Mumbai: For 16-year-old Pooja Gaud, August 5 will forever remain etched in her mind as the day that proved that miracles do indeed occur. The teenager was reunited with her mother nine years after she was allegedly kidnapped by a couple barely a kilometre away from where she lived in a slum in Juhu Galli, Andheri.
The DN Nagar police registered a first information report (FIR) against Harry D’Souza and his wife, Soni, both residents of Juhu Galli, under sections 363 (kidnapping), 365 ( intent for abduction), 368 (wrongful confinement ), 370 ( trafficking) and 374 (unlawfully compelling a person for labour ) of the Indian Penal Code.D’Souza was arrested late Thursday night and remanded to police custody till August 10.
The search for Pooja made headlines when Assistant Sub Inspector Rajendra Bhosale, who was incharge of the missing persons’ bureau at DN Nagar police station from 2010 to 2015 had said that his team had managed to find all the children reported missing at his bureau save one: Pooja.
“I still carry her photo in my wallet,” Bhosale said, speaking from his home in Khed, in Ratnagiri district. The 65-year-old who retired in 2015, used to carry the well-thumbed photo of Pooja as a class 2 student in a blue pinafore, in his shirt pocket, in the hope of locating her. “Even after my retirement, I thought about the girl every day and prayed that she is found. I am elated and I can now rest without any more tension.”
However, it wasn’t the police but an enterprising 35-year-old domestic help who reunited Pooja with her mother, Poonam (40). Pramila Devendra, worked as a help in Juhu in a house where Pooja was hired seven months ago. Pooja reportedly told Devendra that she was being harassed by her family, and revealed that they were not her real parents and they had taken her away from her mother when she was a child.
Sensing that something was amiss, Devendra did a search on Google on her smartphone and found several news reports — including articles about Bhosale’s attempts at locating Pooja — on the internet. She also located a poster bearing Pooja’s photo — the same one that Bhosale carried in his wallet even after his retirement — and some phone numbers on it. She tried all of them, but only one was answered.
“Annie used to come to work with teary eyes and would tell me said that her mother beat her. When she told me that her mother is not her real mother and that she had gone missing when she was small child, I understood that her case was not normal,” Devendra said. “I started searching on Google using the name ‘Pooja’ and found videos and posters with a photo of a small girl. Annie, I mean Pooja, immediately said that it was her picture. We then tried calling on mobile numbers written on poster.”
The number belonged to Pooja’s neighbour, Mohammad Rafique Shaikh. On August 4, when Devendra called Shaikh, he was sceptical and thought that this was a scam. He asked her to do a video call with Pooja by her side. Shaikh took the call in Poonam’s home.
“Rafique uncle brought the phone to Pooja’s mother and both of them recognised each other. Few neighbours also gathered there and identified her,” said Radhika Gaud, a relative, who was present during the call.
Poonam, who sells chana outside Andheri station, lives in a slum settlement in Gilbert Hill. Her father-in-law Madhav Gaud occupies the ground floor, while her brother-in-law Vinod and his family occupy the first level. Poonam lives with her sons, Rohit (19) and Rahul (12), on the second floor of the tenement. Her husband, Santosh, died earlier this year in April.
The family informed the DN Nagar police immediately that Pooja had at last been located.
Pooja went missing on January 22, 2013, when she was walking to the municipal school about a kilometre from her residence. Her older brother Rohit, then in class 4, was walking ahead of her.
“We left the house together for school. I was walking little bit ahead. At one point, I turned back to check on her, but I couldn’t see her. I went to school and after attending one lecture I went to her classroom and asked the class teacher if Pooja had reached. She told me that Puja had not come to school,” said the 19-year-old, who dropped out of school after completing Class 10, and now works in a private firm.
“I was so scared. I ran home at around 9:30 am and told my father [Santosh] and uncle, Vinod. All our family members and neighbours started searching for her. We approached the DN Nagar police station and registered a (missing person) case,” Rohit said.
“The search became part of our daily routine. My father, elder brother and other family members searched for months, but we couldn’t find any clue of her whereabouts. My father became depressed. My grandmother used to cry and pray to god for her safety. She died last year,” said Manju Devi (25), Pooja’s paternal aunt.
That fateful day, Pooja lagged behind Rohit on their way to school at around 8.30 am. D’Souza, who lived in a rented shanty barely 100 metres away from the Gaud residence, reportedly lured her with the promise of an ice-cream and chocolate.
Pooja said that D’Souza and his wife took her out of Mumbai for several years.
According to Pooja, on January 22, the D’Souza’s took her to Haji Malang in Kalyan, famous for a fort located on a hill, where they stayed for two days. “They threatened me to not say anything about my parents or they would throw me down from hill,” she said.
“They then took me to Goa where we stayed for three to four months at Harry’s aunt’s place. We stayed in Virar for two months, and then they took me to Raichur (Karnataka), where they put me up in a hostel for year, where I studied in Lower kindergarten (LKG). We returned to Mumbai in 2015,” Pooja said.
“They used to give me proper food and take care of me, but once Soni had her own baby, she started harassing me and would beat me. They kept me home and did not allow me to go out. It was like I was in prison. Harry used to speak in English and he taught me how to write in English at home,” Pooja said.
When the D’Souzas returned to Mumbai, they took up a room in the same locality in Juhu Galli, the officer said.
Hanumanta Bhimappa Dhangar, a neighbour of D’Souza, confirmed that the couple barely let the girl out of the home. “No one in the neighbourhood knew that the girl was missing and we were not aware about the case,” he added.
The D’Souzas made Pooja work in a businessman’s house in Juhu where she took care of small children, the police officer said.
“Our team went to the place where Pooja and Pramila worked, and reunited the minor girl with her family,” said police officer of the DN Nagar police station.