The Golden Girls Of Sonagachi

on Thursday, May 15, 2008

No morality. No tragedy. Writer DILIP D’SOUZA and photographer TOM PIETRASIK get themselves a reality check in Kolkata’s largest red light area


LYING ON TOP of the trashcan outside Rekha’s tiny room is an empty condom packet. Inside, behind her wide bed, lie a couple of condoms. As we sit on the bed chatting, a slip of a girl in stilettos, flouncy white skirt and a black top darts in, picks up the condoms and darts out. Fifteen minutes later, she darts back in again, complaining angrily to Rekha. I know no Bengali, but somehow I get what she’s saying: though she told him twice, the client she was just with refused to wear a condom, so she threw him out. She stops to take a breath, then turns to smile at Tom and me.

While she is happy to talk, even about condoms, she doesn’t want to be photographed. But Rekha has no such inhibitions. “Take as many photos as you like,” she says. Tom does just that, in this room and on the terrace of her dark building as the sun sets, bathing Sonagachi in soft golden hues.

As we walk up the dingy, crumbling stairs to the terrace, a slender moustached man appears outside Rekha’s flat, cellphone in hand and perplexion on his face. In between shots, Rekha tells me quietly that he is her regular evening client. I fall over myself apologising. The last thing we wanted was for her to put work on hold to spend time with us. “Why don’t you go ahead,” I say, “and do...”.

My voice trails off as I realise what I’m saying, as I wonder how I’m going to finish my sentence. Rekha smiles widely, tickled by my discomfort.

“It’s okay,” she says, pointing to one of two cellphones she’s carrying. “I just phoned him and said I couldn’t see him now.”

“And that was okay with him?” I ask. “Of course!” says Rekha. “I’ll meet him later.” Not for the first time, I’m struck by how open and matter-of-fact this 31-year-old is about what she does for a living. This is a naive thing to say, but even if you don’t quite believe it, this is the first time I’ve spent quality time among sex workers. I never imagined that some of them, at least, would be like this about their profession. With my precious middle class morality and conditioning, it’s a constant effort to refer neutrally to their work. But them, they speak about it as routine — what gets food on the table and the kids through school. That attitude takes some getting used to.

Yet that’s just the point. She’s a sex worker, but Rekha is also joint secretary in the HIV intervention programme at the Durbar Mahila Samanvay Committee (DMSC), which works with sex workers in Sonagachi, Kolkata’s redlight area. And while they run a number of different programmes — clinics, condom distribution, street plays and more — after a few days there, one thing seems to me to sum up their efforts: attitude. Let’s see sex work as just work, and let’s not get either coy or judgemental about it. Let’s look at sex workers as people trying, like all of us do, to earn a living. Let’s allow them to think of themselves that way. Attitude, that’s all.

Later that evening, our DMSC host, Shubhra, takes us to a one-room clinic they run. The lane outside is lined with dozens of women in tight, lurid clothes, waiting for custom. Inside are several more women, most themselves sex workers, keen to give us an idea of their work with DMSC.

First, one explains the use of a female condom. With a flip chart that leaves just about nothing to the imagination, she makes it sound easy. Following my journalistic instincts, I ask to buy one. Buy three, says Shubhra, and you get a sachet of shampoo, free. Then she reaches into a cupboard for something she says is distributed by the West Bengal Government: a wooden dildo that would make a sailor blush.

The same woman uses it to demonstrate the use of a (male) condom. They encourage women to put it on their clients, she says. Partly because they can then ensure it’s on right, but also because this “excites” the client. (She uses the English word).

ONE HOT afternoon, we threaded through winding lanes to Devi’s home. A 50-year-old widow, she has a lined but elegant face and an air of serene confidence. She is no longer in the “business” but it’s been good to her in many ways. She has a portable TV on the window sill, a compact stereo on a shelf next to a flower-lined portrait of her mother, a landline and a cellphone side by side. There’s a small grandfather clock on the wall, even if it stays stuck at 8.30, and a lamp with multiple shell-shaped shades.

The room is almost as small as Rekha’s. Here too, we sit on the bed to talk. Like most beds we’ve seen in Sonagachi, it’s perched on old car batteries. I’m puzzling that out when something hairy nudges my dangling foot. It’s the head of another slip of a girl, emerging from under the bed where she was sleeping. Ah, so the batteries produce a little extra space. She brings us some chai, then crawls back underneath to sleep some more.

Unusual, but an innovative use of limited space. Then I realise there’s another bed in the room. We had edged past while coming in, though actually I hadn’t noticed it then. That’s because it doesn’t look much like a bed. It is surrounded by billowing sheets that reach to the ceiling. Now we hear some sounds. Quiet voices, one a gruff male, some rustling and creaking, a few chuckles.

So here we are: just beyond an arm’s length from where I sit, separated only by a thin sheet that billows in the breeze, there’s a couple in that bed. Just as matter-of-fact as everyone else we’ve met in Sonagachi, Devi says she rents out that second bed by the hour.

Women bring their clients there, as one has done right now. Devi is amused at our stifled consternation. Me, I’m trying to refocus on our conversation. Hard, because I’m acutely conscious that I’ve never been so close to a couple doing what they must. Yet to the four women on or under this bed, this isn’t even an issue. All in the attitude.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 19, Dated May 17, 2008


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