Having gone missing in 2013, 16-year-old Pooja Gaud was finally reunited with her family last month. However, the physical and mental trauma that she suffered during the nine years in which she was allegedly kept captive has meant that the days since her reunion with her family have been no fairy tale.
She was allegedly abducted by a couple on January 22, 2013, some distance from a Mumbai school. Her disappearance had led to a massive media campaign to find her. Over the years, she came to be known as Girl No 166 for being the only one, out of a total of 166 missing girls, to not be found by DN Nagar police station’s assistant sub-inspector Rajendra Bhosle’s team between 2008 and 2015.
On August 4 this year, Pooja finally managed to find her family with the aid of a house help. Police later arrested Harry Joseph D’Souza, 50, for allegedly abducting Pooja, and also named his wife Soni, 37, as an accused. The couple reportedly abducted her as they were desperate for a child of their own.
Back home, Pooja faces various hurdles in letting go of the trauma of her period in captivity. She says that the physical abuse that she suffered has led to various physical ailments, and her psychological scars leave her crying late into the night as she recounts her ordeal to her mother. Her mother, Poonam Gaud, the family’s single breadwinner, is struggling to make ends meet and has been taking loans to get Pooja medical help.
“A few days ago, we went to a doctor as Pooja’s back was sore. She had difficulty sitting down after waking up in the mornings. Apart from that, she feels like there are clots in her stomach. The doctor has given us pills and asked me to massage her back with hot water twice a day. All this is because of the abuse she faced during captivity,” Poonam told The Indian Express at their home in Andheri.
Pooja says she had been beaten to the point of bleeding during her time in captivity.
“When I was in their captivity, I had to work for most of the day, so there was no time to even realise the physical damage I had gone through. Soni was physically abusive and every time I made some small mistake, she beat me up with a rolling pin or sometimes with a belt. Once she hit me on the head with a rolling pin and without even realising it,
I had started bleeding and my clothes were soaked in blood.”
“Due to these beatings and the constant slaps, my ears have developed an infection because of which I cannot use earphones. Due to the beatings on my back, it is still sore. She (Soni) also hit me on the knees with the rolling pin, due to which even today my legs feel weak. When I was in captivity, I did not pay attention to the injuries, but during the time I have been at home, these injuries have started revealing themselves to me. Hence, we went to the doctor,” Pooja said.
Dr Danish Shaikh, whom Pooja’s family consulted regarding her physical ailments, told The Indian Express: “She suffers from inflammation in the pelvic region. There are issues with her spine as well as with her cervical and lumbar region, leaving her suffering from bending and other issues. Usually, issues related to the spine are lifelong. She told me she is also getting treatment for an ear infection.” He said he did not know if her issues were due to being beaten or from doing excessive work, but he added that if such ailments were not treated soon after they came up, they would lead to more complications over the years.
The doctor said he recommended that an MRI be done of her spine. “An MRI costs Rs 15,000-20,000. Even if the family is given a discount and asked to pay Rs 8,000-10,000, they are still not in a financial position to afford it. Even while treating her, I gave her discounts and didn’t charge for medicines to the extent I could.”
Talking about the medical expenses, Poonam said, “I have spent money on the medical bills for which I had to take a loan. Handling the expenses, especially the MRI scan, is becoming difficult.”
In February this year, Pooja’s father, who was at the time the sole breadwinner of the family, died due to cancer. Ever since then, Poonam has been selling chickpeas from a stall near the Andheri railway station to earn a living.
She said her elder son Rohit had worked as a technical assistant at a plant, but had to quit a month ago because the fumes he was breathing in as part of his job was adversely affecting his health.
Poonam said that soon after Pooja was found, several people visited their home, including media persons and senior police officials, and promises of help were made to them. “However, so far, no one has come forward to help. A senior police official had also asked the DN Nagar police to look after my medical expenses, but that has not happened so far,” she said.
An officer from the police station said that they had supplied 25 kg of wheat and rice in the past.
Apart from her physical scars, Pooja also suffers from psychological trauma. She spends most of her time at home. Sometimes, her family catches her lost in thought, and says that she is easily irritable.
“After I returned home, some of the girls in the area tried to remind me how we played together as children. I do not remember it. They call me out but I have become so used to being at home that I have still not become comfortable going out,” Pooja said. “Sometimes late at night, I remember how they (the accused couple) would beat me and not allow me to go out. I then recount it to my mother and I start crying. I remember everything clearly.”
The only activities that interest Pooja are drawing, which she liked since she was a child, and watching dubbed South Indian action movies on her phone.
After reuniting with her family, she said, she also had trouble identifying the elder of her two brothers.
“While I identified Rahul (her younger brother), I could not identify Rohit as his appearance had changed a lot,” she said.
The family has also not been able to get her admission at a school.
Pooja said the last time she remembered going to school was in Class II. “After that, every year they (the accused couple) would get me textbooks for the next class, but I never gave any exams.”
“The next academic year will start next year, and I am not sure I will get admission as we will still need the paperwork from Class II,” she added.
She also said that the couple who abducted her had made her work as a babysitter for a different family. That work brought in Rs 20,000, but the accused couple took that money, she said.
“For babysitting, I earned Rs 20,000 that they (the couple) would take from me to pay rent. They had, however, given me a mobile phone and purchased a TV set from that money. I want that money back,” she said.
“Looking at the financial trouble that my family is going through, I feel like going back to the babysitting job till the next academic year. Police have, however, told me not to do that (as she is a minor),” she added.
Pooja’s family say they do not know what happened to the accused couple.
A police officer said that while they arrested the main accused, his wife Soni was not arrested as they have a six-year-old daughter.
Talking about her time with the couple, Pooja said that she once came out of their residence in February when a crowd had gathered in the area for a funeral. However, the D’Souzas, she said, quickly found her and took her back home. On checking the date and details of that incident, Pooja’s family believes that that funeral was likely of her father, who died just months before she would be found, dejected after spending years searching without success for his missing daughter.