Clad in a red net saree, she emerged out of the crowd on the bustling street. Having a voluptuous frame, she walked towards me. Her long, dark hair braided neatly, she wore minimal jewellery and a red lipstick that contrasted with her fair skin. A little timid in her appearance, she stood in front of me, her gaze unwavering. “I will never bring my daughter here. Will never push her into this business,” she said. “Does she know of your profession?” I asked as I tried to find some expression on her melancholic face. She shook her head. “Unaware of the reality, she lives with my mother,” she said, looking at me with her big brown eyes. Her age? “Seven,” she said.
Well, not a very decent question to ask but have you ever been to a red-light area? If yes, then you know what I mean.
Bustling street, dingy houses, plunging necklines, garish makeup…
In fact, it was a little difficult for me to believe that it was exactly how I had imagined it to be. I could not help feeling amazed at how our filmmakers could replicate the environment with such precision.
The sun had just set in Calcutta. At around 7 in the evening, we entered the street, which is known to house 11,000 sex workers making it the largest red-light area in Asia.
As we entered Sonagachi, we saw two cops sitting quietly. One of them stiffened as we approached them. “News-views toh theek hai par us mandir ke aage mat jaana. Uske aage agar aapke saath kuch hota hai toh hamari zimmedari nahi hogi (Working on a news story is fine but do not go beyond that temple. If anything happens to you over there, we won’t be responsible)” he said in a tone that rather sounded as a warning. The thrill, treading a forbidden path gives!
Consciously, we took steps ahead. And there we were, finally! It was marked by a few women standing at each edge of the street, confusingly staring at us. Those rickety houses, I could look into them through the windows giving a sight of some women sitting on a bed. A few steps ahead, some more such women and then plenty of them, flirtatiously smiling, posing, fiddling with their hair. Some wearing sarees, some short dresses…all decked-up with a coquettish air around them.
The youngest I saw must have been 12. Sporting lips painted bright pink, standing among the more ‘professed’ of the women, half-nervous, coyly smiling at the passerby. The well-lit paan shops and the drunkards hovering around kept the environment lively. It perfectly reminded me of a few Bollywood movies I had seen.
Busy watching the extravagant display of feminine charms, I suddenly felt a disturbance. We were stopped by a man. “Mam aap dhoond kya rahi ho? (Mam,what are you looking for?) ” he asked slyly. Ohh, an ‘agent’, not bad! “Mam,bolo toh dhoond kya rhe ho (Why don’t you tell me what you are looking for)” he kept insisting. It took a little bit of effort to ward him off before we could move further and reach the end of the street.
The temple… here it was. From there on began the ‘dreaded’ zone, the core area. Around 10-15 middle-aged women stood in front of the temple as two cops sat idly. Our attention was caught by a drunkard getting beaten up, ostensibly, for making ruckus.
As we stood there watching the drama, a few women from the group came forward and asked where we had come from. “Oh Delhi! Then why have you come here? Don’t you know it’s such a bad place?” asked a woman wearing a black kurta, her hair tied in a bun. She must have been around 40. Another woman joined her, “Yes, go out at once,” she said chidingly. The woman in black kurta interrupted, “It’s not a place for decent people. They won’t be able to distinguish between you and us. Are you getting me?” And her last sentence left me feeling startled as she said, “Beta, tum logo ki toh izzat hai. Tum hamare jaise nahin ho. (You are not like us. You have some dignity).” I wanted to speak something but seeing the other women and cops join them, I thought it was better to remain silent and leave.
Luckily, we were followed by a little man. Turned out to be another ‘agent’, a pimp, and a self-proclaimed drug peddler. In an hour-long conversation we had with him, he shared the dark details of the well-lit area. From flesh trade to rampant drug peddling, he discussed it all.
“Here you will find women as young as 12 and as old as 60. Some come to earn money, some to satisfy themselves,” he said carefully avoiding mentioning forced prostitution. “And how much do they earn every day?” I asked. “Madam, it all depends on the body of the woman. Jitna acha figure hoga, utna zyada paisa kamayega (The more desirable the body, the more price it attracts). Some of them even charge up to Rs 4,000” he said.
And the police? “Arey wo log toh paisa bhi nahi de ke jaata, free mei services leta hai (They take free services and don’t even pay for them),” he said promptly. “They raid the place every day. Do you see the vehicle that just came out of the street?” he said pointing at a police van. “They take us to the police station, extort money and set us free…every day,” he added.
What about AIDS and other such diseases? “A lot of women here have diseases. They don’t tell anyone but it shows on their face.” he said. “Besides, how can they afford the expensive treatment?” he added after a pause. “The number of cases just keeps on rising with the population. “Abhi ye hain, kal inke bache honge (Tomorrow their kids will take over),” he said giving off a sense of pessimistic perpetuity.
“Is there any woman here who has vowed not to bring her kids into this profession?” I asked him. Had I not asked him, we would not have met the woman in red saree before leaving the place.
There, I saw a myriad of emotions-laughter, freedom, pain sorrow, subjugation, greed, care, solidarity and finally hope.
I saw women laughing around, chatting loudly. I saw women wearing mismatched clothes walking confidently. That woman wearing a red top with a low neckline walked so freely sporting an attitude that I rarely see in women around me. Do we often think of these women when we talk about breaking stereotypes?
I saw women who could unexpectedly step into a motherly figure for a stranger, forbidding her to visit ‘wrong’ places. And finally, I saw women possessing a resolute spirit underneath a gloomy face, working hard to give a bright future to her daughter.
If only I could talk to them for a little longer, if only I could say to the woman in black kurta, You deserve to be respected as much as I do or any other person on the earth does. Your profession (enforced or not) cannot, just CANNOT, take away your dignity…