Flowers of Odanadi

Flowers of Odanadi

The following is a re-publication of a piece originally published in the 2010 publication Intercept: Johns Hopkins University SAIS Visual Journal of International Relations.  It tells the story of my time volunteering as an art teacher at an anti-trafficking organization, Odanadi Seva Trust in Mysore, India. Funny thing about teaching: you often learn far more than you could ever impart.

This is a story about human trafficking in India. Every single day, 160 Indian girls are forced into prostitution, according to a May 2009 statement by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation.  In the world’s largest democracy, some 1.2 million girls under the age of eighteen work as prostitutes.  Most of these children are poor, born into landless families. Most come from low caste communities such as the Dalit (previously known as “untouchables”), or the Adivasi (an indigenous and low-status tribe).  Rescued girls report having been forced to service an average of seven clients a day—they were raped by seven men every day, and had no choice whether protection was worn. As a consequence, some thirty percent of these girls are suffering from sexually transmitted diseases; eight percent have contracted HIV—twenty seven times the infection rate of India’s overall AIDS prevalence. Almost sixty percent of these girls were arrested at least once by the police, but, offered neither support nor rehabilitation, were forced to return to the brothel.

This is the story of an organization which rescues victims of human trafficking in India. It is called Odanadi, and is located in Mysore, the third largest city in the southwest Indian state of Karnataka; Odanadi means “companion” in Kanada, the official language of Karnataka. In a country with myriad manifestations of the human element, each more colorful and spiced, Mysore is one of India’s more demure personalities. The climate is relatively temperate, and while at midday in the historic downtown market no space goes unoccupied, much of Mysore is in fact open, rambling greenery littered with large houses, large even by western standards. Of course, cows still roam the streets, stop traffic, eat from discarded coconuts and roadside trash piles, take rest wherever they please. Cars and rickshaws and scooters crowd the roads, honk for no apparent reason, and always just next to your ear. It’s jarring and fast—it’s India, but an easier India, what westerners call a “soft landing.”

From most anywhere in Mysore, though not from Odanadi, you can see Chamundi Hill, home to the Goddess Chamundeshwari who, Hindu mythology tells us, slew the buffalo headed demon Mahishasura. From her temple, where she sits on a lion, draped in a garland of skulls, Chamundeshwari, protectively watches over Mysore’s nearly 900,000 inhabitants.  

Odanadi’s founders, Stanly and Parashu, are two former journalists who have dedicated themselves to the rehabilitation and reintegration of abused women and children. While on assignment in 1991, they met Radha, a woman working as a prostitute to afford her son’s education. Radha revealed to Stanly and Parashu a world “where abuse of the body was a precondition to survival; where beatings, rape and extortion were daily occurrences; and where law-keepers often thrived on spoils of flesh-money,” recounted the Indian publication The Week in an August 2003 article which named Stanly and Parashu two of India’s “fifty emerging stars.”

With the promise of 800 rupees per month – about twenty American dollars – Stanly and Parashu convinced Radha to give up the profession; Radha soon began connecting other women seeking an alternative with Stanly and Parashu. In 1993 Odanadi opened its doors to not only former prostitutes, but to all those vulnerable to human trafficking. Today, Odanadi has two centers, one for girls, and a separate boys’ home. Radha died of tuberculosis soon after the center opened. Her son, one of Odanadi’s success stories, is now a lawyer, his mother’s dedication to his education having paid off.

Odanadi sits about a kilometer off the highway, behind a grouping of houses that is one notch above a shanty town. A nearby factory makes gray cement bricks, out of which most of these houses have been constructed. They are low-ceilinged, one room rectangles with small windows, painted fresh hues of green and pink. Emaciated cows amble, investigating the arid earth for sprouts of short grass in the dry thicket; skinny, panting dogs trot past, in search of shade.

Amidst this, the compound of buildings that is Odanadi is an oasis. When you arrive, a pigtailed girl pushes open the tall iron gate, and welcomes you with “Hello sister;” you are cooled by a sweet breeze that was absent just outside. You’ve left behind the noise, the traffic, the smog, and entered a place of gentle respite, and you are grateful.

There’s a mess hall, in front of which a tree with long, leafy branches offers a wide swath of shade.  Odanadi’s main building is large, made of brick, painted white, with tall windows on each of its three floors. Two evergreens stand guard on either side of the entryway, still draped with sun-bleached, handmade Christmas ornaments. A painting hangs in the entrance hall: handprints, small to grown, in reds, greens, yellows, oranges and blues, the signature of each of their owners beneath; in the middle, the words: “We Are Strong.”

This is the story of a group of girls who are victims of human trafficking in India. Some of Odanadi’s girls are babies, just weaned, or barely toddling, whose mothers, unable to disentangle themselves from the trade, continue to work as prostitutes. Most are teenage or a bit younger, though a few are of marrying or college age; marriage, they can hope for, though attending higher education is unlikely, as it holds less value for girls of their status.  Some are rescues from abusive homes, child marriages or domestic servitude. Others still come from poor families who, unable to feed their daughter, opted to give her to Odanadi. Though their stories are no less heinous, these children had not yet become victims of the sex trade; Stanly and Parashu intervened before the opportunity, or necessity, presented itself. But intervention came too late for some of Odanadi’s girls.

The majority of girls leave the center for school every day, walking the few kilometers down the rocky dirt road and across the highway. If you saw them walking outside the center, you wouldn’t know them as victims of abuse, of trafficking, of forced prostitution. You’d see skinny, knobby-kneed girls in blue jumpers and yellow cotton button-down shirts, and backpacks too big for their frames. For a few kilometers, to those observing, they are simply little girls walking to school, no stigma attached.

Envisioning them on that dirt road, I wonder how they think of themselves. I think mostly of the girls rescued from prostitution, of what goes through their minds. Does their past hover like an always present shadow? I imagine them walking down the street. A man catches the corner of their eye—for a violent second, do they see an assailant in the coconut vendor, the scooter repairman, the rickshaw driver? Do their pasts as thoroughly inform their sense of self as it does my conception of them?

The most emotionally and physically troubled of Odanadi’s rescued stay at the center during the day, studying in-house, or not at all. I teach art classes to about 10 of these girls. I bought them watercolor paints and notebooks, and come twice a week for a few hours. I try to show them how to use the materials, show them how with a few more drops of water an infinite number of shades can be created. For the most part they ignore my instruction, which is fine. I’m not really there to teach. We sit together, and the girls chatter away. Sometimes they sing Kanada songs, about love, they tell me, about stars watching young lovers who never can meet. Much of the time, there is silence in the room, as the girls lose themselves between the paintbrush and the page. I lose myself in their faces.

When I’m with them, the specter of their victimhood is always looming. No matter how completely I lose myself in the role of art teacher, or big sister, something always jars me back. It could be as simple as a cloud passing across the sun; a faint change of light can remind me of the shadow that is always present.  I am mourning what they have lost, and the fact that I cannot come to terms with their loss for them.

This is a story about these 10 troubled girls, victims of human trafficking in India. They are victims of kidnapping, abduction, slavery, and rape, of all the emotional and physical trauma that comes, including HIV.  Their past is a nightmare to us both, but one that I wake from, and one that I have no knowledge of in any visceral way.  I try to see their pasts in their paintings. Some speak vividly to the trauma they’ve known: a deep red heart, with a thick black border, and a thick black line down the middle—a break, or a suture. It was painted by a girl, now 17, who was kidnapped when she was quite young, and held in a brothel for four years until she was rescued by Odanadi. Her family won’t take her back.

Some paintings are full of hope, new days dawning. One girl came to Odanadi after her wealthy parents died of AIDS. Her father was a corrupt politician, her mother a prostitute.  She was well educated, and speaks English nearly fluently. For the first few weeks she only painted what she could copy. When I asked the girls to draw flowers from their imagination, she hesitated, not wanting to make a mistake. But after a few weeks of classes, she came to me, beaming, holding out her book. On the page was a sunrise. She woke early that morning and saw it, she said, the sun rising…the light changing… it was so beautiful, she was inspired to create.

I selected images from each girl’s notebook, and took them to a local printer to make greeting cards. Most people in Mysore know Odanadi, that place just outside the ring road, where someone else’s daughters are kept. I gave the cards to the girls. With wide eyes, and contained excitement, each took her card; holding it gently, each stared intently at the reproduction of her creation. Something they created was worth reproducing. Something they made had value—I watched that idea sink in, watched the girls, one in particular, searching for a safe place inside to store that newfound sense of self: I am good. I can make something that is good.

‘If you’d like, write them to someone, someone you love”—I bit my tongue as soon as I said it. I agonize over statements I wouldn’t think twice about saying to a girl in another context. Asking a girl who may never have a family, who has been abused emotionally and physically, to love—I feel such ambivalence, such confusion. Do I treat them delicately, kid gloves and sanitized speech? Or, do I let myself engage naturally, as you would with your own little sister, and speak about love, and hope and dreams for the future.

A friend gave me an idea for an art project: “Have them write their hopes and dreams on pieces of fabric. Then string them together, like prayer flags, and hang them in the windows, so the light can shine through.” A good idea, until I considered the implications of the unspoken question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a question which implies both choice, and future, and in this context, is far from innocuous. Of course, most of Odanadi’s girls, particularly the littlest ones (those rescued earliest from trafficking), have hopes and dreams, and could readily supply an answer.  But I hesitate to ask that question out of fear for the few who feel as though they have neither choice, nor future.

This is the story about one little girl, with thick black hair, and a wide smile, and sad eyes, who is a victim of human trafficking in India. Her soft face is heavy with a deep melancholy that never quite goes. She was kidnapped from her family’s home, taken to a brothel, and held for four days. She was raped repeatedly, though, of course, it only takes one time to contract HIV. She doesn't go to school; she's not interested, she says, and no one makes her. She won't marry, as she's stigmatized forever in a society that views marriage as the ultimate success for a woman. But she's a brilliant, sweet, patient artist. She draws everything in pencil, outlining detailed, ornate chains of flowers. Then she takes her time filling them in with paint. She likes vibrant colors. Sometimes she smiles, laughs loudly at another girl's joke. But, too soon, she seems to remember, and a shadow passes over. Her paintings seem to be where light sun shines through, as though her notebook of watercolor paper is a safe place for all the colorful joy she hides.

How do you ask a 14 year old girl with HIV to dream?  A child whose life has been nightmarish, I should ask her to dream? Ask her to imagine possibilities that are most likely unattainable, imagine a future that may never come?

But by never asking her to dream, am I devaluing her life, as did her kidnappers, her rapists? Let’s say, although she’s sick, that she lives decades more. If she is never told she can be something more than the void that was left when her future was stolen, never told she can fill that void with her own imagination—if she is never inspired to dream, how will she know what is possible to create? Her status in this country, based on her caste and gender, is low; even had she not been trafficked, marriage would have most likely been her only option.  But now, the future which was expected has been horribly, violently voided. Might she be offered another notion: that her life is a blank canvas, and imagining, wondering and creating are the only ways she’ll be able to design a new future. And to do that, she must be asked to dream, to imagine a life outside of what is immediately apparent. It should not be assumed that her life is lost because she cannot fulfill the future that was expected.

This is the story about one girl who is every girl who has been rescued from human trafficking in India. She is every girl, trafficked or not, because every girl must be given the space to dream. How strange it is, that dreaming be part of the solution to a nightmarish past. But it is neither glib, nor simplistic; it is fundamental truth at the heart of human dignity.

I’m not stopping human trafficking in India, not even bringing an end to this one girl’s pain. I’m doing what I can do: supplying that blank canvas, that safe space in which dreaming and creating can become possible once more. A seed does not know of the flower it can become, and yet, to blossom, must have the space to create itself.

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