Leena Kejriwal can never forget the blood-curdling scream she heard in her neighbourhood as a teenager, on the main road outside Sonagachi, one of Asia’s largest red-light districts. No one from her family ever mentioned the scream, Kejriwal said, but she remembers seeing prostituted girls standing in public spaces looking haunted and miserable, while the general public averted their eyes and went about their lives.

“Has anyone ever heard of a louder silent scream?” she said. “The whole world cannot hear them.”

As an artist, Kejriwal has finally found a way to make people sit up and listen. In 2014, the 49-year-old first began to raise awareness about female trafficking in India, with a multi-media campaign titled Missing. Kejriwal’s first project was a public installation of a faceless, lager-than-life silhouette of a girl, placed against the city skyline. Constructed with iron sheets painted pitch black, the installation represented the black holes into which millions of girls disappear every year.

Kejriwal's art installations.

Subsequently, on October 21, 2016, Kejriwal launched the next phase of her project: a gaming app which allows the player to make a series of decisions as Champa, a young trafficked girl, trapped in a brothel.

Over the course of the game, Champa becomes acquainted with the brothel madam and primary antagonist, Masi. As she is forced to learn the tricks of the trade, the player-as-Champa assembles clues and objects to find a way out of her plight. As Champa makes friends and identifies enemies, the user is exposed to the many harrowing experiences of trafficked young girls.

The tasks in the game expose the minor and extreme injustices experienced by girls trafficked into prostitution. In particular, Missing dwells on the different ways these girls are forced to abruptly relinquish control of their bodies and minds. While it is difficult for a game, no matter how sensitively made, to capture the agony, hopelessness and desperation of girls who have been trafficked into prostitution, Missing feels like an honest, well-intentioned attempt.

“Lots of people have told me that they absolutely hate the character of the brothel madam Masi,” said Kejriwal. “That is exactly what we want, we want them to feel the game when they play it.”

Kejriwal’s game is likely to make the player uncomfortable, and reflect on the sense of helplessness these girls feel. The sense of discomfort is particularly keen when the player-as-Champa is required to solicit, so that she can earn her keep at the brothel. While the game never gets graphic, it aims to expose the manner in which the bodies of prostituted girls are invaded.

The game app won the Indie Game of the Year award at the Nasscom Game Developer Conference in Hyderabad on November 12.

Games people play

The artist’s biggest challenge in creating the app was the ethically tricky terrain of translating a complex issue like female trafficking into a game.

“Everyone who worked with me knew that nothing could be glamourised,” Kejriwal said.

According to a report released by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, approximately 1.2 million of the estimated 3 million sex workers in India are under the age of 18. National Crime Records Bureau data shows that out of 6,877 cases of human trafficking reported in the country in 2015, 3,490 (51%) involved children. Of these, 3,087 (88.5%) cases were registered under Section 366A (procuration of minor girl) of the Indian Penal Code.

According to the 2015 NCRB report, Kejriwal’s own home state, West Bengal, accounts for 1,119 of the registered cases of child trafficking (32.06%).

Once she launched the Missing Project at the India Art Fair in 2014, Kejriwal approached galleries and corporations for funding for forthcoming public art installations. She had hoped to engage the Indian public by raising awareness about the issue of female trafficking, but she ran into several obstacles because of red tape and poorly-defined rules.

Eventually, Kejriwal realised that the formidable power of social media meant that she need not wait till her work got completed.

“I realised I could start public engagement immediately. This prompted me to look for crowd-funding.”

Leena Kejriwal

During her campaign to find funds, Kejriwal made the stencil of her artwork available on her website. Consequently, the silhouette of the missing girl appeared on several walls in Kolkata, coupled with the hashtag #missinggirls.

“The stencils have let me penetrate the narrow bylanes and cul-de-sacs in Kolkata,” she said.

With the funds she generated, Kejriwal produced large figures of the missing girl silhouette. Since then, she has been in conversation with governments and NGOs to ensure that they are displayed in the ten different cities she has chosen.

Learning about terror

A screenshot of the Missing app.

Prior to finalising the narrative of the game, Kejriwal travelled with her game developer Satyajit Chakraborty to several places, including red-light areas and villages where young girls were abducted into trafficking. They spoke to victims of trafficking, and tried to understand the realities of their lives.

“It is a very harrowing thing to even see them think about their experiences,” said Kejriwal. “They often cannot talk – their eyes just go dead.” Although she had worked extensively in red-light areas, these visits were the first time Chakraborty came in contact with survivors of trafficking.

“One of the girls we spoke to told us through clenched teeth that she would throttle her trafficker if she ever saw him.”

A screenshot of the Missing app.

These narratives particularly influenced Chakraborty, she said.

In its nascent stages, the app was meant to be an augmented reality project that would accompany Kejriwal’s public art installations. “The initial version of the app was more about artistry, it was just meant to be a feel good factor,” she said. Kejriwal felt she could use her funds in a manner that could be more useful.

“Even though we had made it very piously, we realised that we were not drawing a line between it being a game and it becoming too preachy,” said Kejriwal. Since they wanted to make the app engaging, the team decided to incorporate an escape storyline and discard some elements.

The game was initially meant to begin with the manner in which the girl gets trafficked. With these initial chapters, Kejriwal wanted to demonstrate that “sometimes girls get trafficked even if they are aware, even if they are smart”. But she found that these parts were not able to engage gamers. Consequently, she decided to eliminate them to make the game fast-paced.

Kejriwal hopes that the Missing Project will eventually drive people towards constructive action to end female trafficking, but is heartened by the success of the initiative so far. “It has given people a kind of curiosity. And it has left them haunted and hollow. That is what a public art work is supposed to do.”

In the future, she hopes to channel technology more productively to gather information from users that would aid the Government and NGOs to streamline rescue and rehabilitation programmes for trafficked girls. She is also in the process of designing an audio piece. “We are planning an installation about what it would be if the black hole containing all these missing girls fell on earth- a glimpse of what it would sound like.”

Kejriwal hopes that the game will evoke empathy in users, making them sensitive to the tribulations of trafficked women. “It can be something you can play once or twice, but it shouldn’t leave you. And the next time people see a miserable girl standing around, they should not remain unmoved.”