Her mother looked at the photo for a moment and began to weep. “My daughter had such a simple, innocent heart,” she said, wiping her tears. “That is why I lost her.”
She brought out a couple of photo albums to show us pictures of Sayeda when she was younger. “She loved to dress up and look pretty,” her mother said. “She didn’t look like she could be my daughter.” She was proud of how skilled Sayeda was at applying cosmetics. When she had to attend a wedding, it was Sayeda who did her makeup. Sayeda’s cosmetics, saris, and sandals were still stored in a box. Her mother couldn’t bear the thought of parting with them. Sayeda was often trailed by a posse of younger children, her mother said. They’d follow her home, where she would direct them in Bollywood-style performances. When they were finished, she’d send them off with bowls of rice and clothes that no longer fit her. When I heard her mother describe how Sayeda used to give away her old clothes, I imagined that’s what she would have wanted her mother to do with the possessions she’d left behind.
Sayeda’s parents knew their daughter had been trafficked and enslaved in a brothel, but they wanted to know more about what she’d gone through, so I turned on a recording of my interview with Sayeda. Her mother leaned in to listen. Her father listened from the other room, where he sat on the floor, staring blankly at the wall. A few minutes into the recording, as Sayeda started talking about what she’d endured at the brothel, her mother shifted uncomfortably and her father turned his head away.
“Hearing this might hurt,” I said.
Sayeda’s mother looked at me, her eyes brimming. “We are hurting anyway,” she said. “There’s no end to the pain.”
Her father didn’t say a word that afternoon. When I returned the next day to say goodbye to the family, he finally spoke. “My daughter was my world,” he told me. “She used to be happy all the time and make others happy, and now she’s gone.” Since Sayeda’s death, he said, he’d become erratic, skipping meals and baths often, sitting by the roadside for long periods of time, transfixed by grief, instead of ferrying passengers in his rickshaw.
“My daughter’s image floats up before my eyes all the time,” he said.
Sayeda’s mother told me that in her husband’s mind, her decision to let Sayeda enroll at the dance academy was at the root of this tragedy. She’d hoped that Sayeda’s account of how she’d been trafficked would convince him that his daughter’s passion for dancing didn’t cause her death. Sayeda’s father acknowledged that he’d heard her describe how she’d been lured away. But that hadn’t erased the explanation his grief-stricken heart had latched onto.
“If she hadn’t learned dancing,” he said, “my daughter would never have died like this.” Even death, it seemed, had failed to absolve Sayeda from the blame so often laid on trafficking victims—that they are in some way also responsible for ending up in sexual slavery.
‘I don’t love anybody anymore’
After a year and a half at the shelter, Anjali finally returned home to her mother in Siliguri and began working at a factory. When I visited in December 2019, Anjali, then 19, was helping her mother with household chores.
Anjali told me she struggles with loneliness. She misses her friends from the shelter, who understood her anguish as no one else ever will. She hadn’t shared much of her experience with her mother. The neighbours were aware that she’d been gone for more than two years, and some had heard that she’d spent some of that time at a shelter. Anjali said she’d overheard some of the neighbours talking about her being in a dirty profession.
“I don’t respond to them,” she said.
It was evident that the neighbours’ shaming had deepened Anjali’s sense of isolation. But while she could pretend the neighbours didn’t exist, it was harder for her to tune out the words of her mother, who had become intensely protective, causing Anjali to feel stifled.
Her mother, a kind-looking woman, explained that she worried constantly about her daughter’s safety. She had consented to Anjali’s factory job only after being assured there were no young men on the same shift. She was comforted by knowing the factory had security cameras.
“Whenever she’s out of the house, I call her frequently to find out where she is,” she said.
“She doesn’t let me go out anywhere!” Anjali complained.
“I tell her, Sit quietly at home. Be on your phone. Watch TikTok videos if you like,” her mother said. “Don’t ever set foot on the wrong path again.”
I asked what she meant. Wasn’t Anjali the victim? Was it wrong to fall in love?