Sneha (name changed) is now 14.
She is one of the first I speak to. We're sitting in one of the classrooms at the mukti ashram, where she was brought two months ago. The fan creaks overhead. The sun blazes outside. Nothing moves. She keeps her hands clasped in her lap, head bent, sitting on the bench next to me.
One of the caretakers/teachers is sitting across us, encouraging her to speak, keeping a discreet eye on me. "It's okay. You can tell didi. Speak freely. She won't even tell anyone your name."
Even so, it takes a few minutes for her to begin.
"I was in Jharkhand before. An activist brought me here. I used to work in the village before this. I worked on the farm. Before that, I studied till the 7th. I have a mother and three sisters. My mother works on the fields. The sisters are working too.
"I went to Aurangabad for a year. I was about 11 or 12 then. The contractor took me. She used to take children for the brick kilns too. She said, she'd take me to a place where I could study further. But they made me work. Dishes, floors, clothes, cooking. I got up at 5 in the morning. There was no studying. There was 6 people in the house. They used to beat me. The man of the house, the husband, didi, he to exploit me."
Didi stops tapping her pen against the desk. Not knowing how to react. Sneha used the Hindi word for 'exploit'. Shoshan. How does one ask - what kind of shoshan?
"Didn't you know anybody? Other girls who worked in houses?"
"I didn't know anybody in the city. I had no friends. They didn't let me step out of the house. Not even to the market. It was a small, cramped house. A rented one."
"Did they never take you out? On special occassions?"
"They never took me out. The mistress would beat me. She'd use her hands. It hurt a lot. My mother came to visit but they wouldn't let me meet her, at first."
Sneha falls silent.
The other lady coaxes her. "You can tell this didi. Look beta, you have to tell the truth about such people. So we can catch them and make sure they don't do the same things to other children." To me, she says, "That couple was shameless. They'd begin doing things, half-undressed, right in front of the child."
Sneha tries again. "I used to sleep on the sofa outside. That time, the mistress came out of her room and told me to go and sleep on the bed, because she wanted to sleep outside, on the sofa. I went inside and lay down. The man thought I was asleep, and he came to me. I sat upright. The mistress, she must have heard me crying. But she didn't come into the room."
She pauses a long while. "But I sat up. I didn't let him. I didn't lie down again. I didn't sleep all that night. I went away to my sofa."
"And the maalkin?"
The child looks down and doesn't say a word.
The other lady sighs deeply. Sneha isn't telling the whole story, but I don't want to hear it.
I change the subject, asking her about how she managed to get out.
"When my mother was allowed to see me finally, she stayed over. The husband tried to do the same things to her. She got worried and tried to take me away, but they wouldn't allow it. Then, the activists came with her and took me home."
The last question is about how the rest of the family treated her during that year in Aurangabad.
"They behaved with me like people behave with servants. What else?"
What else, indeed?