(This story was first published on 23 December 2016. It has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark National Girl Child Day.)
Chhoti Nirbhaya loves a pack of good Kurkure with almost single-minded devotion.
It is the first thing she conveys to me at any rate, after a series of tried-and-tested who’s-your-best-friend-what’s-your-favourite-colour-and-don’t-you-hate-maths attempts plummet and meet sorry fates in the dust.
It is difficult to talk to her when we begin. How do you speak to a 5-year-old rape survivor? How do you navigate childish conversations with equally childlike ease when you look at your co-conversationalist with near-awed wonder? When you reach out to grab a hand reassuringly each time she pauses, even arbitrarily, in the midst of describing a regular fist fight with her sister?
Chhoti Nirbhaya lost a name and gained a moniker last year, when she was raped and brutalised on 9 October 2015. The latter half of the moniker borrowed from a moniker that had, two years earlier, unified a nation in collective horror, when a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was gangraped and brutalised with iron rods. Nirbhaya was left for dead – and, in the course of the next couple of weeks, lost her life fighting.
Chhoti Nirbhaya was similarly brutalised. She had been lured by an 18-year-old man who lived in the same slum as her – a man she knew well enough to call ‘Rahul bhaiyya’. He’d fed her a plate of chowmein at a makeshift stall along the railway lines where she lived and then led her to a steep abyss hidden behind a clump of trees. There, he raped her, stuffed dirt into her private parts and slashed her little body with a blade before taking off with her clothes. Chhoti Nirbhaya, like Nirbhaya before her, was left for dead. Except that the four-year-old refused to play dead. She crawled out of the abyss, bloodied and staggering, across the railway lines and reached home to tell everyone what had happened to her.
When Chhoti Nirbhaya’s story came to the fore last year, she was a four-year-old rape survivor with little or no means to fight her fight. She spent 28 days in Safdarjung Hospital, undergoing a series of painful surgeries. The Quint had met with her and her family at the time, launching a fundraising campaign to help her in her battle. We had also promised to return, every few months, to assist wherever else we could.
Chhoti Nirbhaya, a Feisty Five-Year-Old
“The minute I saw her, I knew what had happened. If my child had fallen down somewhere while she was playing, uske haath pe chot aati, face pe aati… neeche nahi aati (she would’ve had injuries on her face or her hands… not on her private parts). She didn’t have any clothes on…” the mother of three breaks down mid-sentence, even as the noise of Chhoti Nirbhaya and her sister cluttering pots and pans in the kitchen (before being chased out by an exasperated grandmother) drifts in.
“Bahut shaitaan hai (she’s very naughty)” her grandmother tsk-tsks. The feigned annoyance is unmistakable, even as she proceeds to whip up two platefuls of hot rotis for the girls. “The younger one is particularly mischievous – she’s constantly hitting her older sister. She’s far plumper and stronger than the older one, so her didi doesn’t really stand a chance!”
This is less than a half hour before they return home from school and the excitement in the household is palpable. The grandfather waits at the entryway to their jhuggi, while the grandmother bustles about with plates and cups. Chhoti Nirbhaya’s father is already at the railway lines in front of their house, looking out over the sea of bobbing heads for two tiny figures. Before long, the pitter-patter of footsteps and the faces of two smiling, exultant children appear in the gully.
“Hi!” they exclaim with big smiles, openly welcoming of a stranger in their midst. “They bounded all the way back home when I told them there was a guest in the house,” their mother smiles, even as the kids scurry around to put away bags and books and do what their mother and grandmother believe they do best – general tomfoolery. I am taken up a ladder (there are no stairs in the jhuggi, only a series of ladders connecting the open front of the house) to their room. This one has a television – “the one downstairs isn’t working,” complains Chhoti Nirbhaya, “so you can watch cartoons here” – and I’m treated to an hour of something called Cockroach Ki Kahaani and regaled with tales of how Chhoti Nirbhaya regularly falls asleep in class. “School mein sone jaati hai ki padne jaati hai? (Do you go to school to sleep or study?)” the older one – older by a year and shorter by an inch – reprimands.
The scene is reminiscent of any playful sibling soiree in any old household; except that things are hardly what they seem.
Less than a kilometre from where Chhoti Nirbhaya and her sister live – less than a kilometre from the spot where she was brutalised last year – another minor girl was raped and brutalised last month. Similarly beguiled by a man known to her, the child was left, dead, along the same railway lines where a year ago Chhoti Nirbhaya had crawled her way home. She didn’t live to tell her tale.
A Little More Trusting, a Lot More Fearless
The sisters – like hundreds of other little children in the jhuggi – still play on the same tracks, barely metres from both scenes of the crime. Some even sit on their haunches, directly on the lines – only to scamper away at the last minute “when they feel the rails shaking and know a train’s headed their way,” Chhoti Nirbhaya’s grandfather explains matter-of-factly. Everything about existence in Lawrence Road industrial area is a matter-of-fact; a claustrophobic cloister, there is no escaping. When I ask Chhoti Nirbhaya who she visits, where her friends live, where she goes to school, the answers are measured by one stretch of a tiny hand to indicate one end of the slum to another. The lane to her school meanders dangerously close to the spot where she was raped. The rails that belch out the chug-chugging of a train every five minutes must have sounded that evening too, just as they do today. Her friends live in neighbouring jhuggis, all of which lie in suffocating alignment. For her, there is no physical escape.
Chhoti Nirbhaya is harder to talk to than her sister. While both have a treasure trove of stories that they will dig into, with ready enthusiasm for a new friend, Chhoti Nirbhaya is hesitant at first, easily startled. She is quieter, letting her sister steer the conversation, before she feels comfortable enough to jump in. To trust you. It reminded me of something her mother had said, exactly a year ago, when she had spoken about her little girl: “She seems to have moved on, but she hasn’t forgotten. She doesn’t trust anyone easily anymore.” A year later, I think Chhoti Nirbhaya is a little more trusting, but the slowing down of a step as we walk towards an unfamiliar spot on the tracks and a tightened grip around my fist constantly belie the quick tongue and the ready stories.
I bond with her best when we talk sisters. I tell her tales of how I’d beat up my older sister too when we were kids, and she listens readily – supplying tropes of torture she applies too. This, before she is whacked on the head by her older sister for talking through her homework. Chhoti Nirbhaya listens to her sister, mischievous as she is – and proceeds to laboriously write out As, Bs and Cs in columns, one elbow sticking out.
“Mummy scolds me lots when we fight,” she complains. “You start crying before she even begins to scold you!” her older sister returns with a laugh. Chhoti Nirbhaya shakes her head at the injustice and returns to her homework. “Bade ho jayenge toh koi shaitaani nahi karenge, (when we get older we won’t be so naughty)” she announces with finality – an announcement that immediately wins my heart.
When I leave at the end of my visit, Chhoti Nirbhaya and her father walk me out – over the railway tracks once again, through the cloistered gullies and the microcosm of where Chhoti Nirbhaya lives. She clutches the pack of Kurkure I get her, generously suggesting I get a chocolate for myself since she doesn’t like sweets herself. I giver her a hug and leave her clutching a pack of Kurkure with fierce protectiveness at the corner where her microcosm ends and the world outside begins.
Her battle is far from over, but the one within has been fought – and countered indefatigably – with the courage worthy of a five-year-old hero.
(Chhoti Nirbhaya’s fight continues in the courtrooms. Within 24 hours of being discharged from hospital last year, she recorded her statement in a Delhi court. While the accused is currently in judicial custody, the case has gone to trial. The Quint will keep updating the story as it follows up with Chhoti Nirbhaya and her family.)