January 19, 2020
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Escape On Memory Train

It's a tale of two lives, of abduction, sale, rescue and return. Of 16 years Rehana took to remember.

Escape On Memory Train
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IT'S a modern-day fairy tale. Of little Rehana, the wolf and the saviour, in this case a butcher with a heart of gold. A tale in which Rehana came back from the dead and was reunited  with her family after 16 long years, unable even to speak her native Bengali.

The story has its genesis in Barhra, about 200 km northwest of Calcutta. A fairly crowded Muslim-dominated area, it has no local industry, and economic activity is limited. The youth try and escape the poverty by moving to nearby Ranchi, Calcutta, or further away to other states as daily labourers, office peons or household help. For the rest, life revolves around the village ponds, marketplace and paddy fields.

There seemed nothing amiss that morning 16 years ago when 11-year-old Rehana (then known as Raihan) set out for her grandmother's house a few kms away. Four days had passed since her father's death; the house was teeming with relatives and she'd had enough of it. On the way she was accosted by Tikai, a young man in his early 20s who had struck up a friendship with her sometime back. According to Rehana, now 27 and settled happily in Siwal village, Meerut, memories of that day are blurred.

 "All I remember is Tikai offered to get me on to the right bus to my nani's village," she says, in the local dialect of Meerut district. She claims that he offered her tea before boarding the bus and the next thing she remembers is being on a train. "I was still so groggy and frightened that I couldn't even ask where I was being taken." Two days later, Rehana found herself in a large Hindu homestead set amongst sugarcane fields in a strange land where everybody spoke a different language. Tikai left her there telling her it was his sister's house and that he'd be back two days later.

"But he never came back," says Rehana. What she didn't know was she'd been sold for Rs 3,000 to the family, essentially sugarcane farmers of village Nek, about 20 km from Meerut town. She was now a bonded labourer made to work all day in the fields and at the house with no respite.

Back in Barhra, Rehana's mother Tahira Bibi started getting worried after Rehana did not return from her grandmother's. Says Rehana's sister Fazila, who works as a housekeeper in a Delhi family: "We were devastated when we realised she'd never reached her destination. Enquiries led us nowhere although we had our suspicions about Tikai since we had noticed him following Raihan around."

Fazila's version differs slightly from Rehana's though. According to her, Tikai probably offered marriage, a comfortable home, and given the economic conditions Rehana fell into his trap. There's no illegal trafficking in women or girls from Barhra by any organised gang. "Raihan's case was unique and we haven't heard of any similar incident," says Akhtar, Rehana's brother. Adds Tahira's daughter-in-law: "Mostly our girls go to Meerut in UP or Kashmere Gate in Delhi, if not to Arab countries as wives. They maintain their links with us." With no leads to follow, Tahira gave up on her eighth child, little knowing that a unique series of events was taking place in faraway Meerut.

Three months passed. Abdur Rahim, a butcher from Siwal village, 18 km from Meerut, would pass through Nek every morning on his way to his shop. And everyday he'd find a little girl crying. One day he stopped and questioned her and out came Raihan's story in broken Hindi. Promising help, he returned to Siwal carrying the tale of how a Muslim girl was being held by a Hindu. Abdur Rahim has since passed away but his widow Baskari fills in on the story.

"The entire village was indignant about a Muslim girl being held as bonded labour by a Hindu, a chamar at that," she says. "We couldn't let it happen. It was Allah's hukum." Other villagers nod in unison. "We spend Rs 3,000 buying a buffalo. Allah had brought a child to our doorstep. It was our duty to help her. So all of us contributed Rs 10, 20, whatever, and raised the money the farmer had paid to get the girl. It was only fair he got back what he had spent, but we couldn't let him keep her," they explain.

HAVING collected the money, Abdur Rahim first went to the local police station to inform the authorities about what he was about to do. Says Baskari: "The police were very cooperative. They only warned us not to resort to any violence." The village folk are, however, reluctant to reveal the identity of the farmer. Perhaps fearing that any revival of the issue might lead to communal violence.

The thread of the story is picked up by Raihan herself. She entered Abdur Rahim's household rechristened Rehana and was brought up as a daughter, one more among their six other children. "I felt no fear in coming away with him. The thought that he might sell me off again, this time even to a brothel, didn't even enter my mind. I just trusted him," says Rehana. And she wasn't wrong. But while Rehana was saved from a fate which might have even led to sexual exploitation, the traumatic experience took its toll. She couldn't remember the name of her village and all efforts to contact her family came to nought.

"We did the next best thing we could," says Baskari. With Rehana's permission they married her off. To Salamuddin, who now works as a peon at St Michael's, the local missionary school. Did he have a problem marrying a girl who didn't know where she was from? "None at all," says Salamuddin, "she's a wonderful wife."

Rehana's in-laws echo his words. Rehana smiles shyly and says: "All I could think was 'Can Allah reside in so many people?'" The story doesn't end here with a mere happily ever after. A joint family of innumerable in-laws, five children and an adopted paternal home didn't take away the pictures she carried in her head of her mother, brothers and sisters. She'd even forgotten how to speak the language but she never stopped mourning.

Says Salamuddin: "I'd tell her to forget about it but in my heart I knew it was impossible. So when a girl from a neigh-bouring village got married to Majid, a vegetable seller in Ranchi, I borrowed Rs 5,000 and took her for a visit in June this year, hoping the holiday would do her good." Little did he know it would be the turning point in all their lives.

The Ranchi railway station stirred dormant memories of how daily labourers and vendors from her village would take the local trains every day to sell their wares in Ranchi and neighbouring areas. Majid, who also runs a small paan shop near the station, hit upon an idea. For three days he distributed notes among local train passengers, describing how Rehana had been lost hoping somebody would remember.

Somebody did. And informed her family in Barhra. "After all this time, one person recognises her at Ranchi and we get her back...it's Allah's will," says Tahira. Brother Akhtar, however, can't control his anger. "The people responsible for what happened to her are obviously criminals and must be dealt with sternly," he says. What he does not talk about is the whispers in the village that a few years ago unidentified assailants hacked Tikai, allegedly responsible for the deed, to pieces. But no one seems to know who did it. All that's swamped by the month-long jubilation that went on in Tahira's home. There's much amusement that Rehana is now a proper 'north Indian' and can't speak Bengali.

Back in Meerut, the jubilation matches that in Barhra. "It was only right she should have found her family," says Rehana's sister-in-law Makhbooli. As for Baskari, the pleasure glows on her face. "I always prayed my daughter would one day get back what she'd lost 16 years ago. My husband who felt guilty till the very end that he couldn't trace her family will finally rest in peace." As for Rehana herself, all she can say is: "I lost one family. Maybe it was ordained. Now I have three and that's much more than I could've asked for."

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