The monster under my bed was a child trafficker, and other stories

My grandparents came over from India and raised me pretty much from my first few months in the world until I was five, while my mother went back to work as a doctor, on locum work. One of my earliest memories was hiding in in the folds of my Dida’s soft cotton sari while she protected me from the wrath of my mother (who was trying to tell me off for something I’d done). But the other memories that still haunt my dreams were her stories of the HakkaMa who would come in the night to take me away if I did not do as she told me.  The stories were usually of the “don’t do X or the HakkaMa will get you” variety.  X would be things like wandering off, getting out of bed in the night, disobeying and all the way through to not eating my dinner (after all, how would I have the strength to fight him off unless I stayed healthy and strong?).

In my imagination, HakkaMa took the form of a seven foot rabbit, very much like the one in Donny Darko. Black, tarry, oozing with black gunge, horrific teeth with red glowing eyes. Sinister and never speaking.

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Breathing like Darth Vadar (that embellishment must have come later). Don’t ask me how such a beast could lurk under my bed. My vivid imagination would often leave me screaming voicelessly in the night because I’d see his red eyes glowering at me from down there.

Apart from growing up with a huge suspicion that donkeys were in fact large bunny rabbits and not donkeys, my childhood monster faded from my nightmares as I grew, and other creatures took his place, but the eyes were always the same.

Fast forward to parenthood, and I definitely qualify as an anxious mum. I won’t let the kids out of my sight – not for a minute. Not in a box, not with a fox, not in the rain, not on a train. Not around the corner, not in the garden behind a partition fence.  It’s fair to say that I never made the connection until my mission in life revealed itself to me in the form of meeting the CEO of an amazing anti-slavery charity. What he told me blew my mind, but not just because I learned that day that slavery didn’t end when it was abolished (it just adapted and changed its business model). It was what happened next.

I saw the presentation from an anti-human-trafficking operative based in India who devoted his life to tracking down trafficking rings. He described how the trafficking rings knew exactly which families in a village were ripe for the picking. The ones with only one parent. The ones where one parent had an alcohol problem. The parents with so many children they wouldn’t even know how to put up a fight. They would take them to order. Children, I learned, could be ordered from anywhere in the world to almost anywhere in the world with a conveniently handy smart phone. Exact eye colour, hair colour, age and sex. When I heard his story I was shaking with rage. I ran up to him afterwards and asked him how I could help. How I could get in touch with him. He told me that he would get in touch with me. He told me the name he used was not his real one. And he told me that if his identity were known, the traffickers would be able to find his family. I gave him my card and I left that room in a daze. Because something else had started to dawn on me…


Before the partition of India, my grandparents lived on the estate of a beautiful tea garden. My grandmother, Dida, was a geography teacher, my grandfather, Dada, was the plantation doctor. The house, the garden, the life was idyllic, safe, rich. But when the news of the partition came, and the lines were drawn, the plantation was six miles from the boundary, on the wrong side for my family. Muslim Partitionists came to my grandparents’ house and threatened my Dada. They told him he must stay, convert and remarry into Islam. His very Hindu wife and three daughters… well, they were expendable. On the other side of the border the same was happening to peaceful Muslims, threatened by Hindu Partitionists. It was the darkest of times, for everyone.

My brave, gentle, sweet Dada fell into a depression. He could see no way out. He was too valuable to be allowed to leave, and my Dida, my mother and her two sisters (my aunts) were in grave danger. To add to his trauma, he was still getting over the war, in which he was a captain in the British Army (he came back broken and to this day I do not know what happened). It was then that my amazing, strong, beautiful, bad-ass Dida made a decision. She took the sum total of their savings and planned an escape. My Dada was being watched, and if they tried to escape together they would be caught. So she told Dada to travel to a safe house on the Bangladesh side of the border, and told her daughters that they would be leaving Bangladesh that night, to make a new home in India.  She would then return for my Dada who was mentally in a very fragile state.

I still imagine to this day a scene very much like the Indian version of the Sound of Music, with the Vontrapp family leaving to escape the Nazis…

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Only the reality was that there was a dense, perilous jungle across that porous border, not the Austrian Alps, and there would be no singing because those jungles were riddled with partitionists of both sides trying to kill each other. If they had been caught, I wouldn’t be here to tell this tale. Through six miles with three young daughters, in the dark through an enemy filled jungle my grandmother walked, with their life savings in a cloth bag. The nearest village on the Indian side was a little one called Dharmanagar in the state of North Tripura. My Dida very quickly bought a beautiful little house with a pond, banana trees and a small mango grove. She employed house help and then leaving the girls in their care, she went back for my grandfather.  And such was the start of their beautiful new beginning with Dada becoming the new village doctor and my Dida joining the village school. Beautiful that is, until they realised that village children were disappearing.

HakkaMa they would say, would take the children who were naughty. The ones who didn’t listen. The ones who didn’t help their parents. Slavery and human trafficking didn’t start when the partition happened, but it sure as hell made it easier to make those children disappear across that porous border. If you were not significant in the community you would be targeted. If you tried to say something, you would put your family at risk. In the professions my grandparents had trained in, as a teacher and a doctor, they would have seen it all.  In their later years, when my grandparents lived with my youngest aunt and her family, they took in a vulnerable family. The father, a friend of my uncle’s, was a policeman who had been murdered when he stood up to a local trafficking gang. He left behind a wife and three small daughters [traffickers target single parent families, the weak ones, the invisible ones, the ones who won’t fight back..]. The situation was urgent enough that my family took all four in because they knew that if they lived alone, they would be vulnerable.  Their mother worked as their paid home help, and the three girls all went to school. My uncle paid for the girls to pursue further education, paying for their school books, their uniforms, helped arrange their marriages into safe families (the safest thing to do within the culture – and these were not child marriages).

As my brother and I grew up, we went to Dharmanagar during our holidays and played with our cousins and the village street children. We were celebrities, taken to the schools my aunts taught in, telling the children in English and broken Bengali of our lives back in England. I’d always assumed that some of those street children had just moved away. It never occurred to me that some might have been stolen or sold….


Recent research has indicated that children might be able to inherit trauma from their parents (and in the case of nematodes, from fourteen generations back). Whatever is driving me, it’s coming from somewhere really deep inside. Something inside me clicked when I realised that I had a part to play, a purpose. Something that had been in the shadows, in my nightmares my entire life.

Fast-forward once more to now. I’m the CEO of a social enterprise, TISCreport, committed to playing our part to end modern slavery using big data, working with my amazing, genius husband. All the actors in the Modern Slavery space agree that the scourge of Modern Slavery is far too big for one organisation to handle. They urge all businesses to do the right thing and are quick to pounce on those who do not (that’s usually a good thing). And yet, when a profit-with-purpose social enterprise steps up, the reaction from a small but influential few is huge mistrust. I found this puzzling at first but now, this is looking to be more understandable. After all, we’re not a charity/NGO, we’re not being paid by government (we’re self-funded), we’ve come from nowhere.  We have no track record. We’re not deemed to be civil society (something I think we need to debate: “Civil Society is Society considered as a community of citizens linked by common interests and collective activity.”). Why can’t I leave this to the existing great and good, and keep my nose out of it? Why don’t I set up a charity instead?

It is these questions that prompted me to work out the answers for myself and the conclusion I have drawn is this: Organisations should not need to be charities in order to make a contribution to a better, fairer world. People should not need a reason to do something good. If they did then I think I have a pretty good head start. But beyond my 14 million Indian reasons and 40 million human ones,  I’m an anxious mum; this is happening to innocents all over the world on MY watch. So please, make no mistake. This is deeply personal and I have committed myself and our social enterprise to playing our part. We’ve done this without credentials, without track record, and whilst we haven’t got access to hundreds of thousands in charitable donations, we’ve used what we’ve got.

I’m a geek, I’m a techie, I’m a desktop activist. I’m not as emotionally strong as those NGO and law enforcement operatives who track the traffickers down and rescue human beings from lives of fear and misery. But I don’t need to be. Those amazing NGOs and crime fighting agencies, those ethical companies…  they’re doing exactly what they need to be doing. But I and my team know about data, and we are, to date, the only organisation that knows which companies are in compliance with the UK Modern Slavery Act and which ones aren’t without having been given a list to check against first. That’s not too shabby for four people (five including the cleaner). Just imagine what we could all do together if there were accepted members of civil society willing to do something with that data that we’re giving away for free…

I also know that supply chains are the arteries that (unwittingly or otherwise) fund and fuel the tumours that are modern slavery and human trafficking. I know we can help to make it end, I’ll work with anyone and everyone who feels the same. We’re gathering more and more influential and talented people and organisations who recognise that we can’t keep doing things the way we’ve always done them and expect different results. Open data, technological disruption, experience, knowledge, collaboration and shit-load of passion are what will turn the tide.

Those organisations fighting modern slavery who fear change don’t need to climb on board until they feel comfortable. I know it must seem scary for an outsider to enter this space.  I just need them all to know that they don’t have anything to fear from us. We’re here to help. Our door is, and always has been open.

This is not a fad, a phase or a project we’ll get bored with. I ain’t going anywhere. There’s just way too much to do, and I’m tired of sleeping.


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