She is a frail, unassuming woman. Her thinning hair is almost white, and well-placed wrinkles map the contours of her face. Like many others who volunteer with Taraji now, Chandi Bai too has a story. It is a story I would have never known were I not here.
Chandi Bai became a widow in her 20s. By then she was already a mother of four. To support her family, she stitched and sewed. In the dimly lit darkness of a lantern, I imagine she squinted often to focus on the details of her work. Slowly, her vision worsened. As a result, she started selling vegetables, a job that didn't require sharp eyes. She continued to educate her children despite her ageing frame. Eight years ago, she was selling dried chilly peppers from door to door. She was 70 years old. A 26 year old man asked her to come the next day and sell her entire basket of peppers to his older brother who was getting married.
He took her on a tractor to the fields of two-foot high wheat. He raped her. He ripped her gold earrings off, splitting her lobes. Fearing she would create a ruckus the rapist threw her into the river.
After he left, Chandi Bai swam to the shore and went to the police station. The police didn't do anything. Her village panchayat disowned her children. The children in turn kicked their mother out of the house. She was on the streets. Four days later, she showed up at Taraji's door.
Together, they fought her case to put the violator behind bars. Taraji went to Chandi Bai's children and told them she had bought their home. Leave this house with your things, now. The children pleaded with Taraji not to leave them homeless. Afraid for their futures they sang praises of their mother, her sacrifices, her commitment. The village accepted her back too. But Chandi Bai refused to return to that life. She worked as a domestic helper in Taraji's neighborhood, building a name for herself. She made puris and halwa during weddings. Today, her culprit is in jail. She has a bank account with plenty of savings. Knowing this, her children roam around her like blood-thirsty hounds.
Taraji has a dream. A retreat where all the 500+ women she has helped meet each other, see the faces of a community they are a part of. She wants to invite Kiran Bedi to recognize exceptional people like Chandi Bai, who didn't give up in the most adverse of situations. Everything is planned. Food will be sponsored, the venue will be given to us free of charge. All we need are funds. Maybe AID can support Taraji in turning this dream into a reality.
I find it all very strange, these things I hear about. A part of me sees these nightmares as make-believe. How could such an incident possibly happen? But then I see her face, her torn earlobes. I read the yellowed newspaper clippings. The truth punches me in the gut, leaving remnants of anger and disgust. And I slowly accept this as the reality for too many.