When we sit in the comfort of our homes, watching TV or reading bed time stories to our kids, how often do we wonder about the plight of the less fortunate? How often do we wonder about the path that was chosen for them by circumstances? How often do we wonder about what could have been? Hajima is a story of what was and Project Hajima is a story of what we can prevent. Thank you Raj Dylan Nalwafor sharing your story.
A story of Strength and Hope. Hajima – not a name; an Experience.
Hajima. When I first came across this name, that’s all it was to me – a name. But now, it has turned into an experience – one where inner light has cast a glow on a bright future, lighting the way with hope and unparalleled strength.
I first met Raj Dylan Nalwa in Manali. My daughter and I were on an all girls trip around Himachal Pradesh, and this stop had been a much awaited one. We reached Manali, put our bags down and put our hiking shoes on. The next thing we knew, we were standing in front of a bridge that, in a few short meters, would transport us into the magical land of Old Manali. Tentatively, we walked in. And our lives changed.
I found Raj’s cafe soon after I entered the area. The smell of freshly baked cookies and the camaraderie he shared with his guests were the first things that drew us. As my daughter busied herself with making friends, I sat down and watched Raj make me his signature coffee. And before I knew it, he was telling me his story. The story of Hajima. Here is the story, in his words:
I was doing the DTS program in Mumbai when me and a few other staff members found ourselves at one of the biggest and most infamous red light areas of Mumbai. The overall environment of the place made my heart sink, with abuses being hurled, gestures being exchanged and the damp humidity and flies adding to everyone’s misery. Plus, the fear of what they would find in the cell was what made a lot of students and staff members turn back and leave. Intrigued, I entered the cell to find scenes that shocked me to my very core. Children lying in neglect like I had never imagined and scenes of debauchery unfolding before our eyes seemed common place here. And this is where I met Hajima’s mother.
Hajima’s mother had come to India from Bangladesh, with her husband, in search of a better life. Sold into the flesh trade, she found herself powerless to leave. Her daughter had been just a little over two years old at that time. I looked over to where the lady pointed and I saw Hajima – a beautiful 13 year old child. Cruel hormonal shots had been administered to her from the age of 8 so that she could get initiated into the trade to help her ailing mother – a TB and HIV+ patient. A debt of 50,000 INR had ensured that mother and daughter could not leave the place until Hajima had paid it off completely.
What shook me was the inhuman nature of the work, life and surroundings that this child had been unwillingly thrown into. Tears filled my eyes as I got more and more enraptured by her story and before I knew, she was tugging at my shirt and saying, “Uncle, please save me – get me out of here.” My journey began here.
Those were the days when buying even an expensive chocolate for my daughter was a matter to mull over. But I put my resources together and began to write to friends and agencies – asking for support. I knew I could not bring her out without legal repercussions, so I followed the path of appeal. This was the era of no Facebook or WhatsApp. So I would get an appeal typed and photocopied and put a stamp on each one meticulously before sending them out. In three months, all I could manage to collect was 5000 INR and a lot of good wishes from well wishers who sent me kind words talking about the great deed I was doing. Obviously, this was not enough.
The twist in the story came when I was hospitalized for TBM, where I remained in coma for a week and was under medicated treatment for over a year – a path that made me lose my stamina and strength completely. A shaky financial condition made me look to my daughter’s savings funds for the treatment and my suffering knew no bounds. Fortunately, two friends found me and took me to a place where my life would make a new beginning: Old Manali.
My friends asked me to be a manager at their café here and all I had to do was swing by once a week or so and look after the place. But a few months into it, the project was shelved and I was left with a broken heart and dreams again. Yet, hope came through just in time when the investor who had backed out told me that 40 kgs of coffee was on its way and I could use it if I wanted. I had never been this happy – of course I would do it! The coffee house started then and there. A few days later, while I was cleaning up the place, a friend stopped by in an autorickshaw and asked me if I needed some leftover paint she was holding on to. I grabbed it and thanked her, adding a fresh coat of paint to the walls. Yet another friend gave me 1500 INR and I was ready to start. Despite the lack of a proper set up, I started Dylan’s Café. The first day, I earned 645 INR, which I used to buy a few more things for the café. Soon, I was busy listing out the things I owned on paper and before I knew it, I was ready to hire someone to help me out with the now busy shifts. People would pour in and ask for my signature dishes and coffee, coming back again and again for reruns of good food and warm hospitality. In all of this, I had struck a deal with the investor – he let me use everything and his premises as a loan, which I paid off with 40,000 INR at the end of the first year after opening Dylan’s Café.
Now, I was in a place where I had money but no material needs. Hajima was still on my mind and I went to Mumbai looking for her in 2008. Yet, three years on, I had no results. Hajima was not to be found. Dylan’s Coffee House in Goa was set up in the meantime, and this is where me and my friends printed some pictures we could find and put them up for sale. So far, I have sold ten pictures and have enjoyed many bookings! My dream was to visit Mumbai in my off season to find Hajima or at least a clue of what may have happened to her – she must be 23 years old now! I decided that I will pool in my resources to help other children in that area under Project Hajima to ensure that no more Hajimas are born.
But luck smiled on me and I finally met her – 13 years after I had first set my eyes on her! Hajima was now a grown up lady, married to a fruit seller and she had a child of her own. With dreams in her eyes, she tells me about her son’s foray into an English medium school and how she would like him to do something big with his life someday. I found out also, that she finished high school and got herself a job despite all her struggles. Initially, she worked at a mobile charger manufacturing facility, before she secured a job at a local beauty parlour where she now draws a salary of 20,000 INR! She is also in training to be a beautician and is loving her job, all thanks to the kind lady who saw her skill and intelligence, and took her in.
During the meeting, she thanked me for making the effort to bring her out of the dump she was in. I asked her if she would have any issues if I were to use her name for the Project and she happily said, “If my name can help girls come out of all that, then I will be more than happy.” With tears in our eyes, we concluded our meeting.
Later, I had a chance to meet 11 girls who had been rescued from that red light area and were now completing high school, and college and looking for vocational training and hostel facilities, which would also be provided for by the Project!
As I finished writing the happily ever after of this story, I realised that there are very few men like Raj in the world – and that too, in a world filled with problems faced by women and other minorities. I will always be grateful that he shared his story with me – and Godspeed to his Project Hajima!