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Robin Chaurasiya holding the resident cat Richie, with (from left) colleague Shabnam Shaikh; girls in their care—Tanya, 16, Laxmi, 18, Rani, 13, Asmita, 15, Sapna, 17 and Shradha, 14—and colleague Bani Das. Photo: Manoj Patil/Mint
Robin Chaurasiya holding the resident cat Richie, with (from left) colleague Shabnam Shaikh; girls in their care—Tanya, 16, Laxmi, 18, Rani, 13, Asmita, 15, Sapna, 17 and Shradha, 14—and colleague Bani Das. Photo: Manoj Patil/Mint

Freedom from circumstance | The Kranti girls

How a former US air force lieutenant found a new philanthrophy model for Kamathipura's teenaged girlsand made it work in a short span of time

Shweta Katti’s home near Alankar cinema on Grant Road, Mumbai, is in one of the better buildings of Kamathipura. “Ours is considered a good building in the traditional way," Shweta tells me, air-quoting “good" as we walk to an Irani café-style tea shop in the area. Two of her mom’s friends, one of them a “Kranti mom" (mother of a girl who is rehabilitated by the Mumbai-based NGO Kranti), goad us into taking the detour on our way to Shweta’s home. Shweta is 19, the daughter of Vandana, a beaming woman in her late 40s. Vandana’s mother was a devdasi who immigrated to Kamathipura decades ago. Before she died, she left her daughter the apartment in which we meet. Vandana maintains connections to her roots in Karnataka, nowadays proudly informing her relatives over telephone where Shweta is going, what she is doing. Shweta knows how to speak Kannada. Vandana has two jobs; as a worker at a clothes factory nearby and as a cleaner at, in Shweta’s words, “a biggish brothel". Both employers pay her daily wages.

When she was 10, Shweta discovered that the father who was abusing her sexually and harassing her with taunts about her skin colour and appearance, was not her biological father. Her father was the man who lived next door—and he also happened to be the father of her best friend since she was a toddler.

In April, newspapers in Mumbai reported that Kranti helped Shweta get admission into New York’s BARD College with a full scholarship to study psychology. There were well-attended fund-raisers to supplant her New York education at the Barking Deer Brewpub at Lower Parel. Before that she was in Newsweek’s “Women in The World: 25 Under-25 Young Women To Watch" feature, alongside Pakistan’s Malala Yousufzai, for “efforts to uplift young girls who are marginalized". While we chat at her childhood home, she receives a text message saying that someone just donated her a guitar. “I always wanted to play the guitar!" she exclaims.

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Shweta met Chaurasiya in late 2010, and true to her go-getter grain, seized an opportunity of a lifetime. Her mother Vandana says wryly that her daughter left home without wasting any time.

The Katti family lives in the heart of Kamathipura. Although their chawl is relatively better in construction and facilities, Kamathipura’s gentrification has not affected them yet.

You can see real estate’s invasion into Mumbai’s red light district only if you look for it. The few complete skyscrapers and a few still rising are like dots in this heaving plexus of flesh trade and new aspirations. Brothels are much fewer in number. According to data available with NGO Prerana, working here for many years, in 2011 there were 583 brothels in the 14 lanes spread within Bellasis Road, Falkland Road and Grant Road area which comprise Kamathipura. In 2012, the number dropped to 535. Many NGOs have offices in this area where some of Shweta’s friends go, to learn stitching or elementary English. Policemen can be seen chatting with sex workers in cul-de-sacs. Like Shweta’s family, her aunties and didis in the neighbourhood are taking to the media spotlight on their building with humour and nonchalance. Onlookers crowd the broken staircases when our photographer clicks Shweta and her mother in the dark corridor running through the second-floor chawl.

“School never interested me," Shweta says. “College is worse." Her 70% marks in class X from a neighbouring municipal school got her admission into Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey (SNDT) Women’s University for class XI. She bunked classes and wasted her time staying home, visiting NGO offices or roaming around the area. “Some boys were interested in me, but I thought maybe they were doing drugs like most boys here," says Shweta. Her speech has a calculated insouciance. She is restless, fingers constantly on the mobile phone’s keypad, and snappy. It’s evident the girl is thrilled, and swimming in unknown water.

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New avenues: Shweta with mother Vandana in the building in which her mother and step-father live in Kamathipura. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

“Shweta seemed like someone who had a head on her shoulders," Chaurasiya recalls. “She knew it was good for her to get out of here. She was smart, spoke decent English and had already read Paulo Coelho when I met her."

Shweta’s dream journey from Kamathipura to BARD College—on 1 August, after a last-minute scram for missing documents, she made the flight to New York—besides being an example of cleverly marketed philanthropy, is a comment on why traditional models of teenage education among marginalized, taboo-ridden communities fail. Young girls of sex workers are doubly at risk of abuse and being forced into sex work. As Chaurasiya says, “They are insecure and not sure where their life is going. They have less attention span. They are confused about sex although they grow up with sex around them. The last things they need is someone telling them they should learn a vocational skill and stay away from boys."

Kranti’s office, and the new home for the nine girls—Shweta, her younger sister Shradha, Laxmi, Rani, Tanya, Pinky, Saira, Asmita and Sheetal, all aged between 13 and 19—is a three-room apartment of a housing society in the northern suburb of Kandivali. Its purple main door opens to a cacophony of chit-chat, laughter and cats’ meows. It’s the day Shweta has an appointment with the visa officer and Chaurasiya, Das and Shaikh are at home waiting to hear from her. The living room and the adjacent study are filled with papers, books and a bamboo shelf chock-a-block with shoes. The girls have painted the purple walls with words and line drawings. One wall is dedicated to ‘The Body’, on which small postcards are stuck next to each other. Each of them have direct, factual definitions of terms such as "rape", “lesbian", “FTM transsexual".

Chaurasiya says the housing society and their landlord can be unusually pesky. The Teach India school nearby where the girls are admitted, are difficult about the girls’ paperwork and admission procedures.

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The Kranti girls with actor Kunal Kapoor at the farewell party for Shweta

Chaurasiya does most of her fundraising online and the annual expense for each girl is $5,000 (around 300,000), which, besides the basic rehabilitation, includes trips to plays, movies and travel expenses to workshops and social welfare conventions. Shweta, Chaurasiya says, was articulate from the day she came to Kranti. She did not complete college but Kranti sent her to attend workshops at NGOs outside of Mumbai. She interned with an NGO in Jharkhand which worked towards some of the problems that tribal women face in the area. She travelled to Himachal Pradesh for another such short stint. The next year, she herself was speaking about her experiences in such workshops and social welfare conventions all over India. “While sending applications to American colleges, I had a profile in mind. Then I did my bit of persuading, by constantly writing to the universities and telling them if she makes it, she will be ‘the first girl from a red light district in India to go for an education in the US’." Three universities accepted her application, and BARD College gave her a full scholarship.

Chaurasiya’s past in the US gives her an edge in reaching out to people. Most of her money comes from there, through donations. She was born and raised in Chicago. She visited Indore and other parts of India every year during school or college breaks. Her father, an engineer, and her housewife mother never dissuaded Chaurasiya and her sister from following their dreams.

Chaurasiya qualified for an Air Force ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) scholarship which required her to serve stints in the air force for a stipulated number of years in return for her free college education. She was a communications officer with the US Armed Forces in 2009, when her commanding officer summoned her one day and showed her an email that she had shared with her friends about dating women.

“He said something like, ‘I’m throwing this away, I’m not going to do anything about it. If I were you, I would be pretty upset if someone were making such claims about my character.’ According to the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ law that banned gays and lesbians from serving openly in the armed forces in the US, I could stay in the air force if I did not talk about being a lesbian," she says. The officer didn’t ask if Chaurasiya’s gay and at that point, she didn’t tell. After a few months, she decided to come out. She wrote a letter to her commander telling him she’d been dating girls since she was 13, that the stress of concealing her orientation in “the military’s homophobic culture" had become unmanageable and so she was unable to fulfil the commitment she had made when she enlisted at the age of 17. Her letter and the media’s interest in her case propelled the momentum of activists within the armed forces already campaigning against the “don’t ask, don’t tell" rule. She was the face of many protests and demonstrations in Washington—it perhaps helped that she was a brown woman, and a lesbian. During his 2008 presidential election campaign, Barack Obama had already advocated a repealing of the laws barring gays and lesbians from serving in the military, and in 2010, the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Repeal Act was introduced, to facilitate a legal procedure to end the rule.

It was not a case of raging injustice—Chaurasiya did get the ROTC scholarship and complete her studies, and she had signed the paper that required her to abide by the “don’t ask, don’t tell" law. But it illustrated the absurd and arbitrary nature of the American military’s policy towards gay people. She became a South Asian queer icon overnight. “That period taught me about being dogged about what you believe in," Chaurasiya says.

As part of her graduate studies, in between serving the air force, Chaurasiya was on an internship with the Mumbai-based NGO Rescue Foundation that repatriates victims of human trafficking. She came to India with her mother in early 2011 and formed Kranti.

Most activists in Mumbai working in the field are sceptical of Kranti’s quick success. “This is classic knee-jerk charity. Suddenly the girls find themselves in a world far removed from where they come from. Then after a few years they are back to square one," says an activist working for the rehabilitation of children of Kamathipura’s sex workers.

Chaurasiya says she may be here for five years or more. Till then, the Kranti girls live like regular teenagers in the city.

Shweta always loved the US. “It was something great in my mind," she told me. “It was my dream and I can’t believe it happened," she said before leaving for the US. Shweta wants to return to Kamathipura and work here as a counsellor with sex workers and their children.

The Newsweek claim that she is among the world’s young women to watch is possibly PR-driven hyperbole. Chaurasiya’s claim that she tries to make young women agents of change is not.

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