15-year-old Nandhini describes July 19, 2017 as the most terrifying day in her life. The young girl who was residing at Arani in Tiruvannamalai was locked up in a dinghy store room near a temple by her aunt. Nandhini was wearing gold jewellery and already decked up like a bride for her marriage to a 28-year-old man the next morning. A marriage that was being conducted against her will.
She recalls looking up to the heavens and saying, "God, if you do not save me today, I will never pray to you again.” That was when she heard the police sirens.
Help had arrived in the form of the district Child Marriage prohibition officer Christina T Dorothy and it wasn't just due to divine intervention.
Nandhini, whose mother had passed away when she was just 10, was being brought up by her aunt in a conservative village. Her father had abandoned Nadhini and her elder sister and remarried. "They had gotten my sister married when she was 17 against her will. And now they wanted to do the same to me at 14," she explains.
"My aunt thought we were additional burdens and wanted to get rid of us. I said I wasn't ready and wanted to study more but they wouldn't listen. So I took matters into my own hands," she adds.
The evening before the marriage was scheduled, Nandhini fished out a pamphlet that was distributed by the Tiruvannamalai Collector KS Kandasamy on a recent visit to her school. It said that if children were facing any harassment or being pressured into marriage, they could contact the Collectorate.
Waiting for her aunt to step out of the house, Nandhini quickly made the call at around 6.30 pm to Collector's office and was connected to the social welfare department.
"When Nandhini called me, her voice was shaking and quiet. But I sensed the determination behind it. She wanted to be saved from this illegal marriage at any cost," says Christina.
And it was this brave act that catapulted Nandhini to fame last week, when she received the state's award for girl child empowerment. After receiving the award from Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami, she is now residing at the Alaigal Children's home in Tiruvannamalai and pursuing her 10th standard.
"We have conducted several rescues and stopped multiple child marriages. But the reason we pushed for Nandhini to get this award is her conviction that she was being wronged. Several girls we rescue look at us as the villains. But Nandhini knew what was right and what was wrong and therein lies her empowerment," says Christina.
According to the Tamil Nadu government, 1,586 child marriages were thwarted in the state from January to November 2017, a 60% rise in four years. From 2008, 6,658 marriages were thwarted by officials. However, FIRs were filed only in 158 cases, and court injunction orders issued in six.
In Nandhini's case however, the Social Welfare department managed to file FIRs against most people involved.
"This was one of the toughest rescues we had ever conducted and an entire village was guilty of trying to protect the accused," says Christina.
As soon as she got the information, the officer had informed the Tahsildar, District Revenue officer and the police. By 9pm that night, they had entered the village and were looking for the Anganiamman temple. But not a soul would tell them where it was.
"We questioned multiple people and they all denied any knowledge of the wedding. We couldn't even find the temple initially," says Christina.
Meanwhile, the villagers had informed Nandhini's family about the trouble on its way. "My aunt suddenly locked me up in the store room and told me to take off all the jewellery. I refused to do it and said I didn't want this marriage," says the young girl. "That is when Christina madam arrived," she adds.
The officials had managed to get an elderly villager to talk. "We threatened to cut off all benefits for the village if they refused to tell us where the girl was. And when we arrived at a field near the temple, the groom and his mother were produced before us. The mother then proceeded to pretend to have a heart attack," says Christina.
Unfazed by the unfolding drama, the officer managed to rescue Nandhini and take her back to the Child Welfare Committee in Tiruvannamalai. A case was filed against the family of the groom and Nandhini's aunt under the Child Marriage Prohibition act.
Today Nandhini is happier than ever before. "There are over 2000 girls here and I am more content than I was at home. When I grow up, I want to become a Collector and rescue girls from marriage. If it wasn't for the Collector in my district, I wouldn't have escaped the trauma and I will never forget that" she says.