Lily's Story: From a Harrowing Childhood of Abuse, to Donning Chef's Whites

Lily's Story: From a Harrowing Childhood of Abuse, to Donning Chef's Whites

Before her interview, we asked Lilima if she'd prefer not to be named. "No, I don't mind. I have nothing to hide," she said.

New Delhi:  As the lunchtime rush neared, in the kitchen of Delhi's upscale Tres Restaurant, Lilima Khan carried in a tub full of fresh tomatoes and celery. She expertly made a vegetable broth and prepared garnish for the salad orders. Two years ago, on her first day at the restaurant, reputed for its contemporary European cuisine, she had sat on a ledge facing the long, stainless steel counter, watching nervously: men in various stages of a feverish dance with food, fire, steam and metal. "I wasn't sure I could do it; there were no other girls. Just me," she said.

The kitchens at Tres are an unlikely end to Lilima's brutal life journey, shaped by a narrative of abuse as widespread as it is invisible.

We met 22-year-old Lilima through counselors at the Kilkari Rainbow, a shelter home for girls, where she had stayed for seven years. Kilkari, one of a network of shelters managed by the NGO Aman Biradari, was tucked away inside the busy lanes of Delhi's Kashmiri Gate.

We were there researching a story on the challenges of addressing rape by family and acquaintances - consistently the most common type of abuse and the hardest to report. The staff told us that two of every three girls at the shelter had been had been abused by family or a close acquaintance. Only one case had been formally registered with the police. "When the girls tell their mothers that their fathers raped them, the mothers deny it ever happened. If the family will not approach police, the police also will not be able to get evidence," said Mehnaaz Khan, a coordinator at Kilkari. "So, they don't want to go back because they know this is what awaits them back home."

Their experience roughly match national crime records data for rape, which in the year 2014 suggested 85 per cent of cases involved acquaintances.

Even among the harrowing stories of those that pass through the shelter, Lilima's (Lily to those at Kilkari) stands out.

She was born in a south Delhi slum to an Assamese family; they were four siblings - an older brother and sister and a little brother. She described her father as a local sadhu and healer.

In a rapid series of tragedies, Lilima lost her father, followed by the mother a month later of tuberculosis. Her sister committed suicide soon after. The ground had fallen under her feet, taking any sense of family and community that she'd known.

At the age of 10, she ended up on the streets, working as a rag picker. Very quickly, she learnt how protectors become predators. In a home where they slept many nights, Lilima and her companions were often abused by the owner's sons. "The boys used to start touching us and misbehaving with us. We felt that something was not right," she said.

"I once asked how she protected herself on the streets," said Deepti Srivastav, an educational coordinator at Kilkari. Lilima told her that she'd find a quiet clearing among the trash and build a wall around her with cardboard sheets. "Inside, she felt no one could find her. She was safe."

A few years passed before she came in contact with Udayan care, a child rights NGO and was sent to a school in south Delhi. Lily, 14, was finally getting an education and rebuilding her life. She then discovered that she had an aunt in Delhi, who lovingly took her home for Eid. A month went by during which she was treated like their own daughter, she said.

Then, things changed. She was forced to drop out of school and work at a shoe factory. She was often beaten. And in an appalling but all too familiar turn, the aunt's son allegedly raped her. Again, she ran away and another fortunate meeting finally led her to Kilkari, run by the activist Harsh Mander.

"At the time, I didn't know what to do; I didn't understand," Lilima said of the alleged sexual abuse and whether she'd ever thought of going to the police. "Most of them come to us a long time after the abuse," said Mander. "If it was an immediate incident, there's no question that we'd take action. At a later stage it's simply about getting them out of that environment."

For all the brutality she had endured from those that she trusted, Lilima wanted to make her own life. Her way out was food; she remembered her father standing over the large kadhai's at the wedding feasts for the community.

An organisation called the Creative Services Support Group helped place Lilima with Tres restaurant. They offered to take her on. Two years later, she rose from cooking staff meals to the rank of a commis or a junior chef at the restaurant. "I'm a commis 2. There's commis 3 and then you become a chef," she said, her eyes glowing expectantly. Her favourite dish? She thought for a minute. "Mushroom risotto."

India still has to acknowledge the scale of acquaintance rape, to even begin to tackle it. Until then, those like Lilima have found their own closure to the scars of the past.

Before her interview, we asked Lilima if she'd prefer not to be named. "No, I don't mind. I have nothing to hide," she said. For herself and for others like her, she wanted her face to be seen and her story to be told.

Watch the full story, Truth vs Hype: The Invisible Reality of Rape in India

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