The first thing the man from the Delhi Commission for Women noticed was a putrid smell coming from the girl. Then he saw what appeared to be a hole on the crown of her head and numerous scars on her neck and arms, some of which, he thought, looked like bite marks. Her hair was cropped close to her scalp. She didn’t speak.
In a photograph taken that day, the young woman dressed in a red kurta and salwar is shown squatting on the floor with her arms clasped around her legs. She looks wizened and her face is pinched. Her hair is cropped short, and there are many bald patches, especially towards the front of her head. There are dark, swollen pouches under her eyes, and nicks and cuts all over her body. Many of the scabs are the bright pink of newly healed wounds, but there are many older partially healed bruises visible too. Most striking of all are her ears. They are huge and swollen, closed in on themselves, sealed off. They are hardly like ears, in fact, not the usual whorls and grooves that protect the dark passage to the inner ear.
On her medical report, carried out a few hours later, the doctor noted she had ‘cauliflower ear’, an injury that is a source of pride for boxers. It results from repeated blows to the side of the head, such as those usually sustained in a boxing bout. Blows to the ear, from a hand or a fist, cause the tissues in the ear to separate. Over time, from repeated trauma, the ear fills with pus and almost folds in on itself defensively, offering a smooth, polished, cavity-less exterior to the brutal world, rather like a snail secreted away into its shell. Her other ear had not yet progressed so far on this journey. Although it too had ballooned much beyond its normal size, a whorl here and there offered clues to what it had once been.
She didn’t look anything like the girl she had been just two years earlier when she left her village, Athgama, and her mother, Suruj Kujur, to come to Delhi to work. This was Fullin, Kujur’s oldest daughter. When Fullin was first asked about her injuries in her employer’s home, she didn’t blame her employer, people who were present say. ‘I fell in the bathroom,’ she reportedly said.
When the Shakti Vahini workers insisted on taking her to a hospital, she turned to her employer, ‘Aunty, should I go?’ But later, away from the Vasant Kunj flat, she told Shakti Vahini counsellors and the police that her employer made her sleep in the bathroom and fed her off paper plates, that she had been hit repeatedly with a knife and a hot pan. She says that the wound on her head was caused by repeated beatings with a jharu.
When Fullin emerged from the house, the crowd got a look at her. After the police left, some members of the crowd went back to their own homes in the colony. Others in the crowd, the maids and drivers of families of the area, were so angered by what they saw that they smashed the flower pots of the house. Those flower pots, like the two dogs that belonged to Vandana Dhir, raised questions.
It was Fullin who walked the dogs, and no doubt Fullin who watered the plants. Whatever the cause of her injuries, whether a broom held by her employer or a fall in the bathroom, why did the majority of people of this neighbourhood—particularly the resident welfare association officers who were vested with the power to make sure all was well in this tiny corner of the world—do nothing when they saw a dog walker go by with scars and wounds that appeared never to heal?
In 2014, Dhir was put on trial for assault, to which she pleaded ‘not guilty’, maintaining that Fullin hurt herself in a fall. She declined requests for an interview, saying at one point outside the court that the she didn’t trust the media, and that journalists had ‘hyped’ her story. While the case is still in court, Fullin lives in an educational facility set up for trafficking victims in her home state. Periodically, she goes home to her family in the north of the state, which is where we meet on one of my visits. Her face has filled out, her hair has grown, and many of the scars on her body and face have faded. On her scalp though, a smooth hairless patch remains.
Excerpted with permission of Aleph Book Company from Maid In India: Stories of opportunity and inequality inside our homes by Tripti Lahiri. You can buy the book here.