(Behind the story: I met Shivani (name changed) on one the most exciting writing assignments i had when i was working for Republica’s The Week.. i met her during a circus rescue mission in Assam.. i was following the circus rescue team at the time.. i’d written a story about the rescue .. my job was done for the time… but Shivani had become a muse that i knew i’d come back to again.. to write another story.. so as the last story i would do before i left The Week.. i wanted to revisit Shivani and see where life had taken her.. so after two years of first meeting her at a makeshift tent in Assam.. i went back to this fascinating woman.. here’s what i have of her story)
This is not a story about a “rescued” girl. She never hated the circus she was sold into when she was just nine. In fact, she was infatuated with it right from the start. Unlike her sister and many other Nepali girls sold into the Indian circuses who would pray every night, crying and pleading to go back home, she had made the circus her home. So when her sister escaped and had sent their father to fetch her, she in her childish whim, had refused to go back.
Does she regret not having gone back home with her father when she was only a year or two into the circus line? “Sometimes I think if I had come back, maybe I would’ve studied and made something different out of my life.” Does she regret having stayed at the circus? “It was my home – for fourteen years.” Two years after a rescue team brought her, her three sons and two other Nepali children back to Nepal, does she regret having come here? “It was my destiny to come back like that, I guess.” Would she have changed anything she could? “I don’t know.”
Shivani Adhikari (name changed) was a girl from a village in Makwanpur, Hetauda. As a child, she was very fragile and often suffered from severe pneumonia. Growing up, her parents were always careful about her health, spending almost all their earning for her treatment. But she was not the one to rest in bed, she was an adventure seeker. One day when her elder sister told her of a man who would take them away from their village life to big cities in motor gaadis she blindly followed her sister along. “I was the type of a girl who whenever a tractor came by would run behind it, catch up and hang on to it while it made rounds of the village just for fun,” says Shivani. “Traveling far away in a motorgaadi was too tempting for me to resist.
Foolish children that we were, my sister and I went off with this man without letting our parents know, in our school uniforms, carrying just our backpacks.” They traveled for days and didn’t even realize when they had crossed the borders. She doesn’t remember much, she says, as she was lost in excitement of new sights and sounds around her. On the first day they reached the circus, she was kept in the audience and she remembers being awed by everything she saw. “I’d point at girls dressed up for the circus show and shout to my sister, ‘Look at all the dolls, didi’ and she seemed too embarrassed, tried to shut me up many times,” she recalls. “I guess she had begun to realize that we were being sold into this life.” Their training started. When they revolted they were beaten or punished. When they did as they were told, they were rewarded with food and their basic needs.
They were made to practice circus antics everyday, for hours. Slowly they molded themselves into the routine. But her sister was always crying, wishing to go back home. “I didn’t understand why she was crying all the time. I, on the other hand, had made many friends there and many other sisters who took care of me.” A year or two after they’d been performing in the New Diamond Circus, they had come on a tour to Nepal. “Our circus was always moving.
And though now I know we had come to Kathmandu and done several shows here and in many other places in Nepal, at the time we couldn’t tell one place from the other,” she says with an amused look in her face and adds, “When we were in Nepalgunj, my sister had figured out we were close to our home. She then made a plan to escape and told me about it. I thought she was crazy but then the next day she was gone. She had actually escaped and no one even bothered to look for her.”
Shivani then narrates how through her sister who had managed to get home, their father had come to know of their location in Nepalgunj and had rushed to get her. “When he came I was almost ready to go. I had my bags packed but then people told me of how good I was getting in the circus, that I’d make good money, how I didn’t have to go back to the poverty and could help my parents. I decided to stay,” she says. Her father who had been looking for his daughters everywhere couldn’t take the rejection and stormed off. “I found out later that the circus owner had tried to lure my father to let me stay – offered him food and drinks but he had refused,” she says. “My circus owner was so impressed with my father’s integrity, he and his family started treating me differently; they started calling me “sharif khandaanki ladki” (girl from an honorable family) and maybe that’s why they chose me as their daughter-in-law, a bride for their eldest son.” At 14 then, she married into the circus owner’s family. “I’d seen girls getting married, crying their eyes out. But I got married laughing.
It was like a doll’s play for me back then,” she says letting off a slight smile and shaking her head. At 15, she gave birth to twins – Karan and Arjun. Her in-laws who had granddaughters from their second daughter-in-law were overjoyed to finally have grandsons in the family. She was then pampered by the family and more so when she gave birth to another son – Rohit – after two years. Soon the family went through their share of tragedies. Her father-in-law, brother-in-law and her husband died one after the other due to different illnesses and diseases. Her mother-in-law had retired from circus life and was busy taking care of the grandchildren.
Her brother-in-law Mithun then took charge of the circus and she kept on the family business. The circus was always on the move and always changing – with people leaving, escaping and new people coming in – even minors. When things were good, the circus would be a hub of glitz, glamour, and money poured in with the applauses of the houseful audience. But when things were bad, it’d be broke, the staff unpaid and tented down in swamps like the time when the rescue team clamped down on the circus for illegally keeping minors and found Shivani in the New Diamond Circus at Merapani of Guwahati, India. It has been two years since Shivani came back to Nepal.
She and her sons now live in the shelter of the Esther Benjamin Memorial Foundation (EBMF), the NGO working for Nepali children trafficked into Indian circuses that brought her and two other Nepali minors back to Nepal. Though her brother Shiva Adhikari had accompanied the rescue team in September and taken her home, Shivani decided to stay at the refuge center where her children’s education would be taken care of. She also shares that though she was coming back to her own family, she felt she was entering the life of strangers. Her father had passed away. Her mother was old and would get emotional every time Shivani was with her and they’d start talking about the past. “My father always wanted me to come back to Nepal. It was his last wish, my mother told me,” shares Shivani.
“I’ve come back and my mother, my whole family are happy to have me back here. But I don’t know what I’m to do here.” Moreover, her family members had their own problems to take care of. They were struggling financially and she says she didn’t want to be a burden. And she didn’t feel comfortable living in her maternal home even after marriage. She chose to stay at the shelter where she first worked as the housemother in the girls’ hostel looking after the girls and also working in the kitchen.
However, working in the kitchen was something she always hated. She didn’t like working at the mosaic workshop, either, and because she was uneducated she couldn’t do office administration work. As she struggled to find her place in the new environment, she was then presented with an opportunity to regain her connection with the life she had always known. Circus was back in her life, this time as Sapana Contemporary Circus Company in Kathmandu. When the same NGO that pulled them out of the circus life discussed with them the idea of opening the circus Sapana, Shivani says she was disheartened at first. “But then I realized it was a skill I had learnt since my childhood and I didn’t want it to go to waste and so I agreed to do it.”
She says she soon found comfort in her new friends – people who had been through all she had and even worse but had chosen to develop what they learnt out of force into skills and talents in a better environment and that could make them economically independent. She is now one of the 13 performers at Sapana, earning through the circus. Some of them even competed and won in the national games for gymnastics. With international trainers volunteering to train them, the group has evolved and even performed at various venues. “The difference of working for a circus before and now is definitely the environment and the discipline,” says Shivani. “Moreover, people work here willingly and we don’t have minors in the group.” While all the performers are now earning and living on their own out of the shelter, Shivani still stays there for her kids as they are taken care of when she is away.
Training for almost 20 hours a week, she along with her group also teach basic exercises and simple circus skills like hula hoop to kids above class three at the refuge center on Saturdays. Besides, she is also taking English language classes from the volunteers at EBMF. “I learnt many languages easily when I was in India, but English has been so challenging,” she says and adds in her excited chirpy voice, “I understand most of it but can only answer with ‘yeah yeah’” On her holidays and free time she visits her sisters and mother. Her kids, she says, still ask about their Dadi (grandmother) in India. She says she misses her too. After she lost her contacts in her old phone, she says she hasn’t been able to contact her. “I used to tell my mother that I would go back to India but she always scolded me and asked me to make something of myself here.
I probably will work here, study and have my children pass at least S.L.C. But I do want to see my mother-in-law. She must miss her grandsons terribly.” Now 24, Shivani has grown to be a responsible adult looking after herself and her children. But she still has a childish enthusiasm and vigor in her. You would immediately notice her playful and carefree spirit in the way she jests around with everyone. “Chyaaa, kasto yo Shivani di ta” is followed by laughter and teasing smiles at both the shelter and at the Bull’s Gym where they have their regular training.
“One thing that makes me happy here is that I know I’m not alone and I’m part of a group. Performing and being appreciated still makes me happy and I’ll do this till I’m capable and until my sons grow up.” Still young, when asked about her marriage, she laughs and says, “Three things – I’m a mother of three, I’m a widow and a circus worker. I have no hopes of finding anyone who would accept me with all this. But I don’t care. I was loved by my husband and all I care about now are my children and their future.”
Now dependent on the job and the NGO for her sons’ schooling, she says she can’t help but worry what will happen if the organization closes down. “I’ll fight until death to make sure my children’s future is secured,” she says. As for what she wishes to do for herself besides thinking about her children, she frowns, pauses to think, and after quite a while answers, “I still want to travel and go abroad to see the world, at least once.”
Note: I’m posting this now (more than two years after this was published ) because I recently met someone from the organization who told me .. she and the entire team had finally had a chance to go perform abroad.. in Dubai .. they’ve been trying to get the team to Europe for a performance for quite a long time now.. visa troubles have disappointed them each time.. but at least Dubai happened.. and i’m very hopeful that it won’t be the last country she’ll visit.. wishing her more travels and the world..