In 2002, nine-year-old Lalita was easy prey for Kajiman Shrestha. She lived in an impoverished village in east Nepal, and her alcoholic father regularly beat her mother (she subsequently died after one such beating)
The outlook was bleak for Lalita and her three younger siblings. Shrestha, who procured children for Indian circuses, beguiled Lalita with his stories of the beauties of India and its tall buildings. If she went with him he promised to show her this and provide her with a good schooling and the chance to earn some money. With her father's agreement she decided to go, in spite of her mother's warnings that she might be sold. Arriving at the circus that was to become her prison, Lalita asked Shrestha what the tents were. He laughed and said that these were the tall buildings he'd promised her. Lalita felt like crying.
Shrestha's treachery led to three years of misery. Lalita recalls how she and other performers were beaten with twisted wires as punishment for the slightest mistake. Their food frequently contained insects and if they refused to eat they would be beaten until their mouths bled. Deliverance came in 2005, when a field team from The Esther Benjamins Memorial Foundation (EBMF) arrived at the circus in a joint raid with the police. Lalita had to be physically wrested from the grasp of the circus owner, who did not want to give up one of his top performers.
A fortnight ago, remarkably, Lalita was performing once again in a circus act (see pic, below). But this time she was doing so voluntarily and loving every moment of it. She is now a member of Nepal's first ever domestic circus company, 'Sapana', the Company of Dreams.
Sapana is an EBMF initiative that began with the arrival of two circus professionals from the UK last August. Aerialist (trapeze artist) Sky Neal and her rigger husband, Mark Perrin, had joined EBMF as volunteers. They were keen to set up circus skills workshops. This was a brave step into what had been hitherto a taboo area. To an outsider this could have seemed like the cruellest offer imaginable – to return teenagers to the source of so much pain and suffering. Understandably, everyone involved was cautious. Sky and Mark were only given the go-ahead conditional upon there being no mention of the word 'circus' (these were to be 'performing' skills), and the local media was to be kept well away.
Mark and Sky returned at the start of January, this time with five other professionals – a gymnast, a dance choreographer/aerialist, a clown, and two costume designers. During the school holidays they worked tirelessly to develop a show called 'The Devil's Spell', based on a Nepali myth. This was performed in front of an invited audience two weeks ago that included the British Ambassador, John Tucknott. Cast as a serpent goddess, at the culmination of the show Lalita rose 10 metres into the air wearing a radiant 30-foot costume that had been made especially for her in London. As she revolved in the air she was flanked by two other former Indian circus girls who performed aerial dance manoeuvres high up, entwined in silk drapes. The show wasn't about tacky circus tricks, it had assumed an art form. At the end of the show, the Ambassador was first on his feet to give the cast and crew a standing ovation.
The young people of Sapana can now look forward to continued training that will lead to a career that provides not only a good income but catharsis and the chance of regaining their self-esteem. A highlight for them will be a trip to Dubai in October, when the company will perform at The British Embassy before 700 guests. The trip will be funded entirely by a corporate supporter that has been following the development of Sapana closely. Lalita and her friends have much to look forward to, unlike Kajiman Shrestha. He was caught by EBMF field staff in 2006 and in 2009, sentenced to 15 years imprisonment.