Sonagachi, as he told me,
“You get anything in Kolkotta”, answers the waiter, while I share a jug of beer with m
y friend Michael from The United Kingdom, inside one of the top dance bars at MG Road, Kolkata. Every eyes in the hall following a girl on an elevated platform to my right side. The partially undressed girl has been dancing in tune to a slow classic Hindi song, sung by an old man in suits and leather shoes standing in front of the platform. The metallic works on her dress makes colorful reflections to the several laser lights hung from the false ceiling. Spectators, mostly between the age of 40 to 70: pumps in a lot of alcohol into their stomach and pumps out a lot of tears from their eyes.
An old man, a member of the dance team walks in between the tables with an old leather bag which gets filled with tons of cash from the spectators… measured by weight than numbers. Stacks of bank notes of denomination 500 and 1000 INRs thrown as silly as giving away rolls of toilet paper.
Money is so cheap inside the dancing queen’s room. But the scene outside this old palatial building looks completely different. The streets filled with people, busy making their home on the roadside, competing with street dogs and rodents: all they need is the same a little space on the foot path: not even quantity differs: sometimes a little extra amenities, water from old broken public taps and torn dirty blankets.
Sonagachi’s Public fashion show
The girl who was dancing inside the hall was a resident of a place called Sonagachi, two kilometers off Calcutta’s must visit MG Road. The name Sonagachi has got its place in many national and international journals, as one of the biggest red light area in India. We got a chance to visit this place the next day.
From outside, it looked like a 24 hour fashion show open to public: beautiful and prettied up girls line-up on either side of the narrow streets competing with each other to win the cup. Those lazy participants walk over the cat-walks upstairs.
Their costumes consists of specimen from around the world. From traditional Indian dress to the latest European trend setters..according to Michael. Most of them pretty up themselves with tons of cosmetics from toe to hair. The participants belong to all different age groups and several ethnics. This International Fashion Show gets its participants from several countries around the world India, Nepal, Bangladesh and few other South East Asian countries.
More than a simple participation, every participant carefully study the body language of each and every spectator crossing them. Those spectators who try to get noticed are caught as a prospective customer.
The Other Side.
The streets inside looks similar to any other congested areas of the city. The same kind of shops: ricksha pullers: kids play on the road, dwellers talk about communism and politics.
These narrow brick laid streets in-between the old double/triple storied houses: ready to collapse any moment, witness to a lot of things far different from what we hear: stories of sufferings and ill treatment: stories of kids separated from parents and home town: Stories of human trafficking and slavery.
Most of these girls participating in the show live in a world limited by four walls. They are not aware of the world outside or the life outside, and they never get a chance to learn about it. Most of them never get a chance for education or a happy married life. The only work they know or forced to do is to make the male species happy.
Several of the gils are smuggled from the different parts of the country/ world in the name of job by neighbors or family friends and sold here. The poor people living in the villages of Nepal and Bihar gets easily fooled in the name of job. Girls from these places are then sold for good money to the brothel managers. The girls are assigned under a senior female worker (called mother / nanni) who looks after her. A good part of the money earned by the girls are collected by the so-called mother.
Most of the girls born in the brothels live here until they die. The newly arrived girls have a very bad time, adjusting with the situations. Very few of them try to escape but usually they end up in very bad situation and harassment… sometimes gets locked and may not even see the outside world again. Nobody can literally search for a life inside that congested buildings, with thousands of rooms and partitions. The most obedient and attractive ones are deputed to work in other cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi to make more money.
Our guide arranged for talk with few of the dwellers. The first one was Kavitha a girl who has been staying in Sonagachi for the past 12 years. She was brought here by her fathers friend and a good neighbor, in the name of job. She was given a job which paid her almost nothing: later she was sold to the manager here. At times she visits her home but have never told her husband or kids the work she do: “If my parents come to know about this, I will be burnt alive”. She met a few other girls from her neighborhood, who were brought the same way. “That neighbor still visits my home, meets my father and acts like a very good helping friend”.
She earns only a part of the money from the customer and the rest goes to the brothel managers. “It our fate” said Kavitha while narrating the story of her life. Neither she cannot go back home nor she can get rid of this flesh trade.
These brothels are one of the most organized business in India. The young girls work under an elderly couple. It’s the duty of the male counterpart to look after the house and do household work: keeping in good terms with the police department people: the regular beggars: according to Kavitha.
The girls give their earnings to the elderly woman and it is the duty of these girls to look after the old retired workers. Marriages happen in-between the dwellers of the house and many of the girls have their own kids.
This congested part of the city is not completely isolated from crimes and fights occur frequently. Many of the visitors have reported that, they have been robbed inside the brothel houses. Like one Sanjeev, a rickshaw puller from Bihar, who lost all his savings.
Give respect and Take respect
This stratum of the population deserves a very high respect from every part of the society. These girls who work here are one of the reason for the safe life enjoyed by women in the city. Crimes against woman happen very rarely in the city because of the very special work done by these girls: They are like the municipal cleaners. People don’t give any respect to this category of workers, and rarely understands the importance of the role played by them.
“Born into brothels” by A documentary on life in Brothels by Zana Briski