This I know: the good that one does, unselfishly, sometimes comes back to give a measure of joy. Yes, it happens, though rarely. And when it does, the joy is worth sharing. Long years ago, as a member of the Women’s Edition, where 11 women editors from ‘developing’ countries met to learn about reproductive health issues, I visited a ‘Rape Crisis Centre’ in New York.

A quiet building with an unmarked door, through which we were allowed to enter. Nothing prepared me for the quantum of pain and suffering that lived behind that door. Victims of sexual abuse, rape, some almost children, others older, all of whose faces seemed shut against the world. Working quietly to bring them back to life and feeling, and lead them back into the world were the caretakers who were employed by or worked as volunteers at the Centre. Sound and art therapy were some of the tools used, along with a large measure of patience and love.

The visit left a deep impression. I had till then no idea of the emotional trauma that a rape survivor lives with. And the thought haunted me, that in India, rape is a common occurrence, and abuse is a constant as much outside the home as inside it.

It was during a visit to a local LTMG government hospital in Sion, Bombay (as it was known then) for researching a story that I presented the idea, and the guide book I had brought along with me about the Centre to the Dean of the hospital and suggested such an initiative be opened up at the hospital. Dr Armida Fernandez was interested, but warned me about the red tape that could tie the idea up into an un-openable bundle.

However, soon enough she had set up a wing in the hospital for women in crisis, avoiding the word rape, knowing the stigma attached to the word would keep women away. A few months later, when I was invited to plant a tree to inaugurate the Centre, already many women from the nearby slums of Dharavi were waiting in the corridors, seeking help. The good doctor had also set up an outreach programme, and was sending para medical staff to suss out women too timid to ask for help at the Centre.

This was all in the mid-1990s. Sometimes when I drove past the hospital I would wonder how the Centre was doing, or whether with changes in administration, it had closed down.

I got my answer a few weeks ago. Sitting at a friend’s place, I was introduced to her landlady. I realised I was face to face with the same kindly and forward thinking Dr Fernandez who had taken the tiny seed of an idea forward and planted a tree of hope.

And what Dr Fernandez told me still fills me with a joyful warmth. She said the Centre is going strong. They have added five more, in areas that have women who might most need help. And the outreach programme touches many more beyond these Centres.

How wonderful, I thought, the small tree is now a family of trees under whose shade so many voiceless women can find shelter and help. Women, whom governments scarcely notice, and who live suppressed by families even as they do their bit to earn and run their homes. Women of the slums and the shanties, of the streets and the chawls, women who labour, washing and sweeping, carrying bricks on their head, a baby slung on the back, women who beg at traffic lights and succumb to predatory men at night to be allowed the right to beg… for all of them the shelter can provide counselling, a ready ear, a helping hand. The thought tells me there is good in the world. And that makes me feel good.

(The writer is a Consulting Editor with Penguin India)