Of Rajesh Khanna, Amar Prem, the Hague and Boubazar… My Travels through the Red Light

Amar Prem was the Hindi remake of Nishipadma, a film that highlighted the lives of the prostitutes of Calcutta (Kolkata). Superstar Rajesh Khanna, lead actor of Amar Prem, died on 18 July 2012. Providentially I had begun writing this piece that very day.

 Boubazar, Sonagachi, Kalighat – for long just names that reminded me of the two films, one in Bangla, the other its Hindi version. But all I could recall was their tapering lanes, and hand-pulled rickshaws depositing ‘babus’ at the bottom of a narrow staircase leading up to a room from where music oozed.

And then, in 1983, my mother decided it was time I saw some real life.

I was doing my Masters in Sociology, and was home for my summer break. Ma took me by surprise. “Wear a sari and come with me”. I remember vividly every moment, every colour of that day, including the white and orange sari I wore.

As we reached Kalighat, she said, “What you study in your course is theory. This is for real. Look around you… look at the women. Just watch their faces and you’ll understand their lives.”

Kalighat is home to the famous Kali temple. It is also a bustling market and the site of one of the largest red light areas of  Kolkata, milling with women – old and young in search of ‘clients’, and men – young, old, poor and rich, looking for a woman to make them ‘happy’. That hour, my life underwent a change. It took me many years though to realize how little changes in the lives of these women.

I had seen girls and women earlier too – garish nylon saris, hair tied in ribbons, dazzling brass jewellery – standing on the over-bridge, as I drove past in a taxi or bus. I would eye them with curiosity, and wonder briefly about their lives… but nothing more.

That day when Ma said, “Just watch their faces…”, I did, and I saw pain, exhaustion and defeat on them. Many of them were older, dressed in traditional red-bordered Bengali saris, complete with vermillion in the hair and red and white bangles on their wrists. Others were younger, not yet ready to give up. As Ma had said, there was a story in each face and pair of eyes, even in those that looked expressionless. I could not but stare. Like Amar Prem, it could have been one of deceit and trafficking, or of desperate poverty and violence that had driven them here… something I understood only after I started working.

The women along the road were calling out in low voices, stating their rates. “One rupee? Two rupees?” Even in 1983 this seemed so little. When a deal was struck, they disappeared with their “client” into one of many tiny rooms along the street, often with only a jute curtain instead of a door. Many of the men still carried their bags or tiffin boxes, having detoured on their way back from work. It didn’t take them long to go in and come out, and then nonchalantly walk away.

Since that day I have made it a point to visit “red light” areas, both in India and across the world. Each of them invariably reveals the soul of the city and its society. But that evening in Kalighat has stayed with me.

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The Hague in the Netherlands, seat of the International Court of Justice, also has a small lane lit with red and pink lights, where women, young and old, display themselves like mannequins in large glass windows. The lane is distinctive in its own way, though unlike Amsterdam where the Red Light District is a hugely popular tourist haunt.

 As I walked down the lane, my eyes were arrested by a window where a middle-aged woman stood in a black lace top, her curly hair dyed jet black, lips coloured red, and eyes heavily kohled. Compared to the svelte, bikini-clad women in other windows, this one was an ageing aunt, complete with bulges and love handles. She looked tired and bored. Who knows how long she had stood there – hour after hour, day after day!  What must it mean to have to exhibit yourself at an age when most people dream of retiring? I sauntered along, not realizing that I was staring at her, imagining her story. She saw me, and suddenly came alive. With her hand, she signalled me to move on. Go Away… I still wonder why. There were so many others in that lane that evening. Then, why just me?

Perhaps she had read the curiosity and empathy on my face. As I gaped at her, I couldn’t but remember the older women of Kalighat.

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More recently, while in Kolkata, I visited Boubazar with a friend who runs a programme with the children of sex workers. Wonder if it got its name because it was a market where bous, Bangla for ‘wives’, were bought and sold?  Or was the word bou meant to assuage men’s guilt at leaving their legit wives home and coming here?

We reached in the early afternoon, when “business” was yet to start. My friend knew almost everyone along the lane, and stopped every so often to greet someone, have a quick chat and introduce me. We entered one of the narrow doorways that lined the street, and climbed upstairs to a room. Inside, a woman in her late thirties, perhaps early forties, stood in a blouse and petticoat, getting dressed for the evening.

Seeing us, a beautiful young girl of about ten came running in. She lived next door.

We were seated on a large queen-size bed that almost filled the room, each of its legs raised with a couple of bricks. In the room was also a shelf covered in plastic zipped down the front, a stove and a few utensils scattered on the floor.

The child came and stood beside me. With a shy smile, she asked my colleague, “Who is she?”

“My friend from Delhi. She has come to meet you”.

“Oh!”

“Are you going to school?” inquired my friend. “Have you been coming to the centre?” Her centre for these children ran during the time their mothers entertained clients.

“Yes, sometimes, when Ma can spare me… I have a lot of work to do. Ma doesn’t keep well.”

Meanwhile, the woman in the blouse and petticoat continued doing up her face, peering into a small mirror that hung on the wall.

The young girl watched her with rapt attention. Suddenly she turned to us and said, “You know, mashi (aunt) dresses so well. She looks so nice, and yet she doesn’t get even one Babu these days. That’s sad, no!”

At that moment the truth of the ten-year-old’s life struck me. In it there was no space for morality or judgement. If her mother or aunt did not get a Babu, there would be no food on their plates. This was so starkly different from the reality of my own children, or of many others just across the road from Boubazar, where parents would not allow their children to even “see” her reality.

It was time for the woman to go, to “stand at the gate” and solicit clients. So we took leave. Now the lanes were buzzing with activity. Women, some well past their prime, others much younger and dressed in modern western clothes, were waiting. We made our way through the crowd.

But all I could think of was the little girl.

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2 responses to “Of Rajesh Khanna, Amar Prem, the Hague and Boubazar… My Travels through the Red Light

  1. one would have expected a little more from you than just your anguish at the plight of these women and their children. some anger and some analysis is required. this is the worst manifestation of patriarchy and a slap in the face of humanity. whereas one can understand economic exploitation as being inevitable given class differences, there is no reason why some women should be dehumanised in this way by society. while you have portrayed the traditional lowest rungs of the sex working profession who lead a ghettoised existence, these days this industry has become much more sophisticated and at the top end some shocking goings on are afoot which normally do not get the glare of publicity unless someone high profile like Tiger Woods or Dominique Strauss Kahn slips up badly.

  2. mari

    I went to Sonagachi where Durbar has done a brilliant job of organizing the women. There is a new point of view that sex work is just another job and why shd these women work wash bartans for a pittance. Altho the women talked bravely abt their work, I saw the pain and anguish. I cdnt imagine anyone wd want to be at the beck and call of random men.
    I empathize with yr anguish and that of the women. Its an experience which changes you forever. But left me feeling helpless, angry and so sad that I cdnt do anything to help them – as being a ‘mere’ journalist so often does.

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