Pooja Gaud, who was kidnapped and held captive for nine-and-a-half years before her miraculous rescue, says she is now focusing on letting go of the past and supporting her family. Pic/Atul Kamble
The house is barely ten feet by ten feet in area, located at the mouth of a narrow lane in Andheri. The only place to sit is a small bed in the modest ground-plus-one shanty. But amid all the squalor, Pooja Gaud is happy and content. "I am home now," she tells mid-day, as she sits on the bed wearing a red and black shalwar kameez. "Nothing else matters."
The 17-year-old was kidnapped from near her school in Andheri in January 2013, when she was seven years old. What followed was a harrowing ordeal that included daily beatings, part time jobs to support her abductors' household and confinement inside the house for hours on end. And yet, thanks to a good samaritan and the internet, Pooja came back to her mother last year.
Pooja managed to find an old Missing poster of herself on the internet, and contacted her family, leading to her being reunited with her mother and siblings in August last year. File Pic/Satej Shinde
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Pooja now lives with her mother Poonam, her two brothers, her aunt Manju and her aunt's five-year-old daughter, Pari. Life isn't exactly being kind to the Gauds. Finances are strained and Pooja still carries the scars of her past - she is undergoing treatment for abdominal injuries and blood clots thanks to the incessant physical abuse at the hands of the D'souzas, who had kidnapped her and held her captive. But the very fact that she is back with her family is enough to keep her spirits up.
"This house may be small but the one where I lived with the D'Souzas felt no different from a prison. I was always watched, not allowed to speak to outsiders. But since my return a year ago, I have focused on letting go of the past and starting life anew. I made a trip to my hometown in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh, and met my relatives and my grandparents, who couldn't believe I had actually returned after so many years. I have learned to cook from my mother and spend as much time as I can with my brothers," says Pooja.
When she walks down the lanes of her old neighbourhood, people smile at her but she feels confused. "I try to remember if I know them, just like I try to recall these lanes and houses. Sometimes the neighbours talk about how I used to be as a child, and what happened when I was gone. I have lost out on a lot, and I am determined to make up for it now," she says.
Pooja was on her way home from school when she was kidnapped by Harry D'souza, 50, and his wife Soni, 38, who lured her to their house by tempting her with chocolates and ice cream. When she started insisting that they drop her home because it was getting late, they threatened to throw her off a hill. Pooja was too young to remember which area they were staying in at the time.
"From there, they took me to the Haji Malang area in Kalyan, where they made me stay with someone for a short while. But that person called them up and asked them to take me away. So, they took me to Goa and from there to Raichur in Karnataka, where they enrolled me into a boarding school," Pooja recalls.
Back home, her mother Poonam found herself drowning in grief. Even as she was trying everything she could to find her child, her husband was diagnosed with cancer in 2019. His tongue had to be amputated and he spent two years suffering and unable to speak, before finally succumbing to the deadly disease in April 2022.
His only wish, a tearful Poonam tells us, to see his daughter before he died, a wish that remained unfulfilled. After his demise, keeping the house going became Poonam's responsibility. She now sells sprouts and snacks at the Andheri railway station while her elder son dropped out of school and now works as a mechanic.
Meanwhile, Pooja, who was rechristened as Annie by the D'souzas, was brought back to Mumbai in 2014 and put to work. She worked as a housemaid and babysitter in multiple households and they took away all her earnings. "On top of that," Pooja says, "I was made to do all the housework in their house as well, and would often be on my feet for 12 to 14 hours. I was never allowed to use a phone and would be punished if found talking to anyone other than the D'souzas."
"What I can't fathom," Poonam adds, "is how any human being can be so cruel. They claimed that they kidnapped Pooja because they didn't have a child of their own, and yet, they treated my child like a slave and a prisoner. My heart aches when I think of the hardship she must have endured. I see her smiling now, but I know that deep down, she is still haunted by her ordeal. It's been a year since Pooja came back, but she still complains of pain in her chest and stomach."
From 2014 to 2017, the D'souzas lived in a rented house in Vile Parle, before shifting to Dhangar Wadi in Andheri, a mere three-minute walk from where the Gauds live. Pooja was rapidly losing hope, till she confided in Pramila Devendra, a part-time housemaid employed by a family she was babysitting for.
Devendra helped her find an old Missing poster of her on the internet, which had a contact number for Mohammad Rafiq Shaikh, a neighbour of the Gauds. Pooja managed to call Shaikh using Devendra's phone without alerting the D'souzas, and Shaikh went rushing to the Gaud household. The rest, as they say, is history.
Pooja remembers what it felt like to finally cut her birthday cake surrounded by her own people on December 25 last year. She had never had a birthday celebration during her nine-and-a-half years of captivity. Poonam, however, says that Pooja's birthday was celebrated in the house every year, even when she was gone. For Pooja, it is now all about moving on.
"I already have experience working as a babysitter, so I am looking for similar jobs now. I would also like to complete my education, if I get the chance. I have lost my childhood but now, my goal is to support my family," she says.