It took me three visits to the estranged red light district of Sonagachi to be able to get the sex workers to talk to me. My inability to do so on the first, or the second visit could be attributed to my appearance that failed to corroborate my journalistic intentions. I was mistaken as a girl who had unknowingly ventured into the forbidden lanes of Sonagachi and was more than once given the directions to the main road (contrary to my mother’s belief of being drugged and put inside a box and then finally trafficked someplace else!). I did have a hard time to get my subjects to open up to me, but when that finally happened, I was amazed at the stories that they had to tell and was determined to let their voices be heard.
Following are excerpts from a conversation that I had with Rani*, one of the 11,000 sex workers caught in a miasma of despair in Asia’s largest red light district.
For how long have you been working here?
It has been 3 years now. I came to Kolkata looking for a job when I was 16, after my father met with an accident and lost his legs. He was a daily wage earner and whatever money he earned was barely enough to keep us fed. But I landed myself in the wrong company and ended up here.
What kept you here?
It is very difficult to escape from this place. You have a pair of eyes glued to you all the time and every move you make is recorded. Every new girl who is brought in here makes attempts to escape only to get caught and suffer at the hands of the pimps and the brothel owners. It’s not that I did not plan on escaping. But the stories that I had heard always discouraged me from taking any drastic step. Even though this place seemed worse than hell, I was too scared to die.
So you silently resigned into this new life as a sex worker without ever putting up a fight?
(Extremely agitated) What do you think I could have done? Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you know you have been trapped and you see hundreds of people around you but none of them are actually going to help you? You need help to escape from a place like this. But nobody here is going to help you. Even if you do manage to escape from a brothel, someone is still going to catch hold of you and either bring you back to where you escaped from or rape you right there in the middle of the street.
What are you customers like?
Young, old, middle-aged, rich, poor, single, married, divorced, sober, drunk – we have every kind of people visiting us. Sometimes they even ‘talk’ to us. They tell us if they have had a rough day or if their marriage is falling apart.
Have you ever had any abusive client?
I haven’t in my three years. But there are girls who have. When they are done, they come out of the rooms bruised and beaten. Sometimes you can see the blood. This happens mostly if the customers are drunk or if the girls are too insistent on making them use precautions.
How much do the girls here earn?
(Smiles) You could have asked me directly. We all charge differently here. Some of us charge 3000-4000 an hour, some charge 1000-2000, while there are girls who you could get for as less as 200 an hour. There are a lot of women here who do not belong to any brothel. They come here, get their clients from the streets and go back to their homes at the end of the day with whatever money they may have made. Their families do not know that they work here.
What is your relation with the brothel owner like?
As long as I am making money for her and paying my rent on time, everything is fine.
Do you intend to stay here forever?
Do I have a place to go? My family back in Orissa knows that I work here. I send them a part of whatever money I make, every month. They are okay with my money but should I ever decide to go back, they will not accept me. Nobody wants to have people like us around them. No matter how hard I try or what I achieve in life, I will always be identified as a prostitute. My profession is my identity now and it is stuck to me like a shadow. This place is home now.
The Accursed Tales Of Life In Sonagachi
It seems rather easy to complain from the comfort of our living space how certain people around us vitiate the society that we live in. How well do we know them whom we consider a permanent blotch on our society? Glance through their lives here.