Nandita Puri’s recently released book Jennifer: One Woman, Two Continents and a Truth Called Child Trafficking (Rupa Publications) is the real-life story of Jennifer Haynes, a victim of inter-country child trafficking. Nandita’s earlier books include two novels and a biography of her late husband, award-winning actor and Padma Shri awardee Om Puri, which many say led to their later estrangement. Despite their differences and the marital controversies that dogged Om till his death in 2017, Nandita attended his funeral, and the same year, launched the Om Puri Foundation at the 70th Cannes Film Festival.
The foundation sponsors the Om Puri Scholar and the Om Puri Fellow at his alma maters, Film and Television Institute of India and National School of Drama. Nandita also introduced the Om Puri Kisaan Scholarships for farmers’ children and the Om Puri Kaarigar Scholarship for children of weavers and craftspersons.
She speaks to us about the extensive research that went behind her new book, and what needs to change for our children to be safer.
Tell us about the kind of extensive research that went into your latest book. How long did it take for you to write it?
International child trafficking and inter-country adoption are huge fields to cover and not exactly my forte. So, when I was first given the story of Jennifer Haynes and how she was trafficked out of India as an eight-year-old and her journey thereafter, I was initially apprehensive. But I’m glad I took the task because it opened up a very different and challenging world for me. It took me five years of research, interviews and reading to complete the book. It has been my journey through inter-country adoption, child trafficking, the terrible US foster care system and the crack and meth hustling in India and the US as much as it has been Jennifer’s journey.
What do you think needs to be changed in order that stories such as Jennifer’s do not happen in the world?
Much as the system needs to be changed, also our knowledge and perceptions need to be changed. There will be thousands of Clarice D’Souzas who thrive on child trafficking but there should be no Meera Shankars in this world. How can an Indian ambassador like her, without bothering to know the legalities, sign away Jennifer’s life by deporting her to India for no fault of hers? How can so-called educated people passing through civil services examinations have little or no knowledge of the posts they are paid for? This speaks sadly of our bureaucratic system. And most of all, we need to say ‘no’ to inter-country adoptions.
Tell us about the movie based on the book whose screenplay you have written.
The fifth draft of the screenplay is ready. We have based the story on Jennifer’s life but tweaked it to the point where there is hope in the end, unlike the reality of her life. This is done to give hope to millions and inspire rather than deter.
What inspires you?
Life itself – the small pleasures, like cooking a meal, reading a good book, or seeing an engaging film, or listening to some nice music. And the greatest inspiration has been gratitude for life itself. It is such a blessing that it would be a shame to waste it. And that keeps me going.
What have you learnt about life and working for a cause larger than yourself?
One has worked hard but one also realises that one has been far luckier than the rest. I, therefore, think it is my payback time to society in whatever little way I can. Om said he did a lot of meaningful and socially relevant cinema in the 1980s and ’90s for very little money because he wanted those films to touch the hearts of people. When he became very successful, he used his standing for socially relevant causes. I learnt from him that your life and work should have a purpose. Om has set such a huge benchmark in this. Today when I work, it is not for money but to have a larger purpose. If through my book Jennifer even 10 Jennifers find their happy space, I will find that five years of my life have been worth the while.
In what ways does society need to change so that our children are safer?
Society needs to be a little less selfish and a little kinder. Especially, in our country and other third-world countries (from where children are trafficked out for adoption), couples should adopt at least one child and have one biological child. That way child trafficking will be curtailed to a great extent and all our abandoned children will find happy homes within their milieu rather than being sent to faraway lands to be used as slaves and forced labour. But we need to change our mindsets first. And that is not a difficult thing to do in today’s day of social-media awareness.