Bubli (14) comes from Saharanpur orginally, but grew up in Delhi. Her mother left the father to marry another man, but the latter didn't want her anymore, especially not her kids. The family ended up in the capital, dependent on relatives.
When Bubli was about 11, she was sent off to work in a house in Madhuban Chowk, where the mistress was called Shammi. There were three daughters in the house, two of whom were in school. One was working at the airport, maybe as an air hostess. This girl was called Chandni (a pet name) and didn't look any older than 18 or 19. This brat ended up tormenting the little maid with the viciousness and ease that belied her youth.
Bubli recalls standing ready, with Chandni's make-up. "Holding her compact. Her liner. She had blue liner and black. Different shades of lipstick. Each day of the week, she expected me to know which shade she was going to use. If I held out the wrong one, she hit me."
I asked how she hit her. With her hands? Objects?
Bubli laughed a little as she said, "With anything that came to hand. Slaps, kicks. Kitchen things. Brooms. It could be anything."
Apart from serving as a very literal kind of handmaiden, the girl did all the cleaning, washing dishes, clothes, cooking, running of errands and so on. The daughters of the house didn't lift a finger. "When Chandni went to bathe, I laid out her clothes. I had to handle everything. Even her underwear. Plus, she had day shifts and night shifts. I had to sit up for her, day or night. Couldn't go to bed until she left the house. It could be 3 am or 4 am. When she returned, I had to press her feet. She made me massage her whole body. Then, I had to get up at 5 am again. When the elder one left, the younger sisters would begin ordering me about."
Bubli began imitating their high-pitched screaming. "Bring me this. Bring me that. Go give this notebook to that house. I told you to go there first; that is more important. Go to the bank, deposit money, withdraw money."
For some reason, after a while, they stopped sending her out to the bank. Taking her out for treats was not even thought of. I asked whether Shammi, the lady of the house, or her husband ever hurt her.
Bubli shook her head. "The father was out of town mostly. He never hurt me. And the mother would only hit me by chance."
By chance? How do you hit someone 'by chance', I asked.
She smiled sheepishly. "Well, once in a while. If she got angry."
In stark contrast, Chandni would to beat up the child every chance she got. Matters came to a head the day the juice incident happened.
"Chandni asked me to bring her some juice; there was the juicewallah with a thela passing the street below. By the time I went to stop him, the juicewallah had left. She said, "You can't even get me a glass of juice?" and then, suddenly, she lost her temper and began to beat me like crazy. She beat me till I bled. Coincidentally, that very day, my mother came to visit. I told her everything and she wanted to take me away, but Chandni stopped her. She accused me of stealing Rs 10,000 and said that until I gave back this money, I couldn't leave. I was glaring at her, but what could I do? I told my mother to go, because she didn't have the money. Next time my mother came, they locked up the door leading out to the stairs so I couldn't even see her outside. Later, the activists came with the police. They took me away, heard my story. There were a lot of cameras, but they wouldn't let me speak to the media at first. I was taken to court where I told the big judge everything. He asked me if I stole. I said, no, and he said it was alright. They sent me to Nirmal Chhaya (the government place for destitute women) for a few days, then to this ashram."
And what happened to the evil miss?
Bubli giggled, "Chandni ran away. Or so I heard the cops saying. They said she was absconding, but they'd get her, sooner or later; I don't know what happened to her."
The other lady sitting with us, told me later, of how angry the child gets sometimes. "She is learning beautician's work, now, along with the other girls. Sometimes, she says, she wants to see Chandni standing there, holding her make-up, serving in exactly the same way as she was made to."
The girl has her ambitions sorted out, for now. "When I came here, I didn't know the alphabet. Now I can read and write a little. They're also giving us beauty parlour training, and tailoring. But I want to be an activist. I don't want to be a beautician. I'm only learning so I can train others. For free. The destitute ones. The homeless ones you see on the streets. But one day, when I grow up, I'm going to open an ashram like this. For girls." She paused, and then added, "Well, mostly for girls. I don't want to see any girl treated like I was. But both my brothers, they're also at mukti ashram."
It was only much later, when I started sorting the photos from that visit, that I realised - when she laughs, Bubli gets soft dimples around her mouth. And she laughs easily.