on her daughters. I assured her that no danger would come to them. Shanti went on with her story; she spoke about the horror of realizing what it was she was being forced to do at the tender age of 12; however, even at that young age there was something in her spirit that refused to surrender her dignity to the evil around her. She fought as best as a 12 year old could fight against organized crime. She tried three times to escape the brothels, each attempt coming closer to freedom, each one snatched away at the final moment. There was a time she jumped out of the second floor of the brothel and landed in a dirty gutter, her body covered in garbage and feces; as she tried to run away, she was caught and beaten without mercy. Another time, she fled when the brothel owner was busy in her prayers; with the help of two kind men, she made it to the train, but just as the train was about to leave the station, her owner’s thugs found her, dragged her out of the train and beat her all the way back to the brothel. She never stopped fighting, fighting for her dignity.
Shanti wanted the dignity of knowing how to read and write in Hindi and English. But the thing with slaveholders are that they never want you to learn, it doesn’t matter what type of slave you are. Frederick Douglass, the ex-slave and great abolitionist, once wrote, “If you teach that n**** (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.” Shanti, knew in her heart, that she was not fit to be a slave so the first chance she got, she learned Hindi. How she did it is amazing; across from her brothel, there was a school being conducted for slum children. She would look out her window into this classroom and listen to the teacher teaching the Hindi alphabet. And as he taught, she would write down the letters in her own notebook. At night, when men would come for business, she would take out the notebook and ask them to answer questions from that day’s lessons. Through this effort, she learned Hindi. And then she began to move towards learning English, but before she could find traction, her brothel owner came into her room one day and found the notebook. She snatched it from Shanti’s hand and tore it up. A literate slave is a dangerous slave. Shanti never learned English.
Years later, she found her escape and through a story too long to get into here, she became the mother of two baby girls who were abandoned. One was abandoned because her birth parents were HIV+ and were not able to care for a child. The other was abandoned because her skin was too dark. Shanti raised both of them up as her own, loving them, providing for them even when she had very little. More than anything, Shanti wanted her girls to grow with dignity. That meant getting an education and learning English. In her quest, she came in touch with Set Beautiful Free, and she enrolled her girls into the Academy.
Last week, Shanti came for the Academy’s Annual Day program. Devaraj invited her to come to the front to light the inaugural candle, a function reserved for special guests of honour. It was obvious that she was beginning to be overcome by the emotions of the event, but she walked to the stage, lit the candle, and went back to her seat trying hard as she could to keep it together. She was successful till the first play started. Her younger daughter, stepped on stage, composed and confident, delivered her lines, all in eloquent English. Shanti was done. Tears flowed down her cheek as she wept openly. Those around her wept with her.
There on the stage in front of her was her dream realized, her daughter, proud, confident, dignified, and most importantly, educated. In that moment, her life had meaning; her painful journey had a purpose.
Try as they did, her captors did not steal Shanti’s dignity; they could not. In fact, instead of destroying her, she defied evil by raising up from the ashes of her life two beautiful girls, girls like her, girls of dignity and nobility.