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Rukshana: 'It's easy to fall in love, but very difficult to endure it'


Photo: Ashima Narain

First thing when we wake up, we wrap up all our bedding and hide it in a tree. It’s a 10-minute walk from the bridge where we sleep, over the railway tracks near Mahim station. Then I take my sister Deepa to the toilets near the station. We wash our faces, brush our teeth and then go to Uncle’s tea stall at Platform 1. After that we go to Bandra for breakfast, and then start work.

We go to the shelter outside Dadar station [Mahim, Bandra and Dadar – and the names that follow below – are all areas in Mumbai or suburbs], take our goods from the locker and go into the local trains to sell them. I sell trinkets, clips, cookery and henna pattern books in the trains. Before we had the locker we used to keep all our stuff under our heads and sleep. Even when you sleep, you have to be alert. If you are deep in sleep, not only will someone take your goods, they can also pick you up and take you. It happened to one girl I know. A gang of boys picked her up and took her to Dadar Tilak bridge and did bad things to her. She had to have stitches. The boys were taken to the police station. She cried for many days. Everyone said to her: ‘You are disgraced!’ She thought: ‘Whatever I do I am shamed, so why should I live like this?’ That’s why she chose to go into wrong work as a prostitute.

At one o’clock, we go for lunch at Bandra Platform 7, Hotel Bismillah [a café; eating places are often called ‘hotels’ in India]. It’s my favourite place. The boy I was supposed to marry worked there. That’s why I go there. He left long back, but still I go. Now he works with a caterer. Sometimes he comes to meet me. He cries and says: ‘If only we had gotten married.’ My mother used to love him a lot. But I didn’t marry him. I was forced to marry someone else.

After lunch, we rest for an hour. Then we are in the trains till 9pm. After that, it’s back to a café to eat and drink tea. Then to sleep at Mahim or, if I feel like it, Virar station [Mumbai’s most distant suburb]. We just put down some newspaper sheets and sleep. At Virar station it’s great – no tension of boys or police. Here in Mahim, boys come and harass us.

If the police catch us when we are selling we have to pay 500 rupees [$11]. Once a police officer caught us and asked me to pay him regularly. I told him: ‘What money? I am poor. I don’t have money to eat, from where will I pay your bribe?’ Then a shoe-shine boy who is my friend gave Rs 10 [about 25 cents] to him. The police officer told me: ‘From tomorrow you will have to give money.’ I haven’t paid once yet.

Rukshana jostles through a packed women-only compartment of Mumbai's local trains selling trinkets, hairpins and song and pattern books.

Photo: Ashima Narain

We bathe and wash clothes at a bathroom in Bandra. They charge Rs 20 [50 cents]. We wait there an hour or two until they dry. Deepa climbs up to hide our clothes on the roof of the station: I’m too scared to do it.

I don’t let Deepa work. If I have to travel for a catering job, I leave her with some people we know in Santa Cruz and give them some money to look after her. When I go for catering work, I have to roll chapattis, wash vessels, serve food, from 9am to 12 midnight. I get Rs 80-100 [$2] per day. If we sell trinkets in the trains we get Rs 100-200. Catering work is less money, but I go because I like it. We learn good work like cleaning vessels. When I have my own house, I will have to do this work.

We work all day. We go to watch a film three to five times a week. I like family dramas and movies with Mithun – he is our Bengali hero, from our state.

I hate boys because I have been cheated. If anyone says ‘I will marry you’, I get very angry

I hate boys because I have been cheated. My husband left me. Whenever any boys talk to me I get angry but if they talk to me nicely, like a friend, then I don’t mind. If anyone says ‘I will marry you’, I get very angry. In Bandra, one boy was teasing me. Until then I had never lifted my hand on anyone, but I took a stone and threw it at his head. He fell down like a football. Ha ha!

You know, many boys are after me – nice boys. One is from a very good family. His mother writes dialogues in films. I can be in such a big family, me – a girl who lives on the pavement. He ran away from home saying he wanted to marry no other girl but me. He tells me: ‘If I can’t marry you I’ll kill myself.’ I tell him: ‘I beg of you, please don’t.’ His mother came two or three times to take me to their home, but I didn’t go.

My friends are Kajal and Gulista. My close friend is Pinky, who has been with me since we were small children. Earlier Pinky had gone into the wrong kind of work in Grant road [red light area]. Then after listening to us she left it. Hakim – her man – does coolie work in Bandra station. Some have settled down in their own homes. Some have gone to live in institutions in Lonavla [a hill town close to Mumbai].

Last week my sister Deepa got lost. I went to Vashi [a distant suburb] for catering work. I told her: ‘Go and get some clothes, I have to go for five days, and then meet me at the park.’ While she was waiting for me in the garden, she’d started talking to a woman. The woman told her: ‘Come with me. I will look after you.’ That lady took her on a crowded train so she couldn’t escape and went directly to Malad [a distant suburb]. Then she hit her a lot and put her in wrong work. But after some days, Deepa ran away.

Family fortunes

Deepa and Rukshana, inseparable sisters.

Photo: Ashima Narain

I want to put Deepa in a boarding school. She doesn’t like to be away from me for even a second. She shouldn’t ruin her life like me. Her life will improve. She will learn to read and write, and meet different people. She was very small when our mother died. I cried so much and was so upset that I fell ill. Deepa looked after me. She was the only one. That’s why she doesn’t leave me.

Even I was taken into wrong work. One day I told Deepa: ‘You sell the stuff. I am going out with my friend to watch a film.’ My friend took me to a place in Bombay Central. There, she took some money from a man and told me: ‘Go into my room.’ She took off my dupatta [cloth worn draped over the shoulders]. I asked her what she was doing. She said: ‘Take off your dupatta and go to sleep.’ How could I if that man was there? I put my dupatta on, kicked the man in his pants, and ran out.

Our village is in Murshidabad, West Bengal. My two brothers live in the village. Both are married. My younger brother loves me a lot. But how can I live with them? He has five children and no house. When my father was ill, he asked his brother – my uncle – to leave all his land in his children’s names. You know what my uncle did? He put it all in his name. My father died and my uncle removed us from our house. He is the one who threw us into problems. He brought us to Kings Circle in Mumbai, made us work and didn’t give us anything to eat. We almost died of starvation. My mother cried a lot. She told me: ‘My daughter, do honest work to eat. Don’t go on the wrong path.’ Since then I have worked hard and come up. There is no question of going astray.

When we lived in Kings Circle our two brothers were with us. No-one would give my brothers work, and my mother was very weak. She was very hungry, very hungry. I used to go to beg to look after her. One day my mother started beating me a lot. She said: ‘You shouldn’t beg. It’s not good.’ So I told her: ‘Mummy, I don’t like it if you are hungry.’ My mother was angry. I was small: nine or ten years old.

Then we moved to Panvel [a township at the edge of the city] where my elder brother worked on a construction site. I stopped begging and started selling trinkets on the train. Then my mother fell ill. I also used to work in homes – washing, cleaning and sweeping. And with that money, I looked after my mother with food and medicines. I don’t know how to cook, but I used to make food for my mother. I used to start work at 8am and come home late – 1am – and feed my mum. I spent at least Rs 15,000-20,000 [$340-450] looking after her. I worked hard, all on my own.

My elder brother used to hit my mother. One day, I told him you are not my brother and started abusing him with very filthy words. I told him: ‘You are beating my mother. You should fall off a building and die.’ He actually fell off the sixth floor of a building while he was working, but he didn’t die [laughs]. Do sinners ever die?

My mother died two years back when I was 13. When she died, my brother threw me out of the house in Panvel. He told me: ‘Go to the boy with whom your marriage has been arranged.’ My mother had fixed my marriage. She had told his family: ‘Wait for two years until my daughter becomes big and then we will have the wedding.’ In our community we get married very young. My brother gave me Rs 50 [a little over $1]. With the Rs 50 I went to Surat [a city in neighbouring Gujarat state] to look for him. I looked everywhere, but I couldn’t find him. Then I came back and kept searching in Mumbai, but I still didn’t find him.

The vanishing husband

I was sitting outside a café and crying. One woman came up to me and took me. She said she would give me work. ‘I have a big house in a four-storey building.’ That’s what she told me. I said: ‘No, I don’t want to go. You will take me and eat me up.’ She took me to Marine Lines beach. She used to show me to all the boys and take money. I used to cry a lot. There was one boy – he was a nice boy – she forced me to marry him. She said: ‘You have no parents to support you. This boy will look after you.’ So she got me married.

Then someone accused my husband of murder. They put a police case on us. We ran to my village. From there my husband left me and went to his village. I didn’t go with him. I was scared.

I don’t want to marry again now, but later. Once I become someone and show the world, then I will get married. Now I am still a child. Marriage is no small matter. It’s easy to fall in love, but very difficult to endure it.

God knows what these Mumbai boys are like. They’ll take you on the excuse of going back to the village and instead kill you somewhere. My husband said he would be back in three days. And he never came back. It’s been one and a half years and he hasn’t come back.

So here I am in Mumbai. We all sleep together – four or five of us single girls on the bridge at Mahim. It’s difficult for girls to live alone on the street. There are people so horrible that they won’t even leave a one-year-old girl alone.

Most street kids live at railway stations. Some are begging or pickpocketing, others are addicted to solution [glue]. I have never even picked up another person’s penny. I get very scared. And I’ve never tried drugs. Many boys have offered them to me but I abuse them and chase them away.

I really want to learn to read and write and then get married. I hate boys after what happened to me. Until I improve, I won’t get married. I don’t even know how to cook. I should learn properly. Then I should get a proper house – make something of my life and show people. I should have some gold jewellery of my own. Then my life will be stable.


Soon after telling her story, Rukshana left for a catering job, but then vanished for weeks. Finally her friend Pinky told us that Rukshana had moved in with a new boyfriend, Raju. Pinky took us to meet Rukshana in her new home: a small bamboo shanty in a slum [see photo below].

Rukshana was happy playing the housewife. She had given up work to look after the home while Raju went to work as a painter at a construction site. She had met Raju through a common friend and had known him for several months. Then he had disappeared for six months, on catering assignments. He returned with enough money to rent a house and asked Rukshana to join him. Deepa lived with them and had enrolled in a local school.

It looked like ‘happily ever after’... but street life rarely is. A second visit to her new home brought a shock. Rukshana, Deepa and Raju had packed up and gone.

Wake up sleepyhead! Rukshana photographs Raju, who managed to win her trust.

Photo: Rukshana

Rukshana spoke to Dionne Bunsha, a journalist for Frontline magazine and a frequent contributor to the NI.

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