Just 17 years old and raring to go, M was offered a chance to work in a beauty parlor in the big metropolis of Mumbai. For a girl from Mizoram, a remote corner in India's north-eastern region, it was a dream come true.
M was offered the job by a man, whose name she did not know nor cared to remember, as it was "too hard to pronounce". A woman, who was known to both M and the man, had made the job offer on his behalf. Incidentally, this woman happened to be 'a friend of a friend', was from M's tribe and employed at the man's parlor in Mumbai.
M was delighted at her prospects: Rs 8,000 (US$1=Rs 39.5) a month for a job at an aromatic spa, in addition to lodging at the spa's 'hostel'. Having undergone training at a local beauty parlor in the state capital, Aizawl, M was eager to join.
In October last year, M and three other recruits travelled to Mumbai by train along with the woman who had made the offer. "When we reached, we were taken to a hostel that the owners ran themselves. We had been told that we would be working at a beauty parlor. Within a day, an employee there was asked to 'train' us in the art of body massaging. This was something I could not do," she said.
It was during a "live training session" when she was giving a client a head massage that the client asked her to massage his lower back and stomach. "He told me that he would pay me extra," she said. "We were made to sit in a row in the front room of the parlor where clients would pick a girl of their choice to do their massage," she explained.
Already uneasy with the kind of 'beauty job' she was being dragged into, the client's demand frightened M, who ran out of the room and hid upstairs. The servants were sent to bring her down. "I was then scolded by the owners and ordered to massage the client." But she refused. "I screamed and called out for my friend A, (an 18-year-old recruit from a remote village in Mizoram with whom she had travelled to Mumbai) who was working in another room. She came running. I told her that I could not do this job. She was also scared, but massaged the client on my behalf."
Unable to come to terms with their new job, the two young women decided to leave. But how? Coming from less than well-off homes, they had spent a lot of their family's hard-earned money on the travel to Mumbai and the employers refused to pay them their salary and fare. Luckily for M, a distant relative was studying medicine in the city and sponsored their trip back home.
Dozens of young women from the northeast are similarly lured to Mumbai and other big cities such as Bangalore and Delhi. Those with strong family support - like M and A - are able to return home. Yet, there are others who continue to work in dehumanizing conditions. Says M of two of her friends, who stayed on at the 'spa', "The job was not what they expected but they decided to adapt to the situation."
According to the police, many may not have much of a home to return to. After that, it's a small step from the body massaging business to the body-selling trade. "Working in that kind of an environment, it is just a matter of a split-second decision to cross the line. But once it's decided, it's a quick move into the world of full-scale commercial sex," said a police official.
So, can such young women be called victims of 'human trafficking?' "Some would say that they are not victims but willing participants as they went on their own volition. But I think they have to be categorized as victims as they were lured with the promise of a job," says Angela Ralte of the Centre of Peace and Development (CPD), an Aizawl-based NGO working on woman and child issues. CPD is one of the dozens of NGOs helping women in distress in the region.
Mizoram offers fertile ground for traffickers on the look out for fresh faces for their 'parlors'. Girls from the hills have an added 'chinky' look that has close physical affinity with women from Thailand, a country that has earned the reputation of something of a beauty and sex capital.
Traffickers have worked out a more sophisticated approach now, said Ralte. "They never force the girls. They never forcefully keep anyone. The girls are maneuvered into a position where they find it difficult to leave as the person they trusted is still working along with them. The actual trafficker is their friend," she explains. There being no actual 'crime' to report, the victim finds it difficult to take the matter to the police.
Mizoram police statistics document a steady rise in trafficking. During the last decade, there were 13 cases of human trafficking registered under the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act, 1956, and 30 persons were arrested in the state. But getting a conviction is impossible. According to Judicial officer Marli Vankung, "More than anything else, it is the lack of public outrage that hampers the law while dealing with such cases. Recently, the Mizo Welfare Association, Mumbai, 'rescued' some girls and issued a warning to the person who had brought them to the city to work in beauty parlors. But they did not press charges. Neither did M and her family."
Unless the victims and their parents come out strongly against the traffickers, it is difficult for the police to gather enough evidence against them.
According to police officials, Mizoram's modernizing population has made a fetish out of beauty. So much so that it has earned the title 'Paris of the Northeast', with fashion and beauty being the chief interests of most teenagers, regardless of gender. At the cost of raking up a controversy, it might well be said that the subtle grey areas between the modern beauty industry and the commercialization of sex has created a space in which starry-eyed girls can be 'legally' lured from the 'beauty trade' into the flesh trade.
Scarcity of jobs, rising aspirations and little education also makes these youngsters easy targets.
While not all job offers are sinister, there is need for a red alert. M's mother revealed that a woman from a neighboring locality had come to consult her when the same woman (who had approached M) offered jobs to her daughter and some friends. "I warned her against sending her daughter," said the mother.
While the trafficker continues to lure more women, most may not be as lucky as M, who returned unscathed.
Some might return home in a body bag, as did an unfortunate 21-year-old recently. The deceased was said to have been undergoing 'training' at a beauty parlor in another of India's rapidly Westernizing cities, Kolkata. But an investigation is unlikely - the family would rather bury dirty linen than raise the red flag to caution other young women.