Falak: The Complete True Story of ‘India’s Baby’

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Feb 1, 2014 in Rat News | Subscribe

By Paul Beckett and Krishna Pokharel

[This is all six chapters of a story that ran in a serialized form on India Real Time this week. This Wall Street Journal reconstruction was compiled through dozens of interviews, court documents, police records, medical records and counseling reports. On Monday, you’re invited to join a live chat with Paul Beckett and Krishna Pokharel as they discuss the series, the social issues raised, and the individuals profiled herein. Ask questions now, and join us on Monday.]

Sanjit Das/Panos

NEW DELHI–The story of Baby Falak is a close-up look at the underbelly of Indian society: prostitution, human trafficking, bride selling, and domestic violence.

It also is the story of a small group of ordinary people – a young mother, a rebellious teenager, a taxi driver, a tire repairman, a lonely graduate — trying to escape the tribulations of their daily lives, and of the people who exploited them, the institutions that failed them, and the people who helped them.

The events that transpired over 10 months, from mid-2011 to early 2012, moved millions, at least briefly, to unprecedented outrage and introspection, as if India were asking itself: “Are we like this only?”

CHAPTER ONE: Escape from Bihar

The Bihar countryside

There is nothing special about Muzaffarpur. The city’s roads have been pummeled then buried under the weight and dust of pedestrians, bicycles, rickshaws, motorbikes, and SUVs. Its low, brick-and-concrete stores are piled high with the brightly-colored flotsam of modern Indian life — flipflops, candy, tobacco packets, plastic water jugs, tarps. In the center of town, the railway station appears as a bastion of permanence: It has a tower, perhaps 50 feet tall, that is painted light pink.

Hop a train here and one stop to the southeast, after a 20-minute ride through palms, lychee trees and the light gray soil of the Gangetic plain, you arrive in Silaut, a small depot with archways and a high passenger bridge that connects the two platforms. It’s a commuter stop of sorts for villagers who work in the city. And it’s a dot on the spider’s-web map of India’s national railways. About 100 freight and passenger trains roll through daily.

It was here, in early August, that Munni Khatoon, a pretty, petite young woman, boarded a train with her three tiny children. The trip would propel her from the eastern state of Bihar to New Delhi, then to Rajasthan, and then to the front pages of the nation’s newspapers and the top of its newscasts earlier this year.

Before setting out for the 9 a.m. train to Muzaffarpur that day, Ms. Khatoon told her parents: “My husband has called me to Delhi to stay with him there.” That was a lie.

Silaut railway station

When she met her mother-in-law on the way to the station, she told her: “I am taking my son to the hospital in Muzaffarpur.” That wasn’t the whole truth.

Rather, she was on her way out for good, after six years of a violent marriage to a local boy called Shah Hussain. Several times a week, she says, he banged her head against the brick wall of their house, giving her headaches that persist today. Mr. Hussain says he hit his wife, but not as severely as she contends.

Ms. Khatoon had found her escape route a month before when she took her son, Golu, to a government hospital in the city for a rabies shot after a dog bit him on the leg.

At the Muzaffarpur station on the way home, a man who looked about 25 years old asked to borrow her mobile phone. “I have to give a missed call,” he told her.

The next day, she got a call from a man who introduced himself as Shankar. “I met you at the station,” he said. Then, she says, he added out of the blue: “I love you.” He told her he wanted to marry her.

“I am a married woman with kids,” Ms. Khatoon says she told him. She also confided that she had had an operation that meant she couldn’t have any more children. He said he didn’t care and persisted. She was desperate. So she said: “Tell your family members all about me and then talk to me.”

That evening, she says he called back. “My family members agree to it,” he said. He asked her to come with him to Delhi. “How come you live in Bihar?” she asked him. He said he was staying with his sister in Muzaffarpur. “I want to see your sister’s house,” she said.

She used the pretext of a follow-up rabies shot for Golu to take the train from Silaut that August day to visit the home, a small pink house on a side street.

There, she says, she met a plump, friendly, middle-aged woman called Laxmi Devi who said she was Shankar’s sister. Ms. Devi later confirmed her account to police.

Ms. Khatoon, who says she was 19 years old at the time, liked the older woman and felt comfortable in the new family. She and the children stayed at the house for a few days. “When Shankar said that he will take me to Delhi, marry me and also take care of my three kids as his own, I thought, ‘My life is already a hell but at least by marrying this guy I will get rid of a beastly man and I can give my children a good future in the city,’” Ms. Khatoon said in an interview.

Muzaffarpur railway station

Ms. Devi’s adult daughter offered to look after Khusboo, Ms. Khatoon’s four-year-old daughter, until the others were settled in Delhi, says Ms. Khatoon. She accepted. The daughter couldn’t be reached. Then Ms. Khatoon, the other two kids, Ms. Devi, and Shankar set out for the Vaishali Superfast Express, a train that runs through the heart of North India before reaching the capital 19 hours and 1,000 kilometers later.

At the station, Ms. Khatoon says Shankar surprised her. “I have some urgent work to do in Muzaffarpur,” he told her. “I will come to Delhi by tomorrow morning’s train.” The others boarded and the train departed. It was, according to the chief councilman in Ms. Khatoon’s village, the first time a village woman walked out on her husband. And she walked straight into a trap.


Young Munni Khatoon

As a young girl, Ms. Khatoon’s first impression of Shah Hussain, the boy she would marry, was when he showed the village kids a glass case containing a gold-coated necklace, earrings and two gold bangles. A few days later, he sought her out and told her to wear them. She says she was 11 years old; he was a few years older. Later, at another wedding, he told Ms. Khatoon he gave her the jewelry as “an expression of my liking for you, but you couldn’t understand.” With those words, she says, he won her heart.

The two started seeing each other more. When her father and brothers began planning her wedding to a different man, Ms. Khatoon walked 50 meters down the street and moved into Mr. Hussain’s brick hut. She was barely a teenager.

That same night, her father, Mohammed Zainul, called together the village leaders to formalize their union. The family is Muslim, as is Mr. Hussain; he also invited Hindus.

“I had dreams of a beautiful life when I married Shah Hussain,” Ms. Khatoon said. “I had dreams that he will take good care of me, give me nice clothes to wear, keep me in a good house and our kids will live better lives than our own.”

But the young couple had broken a cardinal rule of their community. The marriage had not been arranged, or paid for, by Mr. Zainul. It offended his sense of propriety.

“I married all of my other kids with my own money and only Munni chose her own husband,” he said, glaring with deep-set eyes that are made more piercing by his narrow nose.

Munni Khatoon’s parents

It also offended his sense of social status. He is a former head gateman for the railway, in charge of a crossing near Silaut where the train track cuts across the road that leads to their village, a dusty mix of huts, small houses and grocers’ stalls called Maripur. His family has lived there for generations. Mr. Hussain’s family was newer. And Mr. Zainul has a larger network of brothers and more property in the family. In short, they were higher class.

Ms. Khatoon’s mother gave them plates and a rolling pin as gifts. But when Mr. Hussain asked his new father-in-law for 10,000 rupees ($180) for taking his daughter as his bride, Mr. Zainul says he shot back, “You won’t get a penny.”


Munni Khatoon today

Ms. Khatoon speaks in a quiet but husky voice that is at odds with her tiny stature. Her jaw curves to a pointed chin and her brow is straight, like her mother’s, giving her a slightly severe visage that is framed by waist-length black hair.

Mr. Hussain is a muscular man with razor-thin sideburns and light stubble. His teeth are stained with beetel juice.

In an interview, he said he had a “good relationship” with his parents-in-law and with his wife. He acknowledged that he beat her “when she was not taking good care of our kids.” But he says he didn’t beat her as severely as she claims or any more severely than other men in their village beat their wives.

Shah Hussain

Several men and women in Maripur agree with him, saying that a husband beating his wife is normal. But one female relative of Mr. Hussain’s suggested that his violence was of another order. “Any woman would run away in her situation,” she said of Ms. Khatoon.


The refusal of money by his father-in-law gnawed at Mr. Hussain, his wife and in-laws say. Days before the birth of their first child, Ms. Khatoon says, the couple fought physically for the first time. She had saved 7,000 rupees ($130) from the money that Mr. Hussain gave her for food and other household expenses. She planned to use it for the birth at a hospital and to look after the baby.

He demanded it, she says. She said no. He slapped her and wrenched it from her, she says. Her mother-in-law intervened to stop the fight. But he had the money and, Ms. Khatoon says, quickly lost it gambling. The baby, a son nicknamed Golu, was born at home a few days later.

It was the beginning, Ms. Khatoon says, of a campaign of violence. Several times a week, Mr. Hussain slapped her, beat her and pushed her head into the wall, she says.

One afternoon when Ms. Khatoon was pregnant with their second child, they had another fight. Ms. Khatoon says she was so distressed she covered herself in kerosene and lit a match. Mr. Hussain blew out the match before the fuel caught fire, grabbed the matchbox, pumped water from the well in the back of their house and doused her, she says.

When a group of village women, drawn by the commotion, gathered outside, they told her to think of her son and her unborn baby. She says she told herself then: “Whatever happens, I will take it. I will show him that I can live.”

On March 20, 2010, their third child, Sania, a girl, was born. A few days later, Mr. Hussain attacked Ms. Khatoon with a knife, piercing her upper left thigh, his wife says. Her mother says she dressed the wound. Soon after, Ms. Khatoon went to the hospital in Muzaffarpur for a tubal ligation.

The chief councilman

When asked about the details Ms. Khatoon provided, Mr. Hussain said: “Who keeps all these things in mind? Things happen and you forget about them over time.” He declined further comment

Ms. Khatoon’s relatives didn’t intervene in her relationship because she had gone against her father’s wishes, she and family members say. She says she also complained about the beatings to the head of the local council, Chandreshwar Prasad Sharma. She says he told her: “All families have these kind of problems and you had a love marriage to this guy.” Mr. Sharma denies she approached him.

A woman filing for divorce is unknown in the village. Marriage customs there are governed by men and the community’s religious beliefs. Ms. Khatoon’s father, for one, has two wives but no wife in the village has two husbands.


For work, Mr. Hussain traveled to the Muzaffarpur train station daily from Silaut – first to sell tea to passengers and then to work in the pantry car of trains. He spent long hours at the station.

One night in late December 2010, he and a friend went with a young girl, perhaps 13 years old, to a secluded area down the track near a red “Stop” signal, according to local police. There, the girl claimed to the cops the next morning, they raped her.

Mr. Hussain says he went with two friends and the girl to the spot that night. He says his two friends had sex with her but he did not. He says he has been wrongly included in the girl’s rape complaint.

Facing criminal charges, he did what generations of young men from the village have done before him: He bolted for a big city. The rape charges are pending. Muzaffarpur police say they have been unable to locate Mr. Hussain and have characterized him in court documents as “absconding.”

The roadside tire shop

Maripur’s trade specialty is training boys to fix tires in the cramped shops that line the roadsides of Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata. Mr. Hussain fled to the capital, where he found work at a tire-repair shop in the suburb of Gurgaon that was owned by a friend from the village.

For the first half of 2011, Ms. Khatoon stayed in Maripur and got by the best she could. But she had no money and she says older men in the village started leering at her.

When she lied to her father in August that she was going to Delhi to be with Mr. Hussain, he didn’t try to stop her: “I didn’t object because it was a wife going to meet her husband.”


On the train, Ms. Khatoon, Laxmi Devi and the two children rode in the more expensive sleeper-class compartment, a promising sign. But along the way, Ms. Devi delivered a blow: She told Ms. Khatoon that Shankar, the man she had tied her future to, already was living with another woman, Ms. Khatoon says.

“Why would he keep you?” Ms. Devi asked Ms. Khatoon.

Ms. Khatoon was stunned. “Why didn’t you tell me that Shankar was already married when I was at your home?” she says she asked.

“What would you have done?” Ms. Devi replied. “Could you have gone back to your village?”

Confused, Ms. Khatoon asked what she should do. “Come and stay with me with your kids and do prostitution,” she says Ms. Devi told her. “That way, you can look after your kids.”

Ms. Devi later said in a confession to police that she and Shankar, whose last name is not known, ran a con. He identified vulnerable women in Bihar, introduced them to Ms. Devi as his sister in Muzaffarpur, then they lured them to Delhi with a promise of marriage to supply her prostitution business.

A lawyer for Ms. Devi says his client has been “falsely implicated” and declined to elaborate. Shankar could not be reached; police say they have been unable to trace him.

Ms. Khatoon says she felt she had little choice, at that point, but to go along. She couldn’t face seeking out Mr. Hussain, even though he was in Delhi. She had left her village with 40 rupees (about 70 U.S. cents) so couldn’t get by alone. And her brothers in Delhi wanted nothing to do with her. She also liked the older woman and thought she was genuine in wanting to help her find her feet.

When the train arrived at New Delhi Railway Station, the small group piled into an auto-rickshaw. As they rode through the city, along its wide thoroughfares lined with hulking buildings and teeming with traffic, Ms. Khatoon remembers thinking: “So many people are working and living their lives in this big city. Why can’t I?”

The house in Uttam Nagar

They moved into a house in the neighborhood of Uttam Nagar in West Delhi where Ms. Devi ran a prostitution racket, according to her confession. She also ran a local beauty parlor and a tailoring shop, according to two other people who know her.

Ms. Khatoon refused to sell herself, to her host’s frustration. Instead, Ms. Khatoon pleaded to be found a new husband. She never saw Shankar again.

Within two weeks, Ms. Devi found a prospective groom, a young man from Rajasthan called Harpal Singh, several people involved say. Ms. Devi told Ms. Khatoon that he already had grown kids so her inability to conceive wouldn’t be an issue. If she went through with the marriage, she could tell her husband afterward about her past. Ms. Devi said the children would be looked after, then join their mother in Rajasthan within 15 days.

“I had made Munni agree to the marriage by telling her that I will send her kids back to her later on,” Ms. Devi said in her confession.

Ms. Khatoon would say later, after everything happened, that the woman she hated most was Laxmi Devi. But she was also the only person looking out for her.

“She used to call me ‘beti’ [daughter] and I used to call her ‘auntie,’” Ms. Khatoon said of their relationship. “She used to give me everything I asked for: food, new clothes. She speaks and behaves in such a way that you can’t make out she will do anything to harm you.”

In late August, Mr. Singh, the prospective groom, was shown a photo of Ms. Khatoon. He was told she was a Hindu virgin named Anita.

“There was nothing to like or dislike about her,” Mr. Singh said in an interview. His family agreed to take her, unaware she was already married. They agreed to pay for her, too.


CHAPTER TWO: A New Life Unravels

Sanjit Das/Panos

Harpal Singh would appear to be a young man of some prospects, a good catch. In 2007, he graduated with a degree in economics and political science from a college in Jhunjhunu, a town in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, near where he lives with his parents and brother. He has trained to be an electrician but farms wheat and mustard seed on his family land. He owns a tractor and earns up to 20,000 rupees ($360) a month. The family are Jaats, conservative Hindus.

Harpal Singh’s yard

But Mr. Singh also can cite the problem that prompted him to jump at the chance, no questions asked, of marrying Munni Khatoon, the young woman from Bihar who was sent to be his bride: There aren’t enough local women for the local men to marry.

It is the effect of decades of parents favoring male children over female. It is a problem across much of India. Girl fetuses have been so frequently aborted that sex determination during pregnancy is illegal. But feticide is still rampant in many communities. Locals in the area where Mr. Singh lives say they can just go to Jhunjhunu and dispose of unborn girls.

Overall, there are 926 women in Rajasthan for every 1,000 men, according to the 2011 census. That’s a slight narrowing of the gap from a decade ago. But the gap for children under six years old has widened, to 883 girls for every 1,000 boys from 909 girls in 2001.

Boys are prized for their earning potential and because, by tradition, they inhabit and inherit the family home. A girl is expected to move in with her in-laws once she is married. The gap in numbers has created a bride shortage in Rajasthan – and a market for young women brought in from other states.

“I know there aren’t many girls available for marriage in Rajasthan,” Mr. Singh said in an interview. Ms. Khatoon was introduced to him as a Hindu virgin called Anita even though she was a Muslim mother of three. Mr. Singh says the man who played a role in arranging the marriage was his cousin, Amar, who lives nearby.

On the basis of seeing Ms. Khatoon’s photo, Mr. Singh agreed to pay, initially a fee of 200,000 rupees (about $3,600) that later was bumped up by another 75,000 rupees (about $1,360.)

He says he gave the money to Amar after being told that Anita’s uncle, who was said to live in a Rajasthani village, needed bail money to get out of jail.

Amar Singh agrees Harpal paid for Anita. But he says he didn’t receive any of the payment. “I didn’t take money from him for his marriage nor did I know the girl before his marriage,” Amar said.

Harpal Singh

The wedding was set for Sept. 1, barely three weeks after Ms. Khatoon left her relatives in rural Bihar, a state on the other side of the country.

The day before the marriage, Mr. Singh organized a “daawat,” a huge wedding feast, for 2,000 relatives, friends and others in his community. It cost him 80,000 rupees ($1,450.) “Naturally, I was happy and excited about the marriage,” he said in an interview. After all, “you don’t marry every day.”

The following morning, in two Tavera jeeps, relatives and friends set out for the drive from Jhunjhunu to Rohtak, a town in the neighboring state of Haryana where the wedding was to be held.

Mr. Singh is tall and stick thin. He towered over his new wife. In their wedding photos, her face is compact, his is a collection of prominent features — jug ears, strong eyebrows, and a thin, dapper moustache. He wore a shiny royal blue suit, a matching tie, and a red and gold patterned turban. Her head was covered with a traditional scarf.

Harpal Singh with Munni Khatoon

The venue was owned by Saroj Chaudhary, a middle-aged woman who walked with a slight limp, Mr. Singh’s family members recall.

Laxmi Devi, the woman who sent Ms. Khatoon from Delhi as the bride, said in a later police confession that Ms. Chaudhary was party to the ruse. Ms. Chaudhary could not be reached. Police say she is on the run; they have issued a warrant for her arrest.


The red soil of the Rajasthan countryside that the newlyweds rode through on the way to Harpal Singh’s house is billiard-table flat and pocked with short trees. Then, near Jhunjhunu, the landscape becomes more undulating and more sandy, a sign of the nearness of the Thar Desert. It is white hot.

At the top of a small rise is the Singh house. It is an L-shaped building with four bedrooms, a porch, a forecourt and a large yard that holds farm equipment. It is painted pale indigo — the ancient color of Rajasthan. Though basic, it has an occasional design flourish and a satellite television. Some members of the family, though Hindu, follow a Sikh spiritual leader called Sant Rajinder Singh Ji Maharaj.

The Singh house

The couple moved into a bedroom with three wood-framed beds and a view over the fields.

At last, Mr. Singh had a wife.

They ate at hotels in Jhunjhunu. He treated her well, they both say. She was cordial with the family and cooked good vegetables and bread.

But she was also frequently aloof and depressed. She would spend time on the roof, looking at the panoramic vista.

When her husband asked her, “Anita, what’s the matter?” she answered, “No, it’s nothing, I’m fine.’”

She had expected Ms. Chaudhary, who hosted the wedding, to visit within three weeks, in accordance with Hindu custom. But Ms. Chaudhary never showed, she says. And as the days passed, the magnitude of what Munni Khatoon had done crept up on her.

To make the wedding happen and maintain the fiction she was a virgin, she had handed over custody of her three small kids to people she barely knew.

She says she did it because she didn’t know what lay ahead for her, or them. And she says she trusted Ms. Devi, who told her they would be reunited before long. But their absence stung. “I used to remain unwell and used to cry remembering my kids,” she said of her first weeks of marriage. She didn’t know then that they would never all be together again.


Laxmi Devi’s house

Khusboo, her four-year-old daughter, hadn’t made it to Delhi. Ms. Khatoon says she left her with Laxmi Devi’s adult daughter to be looked after in Muzaffarpur in Bihar. Ms. Devi’s daughter couldn’t be reached.

Before long, however, Khusboo was living with strangers in a nearby slum, a 20-foot-by-six-foot space that boasts a water pipe but otherwise is strewn with trash, flies and filth. The brick wall that sections off the bedroom has a large, almost-circular hole, like a cannonball hit it.

The 70-year-old woman who lives there says her son, Ghanti Mistry, a van driver in the neighborhood, found the girl crying by a nearby Hindu temple. When no-one claimed her, he brought her home as his own, his mother says. His wife had left him two years before, she says, and he wanted a child.

Ghanti Mistry’s mother

“I kept her and fed her well,” the mother said in an interview. But the family knew what they should have done: “She was a missing child, so we should have reported her to the police,” said the mother. Her son, Mr. Mistry, 30 years old, couldn’t be reached for comment.


The other two children – Golu, a five-year-old boy, and Sania, an 18-month-old girl – stayed at Laxmi Devi’s house in Uttam Nagar in Delhi, according to several accounts.

The neighborhood is like dozens across the city, thriving and clogged. Buildings on the main thoroughfare are three stories high; some have mirrored blue windows. There is a Yamaha scooter showroom, a hookah café, a Baskin Robbins stand, and a billboard that offers call center training and “personality development.”

About half a kilometer off this main road is the house where the children were put up. It is yellow, with brown metal doors and window frames. An internal staircase, visible from the street, leads to a flat roof.

In mid-August, word spread that there was a boy in the neighborhood whose mother was looking for someone to care for him.

Mohammed Sakil, a itinerant garment seller who lives nearby, heard it from his friend Manoj Kumar Nandan, who did odd jobs in the house where the boy was staying, according to several accounts. Mr. Sakil couldn’t be reached.

“Do you want a son?” Mr. Sakil’s wife says he asked her one day. They have three daughters, aged 18, 12 and nine.

She said yes.

“I have got a boy,” he told her.

“It’s good if we can get a recently born child,” she suggested.

Aashma Begum, far left

He said the boy was five. His wife said go ahead anyway. In a meeting between Mr. Sakil and Ms. Khatoon to arrange the handover, he asked for something signed, Ms. Khatoon says. She says she refused. He acquiesced — and walked off with Golu. His wife noted the day he arrived in her diary.

“Everybody wants a son,” the wife, Aashma Begum, 35, said in an interview. “These daughters go to the houses of their husbands after marriage. If I have a son, he will bring a daughter-in-law and they will look after us when we are old.”

Mr. Sakil couldn’t be reached. He told Ms. Begum only that he got the boy from a friend, she says.

The family lives in a warren of shared rooms. They keep chickens (the girls keep one colored bright green, just for fun), a goat, and two white pet rats (because they supposedly keep the other rats away.)

The boy was welcomed. The girls played with him. “We also want to have a brother,” said Yashmin, the 18-year-old daughter.

Golu was well-behaved but restless, the family says. He watched cartoons as soon as he awoke – “Doraemon” and “Oggy and the Cockroaches.” He called the adults “mommy” and “papa” and occasionally demanded of them, “Give me one rupee.” He’d take it to buy a toffee at the store. Ms. Begum says she told people in the neighborhood he was her son. The boy said nothing of his mother, sisters, or Bihar, she says. When they asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said “Policeman.”

Sania, Ms. Khatoon’s baby girl, stayed the longest in the Uttam Nagar house. A neighbor remembers seeing, from her balcony, a small baby playing on the roof next door.

Sania was cared for by Ms. Devi’s cook, Pratima Devi Chatterjee. Ms. Chatterjee, a 55-year-old, fair-skinned Bengali with burn marks on her left hand, has three kids of her own. She and Mr. Nandan, the odd jobs man, are an item, Ms. Chatterjee says.

Ms. Chatterjee says she called the baby “Babu,” an affectionate term for a kid.

“You feed her food and milk in time and she would play on her own and sleep,” Ms. Chatterjee said in an interview. “She was very close to me.”

One day, in the autumn, she says Laxmi Devi, her boss, told her: “I can’t be looking after this child and her mother hasn’t returned, so take her with you.” Ms. Devi couldn’t be reached.

Mr. Nandan once again found the solution. In addition to doing odd jobs at the house, he drove a taxi. The man who owned the cab was looking for a child.

Later, in the newspapers and in police statements, that man would be called Rajkumar. But, at the time, most people knew him as Mohammed Dilshad, a man in his early thirties who had moved to Delhi a decade before and started driving an auto rickshaw. He often ferried prostitutes around town.

He made enough to purchase a car to use as a taxi. He and his wife paid 8,000 rupees ($145) in monthly rent for a three-bedroom, one-story house in Dwarka, an area on the western reaches of Delhi. He bought a second cab. They were up and comers, of sorts.

Their two-year-old son suffered brain damage, the boy’s mother said in an interview, and is cared for mostly by his grandparents near Mumbai. The couple wanted another kid, according to the boy’s mother and a statement Mr. Dilshad later gave police. He could not be reached.

Courtesy ZIPNet
Baby Falak

Adopting Sania was the answer. One autumn evening around 8 p.m., Ms. Chatterjee and Mr. Nandan took the girl to Dwarka, Ms. Chatterjee says.

“Keep her well,” she told Mr. Dilshad. The couple decided to rename her Falak, Urdu for “Sky.”


In Jhunjhunu, Harpal Singh was starting to wonder about his new, sad wife. He noticed that when they went to bed, she made sure the lights were off. And she wasn’t getting pregnant. Ms. Khatoon told him she had had an appendectomy, so conceiving was a challenge.

After several weeks, Mr. Singh took her to a hospital for a check-up. A doctor explained to him that his wife had a tubal ligation and could not conceive. Mr. Singh confronted Ms. Khatoon. She confessed. She told him about Bihar, her previous marriage, her three kids.

A bedroom in the Singh house

He was devastated. He moved into a separate bedroom. But he was too ashamed to tell his relatives. Ms. Khatoon, her cover blown, called Ms. Chaudhary, the woman who was instrumental in marrying her off.

According to Ms. Khatoon, Ms. Chaudhary advised her to steal all the money and jewelry she could find in the house and escape. Ms. Khatoon refused and told Mr. Singh about it, both say.

“I don’t want to do that because if I go back to Saroj, she will again sell me to some other men,” Ms. Khatoon told her husband. “I just want to go back to my kids.’”



Sanjit Das/Panos

“Gudiya” means “Doll” in Hindi.

It was the nickname of a tiny 14-year-old girl with a light complexion, long black hair, a round face, and eyebrows set ever so slightly toward the sides of her face. She was given the name by the people who sent her to have paid sex with men in neighborhoods on the fringes of South Delhi over five months, starting in June last year.


Hanuman statue

Govindpuri is a messy, broiling neighborhood that has little to distinguish it aside from a temple with a gigantic statue of the monkey god, Hanuman. It doesn’t display the signs of India’s economic growth that neighborhoods just one rung up do. It feels like a place you drive through and don’t bother to look around.

As a small child, Gudiya lived with her mother, Pushpa, and an uncle. Her father, Jitender Gupta, says he was imprisoned after being convicted of murdering a relative in 1998.

After Mr. Gupta, 40 years old, was released in 2004, the family moved together to Govindpuri, to a quiet side street not far from the clogged traffic and honking horns around the Hanuman statue.

In 2005, Gudiya’s mother died from tuberculosis. Mr. Gupta had to raise their daughter alone.

Jitender Gupta

He is a hawk-like little man with forearms so wiry that his veins look like a topographical map. He worked long hours selling cucumbers, eggplants, beans and other vegetables from the roadside near the Hanuman temple.

He struggled with Gudiya. He beat her with his belt and fists, his daughter has told authorities. His response, in an interview: I didn’t. But if I did, it was for her own good.

Their relationship became so sour that Gudiya was put in an orphanage. She said in a police statement that her father put her there. Mr. Gupta says Gudiya’s aunt deceived him into it. Either way, the orphanage was convinced she was parentless. Gudiya stayed for three years.

The orphanage was, in its way, a refuge. Gudiya later told counselors that she was hit hard once on the leg with a stick as punishment after she accidentally opened a bathroom door that hit another girl’s head. But, overall, she said, she saw no signs of serial abuse.

“The girl said that the hostel is a safe place,” according to a later counseling report. (That report and others were provided, in redacted form, by Delhi’s child-protection agency.) Officials from the orphanage didn’t return calls seeking comment.

When she was roughly 13, Gudiya had had enough. She walked out. She bounced around various relatives before she returned to her father.

Govindpuri market

They lived in a neighborhood close to Govindpuri called Sangam Vihar, where the streets are lined with banana sellers, shoe repairmen, pastry sellers and women collecting water in large jugs. It feels like a small rural town, one of hundreds stitched together to make Delhi.

At a crossroads, up a short flight of stairs, Gudiya and her father – plus Mr. Gupta’s new girlfriend, a woman named Geeta – lived in one room. It is about 10 feet square, with painted blue walls, a glassless window and a wooden door. It cost 1,000 rupees ($18) a month to rent.

There was close-quarters friction. Mr. Gupta asked his daughter to call Geeta “Mommy,” Gudiya said in a court statement. When she refused, she said her father beat her. Geeta split. And on May 26, 2011, saying she feared violence when her father came home drunk, Gudiya, aged 14, took off, too.

Her first stop, according to a statement she later gave before a court: the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, a top government research hospital, where Geeta worked. (Geeta could not be reached; a judge earlier this week asked police to produce her in court.)

The older woman took Gudiya to see a woman called Pooja Pandey back in Govindpuri. They were acquainted: Ms. Pandey knew Gudiya and her father because her husband also ran a vegetable stall in Govindpuri. Gudiya stayed.

But the couple didn’t tell Gudiya’s father where she was. A few days after his daughter fled, Jitender Gupta went to the police and filed a missing person report.


Pooja Pandey viewed the young girl as a possible wife for a nephew of hers in the town of Etah, in Uttar Pradesh, the giant, ramshackle state that borders Delhi to the east. She tried to talk Gudiya into the marriage. She balked.

Ms. Pandey presented her with a choice, according to a statement Ms. Pandey later gave to police: “You either marry with our nephew or do prostitution.”

Gudiya was silent, according to her own later statement to a judge.

That night, Ms. Pandey and her husband, Sandeep, took Gudiya to Mr. Pandey’s village, according to versions of events provided by Gudiya as well as police statements by the Pandeys. The couple could not be reached for comment.

There, Gudiya saw a young woman about her age who was married to an older relative of the Pandeys, according to her statement. The young woman’s husband and mother-in-law used to beat her, Gudiya says. She told Ms. Pandey, according to the statement: “I’ll do whatever you say but I won’t marry.”

That night, Gudiya was given bitter, white alcohol to drink. Then Mr. Pandey took her to the roof of the house, made her undress and told her to lie down. Ms. Pandey held Gudiya’s hands. Mr. Pandey undressed himself and raped her, according to both women and Mr. Pandey’s police statement.

The next morning, the husband and wife returned to Delhi, leaving Gudiya in the village. A month later, Gudiya joined them in Delhi. Mr. Pandey raped her again, repeatedly – and with his wife’s knowledge – over three days, according to all three. The couple brought other men to her as well, and charged them each 500 rupees ($9), according to the Pandeys’ statements and Gudiya. Gudiya later told a counselor that there were other young girls working at the house, according to the counselor’s report.

Engaging in prostitution is not illegal in India. But related activities, such as soliciting and running a brothel are. Having sex with a minor is considered rape.

Around August, Gudiya was subcontracted out for one week to another couple who ran a prostitution racket, Ms. Pandey’s statement said. The deal was that Gudiya was to have sex with seven men a day for seven days, Gudiya later told a counselor.

She also told the counselor that when the woman of the house realized how young she was, the number of days was reduced to four. Gudiya said she had sex with all types of men, young and old, in their houses and in hotels.


Mohammed Dilshad’s house

Mohammed Dilshad was one of the drivers who took her from appointment to appointment, he later told police.

He is in his early 30s, clean shaven, about five-foot-five. He wears his hair long and slick, parted in the middle and brushed back. He was an auto-rickshaw driver successful enough to upgrade to two taxis – a Hyundai Accent and a Maruti Zen – and to hire a part-time employee.

That employee was Manoj Kumar Nandan, the man who did odd jobs at Laxmi Devi’s house in Uttam Nagar. Mr. Dilshad heard from Mr. Nandan about the little girl in the house who was available. Mr. Dilshad and his wife took the baby and called her Falak. They started raising her as their own daughter.

But Mr. Dilshad and Gudiya also hit it off, according to statements made by both.


After her contract was over, Gudiya returned to stay with Pooja Pandey. She told a counselor she earned 20,000 rupees ($360) in four days, but saw none of it.

One night, Ms. Pandey, who was pregnant, got labor pains. She told Gudiya to accompany her to hospital. There, while Ms. Pandey was being examined, Gudiya slipped away, according to the statements both made to police.

She returned to the house where she had just been and started working again as a prostitute, her statement said. She saw Mr. Dilshad again. The girl “had started liking me and I had also trapped her in my love,” he later said in a statement to police. They began an affair, they both confirmed in statements.

He installed Gudiya in a rented room in his neighborhood. She took clients to make some money. On Nov. 15, Mr. Dilshad’s wife, after a quarrel with him, left for her parents’ place in Mumbai. Around that time, Mr. Dilshad and Gudiya performed a marriage ceremony in a temple, even though he remains married to his wife. He called himself “Rajkumar.”

“After marriage, I didn’t do prostitution nor did Rajkumar tell me to do prostitution,” Gudiya later said in her court statement.

Around the new year, he brought her Falak, she told a counselor. The baby had been staying at his home. Then Mr. Dilshad moved Falak and Gudiya to a guesthouse in a neon-spattered hotel district by the Indira Gandhi International Airport. Soon after, Mr. Dilshad left for Mumbai to see his son, leaving Falak and Gudiya alone.

At first, Gudiya enjoyed it. She felt Falak was “so sweet little baby,” a counseling report said. The kid slept well at night and didn’t create problems during the day. In the mornings, Gudiya bathed her then fed her breakfast – bread, butter, biscuits, snacks, milk and tea. She fed her biscuits during the day and cooked rice and lentils at night. She kept her in Huggies diapers. If they needed supplies, Gudiya said she called for delivery or popped out to a local store. Falak played in the room by herself, according to a counseling report.

But each day that passed brought them closer to the events that would pitch them into leading roles in a nationally-televised drama.

There is an old woman who still lives on the same side street in Govindpuri where Gudiya stayed when she was younger. “She was a nice girl,” the woman recalled. “She was fine.”

When asked how she felt about Gudiya today, she replied: “What can I say? You know what happens to a motherless child.”


CHAPTER FOUR: The Battering

Sanjit Das/Panos

On the night of Jan. 17, the baby wouldn’t stop crying.

She had started around 10 o’clock. Gudiya couldn’t calm her down.

The Shalimar PG guesthouse

The two girls, roughly 16 years of age between them, were living alone in room 210 of the Shalimar PG guesthouse in Mahipalpur, near the Delhi airport. It was going fine. But in a shambolic neighborhood of transients – contract workers at the new airport terminal, rickshaw drivers, travelers from across India – they were anonymous and invisible.

Residents in the apartment building next door, whose balcony is just a few feet away, say they don’t remember ever seeing a young girl with a baby there. Nor do the local shopkeepers, where Gudiya said she bought supplies. Even some of the guesthouse’s maids say they didn’t know there was a child in the room. And no one remembers hearing crying that night.

But 22-month-old Falak, unusually for her, was throwing tantrums.

Gudiya kept trying to quiet her but it wasn’t working, according to an account of the night’s events she later gave a counselor.

Then Gudiya snapped.

She slapped Falak three or four times. And, crucially for what was to come, she says she bit her. Hard. On both cheeks and on her right leg. So hard, she left tooth marks that were identifiably human.

Gudiya’s anger subsided. She fed Falak some biscuits and the baby slept. But half an hour later, she soiled her diaper and awoke.

Gudiya carried Falak to the tiny bathroom adjoining the bedroom to clean her, according to a counseling report. She says she placed Falak standing on the floor next to a bucket. Then she reached for the switch on the hot-water tank. Thud! Falak moved suddenly, slipped, and fell face first on the marble floor, according to Gudiya.

Gudiya would claim to others that Falak fell off the bed while they both were sleeping, according to those who spoke with her. The result was the same: A deep gash opened in the baby’s head. It bled profusely.

Stricken, Gudiya says she went in search of first-aid supplies, leaving the baby alone on the bed. She returned and bandaged Falak’s head. The baby fell back to sleep. But the wound, according to a counseling report, “became bigger and opened up more.”

Gudiya says she thought about taking the baby to hospital. But it was the dead of night and she was a stranger in the neighborhood. Instead, she dialed Mohammed Dilshad, the man she knew as Rajkumar. He had given her Falak to look after then gone to Mumbai. On the phone, she asked him what to do.

“It’s late in the night, where will you go alone?” he asked her, according to a statement he made later to police. “Take her to the hospital as soon as it’s morning.”


Arjun Camp

Even low-rent neighborhoods have lower-rent neighborhoods that service them. For Mahipalpur, that neighborhood is Arjun Camp. The slum is hidden behind valleys of trash and fluffy trees. The roar of jet engines from the planes that land every few minutes on the nearby runway provides another kind of curtain.

Inside, along the narrow lanes, in a tin-roofed, mud-brick room, lives Usha Devi. She is small and sharp-featured and, when she speaks, she pours out a torrent of words.

The encampment has been home to her family — her husband, their two daughters, and one son – since 2007. Her husband works as a janitor at a paramilitary installation. Around the turn of the year, Ms. Devi, 30 years old, found a job, too, as a cleaner at the Shalimar PG guesthouse. On the morning of Jan. 18, she showed up for work at 9 a.m.

Usha Devi

As she scrubbed the passageways on the second floor, she needed fresh water. She rang the bell of room 210 to get to a tap. A teenage girl opened the door.

“She was with a baby that was lying on the bed,” Ms. Devi said in an interview. “The baby was injured and in serious condition. She had injury marks on the cheek, a deep open gash on the forehead. Her eyes were closed and she was continuously throwing her legs on the bed.”

The baby, naked, was also shivering in the winter cold, Ms. Devi says. The minimum temperature in Delhi that day was 5.6 degrees Celsius (42F).

“What will I do?” the girl muttered as she paced the room, according to Ms. Devi. “The baby got injured. Who will help me?”

“Why don’t you take the baby to the hospital? ” Ms. Devi says she asked.

“I don’t know any doctor or hospital here,” the girl replied. “Please come with me.”

The local clinic

“I helped the girl because I felt pain for the baby as any mother would,” Ms. Devi later told police. “I also have my own daughter about the same age as that baby. I thought of that baby as my own child when I saw her injured in the room.”

In a flurry, the manager’s permission for Ms. Devi to leave was sought and granted and a rickshaw was hailed. Falak was dressed in a cap and socks and wrapped in a woolen scarf that covered all but a sliver of her tiny bruised face. Gudiya, in a black coat, took the baby in her arms, and the three of them climbed into the rickshaw.

The receptionist at a nearby clinic recommended they head for the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, the government research hospital in the center of Delhi.

The AIIMS trauma center

After a roughly 16-kilometer (10-mile) trip, the small party pulled up to the main gate. They reached the emergency ward but were told to take the baby to another AIIMS facility nearby called the Jai Prakash Narayan Apex Trauma Center, Ms. Devi says.

Falak was unconscious.

In the early afternoon, in the trauma center, they were met by Dr. Manmeet Kaur.

“My first reaction was ‘How can somebody be so cruel to a baby?’” Dr. Kaur said in an interview.

Gudiya declared that she was the baby’s mother. But she looked so young that the doctor was skeptical.

As a test, Dr. Kaur asked: “How old is the baby?”

“The baby is four or five months old,” replied Gudiya, several witnesses confirm. By her size and weight, Falak was clearly older.

“You don’t know the age of your baby?” Dr. Kaur pressed, her suspicions rising. She asked what had happened.

Gudiya blurted out: “The baby didn’t cry after falling from bed last night. You talk to my husband. He is in Mumbai.”

Gudiya dialed Rajkumar and handed the phone to the doctor. He told her the baby was about 18 months old.

Falak was in critical condition. The hospital staff admitted the baby to the emergency ward. Then they called the police.






Deepak Agrawal

Deepak Agrawal, a 41-year-old neurosurgeon, had seen battered babies before. But in Canada not in India.

The son of an Indian army neurosurgeon, he spent a year training in pediatric neurosurgery at a hospital in Vancouver. He felt like a fish out of water there, detached from his own country and countrymen. But he learned a lot about how children come to be abused – something that he had not considered before going overseas.

“I saw lots of children with child abuse, we just expected almost one a month,” he said in an interview in his cramped office at the trauma center. “Over here, we had not seen any battered baby syndrome or whatever you call it. We never came across any.”

He learned that even rich families batter their kids, so a lack of wealth wasn’t at the root of it. Stress was. Which makes him worry for the future of his country as it modernizes. “Maybe as India goes up the ladder and becomes more stressful, we’re also going to have the same kind of thing happening,” he said.

That afternoon, Dr. Agrawal assessed Falak. He was surprised to find her well-fed, given her wounds and what he had heard about the suspicious circumstances of her admission. She was better fed, in fact, than many of the babies who show up at AIIMS, given that it is a government hospital and almost anyone in India who can afford to goes private. “This kid was very healthy,” he said.

But she was obviously badly injured. And there was pressure on her brain from a blood clot. Dr. Agrawal decided immediately to perform an operation that would relieve the tension inside her skull.



1/18/2012 14:56



The operation took more than four hours in all and ended successfully at 7 p.m.

Raaj Mangal Prasad

Sometime after, a police sub-inspector and a female constable trudged up a long flight of stairs to an apartment in East Delhi, across the Yamuna river from the main city. Gudiya was with them. They rang the bell.

It was the home of Raaj Mangal Prasad, chairman of Delhi’s Child Welfare Committee, an agency charged with looking out for children who need protection.

Mr. Prasad invited them in. “The teenager looked very confused, nervous,” he said in an interview. “The sub-inspector and the other officer looked very exhausted and tense.”

The group settled themselves on brown armchairs and sofas in the Prasads’ lace-curtained living room. Gudiya sat next to the female police constable.

Mr. Prasad offered samosas and tea. “Only if she has,” Gudiya said, pointing to the constable next to her. Mr. Prasad’s wife brought the snacks from the kitchen. Then Gudiya began to talk.



Sanjit Das/Panos

Falak, bruised and unconscious in the Intensive Care Unit at AIIMS trauma center, was struggling. Within a week, she had two heart attacks. The doctors treated her, as they were obliged to do. But they figured she was done.

Courtesy of AIIMS
Falak in the ICU

“You do it just for the sake of it, because that’s the protocol when you have an arrest,” said Deepak Agrawal, the chief neurosurgeon charged with her care. “Nobody really gave her a chance of coming back. Somehow, she managed to get revived again. Everybody was very surprised.”

Then Falak underwent a further operation – the insertion of a tube into her trachea to assist her breathing.





Three of Falak’s nurses

Back in the ICU, in a full-sized bed, Falak was attended round the clock by a team of nurses.

They gave her sponge baths. They wrapped her in a hypothermic blanket to treat her hypothermia. They suctioned secretions through the trachea tube every two hours. They fed her a high-protein diet that included raw eggs, milk, and supplements. They gave her antibiotics and other medicines by injection and drip. They monitored her heart rate, her breathing, the oxygen level in her blood, and her blood pressure. They changed her diapers. Every four hours, they rubbed her limbs with coconut oil to stimulate her circulation and lubricate her skin. Even among a crew used to dealing with broken bodies, the unconscious, parentless, beaten-up baby drew the nurses to her.

“Our relationship was simply like mother,” says Chetna Malhotra, one of the team. She would whisper in the infant’s ear: “Get well soon Falak. Don’t worry. We are there for you.” Another, Sheenamol Bejoi, held her cellphone to Falak’s ear to hear music she had downloaded.

ICU ward at AIIMS

But the mystery of who Falak was, who she belonged to, and what befell her was no closer to being solved. Gudiya, the 14-year-old who brought Falak to the trauma center, knew little of the baby’s past. The police had few leads, and showed little interest in the case, Dr. Agrawal says. A police official in charge of the investigation declined comment.

As Dr. Agrawal monitored the baby’s knife-edge condition, somewhere in the back of his mind, the absence of information began to bother him. He thought about his own six-year-old daughter. He thought about what it would take to beat up a child so severely. And he thought: We might never know who she is.

On Jan. 25, one week after Falak was admitted, the doctor began his rounds promptly at 8 a.m.

He is of medium build with conservatively cut hair. He wears glasses, a white coat, and comfortable shoes. He is friendly but not effusive. And he does long rounds.

That day, he visited patients for three or four hours, a large contingent of residents and nurses following behind him. Along the way, Dr. Agrawal pointed out bits and pieces he thought could have been done better. Toward the end, in the ICU, he reached Falak’s bedside. The bite marks on her cheeks stood out, as if he were seeing them for the first time.

“What’s the status now? Have you found out anything?” he asked the team. Have the police come? Is there any more information on who is looking after the kid? The answer, each time, was No.

“What’s going on?” Dr. Agrawal asked, his voice rising. “Is nobody interested? We are part of society here. What kind of doctors and nurses are we? Why aren’t you all as anxious as I am about this kid, huh?”


“We, too, were helpless because we ourselves can’t go out and find out about the history of the patients,” said Avijit Sarkari, a trainee neurosurgeon who was there. “But yes, we remained silent to his questions that morning.”

With an uncharacteristically dramatic flourish, Dr. Agrawal took out his phone and declared: “I am going to call up the media, OK? Maybe that’s the only way we’re going to get to the bottom of it because you people are not at all interested in finding out.”

Rhythma Kaul

He knew many of the Delhi media’s health reporters. First to spring to mind was Rhythma Kaul at the Hindustan Times, an English-language daily.

Dr. Agrawal would say later that he regretted making the call as soon as he hung up the phone because of the maelstrom it provoked. But at the time, with his medical team of about 20 crowded around, he said simply: “Rhythma, I might have a story for you.”


Rhythma Kaul was covering a school de-worming initiative when Dr. Agrawal called. He described Falak’s condition, dwelling on the human bite marks.

Dr. Agrawal says he was chiefly interested in having Ms. Kaul make inquiries that would put pressure on the police to speed their investigation. He called it “a little bit of social work.”

Ms. Kaul, 29 years old, took a photographer to check out what the doctor had told her then returned to the office to try to make a story from what little she knew.

It was the day before Republic Day, a commemoration of the founding of modern India. It is marked with an early-morning military parade on Rajpath, the avenue that bisects the sweeping grassy mall between Rashtrapati Bhavan, the president’s palace, and the India Gate arch in the center of Lutyens’ New Delhi.

A story on the parade preparations was a natural lead for the next day’s paper. But there was shock value in the plight of a battered, abandoned baby girl on a day that celebrates India’s achievements.

“The editors got excited by the fact that we didn’t know from where the baby had come but it had been ritually battered,” Ms. Kaul said in an interview. “They thought they should take it up as a cause. A girl child on Republic Day and this was the state of the girl child in our country.”

Perhaps, Ms. Kaul and others thought, someone had tried to kill Falak but failed. By early evening, colleagues were whispering to Ms. Kaul that her story had front-page potential.

At home that night, Dr. Agrawal says he told his wife what had happened in the ICU and that he regretted it. But since he hadn’t heard back from Ms. Kaul, he thought there might not be a story.

“You are like this only; you do things and think later,” his wife told him, he says. But she also said: “OK, whatever’s going to happen happened. You did the right thing. You felt so strongly about the baby.”

The next morning, around 6:45 a.m., Ms. Kaul’s father woke his daughter at their family home with a copy of the paper. The headline plastered across the top read: “Abandoned, 2-yr-old battles for life in ICU.”

The photo, taken from above, showed a small baby lying on a large bed. Falak was not named.

“I’m proud of you,” her father told Ms. Kaul. “This is your career best so far.”

Dr. Agrawal, an early riser, was at his house on an off-duty day when the paper landed on his doorstep about 7:30. “The first thing I felt was dread because I thought ‘My God, nobody in my center knows about this,’” he said.

M.C. Misra

Soon, his phone was buzzing with calls from other reporters. The hospital staff also were besieged with calls – and caught unawares. The trauma center’s head administrator, Mahesh Chandra Misra, didn’t even know who Falak was: She hadn’t stood out enough among the center’s 170 patients for him to be notified.

Scrambling on a public holiday, hospital officials arranged a press conference so reporters could be given what information the hospital had at the same time. The big Hindi and English-language 24-hour television news channels sent outside broadcast vans and cameras. Suddenly, Falak’s touch-and-go condition was being monitored on live television, putting the hospital on edge.

When Ms. Kaul telephoned one trauma-center official, she says she was told: “Haven’t you done enough damage already?”

No-one from the hospital called Dr. Agrawal.

The story of Baby Falak, soon dubbed “India’s Baby,” handily eclipsed the Republic Day parade.

“How could anyone bludgeon, bite and all but kill a two-year-old infant?” declared Vishnu Som, an anchor for news channel NDTV, at the start of a bulletin. “That’s what people in the national capital want to know after news broke about a horrific assault that left a child brain damaged and fighting for her life.”

Barkha Dutt, group editor for the channel, said in an interview that it is highly unusual for a story about a child in distress to gain so much attention.

“I would say it was a nine out of 10 story, that’s what made it unusual. It was the top story” – not political parties, foreign policy, terrorism, a rich person’s wedding or the Indian Premier League cricket. “Such stories are rarely given the primacy of hard news.”

The round-the-clock media attention made Falak’s plight a public spectacle. Delhi’s Child Welfare Committee objected to photos of Falak being broadcast.

Falak’s surgeons faced quizzing from reporters and second-guessing from colleagues about their treatment of the baby. They gave daily press conferences that provided the latest on her care and condition – which was then duly disseminated to the nation. Live coverage of medical bulletins usually is reserved for ailing senior politicians or terrorist attacks.

The furor strained Dr. Agrawal’s relationship with his boss, Dr. Misra, the trauma center’s chief. Only on Jan. 29, three days after the story broke, did Dr. Agrawal appear before reporters for the first time.

After, he caught up with Dr. Misra, his boss, as they walked on the concrete ramp outside the center’s main entrance.

“Sir, I am very sorry about this whole thing coming out in the paper without information,” Dr. Agrawal said.

“Deepak,” responded Dr. Misra. “You should have at least told me.”

“I know, sir,” Dr. Agrawal said. “I am sorry.” With that, the two men moved on.

At the trauma center, some followed every turn in the news. Others wondered why the media was making such a big deal about Falak, given the number of babies that suffer and die in India every year.

But outside, and around the world, Falak’s helplessness triggered a passionate, personal response, which reached Dr. Agrawal in waves of email.


[Edited excerpts]

Dear Dr. Deepak,

I was in dilemma about sending this mail to you. At last, I firmly felt that I should send it to you.

Whole nation is eagerly waiting to listen that Falak regains her consciousness. I am confident that success in this regard is destined for you and your team.

Since you are leading a team of doctors attending Falak and the situation is becoming clear to you day by day, still I would genuinely request your nurses to murmur positively whenever they are attending Falak.

By the way, is there any good news of Falak for us?

Hi Dr Deepak,

I wish to express my thanks and gratitude for the efforts taken in helping baby falak getting a fighting chance to live.

We are an Indian couple staying in Australia and trying to have a child of our own. It has been 7 years but we haven’t been blessed with a child.

We were considering of adopting baby Falak if we are given this opportunity.

We are more than confident of our ability to provide for the child and work in her best interest.


Hope you are fine. May GOD show you the right way..
Sir, I pray for Baby Falak.
May ALLAH shower HIS MAGIC here..
I dont know what exactly to say…
I know this- I am sad..weeping for falak.
I am a mother of 2 kids. I am in Dubai..


One student from Central Asia who was attending a local university walked into the trauma center and said, according to Dr. Agrawal: “I want to look at the baby. I feel that if I just stand there and give her my energy, she will get better.”

Dr. Agrawal refused to allow her into the ICU. But she kept pleading and waited for four hours.

“OK fine,” he said. “You go and have a look.” Accompanied by a nurse, the woman entered the ICU and stood by Falak’s bed for 10 minutes.

She asked to come back again. Dr. Agrawal asked her not to. But the woman, who could not be traced, returned with a card and a teddy bear, Dr. Agrawal says.

“You please put it in front of her,” she told Dr. Agrawal. He says he refused. She pleaded. Once again, he relented. The staff hung the two-foot-long pink bear on Falak’s intravenous drip stand. The baby’s eyes were open but she could not fix her gaze.


CHAPTER SIX: The Radiant Sky

Sajit Das/Panos

The frenetic media attention – outraged talk shows, crime-scene documentaries, heartfelt commentaries and prodding public statements from Delhi’s child-protection authorities – upped the tempo of the police investigation into the battered baby girl lying in a Delhi trauma center.

A group of officers fanned out across the country to piece together the puzzle: Who was Falak and how did she get there?

On Jan.27, a crime team from a local police station photographed and seized room 210 at the Shalimar PG guesthouse near the airport, where the baby had stayed. They logged a blood-stained coverless pillow from the room’s double bed, according to police records.

Three days later, officials from the Central Forensic Science Laboratory at the Central Bureau of Investigation, at the request of Delhi police, took evidence from a blood stain on the room’s western wall, a blood stain on the bathroom wall, and two pieces of blood-stained cotton wool. They also removed 35 items of baby clothing, police records show.

Over the next few weeks, the cops rounded up about a dozen people, the arrests heralded in press releases. “Sincere efforts of the teams yielded results,” one of them read. The investigation is ongoing.


Laxmi Devi, the woman who said in her confession to police that she was part of the plan to lure Falak’s mother to Delhi, was charged with crimes related to abandoning a child under the age of 12, inducing a woman to compel her into marriage, cheating, criminal conspiracy and cruelty to a juvenile. She denies the charges. Preliminary hearings in her trial began earlier this week.

Pratima Devi Chatterjee, the cook who looked after Falak when the baby first arrived in Delhi was charged with child-related crimes. She denies the charges. She is part of the same trial as Laxmi Devi.

Police are searching for several people. They include Shankar, the man who first approached Falak’s mother in Bihar; Saroj Chaudhary, who is accused by Falak’s mother of conspiring in the Rajasthan marriage ruse; and Manoj Kumar Nandan, the odd-jobs man who was instrumental in passing along both Falak and her older brother Golu. Police have listed those three as suspects. Neither they nor their lawyers could be reached.

Munni Khatoon, Falak’s mother, was found by police at her new home in Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan, where she had married Harpal Singh, a farmer, by pretending to be a Hindu virgin called Anita. Neither she nor her husband had told the community that she wasn’t who she said she was, they both say.

But even before the police arrived, gossip had reached Mr. Singh’s mother that Anita was a Muslim with children and she confronted her son. After, Mr. Singh’s mother purchased a suitcase of clothes for Ms. Khatoon and told her she would have to leave, both women say.

Mr. Singh’s brother planned to take her to Delhi Feb. 4. The police arrived from Delhi first and took Ms. Khatoon into custody. Before Ms. Khatoon left, Mr. Singh told her: “Go back to your kids and whenever you need any help from me, I can help you.”

After that, Mr. Singh says he grew a two-inch beard to be less recognizable in his community. He recently spent time at an ashram in Delhi run by a spiritual leader that members of his family follow called Sant Rajinder Singh Ji Maharaj, his family says.

Mr. Singh has petitioned the local council to force his cousin, Amar, to return money he says he was cheated out of at the wedding. Amar Singh denies selling Ms. Khatoon or cheating his cousin.

Ms. Khatoon was taken to a women’s shelter in Delhi. One day, she visited her daughter in the intensive care unit. “I was hit by a big blow of regret and guilty feelings to see my little baby in that condition,” she said. She says she couldn’t face returning.

Golu and Khusboo

Ms. Khatoon’s four-year-old daughter, Khusboo, was traced in Muzaffarpur in Bihar and brought to Delhi.

Police found her five-year-old son, Golu, at the home of Mohammed Sakil and his family in Delhi’s Uttam Nagar neighborhood. The family already knew the connection. When a news bulletin about Falak had appeared on television the night before the police arrived, Mr. Sakil declared to the family that the boy was the baby’s brother.

“I still have a feeling that he will come back,” Mr. Sakil’s wife said of Golu. “I loved him a lot.”

Pooja and Sandeep Pandey, the couple who allegedly gave 14-year-old Gudiya the choice of marriage or prostitution, have been arrested and charged with a range of crimes including earning from prostitution and inducing a person into prostitution. The other couple that Gudiya said she worked for at that time face similar charges. All deny the charges, their lawyers say. Their trial has yet to begin.

The court complex in New Delhi

Mohammed Dilshad, also known as Rajkumar, the taxi driver who had taken tiny Sania and named her Falak, was arrested and charged with a series of child- and prostitution-related crimes. He denies the charges.

He is part of two separate trials, one concerning what allegedly happened to Gudiya; the other on what allegedly happened to Falak. Preliminary hearings in the latter trial were held earlier this week; the former has yet to begin.

“I was just trying to save a girl who was in the clutch of prostitution and had adopted an abandoned baby as my own daughter,” his lawyer says his client told him. “What crime did I commit by just trying to help them?”

Gudiya was placed under the supervision of Delhi’s Child Welfare Committee. At one hearing, her father, Jitender Gupta, the vegetable-stand operator, was also present. When he suggested that he had looked after his daughter in the past, she popped.

“How much you took care of me?” she shouted at him, according to an official who was present. Of her placement in an orphanage, she said: “You had to do that, even if you are alive? You had to say that I have no father?”

Mr. Gupta said in an interview that officials coerced his daughter into making those statements. A lawyer for her declined comment.

Gudiya has told the authorities what she knew about the prostitution ring she says she was part of, according to a counseling report. She told them about a man known as “Big Boss” who “takes young and slim girls to work for him.” And she talked about hotels in Mahipalpur — the district by the airport where she and Falak stayed – where young girls were known to be farmed out for paid sex.


As the story unfolded and the police sweep took place, India’s child-protection network came under scrutiny.

The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act of 2000 established child-welfare committees that work with children who need protection and help rehabilitate them. A separate Juvenile Justice Board deals with children who are in conflict with the law.

Another initiative, called the Integrated Child Protection Scheme, aims to provide a safety net for children at risk by tying together non-governmental organizations, local officials – right down to the village level – and others who can spot and intervene in cases where they think children may be vulnerable.

In Falak’s case, Delhi’s Child Welfare Committee became closely involved after Gudiya and the baby arrived at AIIMS. The city’s Juvenile Justice Board is also holding hearings on what happened. But, several experts say, many child-protection authorities in India aren’t functioning effectively and fail to identify children at risk.

Falak’s predicament “100% could have been prevented,” said Parveen Amanullah, Bihar’s social welfare minister, in an interview.

Ms. Amanullah says her state, one of India’s poorest, is “just starting and we are learning” about what needs to be done to better protect children.

“Our system is totally un-sensitive” she acknowledged. She added that combating human trafficking is not high on either her government’s or the public’s agenda. “The general public is not even bothered about it,” she said.

Deepak Agrawal, the neurosurgeon charged with Falak’s care, has a simple way of rating your chances of survival in life. If you are vertical, they are high. As soon as you are horizontal, they plummet.

So it was with Falak. Her lengthening stay lying flat in a hospital bed made her vulnerable to a chest infection, a brain infection, and septicemia. She was plied with antibiotics.

Whether a patient survives such an onslaught of infection depends on what Dr. Agrawal, after saying he has no words to describe it, calls “the drive to survive.” It is the inexplicable something whereby an individual’s brain and the body’s chemicals interact in a way that no one understands but which makes the difference between life and death.

“She had a roller-coaster ride” in her first weeks in hospital, he said of Falak. “In spite of everything, she came out.”

As the weeks passed, the more those around Falak connected with her.

Rhythma Kaul, the Hindustan Times reporter who first wrote about the baby, says she considered adopting her – until Dr. Agrawal told her that even if Falak survived and left the hospital she would need constant care and would have a severely impaired quality of life because of the damage to her brain. Ms. Kaul, who works from mid-morning to late in the evening, knew she wasn’t in a position to take on that role.

Mahesh Chandra Misra, the trauma center’s chief, says he noticed what he considered promising signs of growing awareness in the child: when visitors approached, her heart beat increased to 130 or 140 beats a minute on the monitor beside her bed.

The nurses caring for Falak saw her heightened heart rate as a sign of anxiety near strangers. They prided themselves on the fact that when they were around, her heartbeat remained constant at 90.

On Feb. 20, Falak needed another operation: the installation of a shunt to drain fluid from her brain. She pulled through again and, gradually, her condition improved.

The media coverage was intense. “The most compelling phase was when the baby was struggling to make it; it was the point of maximum engagement,” said Barkha Dutt, group editor for the NDTV news channel. Some people transferred their fears and vulnerability onto the baby and gained confidence with every sign of her improving health, she says. Others saw a stark image of a destitute child from which they could not turn away.

In early March, Dr. Agrawal recommended that Falak be moved out of the Intensive Care Unit and into a regular ward for monitoring.

When the ICU nurses heard about it, they asked Dr. Agrawal if they could continue to care for Falak, even though she would be out of their area. It was an extraordinary request given that the ICU already was short-staffed. But the sister in charge says she realized how attached the nurses had become to the baby and agreed.

Falak got better and better. There was talk in the hospital of her being discharged if the appropriate home could be found – talk that was quickly picked up by the press.

Munni Khatoon, Falak’s mother, says women in her shelter who were following the story told her: “Your baby is fine now. The doctors have taken her out of the ICU and they are planning to release her soon.”

So when police asked her to go get her child, she was elated. “I thought she has gotten well and I can bring her with me,” she said.

Instead, a female police inspector broke the news that Falak had died.


DATE TIME OF DEATH: 15/03/2012 21:40


Dr. Agrawal was at home, having skipped out early from a dinner that followed a course he attended that day called “Doctors as Leaders.” He got the call from the resident doctor in Falak’s ward.

“I felt really, really sad that time, especially because I had thought we had gone over the worst,” Dr. Agrawal said. His mind started to rationalize it to compensate: “Maybe that’s the best for her because she’s undergone so much.”

Television channels bombarded him with requests for a few words in front of an outside broadcast van. “I am not interested,” he told them.

Rhythma Kaul, the Hindustan Times reporter, says she felt grief. She had become so closely associated with the child that her colleagues would ask her daily, “How’s the baby?”

“It was like she was my baby almost,” Ms. Kaul said. But knowing what kind of impaired existence Falak would have had in life, she added: “I think it’s for her good that she died. She’s gone to a better world, I hope.”

Tribute to Baby Falak

The nurses who had looked after Falak pinned a sign on the ward’s notice board. It read:

You were to us more than a patient. you evoked the feelings of parents. your cries and cooes were a tickle to our hearts. How we loved you dear Falak! But now we know that the god who formed you and let you into our hands loves you more. we miss you
Let your soul rest in peace….”

Falak died five days shy of her second birthday. In an order soon after, Delhi’s Child Welfare Committee said: “The story of this child is a grim reminder of the failure of the government to put the child protection mechanism in place. There are lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of Falaks in our country who are waiting for immediate help.”

Falak’s death was front page news. But the media quickly moved on to other stories. The annual presentation of the budget in Parliament. The resignation of the railways minister.

“After the baby died, the story died,” said Rhythma Kaul. Still, all the attention had spurred the investigation into tracking down many of those allegedly involved before Falak passed away.

Since then, “Baby Falak” has become shorthand for cases of battered babies in India, especially for girls unwanted by their parents. And such stories have risen in the news pecking order.

“A Baby Falak in Bangalore, 3-month-old girl battling for life,” said an April headline on IBNLive, the web site of the CNN-IBN news channel, above a story about a baby in Bangalore whose father allegedly tortured her because he “was not happy with delivery of a girl.”

“Another Baby Falak? Infant found abandoned in Dhamnod,” said the Daily Bhaskar newspaper on May 30 when a 10-month-old girl was found at a roadside in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

Earlier this week, NDTV reported on an 18-month-old baby admitted to hospital in the city of Indore with signs of abuse under the headline: “Indore’s Baby Falak: Cigarette burns, multiple fractures”


Munni and her children today

Today, Munni Khatoon lives in cramped quarters with one of her brothers in West Delhi.

One afternoon, Golu, her five-year-old son, said: “Sania has died now. A cycle hit her and she died.”

“Yes, a big cycle,” Khusboo, his sister, chimed in.

Ms. Khatoon speaks reservedly, rarely making eye contact.

“As a good mother, I shouldn’t have left her and the other kids alone even for a single day,” she said of her youngest. “Now, after all that happened, I have no confidence in myself and I doubt every step I take.”

But at times, Ms. Khatoon shows signs of moving on. She likes to lock the door to her room and put on jeans and a shirt, something women in her village don’t wear. She sings to herself – Bollywood numbers about betrayal and separation.

Initially, through her brother, she got part-time work at a fan-repair shop. Recently, the Child Welfare Committee arranged for the government to hire her in a children’s home for six-to-10-year-olds in Lajpat Nagar, a neighborhood in South Delhi.

She expects to earn about 7,000 rupees ($130) a month as a “House Auntie,” a caretaker, and her children can live there with her for free.

She does not want to return to her village or to reunite with Shah Hussain, the father of her three children. Mr. Hussain says he doesn’t want to get back together either, but he will if his community demands it. In their village of Maripur in Bihar, there is friction between their two families, according to both sides.

One evening, Ms. Khatoon’s father called her brother’s place. Ms. Khatoon talked to him. They were both in tears.

“Abba,” she says she told him, “I did a mistake by not listening to you and marrying Shah Hussain. Please forgive me.”

“Ok, I forgive you,” he replied. “But now live your life properly and stay with your other kids in Delhi.”


Newspaper offices

One side of the broad avenue that connects New Delhi to Old Delhi houses India’s Fleet Street, a short strip piled high with the offices of some of the nation’s biggest newspapers.

Off a dirty lane full of parked cars behind the Indian Express, a quiet pathway leads to a cemetery. Through the gates, about 30 meters from a small mosque, close to the right side of the path, is a piece of unmarked sandstone about 18 inches high.

The grave beneath it is three feet deep, one foot wide, and three and a half feet long. It is overshadowed by higher headstones and a tree.

The cemetery lane

Falak is buried here, covered by a pile of dirt caked into a mound. One recent day, two children were selling bottles of water to be poured over the mud in what they claimed was a traditional ritual.

Falak was brought to the cemetery by a small group of policemen at 4 p.m. on March 16. They handed her to the imam’s wife, a 65-year-old woman named Samina, who goes by only one name. She washes the corpses of children brought to the graveyard, about four or five a month.

She took Falak to an enclosed area, about six feet across, where her family usually washes in private. Its walls are made from branches, a tarpaulin, laundry lines hanging with blankets and mats, and two crumbling doors. Inside the enclosure, paving stones and concrete form a slope that ends in a small basin of mud.

Samina was joined that day by Munni Khatoon, Falak’s mother. Falak was placed on a small bed. Ms. Khatoon poured the water as Samina washed the baby with Lux soap, taking care not to open the stitches that covered her skull, chest and legs. She also rubbed the body with scented oil. Ms. Khatoon wailed.

Samina prompted Ms. Khatoon that it is customary to say three times, “My Lord gave to me and I give to you.”

How can I say this? I’m not in a condition to say this,” Ms. Khatoon cried.

“Do it fast, we have to go,” the cops interrupted, according to Samina.

Eventually, Ms. Khatoon got the words out. “I forced her to do it,” Samina said. The baby was dressed in five pieces of white cotton. Then Falak was carried away for burial.

The imam

There were about 10 people around the grave: Ms. Khatoon, the imam, the police, and a few journalists who took pictures. Wives of some of the cemetery workers hung around. They had heard about Falak’s case from television.

The imam read from the Koran. The ceremony lasted about 90 minutes. Ms. Khatoon cried throughout.

Afterward, when the death was recorded in the cemetery’s records, written in Urdu on a rectangular piece of paper, the baby’s name, as stated by her mother, is written “Sania Falak.” One way to translate it: “Radiant Sky.”



Sanjit Das/Panos

For a printer-friendly pdf version, click here.

[Several of the principal characters are speaking here for the first time. Living minors are identified by their nicknames in accordance with India’s child-protection guidelines. All photographs are by Krishna Pokharel and Paul Beckett unless otherwise specified.]

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