There are multiple pockets of Kolkata known as the red light area, where sex workers live and do business. One such place in the northern part of the city is Harkata Gali, where a former sex worker tells the tale of their lives, the denial, deprivation, societal prejudice and pressure etc.
65-year-old Bharathi was sitting on a stool outside the room with one limb straight and another folded upon which her chin rested. One could look at her and fathom her beauty when she was in her youth, her days of “giving it all”. Bharathi is now an owner of a room in a kothabadi of Banerjee Lane, popularly known as Harkata Gali, along the roads of Bowbazar, Kolkata.
When approached, she began with a sly smile, “Girls these days are very smart. They know right from wrong and act accordingly. Back in our days, we had no voice. The customers would come and do anything to us. Julm dominated everything, everywhere” With these heavy words, Bharathi trailed off to thirty years back when she was a sex worker.
“I was brought here under the impression of getting a job as a housekeeper. Little did I know that I was entering into something unthinkable.” A long pause followed. Bharathi was married at a very early age of 16. Her husband worked on farms and they lived in a joint family. Soon after having her first son, her house collapsed due to a huge flood.
“We were stranded for days. We sought shelter in local schools for a few days first and then lived in my uncle’s house, adjacent to us. But how long could we go about it? Soon, a friend told me that work was in abundance in Kolkata. Without second thoughts, we arrived, leaving my son at my parents’. While my husband worked in a hotel, I worked as a jhi (maid)”
She narrates the story of her migration, a story shared by hundreds of sex workers like her who see a silver lining at proposals of working in the city but little do they know what fate has in store for them. Pouring tea on small plastic cups, she recalls her childhood.
“My desher bari (ancient home) is in Jojan, Murshidabad. When our house fell, my first worry was, what would I feed my sons? After working for months as a maid here, I did not have enough income to support my family back there. I was looking for better-paying work. And suddenly, under the pretext of getting a better job, I was sold off to Sonagachhi in exchange for thirty thousand rupees.” Her voice expressed agitation in trebles, now and then.
Amidst the conversation with Bharathi, a young girl came with a man, her customer who seemed to have a fit with her over money. He insisted on paying seventy rupees for one hour while the girl was adamant. “I have told him that the price is one hundred”, she said, dissatisfied. Bharathi calculated the time and had her helper, a man slightly younger to her and quite stout, settle the money matter.
As they closed the green, clapped-out door behind us, Bharathi said, “Today, girls have the freedom to do what they want. In our days, we were forced to live in drudgery. When I was sold off, crying was my only way out of hell. Later, I learned to embrace that hell.” Bharathi was sold off by a man to pay off his debts. She worked till the debt was fulfilled. After that her pimp let her go.
“After seeing me crying for days, my malkin let me go. She also gave me three thousand rupees, food, and medicines for my children. I was missing home too much. But my hands were tied.” Being a young woman, it pained her to be away from her home, father, and sons. Mediums of communication were not active, then. Bharathi had to carry on life, unknown to her, away from her house and the people she loved.
Remnants of home, family, and children devoured Bharathi’s memory but she was pragmatic enough to understand that her family needed financial support to sustain. Soon, hopes of earning more brought her back into the business. “I realized if I work as a prostitute, I would earn five times more. So, I came here and began working. Suddenly, my husband died of a heart attack. The ground shook beneath my feet. I was helpless and haplessly finding ways to meet ends. That was when I shifted to Bombay.”
When asked about her experiences in Bombay, Bharathi said, “What do I say? A blob of tears fills my throat when I think of my Bombay days. I worked there for 26 years. Despite troubles, I survived for the sake of living for my family. Many a time, men would have sex twice while paying for one time. I would shout and throw a fit but they would hold me down with their strength. Once, five to six men came together and raped me. They took advantage of my helplessness. Julm dominated our world every day, everywhere. I was sick for days with a high fever after the incident.”
Bharathi’s face was clouded. She was raped but she could tell nobody. “Everybody told me, if I wanted to survive, I would have to endure anything. What would I eat otherwise?” She ran her fingers over her wrinkled arms as she said with a hint of baffled pride and repressed anger, “The man who brought me here told me I was beautiful and I should not waste my youth as a maid. I accepted his offer. My sons were growing up. I did not want their education to stop midway, so I shifted to Bombay.”
By that time, she was thirty. “Everybody was dependent on me. After his death, I was the sole bread earner. I had to earn more now. So, Bombay was my call. I worked as a sex worker on the streets for days and simultaneously, rented a room to other girls. This went on for 26 years. Bombay was a life lesson for me.”
A peek into Bharathi’s room would reveal the conditions of the kothabadis. The lack of sanitation, proper drain way and awareness seems very apparent. Water ran down through the cracks of the floor and the mats we sat on became walls. “Dripping water from dampened walls is a regular problem.” The stout man wiped the floor as Bharathi complained about this recurring problem.
Soon the conversation shifted to the basic tenets of protection, taboo and awareness. “We provide condoms to those who don’t carry one with them. What else do you need as a precaution?”, she shows a big jar full of condoms that are provided to them by nearby government-aided medicine providers and an NGO.“ Back in those days, condoms were rarely worn. But, worn. I wouldn’t allow anybody to impregnate me. My husband was already dead.”
She laughed with shyness when asked about days during menstruation. “What else? We would go penniless for days during those times. People would think we are dirty and impure. They forget that they already treat us as impure because we are prostitutes.”On being asked about present situations, Bharathi said with empathy, “Nobody forces my girls to work. When they don’t work, they don’t get paid. As a result, I don’t get paid. But who worries about that? My sons have grown up now. They are farmers. Now they are married. My elder one has three daughters and the younger son has two daughters. Sometimes, they send me money. For most of the time, I live by whatever I earn here.”
Worry, sadness, and desolation clouded her face and she bowed her head down. 65-year-old Bharathi does not hope for a better life springing out of the blue. “My days are nearing an end. I’ve lived my life. I wish for a better living condition, nothing else.” Counting her money, she shoved them under the mat as evening poured. With rosary beads in her hand, Bharathi immersed herself in evening prayers.
With the dawn of evening, the kothabadi became more lively with the nonchalant movement of girls with their drunk ‘khariddars’ (customers). Their bodies danced to the tune of poverty and their faces were filled with smeared smiles.
(Ankita Paul is a student of Masters in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University and a Teach For India fellow.)
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