“Has she come home yet?”

It was a warm Saturday evening a couple of years back. All the teachers were supposed to get together in the staff room for a brief meeting after the school break. The staff room – alternatively used for computer classes – was adjacent to the main entrance of the English Medium School. Seven schools were parallely conducted in the same campus. The recess period and school breaks were a sight to see! Children are used to rushing out of their classes and running towards the unmanned main gate. Despite several attempts, we could not assign a permanent gatekeeper.

I was standing at the gate looking at the children in the campus. Some of them were chasing each other in the cemented school ground, some busy in their own world, a few kids were filling bottles and getting ready to leave. The others had left for home. After six days of school, Sunday was the only break for them. I looked at the direction of each of the schools and the setting sun. The meeting was about to begin.

The Headmistress had just begun the meeting with all of us when a girl came running inside the room. It was not an unusual activity for the children. More often than not, they would run inside to say something, absolutely unperturbed by the presence of over 10 teachers in a room. But this one was unusual, for she was shaking.

“A car…main gate…a man got out…took the girl in the car and…the car sped off”, she said animatedly, still shaking and then broke into tears.

We listened in stunned silence as she barely got the words out of her. Some of us gasped, while the others threw more questions at her.

“Are you sure?”

“Who else was there with her?”

“What car was it?”

“Did he drag her in?”

She shook her head. The Headmistress tried to calm her down. She spoke slowly after a while. A big white car stopped outside the main entrance of the school. A tall bearded man got out of the car and offered a chocolate to a girl. The girl refused. Then he offered the chocolate to another girl, who accepted. As soon as she took a bite of the chocolate, he put her in a sack, stuffed it in the car and the car sped off in no time. There was another man inside the car.

“What were you doing?” someone asked.

“I was talking to my friend outside the main gate. She had her back towards the car. This happened so fast, that she could not even look at the back. I saw the entire thing.”

She was inconsolable. We called her friend, who told us that she was indeed facing the main gate and her back was turned towards the road. So she did not see any part of the aforementioned event.

We went outside to see if a few children were still roaming around in the school or not. We wanted to see if the teachers in the other schools were there or not. We were not sure who the girl was. She could be from any of the schools. We saw one of the Headmistresses leaving. We explained the incident to her, but to our utmost surprise, she left anyway, nonchalantly. I was shocked to see such a reaction.

Then the idea struck one of the teachers. The only difference between the girls of the schools was in the colour of the hairband. They were all government schools, catering to children from the nearby low income community. Their uniforms were the same. The only difference was: children from English medium wore white hairband, children from Urdu medium wore black hairband and those from Marathi medium wore read hairbands.

“Do you remember the colour of her hairband?” the teacher asked.

She thought for a long time, visibly unsure of the colour. After a lot of thinking and probing, she said, “White.”

Alright, so it was one of our girls. Although the part about ‘putting her in a sack’ seemed a little far-fetched to us, we decided not to argue about the exact details. We took out the registers of each of our classes and started calling the parents of the children. By then, the children should have reached their houses. We called them one by one. Some of them picked up, the others did not, raising our anxiety. What was more shocking was the indifference of the parents when asked about their daughters. I am sharing an instance here.

“Hello Bhaiyaa, this is Leena calling for school. Has your daughter reached home after school today?”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe? Could you please be more specific?”

“Perhaps”

Bhaiyaa, it is important, perhaps a girl has been abducted right outside the school. We are worried and we need to know it was not your daughter”

“Alright, I will tell you at night. I am outside. Ok Bye”

The kind of detachment started startling me. How would we ever know who is missing?

The other teachers of the school were receiving similar answers, while some of the parents were over enthusiastic to know every detail. We informed the local police station and the local politicians. They informed us about the CCTV cameras that were placed on the street corners and the girl was taken to identify the white car.

She identified the car without doubt. When we watched the video for a longer duration, we found that the car had crossed the road about four times. Further, the car could be tracked going towards the city and then it went completely out of radar.

The warm evening failed to soothe any of us. Anxiously we waited for some call, some parent to show up or new evidence which could lead us somewhere.

The grandfather of the girl was contacted and he arrived soon after. When we told him the whole story, to our utmost surprise, he laughed. He told us that his granddaughter has a very strong power of imagination. Last night at the dinner table, he had told her a story about kidnappers. How they come, offer chocolates to young children and take them away. She might have imagined the same to be true and narrated the story to us so convincingly that we all believed in it.

This new piece of information, which we hoped was true, proved more difficult to verify. We comforted the young girl and repeatedly asked her to narrate the story and think whether it had really happened or was it a part of her imagination. The grandfather stood and laughed.

“I am sure it was a fragment of her imagination”, he said, biasing her judgement.

Finally, she told her that perhaps she had imagined it all. The next day was Sunday. We would not know even if a girl had gone missing. We were still getting in touch with other parents. We waited in school till late at night and then slowly went to our houses, hoping against hope that it was imaginary.

Sunday passed without any calls. On Monday at the assembly we waited for some response from the teachers. Luckily none of the teachers had received any calls.

To this day, I hope it was just an imagination. That it was a white hairband. A family was not indifferent when their daughter did not come home at night. And all girls are safe, in their warm houses, like they should be.

Published by Leena Bhattacharya

A researcher who finds solace in social work

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