I’m following Geeta* as she traipses swiftly across rubble from a construction site and moves in and out of lanes – far too swiftly for a small woman hoisting a two-and-a-half-year-old baby on her shoulder. I’m trying to keep up, with Geeta’s other daughter, this one nearly four, as she forms small fingers into a fist so I can close my hand around it like a ball.
“Is it much farther?” I ask, prompted by the rapidly depleting speed of the near four-year-old.
“We wanted it far enough from them, but not too far,” she offers by way of explanation. Soon, we’ve stopped – in front of a house identical to all others in the very narrow gully. A large blue tarpaulin sheet hanging down from one of the balconies sets it apart from the rest.
Listen to what Geeta has to say here:
“Teeno mein se koi bhi floor le sakte hai,” Geeta says, pointing at the brick façade. A woman broker in a black churidar magically appears and confirms this. We can’t go inside now though, there are tenants, maybe later? (When they’ve gone out, she hesitantly promises).
Geeta looks quietly proud of her soon-to-be living quarters. (It’s far from them, she says again). We make the long walk back, a strange company of figures, flitting in and out of labyrinthine passages until we’ve returned to where Geeta and her two daughters currently live.
The house where her youngest – the two-and-a-half-year-old – was raped.
The Rape, the House And Its People
Geeta, her husband Suresh*, their youngest Chhutki (The Quint gave her that name in print during its coverage) and their older daughter Ria* have been living in this house for a year and eight months since it happened. The house stopped feeling safe for them on 28 January 2018.
It hasn’t felt safe since.
Listen to what Suresh has to say here:
On the Sunday morning of that 28th, with Geeta and Suresh out to work – as a house help in some buildings nearby and as a construction worker on sites, respectively – Chhutki and Ria played under the apparent watchful eye of many relatives. (Geeta’s family lives on the second floor, above two floors that housw her husband’s brothers’ families). Only one family lived on the floor above theirs – Chhutki and Ria’s 28-year-old cousin Suraj, his wife and toddler son.
On that Sunday morning, Geeta returned to an eight-month-old baby’s piercing cries of anguish, as she writhed in a pool of blood and stool. Geeta’s heart stopped. She knew instinctively – before the doctor at the clinic, before the doctor at the local hospital, before the team of doctors huddled over her at AIIMS (as directed by a concerned Supreme Court) – that her baby had been raped.
In the months that followed, Suraj confessed to the crime to the cops (but pleaded not guilty to a magistrate), was taken into police and later, judicial custody, the case rolls on in a POCSO courtroom, the public uproar reached a crescendo and then, quietly, died down, and the cameras and the curious onlookers gradually receded from the narrow lane where the house is, leaving only desperate solitude.
A few months earlier, gripped by paranoia over what might happen and a very real fear that their relatives – hostile since Geet and Suresh had reported the rape to the cops – would hurt them, the couple installed four large CCTV cameras in and around the house. The court approved their request, put forward by their public prosecutor.
Last weekend, Suresh said they had decided and it was final – they were going to move out.
A Need to Move
On the phone, Suresh cites relatives.
“Aate jaate gali-galoch, police ko bula dena (abuses fly at us every now and then, the police are informed). They still haven’t gotten over the fact that we went to the cops. And on top of that, that we got Suraj – a boy of the house – arrested.”
If Suresh hasn’t gotten over the shock and disappointment of members of his own family turning their backs on him – “none of them came to see Chhutki when she was in the hospital, but they all came to the police station shouting at us to take the case back” – Geeta is indignant at the alleged cold shouldering of her two kids.
“People in the locality know what happened. Sometimes they’ll whisper, sometimes they point. They don’t have playmates here. I’m afraid myself to let them out of my sight. Bade bhi ho rahe hai na dono. Kisine kuch bata diya toh (They are growing up, what if someone bares the truth someday?”
She says she doesn’t want her kids to know what had happened. Not even when they are grown up? It will hurt them, she says. Plus what if kids at school or college judged them? Moving away will help, she insists.
Do Ria and Chhutki know they are moving?
“Nahi,” says Geeta. “Hum bata nahi rahe hai. Tabhi toh unke chhote hote waqt hi nikal rahe hai…. Nahi toh poochte, hum kyun ja rahe hai? (No, we haven’t informed them yet, else they would ask why.) ”
Geeta and Suresh assert they are doing this primarily for mental peace – of all four involved.
“We don’t want to leave this house since my father built it,” says Suresh simply, “but my brothers won’t hand over the property papers so that I can sell my share. So we’ll just have to live elsewhere for the time being – at least until the case is over.”
The property paper complication is a real one – and one that accused Suraj’s defence lawyer has been using for many sessions now, against Chhutki’s charge of rape.
Suraj’s defence is that Chhutki’s parents have trumped up the charge against him because they wanted the papers. Geeta and Suresh are worried they will be disbelieved. But what of DNA evidence? Cops gathered enough from the scene (soiled bedsheets, Chhutki’s pyjamas and other articles from the bed, as well as from Chhutki’s body) to be able to definitively prove rape. When reminded though, Geeta and Suresh are not easily pacified.
Moving away from this fracas will give them peace.
Geeta and Suresh claim they are in a far better financial position today than they were a year and eight months ago. Suresh enrolled in a driving school a month ago and will soon start moonlighting as a driver. He doesn’t take a day off from construction work – often clocking overtime. Geeta never went back to work, the shame the locality thrust on her for being absent that morning, forcing her to stop.
They have a little savings, however – and generous crowdfunded bank accounts from both The Quint and NDTV. And then there are the occasional donations that people from overseas send them, touched by their story.
If nothing else, Geeta and Suresh are convinced they’ll be able to rent.
Geeta has seen just one house for the day. She has yanked down the pallu of her pink saree so deep below her chin that I can no longer see her face.
There is another house within her crowded north Delhi neighbourhood that she thinks is a possibility – Geeta points out its potential: a crude grey building, flanked by houses.
Will moving to either of them help her forget?
“Nahi, par door jayenge toh mana lenge kisi tarah se khud ko (no, but the distance will help me convince myself),” she says, walking faster now, making her way back to the house she can’t wait to leave, her now two-and-a-half-year-old, rocking to the rhythm of her mother’s walk, clutching her pink pallu trustingly.
As recently as 25 September, Suresh sat in front of a magistrate in a POCSO courtroom in Rohini Court, timidly answering the defence’s cross-examination. He fumbled a couple of times – before the magistrate’s kindly remonstrations brought him around. "Khaana nahi khaaya kya? (didn’t you eat)” the judge asked, and Suresh laughed with the rest of the room, retaining some of his composure.
“You’re doing this for the property” was the common refrain from the defence – but through his fumbling and his stumbling, Suresh stuck to his guns. He said what he’d seen and he spoke of his child with near-reverence. Wherever he was asked an illogical question, the magistrate piped up and shut down the defence.
“Do you think it went well?” Suresh asked anxiously later, over and over again. He would not be easily mollified.
The IO (Investigating Officer), ASI Parvati, who had been the first to appear on 28 January and has been a confidante since, nods reassurance. He can rest easy, she tells the anxious father scooping up his two daughters. He hasn’t messed up.
(*Names changed to protect privacy)