The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Updated: Sep 8
"To step across the threshold, Of my main door, It'll cost you a hundred in gold. For two hundred you can see my bedroom, My bed of silk, And climb into it."
(Poetry from 16th century, Tamil Nadu, India, translated by A.K. Ramanujan (1929-1993)
The person of Mangala is ever-shifting, ever-changing. A supreme actress, genuine to the core, childlike, an immovable rock, a master manipulator, guileless and kind, hard and rebellious, innocent and yet recklessly knowledgeable, she has as many sides as a prism. Her story is ever-shifting too, from the small child of seven to the teenager who was sexually abused by countless boys and men all those years, to the bright, silent tomboy when she entered our lives in 2011, from the girl we all know from the film Horse and Rider, to the temptress who picks up every man she can, from the simple loving side-walker at horse therapy, to the woman who runs into the arms of traffickers and finds her own arms burned with cigarettes. She is a chaotic woman. Wild and unbridled, she trusts no one.
This is our Mangala. Our tears and pity don't help her, so I won't tell you of the heartache of knowing her and loving her. The only thing that seems to make a difference to her is tough love, and consistent consequences, most of them, of her own making. We keep hoping, praying she will come to the end of her self-will, her perceived worthlessness, her games.
I write this today because Mangala has just turned up in the Pune Ruhamah workshop, complete with fresh scars of torture and tales to tell of recent trafficking and life in Delhi’s red-light district. It’s hard to know what is true and what is a lie, but the marks don't lie. She's clearly been in a very rough place, and clearly back in prostitution.
She had three years with Freedom Firm, in our program, in Ruhamah Designs, and at Leg Up therapy. When she joined in 2011 she didn't really speak for the first 3 months. She watched, wary and alert, like an animal that was repeatedly hit. We built trust, slowly, painstakingly. With time, she opened like a flower. Her smiles, banter, playful attempts at practical jokes, filled the workshop with pure fun.
At Leg Up she engaged with the disabled children, laughing with them, drawing them out, paying attention to them. A natural with horses, she moved with growing confidence and ease, riding, brushing, feeding, and working around them with gentleness and kindness. Her entire face changed, softened, opened and she lost the boyish haircut and baseball cap. Embracing her femininity, she wore brightly colored salwar kameezes, put on makeup and did her hair attractively. She turned into a gorgeous girl before our eyes.
An opportunity for her to be in the documentary Horse and Rider, Mangala shone with pride and a healthy sense of importance. She wanted her story to be told, and we told it.
After a couple of years in the Ooty Ruhamah Designs workshop, we believed a transfer to the Pune Ruhamah workshop would be a good change and teach her different skills in a new environment. We wanted her to move along towards reintegration. She moved to Pune and at first did fairly well. With her move into a working woman's hostel, the YWCA, she now had more freedom in the evenings, although the hostel had strict rules about closing time.
Mangala didn't function well with freedom. Slowly she picked up boyfriends in the evenings after work at Ruhamah. She began to flout the hostel rules, getting home late after doors were locked. Her behavior in the workshop became increasingly volatile and unpredictable. When she missed a couple of days at work, she told a wild story of riding off on the back of a motorcycle with boys, close encounters with a Hindu priest, and escaping the grasp of traffickers. We will never know if it was true, but frightened by the experience, she behaved herself and tried hard to change for a few months. Eventually, the YWCA, fed up with the broken rules, evicted her.
Social workers found three other housing situations for her, but each one failed as she refused to comply with policy. At this point, she walked out of the workshop and disappeared for a few days. We were surprised when she walked into our office in Ooty, demanding her job back and telling us she had missed us. We, like the Pune Ruhamah workshop, scrambled to find her housing that she could afford and hired her again. Perhaps she would do better back in Ooty, we wondered.
Mangala was on a downward spiral, and it wasn't over by a long shot. She continued a relationship with a painter in town, and gossip in the small town of Ooty was that she talked to lots of men on the street. A woman here really can't live that down easily. She wanted to marry the painter but his family refused to accept her. The first hostel we found for her evicted her after a few weeks. The second place we found didn't last much longer. Finally, we found lodging for her at a home for disabled children, where she could pay her way by helping the children and cooking for them after work hours. That lasted about a month, and then she slapped two children very hard one day and walked away.
There was not a single place to house Mangala, no one would take her. Her attitude was defiant and angry, as if she had been victimized. We had to close the door to her at Ruhamah Designs. With no available housing, there was no way we could keep employing her. We pleaded with her to repent and return to each of the homes where she had caused offense, to no avail. She was proud and defensive and refused to apologize. That day, Mangala turned and walked down the road and out of our lives. I still remember the look on her face, a look of disbelief that there were simply no more options, that she had overplayed her hand, that Ruhamah had finally closed the door.
A year went by and then just last week she resurfaced. Today she is weak and vulnerable, burned and scarred and wants her job back. When we asked why, she said the brothels in Delhi weren't making her enough money. We told her she needs to find her own housing this time and then we will give her work. She tossed her head and walked out of the workshop, angry that we were not providing more. I suspect she will be back. A woman I once knew who had worked with prostitutes for over 20 years said, “It can take a lifetime for chaotic women to come out of prostitution. They come out and they go back, then come out again.” It was early in my years with Freedom Firm and I was discouraged as I saw the backward slide in some of our girls.
“Well, what's the point then? Why do this at all?” I raged.
Her face lit with joy as she answered, “Because each time, the period of time they are out becomes longer. Eventually they just stop going back altogether.” I have never forgotten her words, a life-line when I needed the perspective of someone who loved girls like this before.
I long for the day when Mangala will turn her back on her old life forever. Until that day we welcome her home every time. Our tough love says that she will have to solve the problem of housing. If she does, it will be a sign that a change indeed is coming. I don't ask anymore how long the change will last, I just celebrate the change.