Fire Girl: sex worker

Arya Sharma/ Catch News

Fire Girl: sex worker's daughter wants to study journalism at IIMC

The spunky Farah Shaikh has seen a lot of life in the 20 years that she has lived.

In the 2002 Gujarat riots she lost the place she called home. Then, the sole-earning member of her family she called Abba. And finally her oldest friend, whom she called Ammi - to prostitution.

Farah doesn't remember many details. Except that her family was visiting a relative in Mumbai when the riots happened and that she could never go back. Around the same time her father passed away and his family refused to take care of the four girls he had left behind.

Her mother Najma Shaikh, then in her 30s, started working in a dance bar as a cleaner.

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A year later, when she was visiting her village in Gujarat she was introduced into prostitution by a close friend. Najma hated what she was forced to do, but she needed the money badly. She gave it up a year later, but the "bad woman" tag stuck and she had to relocate to Mumbai.

"We did not know what our mother worked as till we were a little older. Then she herself told us the nature of her work," says Farah.

While their mother was in Gujarat for a year, the four girls continued to stay at a facility run by a Christian missionary in Mumbai. Farah has horrific memories of that NGO. She was beaten countless times in the eight years she was there - once with a belt because the "didi" suspected that she was speaking to a boy on the phone.

"They were very strict. They thought I was in a relationship. But I was not."

Farah recalls other stories of "disciplining".

"A small mistake would result in drastic consequences. We were deliberately served food we did not like and forced to eat it. Forced to eat it meal after meal till it got over. And if we threw it in the dustbin, it was scooped out and served to us again."

Right after Farah was born her mother tried to strangulate her because she did not want another girl. But Farah does not hold that against her mother.

"My father was injured in a road accident and died a few days later. Before he died he told me that my mother had tried to strangulate me. I can understand her frustration at not having produced a son."

Perhaps for that reason, Farah's father went on to marry another woman.

Life-changing experience

Farah has now been rehabilitated by NGO Kranti, which is encouraging her to study further. And not let nastiness about her mother's profession bother her.

She's certainly moved on from her harsh, underprivileged childhood. Today, she speaks fluent English and teaches Class 1 students as part of the Teach for India programme.

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"I was asked to teach Class 8 students, but I looked like one of them. So the principal asked me to take another class. I chose Class 1," she laughs.

Though she enjoys teaching, Farah says her real calling is journalism.

"I was forced to work after my Class 12 exams by the NGO which took care of me earlier. When I told them I would like to study further and become a journalist they said that I should know my 'aukat' (status)"

Her three sisters are also associated with Kranti. The eldest works at a bank and is readying to go the US for a short-term course. The youngest, who is hearing impaired, is being sent to a special school in Indore. The third sister is taking her Class 12 exams.

"My mother does not work now. I help her with my earnings. My elder sister also helps her financially," says Farah proudly.

When Najma went back to their village in Gujarat for a year the family did not accept her. Accused her of selling off the girls, but she refused to divulge details of the girls' whereabouts.

"My mother used to say that they can kill me but I will not tell them where the girls are - because then they would have accused her of making us 'Christian'," says Farah.

At the missionary Farah and her sisters were expected to read the Bible and "be Christian".

"My father's conservative family would have objected to that. The family that did not care about our future when my father passed away, but they would have objected to us being Christian."

At Kranti, she is expected to be herself. Not Christian. Not Muslim. She is also encouraged to chase her dreams. And not let her mother's past bother her. "I am planning to go to the Indian Institute of Mass Communications. I know I will do well."

For someone who has shown so much grace under pressure, this is hardly an impossibility.

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Lamat R Hasan

Lamat R Hasan @LamatAyub