When A Child is Sold!

by Sindhu Ravuri

There are at least 27 million slaves in the world today. 1.2 million children enslaved by the sex trade in India. Largest lucrative underworld business second only to drug trafficking, human trafficking perhaps is the most compelling justice and human rights issue of our times.*

A walk across the Sun by Corban Addison is a chilling and heart-wrenching fiction about two sisters that has transcontinental significance in its relevance and troubling subject matter. The book starts off innocently with the story of a traditional, normal, and healthy upper middle class South Indian family that has tight bonds and values. Ahalya, 17, and Sita, 15, are the beautiful daughters of Naresh and Ambini Ghai, who live in the beachfront of the Tamilnadu shores, until a tsunami strikes and drowns the entire family except the two sisters.

“I read Ramayana,” said Addison in an exclusive interview. “As I was reading, it struck me that the story I have outlined in my mind about these girls actually parallelled in some basic ways to the story line of Ramayana. I had been thinking about the names to give these two girls and Sita jumped out of me as the younger girl’s story parallels Sita, the princess of Mythila, in so many ways. So, yes, I picked the names Ahalya and Sita quiet intentionally. Indian readers who are familiar with Ramayana will pick up on the symbolism but the Western readers will not.”

Enveloping and at times unnerving, the book traces the heart-breaking journey of these two sisters as they are sold and peddled until they reach the dark, underworld brothel of Mumbai.

A walk Across the Sun does not simply discuss the horrors of sex trafficking, but also about love, beliefs, bonds and hope. It touches the soul of the reader simply because of the fact that if it can happen to an economically sound and intellectually strong upper middle class family as the Ghais, then it can happen to anybody. The greed, indifference, detachment and cruelty with which the ruthless sex-traffickers sell girls as commodities is horrifying, and truly changes the reader’s perspective of the world. Addison excellently brings out these hard-hitting emotions in a reader without being judgemental.

“There is supply because there is a huge demand. Supplying three virgins for a party is as easy as a cake if you pay right. So demand should be controlled as soon as possible....”

As Ahalya is “broken” by her buyer “Sita [sits] in the darkness of the stairwell, weeping at the sounds of her sister’s violation. Her sister has always been her fortress, her protector, it was Sita’s turn to comfort and protect.”

As a corporate lawyer by training who is painfully aware of various human rights issues of the world, Addison did not find it hard to respond immediately to the plight of human trafficking. In the Spring of 2008, deeply inspired by Kevin Kline’s “Trade”, Addison decided to write a fiction based on facts in the hope of inspiring many others.

“Fiction has the power of really changing the way a person sees the world, engages the intellect and also the heart,” said Addison.

However, he knew that it would be overwhelming to delve into this underground trade, writing, researching and getting information needed to write a compelling novel.

“It was definitely a leap of faith in a way to take this journey. But thankfully I found that as soon as [I] started talking to people, courageous people were willing to help me in spite of my background. It is because of them I was able to write this book,” revealed Addison.

In addition, Addison read a number of books that are either about Bombay or set in the city, including Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, Breathless in Bombay, A short story collection by Murzban F. Shroff, and Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts.

Unquestionably, the most helpful was Suketu Mehta’s masterpiece.

“I read the book while in Bombay and it brought the place alive in a rich and multi-dimensional way,” Addison said.

In A walk across the Sun, Addison embodies his real-life personality in Thomas Clarke’s character. Across the globe in Washington D.C., Clarke is a lawyer (like Addison) who is distressed by a broken marriage, troubled career, and death of his six months old baby girl. The abduction of a 12-year-old girl right in front of his eyes by sex-traffick-

ers proves to be his last straw. He travels to India on a pro bono sabbatical with CASE (fictional), an organization in Mumbai, India, to help as a lawyer and also work on getting his wife back. During a rescue operation by CASE (a fictional organization), he gets engrossed in the story of Ahalya and Sita and sets about to rescue Sita upon the request of Ahalya. The bond between Thomas and Ahalya is sealed with a Rakhi, a symbolic thread tied by a sister around her brother’s wrist, in return for his protection.

The journey of Sita becomes the journey of the reader who gets caught up in her trauma, vexation and suffering. Your blood bolis, tears well, heart beats and hope rises as you too are swept away with young Sita’s emotions.

The experience Addison had in India while dealing with rescuing operations was more “borrowed frustration.”

According to Addison the problem in Mumbai is “monstrous” with at least half a million girls being trafficked, many of them being children. And very few are rescued even after massive searchs and sting operations.

“The International Justice Mission is an international human rights agency with offices in many countries around the globe. Their team in Bombay focuses on assisting the local police and the CBI in rescuing minor girls, assisting public prosecutors and providing aftercare,” explained Addison.

“Most of IJM’s staff in Bombay is Indian, and all of them are heroes in my mind. Their work is hard and dark, but deeply rewarding.”

The real question is, this organization and others like it that are rescuing a few girls here and there, are they really making a difference?

“When they [IJM] try to rescue a girl but their operation is tipped off by a corrupt cop, and then they lose the girl, who slips out of their hands and back into the trafficking pipeline maybe never to be found again. They’re also dealing with the incredible sluggishness of the justice system when cases last for years before a verdict. A lot of criminals abscond and they’re never prosecuted. The level of frustration really should have been a lot higher than it was but I was amazed by the level of hope that these people had. They worked on a daily basis with just the belief that they could make a difference one person at a time. They just didn’t get overwhelmed by the monstrosity of the problem. In my mind, that was a great source of inspiration for me as I was researching the book. I felt more frustration in many cases than they did.”

What can we do to stop this? Addison says that the answer lies in controlling the demand and punishing the Johns (customers) of sex as much as the traffickers. And talking more about it.

“There is supply because there is a huge demand. Supplying three virgins for a party is as easy as a cake if you pay right. So demand should be controlled as soon as possible. As of now there is hardly any punishment for Johns. Virgins get a high price because they is a huge demand for them. The average age to enter prostitution around the world is 13. Many are also exported to work freely in restaurants and such and they are also sexually exploited.”

Addison strongly feels that one great obstacle to progress on this issue is ignorance.

“People may know that there are slaves in the world today, they may know that there are sex slaves in the world today, but I guarantee you that your average person in San Jose is like your average person in Virginia here,” he declares vehemently. “If you ask them if it’s happening in their own city, they’re going tell you no, or if there is something in it, they’re going to say ‘Well, it’s so minor, I don’t know, the problem of drugs is far worse’ and whatever. The reality is the problem of sex slavery is prolific in the U.S. We don’t have vivid numbers, but just about everybody agrees that it’s at least 100,000 minors on the streets of the United States who are being exploited in the sex trade.

“It’s happening everywhere, and if you want to research it, I recommend you to go to ....These girls, in many cases, are trafficking cases, and they’re being pimped out, right online. They can be bought by any guy in any hotel room in the country. This is the reality of the world in which we live and most people do not know it. [...] We have to use our voice to talk about the reality. [...] I encourage you to look into school groups, to encourage fund raisers. [...] If you need a cause, pick this, and whatever money they raise, a few hundred bucks, give it to an organization against trafficking. It also helps to raise awareness, to talk to teachers. Do your teachers know, that there are girls, probably in the school, that are being targeted by traffickers? If they knew that, what would they do? Would they make an awareness course required for students at their high school? I would think so, but a lot of high school teachers and principals don’t understand that this is an issue that affects students,” says the 32-year-old author passionately.

History books teach us that slavery ended 150 years ago. It’s not true, it simply took a different turn.

A Walk Across the Sun, published in the US, the UK and by Penguin in India, is a novel based on real life. The book has been sold in 15 translation markets, and will be out in Brazil in August, Norway in September. It is available here in all major bookstores and libraries. It received a huge critical acclaim through out the world and a special and impressive forward by author John Grisham who says,”A novel that is beautiful in its story and also important in its message.”