BY: LARA BERNHARDT
In the grim, seedy brothels of India, countless poverty-stricken women are trapped in a brutal system that thrives on their abuse. Escape is impossible—until one woman takes a stand for one little girl.
Leslie Matthews travels to India with her husband and risks everything–money, her marriage, even her life–to save Raveena, a twelve-year-old girl she first sees at the New Delhi Zoo, where her handler forces her to dance seductively for money. Haunted by her own dark past, Leslie follows the girl, hoping to help, and is drawn into a bitter world of systemic sexual slavery. She learns the girl will soon be forced into prostitution and resolves to get her out of the brothel she lives in before that happens. The police can’t help her. The embassy can’t help her. Her husband refuses to help her. Though she has no experience with this world, she resolves to rescue Raveena from the brutal and sordid underworld, whatever the cost…
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Shadow of the Taj by Lara Bernhardt, Leslie Matthews is in India with her husband Tom, who is working there for six months. But Leslie hates it. She wants to go home. There is nothing in India for her—until she meets a twelve-year-old girl who is being forced into sexual slavery. Leslie, still haunted by her own dark past, is determined to save the girl, whatever the cost.
Written with skill, compassion, and sensitivity, this is a story that will break your heart and restore you soul. A must read.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Shadow of the Taj by Lara Bernhardt is a story of sexual slavery and abuse of women who are helpless to defend themselves. Accompanying her husband on a six-month-long sabbatical in India, Leslie Matthews is appalled by the abuse of women and young girls that seems to be so common. One day at the zoo, she sees a twelve-year-old girl who is forced by her handler to dance seductively for money. Leslie is more dismayed when the young girl, calling Leslie “Auntie,” begs for help. Leslie tries to help the girl, but it seems that women and young girls have no rights, and men can force them into prostitution without fear of consequences. The police will not help, the US embassy can’t help, and Leslie’s husband refuses to help. But Leslie is determined, and she is willing to risk everything, including her own life.
A tender, honest, and brutally frank story of a situation that is much too prevalent today, Shadow of the Taj shines a spotlight on the abuse of women and young girls. It is a book that everyone should read.
Leslie Matthews hated the frenzied chaos of New Delhi’s streets. Almost as much as she hated her husband’s silence.
Outside her window, auto rickshaws beeped, weaving between lanes of vehicles spewing exhaust into the grimy air. She gritted her teeth as a rickshaw squeezed by, so close she expected to hear metal scraping.
She shifted in her seat, the cracked vinyl scratching her legs.
Her husband, Tom, stared out the opposite window, arms crossed. She wished he would say something.
When the battered taxi shuddered to a stop at a red light, an elderly man rose from the curb and pressed against her window, brandishing a stump of an arm. Dirty fingers tapped the glass. Though she couldn’t understand the words he formed with his toothless mouth, she knew he wanted money. Everyone wanted money. She turned away, but his image joined countless other memories of poverty and suffering.
The light turned green. The taxi left the man behind, his wild hair and ragged clothing blowing in the breeze. The memory, she knew, was not so easily left behind. She wanted to help him–she wanted to help them all–but that was impossible.
She missed home. Most of all, she missed the class of third-graders she would be teaching had she turned down the trip to India with Tom. She could help her students.
The taxi driver slammed on his brakes and swerved sharply to avoid a truck that veered halfway into their lane as if the taxi didn’t exist. Tossed in the back seat, she tried to steady herself while the driver lurched around vehicles and returned to their lane. She should be used to this by now, she thought, as she straightened back up and unclenched her teeth. Nearly six months in India and the frenetic activity of the streets still shocked her.
She took a deep breath and made an attempt at conversation. “The lane lines mean nothing. I don’t know how anyone gets anywhere without crashing.”
“We didn’t have to leave the hotel,” Tom answered, not looking at her. “You insisted we ‘go do something.’” He was still annoyed. He didn’t even try to hide it.
“How many days can I sit by the hotel pool? I don’t like swimming.”
“Or anything else I enjoy,” he muttered.
She decided to pretend she hadn’t heard and turned back to the window.
A group of young women draped in jewel-tone saris–gems in the dull, hazy street–clustered on the sidewalk, each clutching a frozen confection. Laughing, they fought to keep their dark hair out of the sticky, sweet mess as they licked the dripping rivulets that ran down their bangle-adorned arms.
At her elementary school in Kansas, she and the other teachers chatted over cups of coffee every morning before the first bell rang, laughing like the Indian woman she was watching out the window.
When was the last time she laughed?
A bright orange and green truck swerved into their lane and barreled straight toward them.
The driver didn’t move over. He seemed oblivious to the impending danger. She wanted to say something, but the words didn’t make it out of her mouth. She almost reached for Tom, but knew he would offer no comfort.
The driver eased the taxi sideways, squeezing into a space that had not existed moments earlier. A horn blasted behind them. The truck blew past in a rush of garish color and jangling chains.
She gasped, sinking back into her seat.
The driver glanced in his mirror. His dark eyes crinkled, crow’s feet deepening in his dusky, brown skin. “Okay, lady?” he asked in his musical Indian accent.
She nodded and returned the smile while her pulse pounded. Another near miss like that and her hair would be as gray as the driver’s.
“Still can’t handle the traffic? Relax. He does this all day, every day. He knows what he’s doing.”
She decided she liked Tom better silent after all.
“Zoo. Zoo.” The driver announced their arrival as he turned into the parking lot.
She clenched her teeth, dreading the coming onslaught their fair skin always attracted. Everywhere they went, men pressed in on them, hands out, anxious for rupees, offering to give tours, pressing trinkets and T-shirts into their faces, relentlessly begging for money.
Tom made arrangements for the driver to wait for them, then stepped out and stood near the taxi.
She hoped he would open the door for her and shield her from the crowd. He didn’t.
The driver, settling in for his wait, glanced back and forth between the two of them then jumped out of the car and opened the door for her. “Memsaab.” He offered her a hand.
She remembered how Tom hurried to help her when they first arrived in India. Her stomach tensed. They thought this trip would be a refreshing change of scenery, a break from teaching, time alone. Something to recharge their marriage, like a honeymoon. It hadn’t worked out that way.
Now he was mad about not getting his way and would be distant all day. She almost asked to go back.
But the driver spoke again. “Memsaab?” His well-worn, gray shalwar kameez hung limply from his gangly frame. He nodded, gesturing her out.
She took his hand and stepped from the taxi, straightening her own kameez, the more form-fitting, feminine version of the traditional clothing. It tapered at the middle, hinting at her narrow waist and slight hips, with elaborate designs embroidered in golden thread about the neckline and hem. She’d purchased several outfits shortly after their arrival in India, eager to fit in and experience a new culture. The clothing did not help her blend in, however, as nothing camouflaged her green eyes, fair skin, and russet hair.
Why should she go back and give up what she wanted to do? One day’s activity wasn’t much to ask for.
She followed Tom through the zoo parking lot, choked with taxis and rickshaws and scooters, as well as merchants, beggars, would-be tour guides, and pickpockets.
Voices called out, hands waved wildly, enticing them to purchase cold, sweet lassis, sodas, bags of snacks, souvenirs.
An elderly man hunched on his heels held a cluster of peacock feathers. He waved to her. She couldn’t understand his words but imagined him pleading for rupees to buy food.
A man with a wild black beard and busy eyes stood suddenly at her left. “Madam, would you like a tour of the zoo today?”
She shook her head and tried to continue on but was stopped by a younger man–this one in jeans and a T-shirt–offering “Souvenir T-shirts, madam?” while pushing several styles in her face.
She kept moving toward the entrance gate, the men trailing after her doggedly, growing louder and louder, as if they believed she simply hadn’t heard them.
Something snagged her right pant leg. A man with crooked teeth, wispy white hair, and a patch over one eye sat on the sidewalk, clutching her loose-fitting cuff with one hand, thrusting his other hand at her insistently, palm up.
A woman emerged from the crowd, hair drawn back tightly in a bun at the base of her neck, an infant at her exposed breast, nursing. Head cocked to the side, she drew close, pointing at the infant, brown eyes pleading. “Madam, please.”
“You like?” interrupted the T-shirt salesman.
“Sir, for your wife?” suggested the man clutching peacock feathers.
“…memsaab…” The tour guide again.
“…rupees,” pleaded the nursing mother.
“Hello? Best prices.” A man with carved wooden camels joined the throng.
She held up her hands to ward off the endless requests. She couldn’t take any more plucking and pleading. But still they came, pressing ever closer.
Tom appeared beside her. He enveloped her and drew her out of the crowd. His strong voice quieted the swelling cacophony, one arm curled around her, holding fast, the other arm out, fisted, a battering ram clearing the path.
He didn’t touch anyone. It wasn’t necessary. His demeanor told them everything they needed to know. He flicked his eyes at the hawks like someone might brush away pesky flies. They backed away, realizing this one wouldn’t budge. And now that she was enveloped solidly within his protective hold, she too enjoyed immunity.
She leaned against him gratefully. He squeezed her gently and led her to the entrance gate.
Two boys–not more than twelve years old–chased each other near the front of the zoo, up and down the steps that led to the entrance gates. They laughed, tagging each other and reversing roles. Reminded of recess, Leslie missed her classroom of kids back home.
The boys noticed the foreigners. They halted the game and shuffled to stand in front of her. Listing to the side, heads hanging, jaws slack, each held out a hand, mumbling words she couldn’t understand. They reminded her of zombies as they droned tonelessly.
Tom pulled at her, but she shrugged him off. She ignored the poverty and the pleading as much as she could. But these boys should be in school, learning. Not on the streets.
His jaw clenched. After a moment, he gave her an eye roll from hell and thrust a hand into his pocket.
“It won’t help them,” he said, dropping a few coins into her hand and stomping away.
She split the coins into the boys’ hands. They nodded, but that was all. What had she expected? Beaming faces? Hugs?
She hurried after Tom. “It might help them,” she insisted.
He didn’t answer. Instead, he stopped, grabbed her by the shoulders, and spun her around. “Dammit. Look.” She followed his pointing finger.
A man stood by the boys, scowling, hand out. They surrendered the rupees she’d given them. He drifted back into the crowd and took up a position some distance away.
Leaning against a fence, he lit a cigarette as the boys resumed their game of chase.
“An adult always watches them, far enough away not to be noticed, but close enough to make sure the kids don’t run off with the money. It’s a scam. Dr. Hameed warned me months ago. You just fell for it.”
She didn’t regret it, despite Tom’s renewed bad mood. Maybe the boys would eat better tonight. She hoped so.
She wanted to make a difference in someone’s life.
She knew how easily one moment could change a life forever.
© 2019 by Lara Bernhardt
“Lara Bernhardt writes with ferocious honesty and tenderness, laying open the world of the trafficking of young girls with a bright spear of hope.” ~ Jacquelyn Mitchard, New York Times best-selling author of The Deep End of the Ocean