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Kum Kum is missing.

November 6, 2011

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My feet pounded the pavement as my eyes frantically searched the roadway.  I stopped abruptly when I saw a young child dressed in orange clothing, and then I moved on in frustration. My heart was racing as I quickened my pace, picking and dodging my way across a  busy, chaotic intersection. I had been running for three kilometers, my shirt was drenched and my mind was racing. I looked down a side street and saw a busy market area with throngs of local shoppers and my heart sank. I put my hands on my head and thought the unthinkable. She was last seen over an hour ago and we were quickly running out of time.

 

The day seemed to have a cloud hanging over it from the beginning but I was unaware just how ominous the cloud would be. Two days before, I boldly and arrogantly told my friend Sarah that I had never been sick in India but I failed to knock on wood. I spent the next day clutching my stomach between my bed and bathroom and missed my first day of work since I started DWP three years ago. Feeling slightly better, but still having cold sweats, I left my apartment headed for the community, silently praying that the little fluid I had drunk would stay with me for the day.

 

Arriving at the school, I met with some of the women who were excited, prepared and dressed in their best saris. We had decided to take our women's literacy class on a outing to a theme park to celebrate their dedication to their english classes, taught by volunteer Mansi Roy.

 

Like everything in India the last of the ladies joined us on the bus over an hour late. As Ashley and Mansi did the final head count, we realized there were more people in the bus than we had arranged for. The women were to bring their children only if absolutely necessary. The bus was packed with women and children and arguments began about which children had to go back to their homes and who could stay.  Thirty minutes later, excuses, arguments and heated debates about how many children were on the bus were aired, but we lost the argument to the women. The women were instructed to watch their children as no one but them would be responsible for the kids.

 

This would turn out to be a pivotal moment in what would become a very long day. 

 

For the first 20 minutes of our journey to the theme park the women chatted and children peered out the windows as the bus chugged along the open freeway. Rounding a corner, the bus passed a group of traffic cops, who, upon seeing our crowded bus and a few white faces on board, were eager to make a quick buck and yelled for us to stop. Our driver, testing their diligence continued down the highway. A few minutes later an angry cop could be seen frantically waving from his motorbike and we knew the race was over. Ashley and I stepped out and listened to him yell at us for a minute and then explained to him where we were going. He kindly told us that he could overlook our crowded bus for a small "donation" to his cause. A two hundred rupee 'payment' was made and our bus driver jammed the bus into first gear and steered back into traffic.

 

Merging onto an overpass at the crest a hill we were greeted by the tiny red lights of a thousand vehicles locked in a traffic jam and the collective sigh of all 45 passengers on the bus. Forty minutes later, only a few kilometers had been travelled, and coupled with plus 30 temperatures and an over-crowded bus going nowhere, the women started to get sick. The door to the bus became a revolving door of pale and green faced women eager for a slice of "fresh" air by the door. While a women in a beautiful blue sari sat doubled over in the doorway, my mom let out a small yelp and quickly held up a a sleepy, confused and peeing Prem from her lap. Holding him away from her, a fountain of pee continued to spray from his pant leg covering my camera bag.

 

Covered in pee, sweat and the discomforting glares of 20 women, the bus finally made it through the traffic jam to the theme park and I breathed a sigh of relief, excited to redeem the day with some fun on the rides!

 

Thankful to be off the bus, we donned our entrance wristbands and headed into the park, to the shade of the outdoor restaurant to shake off the journey and have a cold drink. After a round of water and brightly coloured orange soda, we were refreshed and on our way to the rides.  Ashley and a few of the mothers accompanied a group of children who wanted to use the toilet. My parents, Sarah and I started to walk with the first group of women and children toward the rides. Tickets were purchased and some of the women nervously climbed into the brightly painted buckets on the ferris wheel. Realizing that Ashley, Shashi and Indu had not joined us yet, I dialed Ashley's  phone number while juggling Nandini in my arms.

 

Ashley answered and quickly told me that Kumkum was missing and they were searching for her. I handed Nandini to Sarah and ran to the park entrance to meet them. It seems as though she had gone missing after the trip to the toilet. We quickly told the security staff, got the other women and children to stay put in the sheltered area, anxiously searched photos on our cameras, found a photo of Kumkum taken the day before, hoping security would copy it for us, and split up, frantically searching every inch of the park.

 

Little did we know that Kumkum had long ago left the park...

 

Forty minutes later Ashley and I stood near the entrance to the security office arguing with the man in charge, who, with our persistence, was now trying to locate the 24 hr on-duty camera surveillance man. Coincidentally, this man was not at his post watching the cameras and couldn't be found for some time. When he finally arrived, we piled into the small office and picked over camera footage. We asked to see the exit gate footage but were told time and time again that there was no way the security guards at the gate would let a small child leave alone. Arguing that she may have been nabbed by someone also fell on deaf ears, and we spent the next thirty minutes going over other cameras finding no clues of her disappearance.

 

Finally, the exit cameras were viewed and we spotted beautiful, four year old, Kumkum following Ashley and the other children to meet us when suddenly she takes a hard left turn towards the large exit corridor. She wandered cautiously down the empty corridor and shyly stopped to lean against the wall. I quickly glanced across the room at my mom and Sarah staring silently at the screen while the security staff's eyes narrowed. Kumkum's mother clutched her newborn and watched her daughter about to possibly make a life changing decision. We switched security cameras and saw Kumkum press off the wall and meander towards the exit gate. The security room felt smaller and I felt myself move closer to the screen, nervously watching her movements. On camera we saw three security officers standing at the gate chatting. Two stood by the exit and one stood by the main road but all failed to see 4 year old Kumkum walk alone through the gate. She reached the road and quickly turned left and out of sight. The next few seconds ticked by like hours as we all watched her disappear into one of the largest, most densely populated cities on earth. The clock on the upper right corner of the screen blinked 2:01 p.m. I checked my watch and shuddered. It was now well after 3 p.m.

 

With our hearts in our throats, we all raced out of the room running towards the exit gate. I got to the road and saw my father already searching, and I handed him my camera. I sprinted toward the main road and into traffic. People stopped and stared, my eyes darted back and forth. Ashley headed to the police station while my parents, Sarah, Mansi, Shashi and Indu fanned out across the area. I ran over a kilometer down the road and spoke to two very disinterested policemen were more interested in why I am in India than the missing child. I left them mid-sentence realizing that their uniforms are merely a costume and they offer no help.

 

I switched directions and ran back the way I had come. Ten minutes later I saw Indu and Sarah. They had just received our first nugget of good luck. Two young boys working at a shop had seen Kumkum thirty minutes before, walking by herself and crying. This was great news as we finally had a small clue and were now only 30 minutes behind. I handed my phone to Indu and told her to phone Ashley immediately and let the police know. I then sprinted as fast as my legs would carry me riding on a wave of fresh hope. As the blocks passed my hope diminished. Every street was packed with people and traffic and the search seemed doomed. Twenty minutes later I ran back towards Indu and Sarah praying they had more good news. As the sweat rolled down my brow, I envisioned KumKum smiling, standing beside Indu sipping a cold drink, but no such luck. I reached them and they offered no more good news as I jugged a bottle of water and we tried to decide the next step. We decided to hire a rick shaw and drive slowly along the streets. In the rik we find out that there is another police station besides the one Ashley lodged the first case at, and we decide to visit it.

 

We arrived at the police station and I asked our driver how much we owed him. He calmly says 70 rupees,  (a ridiculously outrageous fare for such a short distance) and my anger at the situation rises. I gave him 5o rupees and he threatened to call the police so I asked him to follow me into the station. He curses us loudly and drove off and we raced up the stairs of the station, willing some good luck our way. The activity in the station came to a complete stop as we entered.  Indu tells them in rapid Marathi who we're looking for and they say they have a child and my heart flutters. The officer points to a small child sitting on the steps, but it's not Kumkum and they ask us if we're sure. We all feel exasperated and drained. Then, they slowly tell us they have one more child as well, and point down the hall. I turn, but am unsure where to go. A senior policemen rolls his eyes and slowly makes his way from behind his desk and points to a small bench underneath the stairs. I bend over and in the darkness I see Kumkum's orange dress. My heart races and she sits up, her big eyes blinked quickly as she recognized me. I reached in and scooped her up and she wrapped her arms tightly around my neck. Tears welled in my eyes and I couldn't believe we had her back. I dialed Ashley's number and told him the good news. Sarah and Indu, standing beside me were overwhelmed and anxious to share the news with everyone.

 

Kumkum and I hugged for a long time and she couldn't stop smiling and neither could we. Her lips were parched. We offered her water and she finished 3 large cupfuls. Our moment of happiness was rudely interrupted by a senior policeman. Wearing a bright pink collared shirt, hair growing wildly out of his ears, he asked me who I am. With Indu's help, we explained how the day unfolded and what happened but he doesn't care. We tell him her mother is on the way but he fails to listen, seemingly only having eyes for me. He starts to interrogate me like a criminal and I became irritated. We trade stares and I find myself despising this man more by the second.

 

Finally, Kumkum's mother arrives and I hand her over, excitedly watching the reunion. The officer sees this and decides to ruin the moment and stands directly over them, yelling at the mother, blaming her, and speaking rudely. Exhausted, hot and frustrated by his lack of respect and regard for the situation I found myself yelling and I step between them. Not a smart move, but it's too late. All eyes were now on me. Mansi, who had just arrived at the station, read the situation and grabbed me telling me too cool it, and I knew she was right. Worried, I told Sarah to leave and I phoned Ashley and tell him not to bring my mother and father to the station for fear they will be have problems with the police as well. My mother was already enroute with Ashley, and had been told I was being detained. They asked to see my documents and passport. I told them I have neither with me and this angers them.

 

They are looking for money, we all know it and the dance of corruption begins.  We are joined by Mansi's friends from the area and they say they can help me to deal with this situation. I wandered the police yard wondering how such a joyous reunion had left me in this situation. As I waited outside, I watched as an off-duty cop strolled out and leaned on his police bike, smoking a cigarette. He was dressed in shorts and a bright red shirt. The slogan written across his chest got my attention. Written boldly in white is " help stop rape" and below it, underlined, is the word "consent". The lack of respect for women and the job title that he holds is so obvious that it makes my blood boil and I begin to say something. Luckily, Mansi is there again and tells me to be quiet. Sarah, my mother, (who has been waiting in Mansi's friend's car) and Ashley leave the area in a rickshaw with instructions to go to my apartment to retrieve my passport and return with it as soon as possible.

 

Mansi's friend comes out and says they want 5000 INR - $110 CDN to let me go and a faxed copy of my passport. I vented to Mansi and her friends, which falls on deaf ears. We all knew this was coming but ranting feels good and I can't stop. I looked up and saw one of the senior policemen watching me from the window and we exchanged glances. Mansi's friend disappeared inside to negotiate one more time as I paced the yard. He returns with the figure of 2000 INR  and I agreed and passed him the cash. I was allowed to leave on the condition that I fax my passport details immediately. We quickly headed to the car, realizing that the day and all its craziness is nearly over.

 

I arrived back at the park by 6 p.m.; four hours after the search began and reunited with my very worried parents and filled them in. We hopped in a cab and headed south; the hour long journey home gave me time to reflect on the day.

 

I started to think about the "police" and the amazing bit of detective work that they had managed this afternoon. A child is brought to them crying and lost and they immediately stick her under the stairs and offer her no water. They don't make a phone call to the other local stations to see if maybe the family is looking? The other police station doesn't check either... The brilliant minds of the senior police fail to see the bright red entry band with the name of the theme park boldly wrapped around Kumkum's wrist. I'm am not a cop and realize that watching CSI will never make me one but common sense is required in every job from garbage collector to politician and everything in between, so how can men who are trained for this very situation be so inept at their job? A job in public service requires more than a broken moral compass.

 

 

Today was a disaster with a happy ending but highlighted flaws in park security, police, the mother's ambivalence regarding her daughter's safety, and us as chaperones and the guardians of these children. Passing blame is easy to do and is often done in these situations. As an NGO we take on a huge responsibility every time we take children on field trips and we do so knowingly. We pride ourselves on our ability to give these children experiences beyond the confines of the slum. Today we were extremely lucky  and are thankful for the one amazing citizen who acted with good intention and saved Kumkum's life by taking her to the police station, giving all of us faith in humanity again.

 

I believe in bringing all of you the stories of our community and how DWP operates. I made a promise of transparency when I started DWP and believe it is my job and duty to bring you the stories of our triumphs and downfalls. This job happens in real time operating in difficult situations daily and mistakes and accidents happen, luckily not many.

 

We have a lot to to be thankful for today.

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