Women in the Red Light District, Mumbai, India (image deliberately distorted to preserve identity)
A thin blue sheet covers the unfinished, wooden surface. It is a meagre area, barely enough to accommodate a full-size body. In just a few hours, on this table she will have sex. She will perform whatever service the customer desires, and depending upon her skill, her payment would be anywhere from 10 – 150 rupees ($0.24 – $3.60USD). The blue sheet will be used to protect her from the brutal roughness of the wooden surface. If her client is kind, he may ensure that the sheet stays under her to protect her backside, but as she states, they are not always kind.
“They like animals,” were her exact words.
Above the ‘bed’ hangs a framed picture of Christ, adorned with a beaded necklace, and in His presence they will fornicate. The other families, who share this tenebrous room will also be spectators to their coition, if not to the sight, then certainly to the sound of this business transaction. A partition, some eighteen inches, provides privacy.
Her eyes drifted, as she mindlessly massages a discoloured area on her forearm.
“But this is the life, no?” Her favourite mantra. She turned her gaze to where I sat across from her on a broken wicker chair. Sanjay sat on the table beside her. He had explained to me the importance of making yourself as comfortable as possible in the CSW’s homes so that they don’t feel that you are scorning them by being aloof. He was one of the most well-liked social workers in the Centre, one who I tried to mimic, but today there was no space on the table for me. I continued the interview.
“Why did you decide to come here?” She knew what here meant.
“I have a son!” Her response was sharp and quick; almost defensive. I met her penetrating gaze unwaveringly, being careful to not betray even the remotest hint of judgment.
“My son…..he needs things!”
“And his father? Does he not provide these……things?” She laughed, sneeringly.
“The men? No! What do they give to the children?”
“And your mother?” I pressed. “Doesn’t she help?” Time builds trust with these girls. We had talked enough for her to be comfortable. She knew that I am not as cold as my questions appear. It is rare for the girls to receive this much attention without being judged; I think she enjoys it.
“Ma takes care of him.” her voice returned to the low self-loathing tone. “I couldn’t stay.”
The last phrase was almost a whisper. For a moment we all hung there, balancing on its gravity. Sunita stared past her bejeweled feet to a place that only she could see.
“Why?” I needed her to say it, more for her than for my knowledge. She fidgeted. Sanjay readjusted his position, reaching for his bottle of coldrink.
“It is my duty.…In India, this is how it is…..this is my duty.” Her voice lacked conviction, yet she seemed resigned to the inevitability of this life, her ‘destiny.’
‘’Aren’t you Christian?”
Four pools of ebony eyes darted my way. Sanjay rescues my ignorance by restating the doctrine of the Upanishad, India’s ‘bible.’ He had explained this before, at the Centre, but I had forgotten. Their roles in life, their station, their duty, they must gracefully accept and perform with humility and servility. Sunita was indeed well-schooled in unerring conformity.
“I am not a Christian.” That worked only to confuse me.
“How so?” I hated myself for asking. She shrank immediately, appearing painfully childlike. This was not the same woman who stands in the street at five o’clock, hands akimbo, smiling coquettishly at every male passer-by, beckoning them with a seductive glance, and a come-hither look. This was someone’s frightened child who had lost their way.
Scarcely older than eighteen, her face is hardened by grief and the wear from the street life. She had inherited this ‘revered’ courtesan lifestyle. The females in her family were used for survival. Her sister, two years older, had died from the brutality of being sacrificially sexualized. Her two brothers had secured her this ‘favoured’ place in the masjid, as a sex slave – a devidas.
“I was twelve when she died.” Her eyes fixed on nothing in particular.
“Didn’t your brothers work?” She didn’t hear my question.
“And when she died, I had to do it. Daddy would drink all the time.….he didn’t make much, and Ma ..….she couldn’t work.”
Almond-shaped eyes looked right through me, telling Aesopian tales of horror. As the breadwinner, she had borne the carnal onslaught for her family’s survival. She was the sex slave of the priests, the devidas. But how glorious was that title? This she ponders daily. She now belongs to the harijan – the untouchables – the object of society’s scorn; estranged from home, family, and child – the product of an illicit affair – and gridlocked into a life that was manufactured without her consent.
As a social worker with the Navjeevan Centre my aim is to promote rehabilitation and change. But the client must first acknowledge that they want this change, I function simple as a catalyst. Often they discover themselves through the discussions. Patience being critical to discovery, I busied myself with observing her dwelling space, while I waited for her to continue.
A cot beside the table marks her ‘home.’ Flimsy, tattered, straw hammocks attached to anything sturdy marked the place of other family units. Pots, pans, and other accoutrement were strung up like decorations on a Christmas tree. I lost track of how many families occupied this parsimonious room, a space not exceeding an average American living room. Sunita was talking about her ‘freedom’ here.
“So you are happy with your life here?” I always try to steer the discussions it in the direction of change.
“I get my own money, well, I mean I get paid for it…….you understand?”
“No.” I lied.
“Well, I can make money, depending on what I do……..you know?”
“No.” I convinced myself that I wasn’t lying, I was just being a good listener. She continued, describing one customer’s fetish (my term) for oral sex.
“His thing long so.” Her arms demonstrated a length close to twelve inches, an obvious exaggeration. “And he would come straight from work, so he don’t wash, but he pay a lot.’’
“How much is a lot?”
“A lot…….more than the regular pay…….but he’s mean.’’ And despite her urges to retch and recoil, she forces herself to continue, for ‘more’ money.
“The men, they pay a lot if you to put it your mouth. I get a lot more than the other girls. I send it to Ma, so she can care for Sunil………… I feel bad after, though.’’
‘’Physically or emotionally?”
She had explained how he would want her to moan and make sounds of pleasure while she was rhythmically sliding her lips up and down his uncircumcised column, flaccid foreskin sliding back and forth with every stroke. Every time she gaged, he pushed her head down stronger, forcing hips upwards, striving to reach the back of her throat. He liked interlacing his fingers into her hair, tightening the grip whenever he senses her urges to pull away.
“Physically………….no, wait… both”
Her voice was thick, throaty, as if she was still feeling the object. Images of past incidents and conversations swirled around in my head, taking grotesque shapes. My knees buckled with the weight of injustice, the room reeled, threatening my equanimity. I did what I had become practiced in doing, I fled the room, seeking a toilet to lean into.
When I returned, Sunita was still relating her performance to Sanjay. There was a peculiar glint in her eyes, and I suspected that this was the only personal gratification that she receives in her life: the control that comes with bringing a man to climax; this is the highlight of her life. Yet, every day brings her the same fare – another day, another trick, another blow-job…….for a few dollars more.
I returned to my hotel room that night and retched violently. I lay in bed weakened by the experience, hearing the drone of Sunita’s voice and the muffled screams of a child. I could feel the searing, burning, sensation of flesh tearing, and pelvises grinding. I desperately wanted to run, to return to the sanctity of my home in the USA. I consoled myself that at least I had that option. I assuaged myself with the promise that the next visit would be better, less remiscent of my own past.
Sunita sat up in her cot, startled by the noise of the creaking floors announcing my entrance. Swollen eyes, disheveled hair, and lack of make-up – she had just awakened. She had not slept well, she explained, because of the pain in her stomach. We discussed her symptoms, and she expressed that she was worried about being pregnant. I was more worried about AIDS.
We switched to discussions about her son, who would be visiting soon. We needed to arrange for her to visit him at the Centre. One of the stipulations of the Centre is that the CSW cannot take their children to the brothel. The primary mission of the Centre is rescuing the children born to the women in the commercial sex trade, so it is imperative that they are not exposed to the life in the sex trade.
“Sunil excited about visiting?”
“He doesn’t like coming.” She was curt, and I knew that his neutrality pained her, yet her eyes reflected the joy her lips denied. Despite their tough facade, the women are always happy to have visits with their children.
“Don’t you miss him?”
“Ma takes good care of him.” She felt an imperative to meet eyes resolutely when she lied. “He’s bright…….he gets good marks.”
I didn’t feel a need to comment, but wondered about the value of ‘Ma’s ”good care”.’
“You still feel that this is the best job for you?” It is a question we always have to push…..gently.
“What else do I do? I can’t read books.” Her tone had its usual prickly defensiveness. She is a feisty one, all sixty-four centimeters and one hundred and seventy kilograms of her. Like all the other women in the trade, Sunita wears the veil of decisiveness that masks the pain of derision. But unlike many of the others, she is pretty; however, when she looks in the mirror, she sees only the ugliness that sears and reflects from the scorn of society.
Today, her thick, flowing, black hair falls freely around her heart-shaped face. At five o’clock she will roll it up into a tight coif and pile it on top her head. She will decorate it with chains of gold, which will match the design of her earrings. Her feet will be oiled, rubbed shiny with the sweet smelling Mohan’s Almond oil, the same oil she massages into her hair. She will stand in the street, outside her doorway, smiling, head held up high, regal-like. She will be radiant, exuding confidence, a confidence she feels only in this arena, her territory. Her body will be well adorned to dull the scars it bears inwardly.
I left early today, as I had papers to prepare. We parted with promises to meet again soon; and soon is just a few days away.
The weekend was riddled with Dali-like nightmares that taunted and haunted me like a military drill sergeant. And when Monday finally arrived, I greeted it with unusual exuberance.
The train to Kamathipura was claustrophobic, and the walk from the train station seemed deliberately protracted. Skipping up the dilapidated stairway to Sunita’s room, I was greeted by malingerers who lined the entrance to her door. They regarded me with icy silence as I eased along the path they created as I approached. No one spoke to me, as they knew that my Hindi was limited. I silently cursed Sanjay’s tardiness, as he should know better than to leave me alone here. I was fumbling feverishly for my phone when I noticed his frame in the doorway. Ha! He was early after all!
A short solid frame, cropped, shiny black hair, and a sleeveless white shirt tucked neatly into black trousers – yep, it was him! He stood just a few paces ahead, talking to someone. Sunita? Sensing the stir, he turned, catching my questioning eyes. Sad, tired eyes regarded me; an unusual hint of admonishment lingered in the peripheries. My mouth set to utter my usual chipper greeting, then the words caught in my throat; Sanjay was speaking….or at least he was trying to do so. I intuited more than heard the words he struggled to speak. Our eyes locked, and it seemed like a giant hand was holding the arm of time in a steadfast grip. No one spoke, except the flies that buzzed merrily up and around in their ceaseless annoying circle right before my eye, just out of arms reach. They seemed to be circling a particular spot of the room.
She laid still, the wooden table barely accommodating her body. A thin blue sheet draped around her waist, and the photo of a child curled softly in her outstretched hand. The tracery of henna on her hands softened the penetrating gaze of the almond-shaped eyes that peered out from the crumpled photo. Silence reigned, yet questions resounded.
Who would tell him? Would they tell him how she died? Would he know how much she loved him? Would he ever know a mother’s love? And about her dedication to his care?
The undertakers were prompt, and they wasted no time in wrapping up her body in white muslin and carting it off, somewhere. How ironic, I thought, the harijan, the untouchable, carting off the untouchable.
Sanjay decided that he would call Sunita’s family, and again I pictured her son receiving the news. I wondered if he would ever know that her ‘duty’ was to learn ‘tricks’ just to send him a few dollars more? And would he know that she died of internal bleeding from one of those ‘tricks’?
Tonight, at twilight, decorated women will line the sidewalk like the border print on the hem of a sari. The women will be sassy, ravishing, and no doubt audacious. They will ply thier wares and lure the customers with promises of a good time. And the men will stop in from a long day’s work, looking for some solace and a warm body to lay with on a wooden table. But no one will notice Sunita’s absence. Another girl will happily stand in the vacant spot, and will blissfully satisfy her clients. And next week, I will return to Kamathipura and interview another young girl, who will sit on the wooden table and tell me her story of sorrow and sex. And I will ask her why then is she here?
“This is the life,” she will say. “It is my duty; this is what I do….for a few dollars more.”