Four-year-old Santoshi has been missing since July 26, 2015. A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com meets a family, desperately searching for their daughter.
The first of our national series on Missing Children.
She was doing what most children her age do -- playing.
Only, four-year-old Santoshi Kesari's playground was the area under a flyover that rose over the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, while her father sold tiny packets of mixed spices nearby for a living.
The area opposite the Mankhurd railway station, north-west Mumbai, located on what is known as the Harbour Line (the Mumbai railway system is divided into three lines -- Western, Central and Harbour -- to enable it to serve the sprawling city), is generally crowded.
During peak hours, it is so jam-packed with people getting in and out of the station that even regular pavement vendors like Santoshi's father would not notice something amiss.
That is what seems to have happened on July 26, 2015; no one noticed when Santoshi went missing. Not even her hapless father or grandmother, a pavement vendor who sells cheap fake jewellery.
According to data provided by the Mumbai police, from 2010 to 2014, 9,275 girls have gone missing in Mumbai of whom 9,011 have been traced. Two hundred and sixty-four girls still remain missing.
One hundred and two girls went missing in Mumbai in July 2015. Eighty-four of them have been traced. Santoshi is still missing.
Her father Kailash Prasad Kesari and mother Kiran are in a state of shock.
Kiran, a thin lady who cannot hold back her tears each time she mentions her daughter, says, "We call her Chotu (little one) at home."
Finding the tiny spot on the pavement where they sell their little packets of masala (mixed spices) under the flyover opposite Mankhurd station is easy; everyone has heard of the missing girl.
We met Kiran at the Ambedkar Nagar colony, just off the highway. The lanes leading to the Kesari home are barely wide enough to let one person pass at a time.
Santoshi had recently been admitted to the nearby municipal school, where her siblings study. Santoshi was in Class 1; her elder sister in Class 8 and her elder brother in Class 7.
They would go to school together and return home together. Santoshi had attended school for barely 15 days before she disappeared.
Santoshi's teacher had been warned not to let her out alone as they had to cross a railway track on their way home.
Kiran cradles her youngest, a two-year-old daughter, in her arms as she speaks about her daughter. "Santoshi is very smart for her age. I used to send her to buy small items whose total price did not exceed Rs 50. She also used to go to the local Hanuman temple alone and come back safely."
Her voice breaking, she adds, "She talked to everyone. More people knew her around here than they knew me."
On that fateful Sunday, Santoshi left home at 9 am. "She spent the entire day playing under the bridge," says her aunt.
Santoshi ate lunch with her father at his pavement stall. When she didn't return home for dinner, Kiran went looking for her daughter. The last the vendors on the pavement recalled seeing Santoshi was around 7 pm.
Soon, the entire family was searching for the little girl.
Finally, they went to the Mankhurd police station and filed a missing person's complaint. "By the time we reached home, it was 3.30 am," says Kiran.
Kailash, who sells masala packets worth Rs 400 to Rs 600 a day, makes a daily profit of Rs 100 to Rs 150 with which he looks after his family. His dependence on this daily income has prevented him from launching a hunt for his young daughter.
The family, meanwhile, is still searching for Santoshi and has spoken to everyone they know.
"People advised us to pray to God. We have prayed at the temple. We have prayed at the masjid," Kiran sobs for her missing child.
They have even visited the Mumbai police commissioner's office to register their complaint. They were told to inform the Chembur police station, located near Mankhurd, as well. "I did that," says Kiran. "I have also registered Santoshi's details with the Women and Child helpline."
Two years ago, she says, her husband brought home a child he had found crying alone on the road. It turned out that the eight-year-old boy was from Kanpur; he had been abandoned in Mumbai.
Kiran looked after him for 15 days, till his relatives turned up.
"Today, my child is lost. I hope someone is feeding her and will bring her back. I cannot sleep when I think of her," she sobs again.
"We have faith in God. He will bring our baby back."
Meanwhile, opposite the Mankhurd Railway station, at a tiny police office, Santoshi stares out of a missing poster.
Below follows this hopeful announcement: Anyone who sees this child can call her father Kailash on his mobile, 86523 23154, or Head Constable Gaekwad at the Mankhurd police station, at 8452051092.