At first glance, 18-year-old Shweta Katti looks like any other teenager. Clad in a black t-shirt, jeans and flip-flops, she has a nervous smile on her face as we meet at a suburban coffee shop.
Her nonchalant appearance belies the fact that she has been selected for a course at the prestigious Bard College in New York to pursue a degree in psychology. In April this year, she was featured in Newsweek’s Women in The World: 25 Under-25 Young Women To Watch, along with Pakistani education activist Malala Yousufzai, for her efforts to uplift young marginalised girls. But reaching this phase of her life hasn’t been easy.
Over the course of an hour, as she narrates her experiences in fluent English, in a soft mellow voice now brimming with confidence, one realises that her life experiences have only strengthened her resolve to work for the upliftment of downtrodden women.
Daughter of a devdasi, Katti, a love child, was brought up in Pila House, Kamathipura. Originally from Karnataka, her grandfather owned a brothel in the area. But his addiction to alcohol and drugs led to the family leading a hand-to-mouth-existence, compelling her grandmother to work as a domestic help.
In order to give her daughter (Katti’s mother) a decent life, she sent the latter to their native village. But destiny had something else in store and Katti’s mother ended up having an affair with a man whose marriage was already arranged. Katti says matter of factly, “My mother is not a sex worker. Since she was a devdasi, she couldn’t marry him. But she wanted a pyaar ki nishani (a symbol of their love) and that’s how I was born.”
After moving to Mumbai, her mother had a live-in relationship with another man, who accepted the child and gave her his surname. As Katti reminisces about her formative years, she has a faraway look in her eyes. “Growing up in Kamathipura wasn’t easy. My father was an alcoholic, so my mother used to work in a factory. I studied at the local municipal school. I had to reach home before 8 pm, as the streets would be crowded at nights teeming with customers. There were frequent police raids and I would often see sex workers running in nighties to escape the cops. When I was 10 years old, men would proposition me.”
However, she adds that life in the red-light area was also replete with some good moments. “As my mother would work from 9 am to 7 pm, the sex workers would dress me up for school and take care of me once I returned,” she smiles.
Reality hits home
But just when Katti had got accustomed to her way of life, she started being sexually abused by her father. “Initially I didn’t understand what was happening. He would touch me inappropriately. I never told anyone, but managed to stay away from his prying eyes and he got the message. Today we share a complicated relationship. Only few years ago, I confided in my mother. Initially, she was shocked but was very understanding and supportive.”
But the sexual abuse and difficult living conditions weren’t the only hardships that Katti faced. She elaborates, “I am quite dark. Since early childhood, my classmates and neighbours would pass snide remarks at me and call me ‘kaali’. Over a period of time, these taunts left an indelible impact on my mind and I started suffering from low self-esteem.” On her mother’s behest, Katti started going to Apne Aap, a women’s collective at Kamathipura that works with the children of sex workers. “My parents would often argue and the environment at home wasn’t conducive for studies.
My mother knew my potential and urged me to pursue my education seriously. I would go to Apne Aap to study in the evenings. But I wanted to move away from Kamathipura, explore the larger world and concentrate on my studies.” That’s when the team at Apne Aap helped Katti get in touch with Robin Chaurasiya, founder of Kranti, a non-governmental organisation that works towards the rehabilitation of girls from Mumbai’s red-light areas. “Robin heard me out patiently and instilled a lot of confidence in me. She prompted me to converse with her in English. In fact, she was the first person, I shared my life story with. One and a half years ago, I shifted in a three BHK flat, provided by Kranti, with eight other girls at Kandivli.” Since last year, Katti has become the face of the organisation. After completing her 12th grade, she took a gap year and travelled extensively to Rajasthan, Nepal and Jharkand to create awareness among girls about sex education. “I started off by discussing with the girls how they should feel confident about themselves. I also gave presentations about how sexually- transmitted diseases could be avoided by taking precautions.” On Chaurasiya’s behest, Katti started applying to foreign universities.
A better life
This January, she got admission in Semester At Sea, an international programme where courses are held on voyage. But as she didn’t get her passport on time, she couldn’t make it for the programme. However, as destiny would have it, she found a mention in Newsweek’s list. The women’s summit in New York in April this year had invited Kranti to talk about women’s issues. “Robin forwarded to them my profile and an essay that I had written about the December 16 Delhi rape case as part of the application process in foreign universities.
I couldn’t make it for the summit as I was in Goa representing Kranti at another meet but they liked my essay and told about it to the Newsweek team,” smiles Katti. A chance meeting with an alumnus of Bard University helped her seek an admission. She will be going for her degree course this August. “The college has given me a $50,000 scholarship that covers my tuition fees for the year and half of my accommodation cost. But the total cost comes up to $68,000 per year so we are trying to raise funds by shooting a short film on my life and uploading it on crowd funding sites such as Ketto.org, Global Giving and making a page on Facebook.”
Katti has charted out her future plans clearly. She confesses that after returning to India she plans to run a therapy centre for sex workers and their children. Ask her about her current frame of mind, and she says, “I want to enjoy my life and lead it the way I want to. But most importantly, I want to give a comfortable life to my mother, who is the most significant person in my life.” Here’s looking to new beginnings!