I Kick and I Fly by Ruchira Gupta shows how children must be drawn into conversations about exploitation

Dark as the subject is, it is essential to involve children in this discourse, and how this danger might be lurking not far from their daily lives

July 28, 2023 11:38 am | Updated 11:40 am IST

The book depicts a claustrophobic convergence of several kinds of oppressive labour into which girls from disempowered communities are thrown.

The book depicts a claustrophobic convergence of several kinds of oppressive labour into which girls from disempowered communities are thrown. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Are children pure? Do they — or should they — live in a state of innocence? Plato thought children are closer to God as they have clearer memories of the celestial life humankind had before they fell through mortal birth. William Wordsworth recreated this faith in his poetry, which celebrates the beauty and purity of childhood.

ALSO READ Explained | What has India done to address child trafficking?

The most striking blow to human faith in innocence came from Sigmund Freud, whose theories of infantile sexuality and violence brought down the romance of childhood. Studies of the human mind have never recovered from these blows. Literature, too, has gone from the exploitation of children in Charles Dickens to the most rivetingly disturbing instance of childhood sexuality in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

Contemporary films have gone further beyond, such as the recently released Jim Caviezel thriller, Sound of Freedom. It has gone on to become a sharply controversial representation of the most brutal and unconscionable act of organised sexual enslavement and exploitation: the trafficking of children. Dark as this subject is, it is now clear that it is essential to involve children in this conversation. This danger might be lurking not far from their daily lives.

Ruchira Gupta with children practising martial arts at her NGO

Ruchira Gupta with children practising martial arts at her NGO | Photo Credit: Vicky Roy R.

What is child trafficking?

The oppression of children. Sexual violence. The degradation of human life to a saleable object. The activity that brings all of it together is as old as slavery. The Slave Lodge in Cape Town, South Africa, the building where slaves were kept before being auctioned in the town square outside, is now a museum that also describes forms of slavery still rampant across the globe. The vilest of them is the sexual trafficking of children.

Journalist and activist Ruchira Gupta, the founder of Apne Aap, the NGO that has been helping women exit prostitution and find sustainable lives has fictionalised the remarkable and life-giving account of a girl’s liberation from a cycle of prostitution that came close to trapping her, and the striking empowerment of the female body through martial arts. I Kick and I Fly: it is a title that fuses the overpowering, the triumphant, and the ethereal. The narrator-protagonist, Heera, a poor girl from the Nat community — one of traditional entertainers — in rural Bihar, flies in the face of danger throughout the story, and lets her limbs fly to smash the bodies of vicious male oppressors.

A self that is worth defending

How does the consciousness of a martial-arts-trained body alter a girl’s sense of physical exploitation? Kung fu and other martial arts such as karate, Gupta points out, teaches a girl about her body in a non-sexual way. She learns about speed, agility, self-defence, and balancing the power within and without through the training. And it is based not on aggression but self-defence. She learns both concentration and channelling of her body’s energies. That helps her to respect and understand her body. “Learning self-defence,” one girl who learned karate in Apne Aap told her, “taught me that I have a self worth defending.”

It’s a tough, often traumatising defence. I Kick and I Fly shows a claustrophobic convergence of several kinds of oppressive labour into which girls from disempowered communities are thrown — dancing as entertainment in carnivals, low wage restaurant labour, work in shady massage parlours — all of which become inevitable pathways of, and convenient covers for, prostitution. A seamless mesh of oppressive conditions trap her. “There is a continuum of abuse,” Gupta reminds us, “that we don’t notice when we see a smiling, ‘happy hooker’. I wanted readers to know and understand that there is an absence of choice behind trafficking, from hunger to homelessness but also caste, race and gender discrimination. Very often exploitation overlaps where a girl or boy is used for cheap labour and sexual abuse.”

Just as often, she points out, “people blame the communities to say they sell their daughters”. Nobody understands the continuum of abuse behind these so-called choices. It is this continuum that shapes the characters in her novel, notably that of the protagonist’s father — and his change over the course of the book.

The industry of sexual oppression and enslavement changes, hydra-like, to adopt new technologies. Trafficking rings, Gupta says, have begun to use AI to recruit and groom teens online. “AI processes data at supersonic speed and identifies teenagers typing in key words such as ‘sad’, ‘lonely’, ‘angry’, ‘suicidal’, ‘unhappy’ when chatting with their friends. Then, through an army of chatbots these rings create fake profiles and befriend these young people. Soon they get the kids to perform sexual acts that they tape and once the young person is groomed, they blackmail them or seduce them into showing up in person.”

They follow a similar process to auction the children online. Anti-trafficking activists, too, have been trying to use AI to bust the dark web of traffickers, but they simply don’t have the kind of financial resources the sex industry does.

The only way to deal with trafficking is to understand that basic needs are human rights. This is why, Gupta points out, education becomes her protagonist’s means to escape the sex trade. But an entire community has to come together to make this possible. There is no power greater than a community coming together around something it cares about, because, as she puts it, “change begins at the bottom and transforms the top, and courage is contagious.”

Learning about sexual reality has been part of children’s education for quite a while now. It’s time the darkest underbelly of that reality entered their awareness. They need to know that the bogeyman’s sack is real, and that it can cross borders and destroy bodies, minds, and lives.

And the most shocking part of this reality, that which the sensationalist Sound of Freedom fails to point out, is that most kidnappers are not unknown, alien devils, but people known and trusted by these deeply vulnerable children and their families.

The writer’s novels include The Firebird, The Scent of God, and The Middle Finger.

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