With mind full of presuppositions on what all I have read and studied during my background research have literally made me numb, as I was moving closer to my destiny. The richness, posh and elegance of a Metro was slowly diminishing as the train moved on. All I could see was old and dullish small shattered buildings on both sides of narrow grubby roads crowded with all kinds of people doing whatever jobs can give them little to satiate their hunger. I saw little children with torn dresses and bare feet walking aimlessly, begging or lying on roadsides with some elders. I got down at the next station and took a cab aiming Gol Devol Mandir. I reached Alankar Cinema, near Gol Devol Mandir, a landmark Ms. Aruna Katkar has given, who will accompany me in my mission. I’m in a place which I could hardly imagine even when I read English novels of mystery and crime.
I’m one hour early than she has asked me to come, so I’m stuck till she gets free. I looked around. There were broad buildings of four or five floors apparently everywhere, which are thickly crowded with dwellers. Buildings are broken, dirty everywhere from outside and covered with different coloured clothes, probably put for drying. There were dirty drainages, which emitted foul smell across the road, dogs with scratches and wounds are roaming everywhere, and a few roadside sellers have occupied roadsides with vegetables roamed by flies. The street was very busy with people rushing as if the world is going to end in next few minutes. Ironically, another set of people mostly men in shabby clothes and a cigar or coke in their hands seemed like they have time until eternity. They made noise, shouting, screaming, spitting and simply staring; the kind of stare that made us more than nervous. People over there have definitely noticed us, two new young girls in the place. One man even came and asked “Aap ko kaham jana hein”? (Where you want to go?) “Kahi nehi” (Nowhere) I said and held my friend’s hand and walked fast. As I moved, the mandir again came in my glance, and found it safe to spend the remaining time till she comes.
Ms. Aruna was a very friendly and bold woman. She talked as we moved and was very crisp and clear in her every single word making sure that I understood every bit of what she is saying. I kept asking her my doubts, worries and anticipations on the extent of exposure I’m going to get from there. We walked and took a turn to a pocket road, which was getting narrower and lengthier that my eyes couldn’t capture. Until she told me, I didn’t realize that I’m entering the first lane of Red Street Area, Mumbai, Asia’s largest sex trade centre. The place where many lives, dreams, happiness and relationships were tortured and murdered for years and years. The place where many young lives with thousands of dreams in their eyes have ended up losing all their hope and made victims of the flesh trade. The place of assault, abuse, cruelty, diseases, torture, crimes and moreover the favourite spot of sex predators.
We headed to Prerana, an NGO run by Dr. Pravin Patkar, (who was initially an Assistant Professor in TISS) and his wife Preethi Patkar, situated in the first lane of Red Street. As we entered, we could hear the sweet sound of joyful kids giggling and playing. It’s also in an old building with minimum infrastructure but remains very high in its hygiene and proper management. I got enough time to go in-depth on the working of NGO, the successful stories, more details about the red street area from the documents they provided me.
When unfolding the pages of history, British rule has given rise to this social evil that sinks and destroys the lives of many. Kamathipura was established by British for the entertainment of their troops in the early 1800s. After the Independence, when British left, the red-light area was undertaken by local brothel-keepers and sex workers.
Majority of the lanes of the street are occupied by the migrants from other states and a small population from Nepal and Bangladesh is there. 90% of the inmates are infected with some kind of sexually transmitted diseases and 70% of them are estimated to be HIV positive. Most of the sex workers were cheated, and drawn to the business by pimps or intermediaries or are forced to join sex trade because of poverty. One lane, out of the fourteen lanes in red light street area is only for child prostitution. Hence, child exploitation and abuse is also a great evil of this pandemonium.
The fourteen lanes of Kamathipura and Falak road are populated with sex workers, male, female and transgenders. Populated with around 5000 sex workers, the lanes are crowded with small huts, pawnshops, brothels, tea-stalls, shops and lodges. The brothels are always tiny rooms separated by thin curtains and, are rented out to the sex workers on an hourly basis in very cheap costs of 20 to 100 Rs when they have fixed upon a client.
Around half of the total population of sex workers are homeless, and live on the street footpaths or pavements. Their entire belongings fit in a small plastic bag, which they carry wherever they move to. During the peak time of their business in late evenings, they are seen in the lane exposing them and attracting customers. They rent brothel where they also accommodate their kids, who are in charge of entertaining the customers with porn movies, drugs and alcohol throughout the night.
Even the police and local authorities are party to the crime at many instances, that they themselves support the brothel keepers and drag young girls and boys to prostitution. In many cases, police themselves arrests and get back the children who have eloped from the area. Even the prostitutes are exploited by the police, through their fake raiding across the brothels, and they demand an amount of money for which they will be released later on. This reflects the negligence and corruption of the law and order when it comes to trafficking. The administrative body or the ruling party always turns their back to the plight of prostitutes. Even though it’s illegal and immoral, it’s also one of the top income sources of the country and a reason for the women from families can stay safe to an extent.
Many of the homeless poor girls, who have joined sex trade, find its better to get some wages for their sufferings other than to be raped and molested in road. So without any second thought, many of them have directly came to sex trade and are warmly welcomed by pimps, brothel keepers and mainly customers.
Majority of the kids of the prostitutes are trapped within the slum itself, even with great efforts from different organisations to rescue them out of the slum and give them a better life, most of them have ended up in sex work, being a pimp or a thief. They are not to be blamed for being so, many a times the police and the people itself force them to be one and later on they are forced to be in that business.
On my interaction with Mr. Patkar, he recollects his initial days when he had to struggle to get these children in government or private schools, where the school authorities were hesitant and later by means of legal pressure; they had to accommodate these children. The primary information I have secured from those documents added up a better understanding of the entire scenario. We headed to one of the nearby schools where the kids from Prerana are studying, which was just a walkable distance from the NGO. After five minutes of walk through narrow roads with buildings crowded with people, we reached West Khetwadi Marati Municipal School. It was an exam day for the kids, but unlike a typical school with children bearing dark clouds upon their heads on exam days, I found them in complete happiness. Many cheerful cute faces with dazzling smile welcomed us with “Namaste.” The teacher who was invigilating the exam said, “The kids from Prerana are very good in studies.” Reena (name changed) a little girl of 7th standard who was writing exam said she feels good having got the opportunity to learn and exam is very easy”. Children were very friendly and even asked to come again and meet them as we were about to leave. Chandramani Municipal School and Wilson high school also accommodates children of sex workers. Weekly counselling is arranged for these children to understand about their personal problems and to make them move ahead with their education and dream for a different and bright future.
A feeling of bliss and satisfaction accompanied when we stepped down from the school premises. Not being very sure about our safety, we decided to accompany the volunteer when she goes to brothels for fieldwork. We walked across the lanes and as the path got narrower she said, “It’s the fourth lane”.
The roadsides were jammed with small shops selling porn movies, drugs, alcohols and somewhere small shops selling eatables were there. The path was getting narrower and even in the hot sun women were standing on both sides of roads waiting to get a customer so that they can have a day’s bread. Some men were bargaining and constant shouts and abuses were audible. Some others simply sat watching the dramas and constantly staring at us.
Fear was winning my mind along with a terrible feeling of witnessing the worst reality of life. I remembered the words of Patkar sir “Don’t walk as if you are lost. Walk with full confidence; they may not dare to touch you, as young women police officers use to roam there in civil dress.” I walked fast. The advices and comments of many people before going to this place, popped in my mind. “No one can assure your safety until you are back from there, they may even drug you and sell you to brothels,” remembered the words of one of my teachers. Nevertheless, a faith made me move forward. We walked between two shattered buildings where many folks were sitting down on the sides of the path. They were hardly conscious, and drenched in drug or alcohol. Walking fast was the only option left. We climbed a muddy steep wooden stairs through darkness, with the help of mobile light and were blank about how many floors we are up. Noise of someone screaming and shouting was there in the background throughout the journey,
I was shocked to see the condition of brothels in which they are leaving. Hardly two or maximum three people can stand at a time in each closet. Each small rooms on both sides of the narrow corridor is tightly packed with a single bed and in some rooms in addition a chair, a stove, a pile of clothes and what not. There were women and men staring at the two strangers in the brothels. I tried to give a smile, which was replied by a blank expression. Something I noticed throughout the time was, none of those ill-fated women trapped in trafficking possess a little smile in their face. Not just smile, I couldn’t read anything other than a vast emptiness that made them lifeless machines. One woman who was constantly staring at us, while many others ignored, came to me and asked “Kahan se ho?” “From where are you coming”? I replied we are students of Patkar sir. I couldn’t ask anything else but her name, for which she replied, “Where you want to give my name and does that make any change”? I was speechless. However, she talked to me for a while and held my hands tightly before I was about to leave. The usual good byes of ‘see you soon’ or ‘take care’ were meaningless, for which I left her with a hesitant smile.
On the way back also, the previous sights stood as such, where women standing in colourful sarees and men shouting and bargaining with them. We met a kid from Prerana, with whom the volunteer talked casually. She asked “Maa kahan hein tera?” The little boy of not more than five or six years old replied, “Ma kaam pe hei” (Mom is at work). A cold shiver went through my mind.
As I interviewed two sex workers both of which were trapped and bought to Sex trade, they have accepted their life as a sex worker and the world has drained their emotions and made them like living corpse, enough to bargain for the rates of selling their own body. Meera who has been in the trade for more than twenty years is from a village in Kanpur, where she was married to a farmer and had kids. After her husband died, she was sold by her husband’s own brother to the brothel keeper while she was conceiving her second baby. She talked about the fake raid of police, where they are arrested, raped, and in addition charged a fine of 1250 or more to get released from there. In the initial days, of being new into the trade, brothel keepers beats, rapes harasses. They are forced to entertain 7-11 customers in a day and it doesn’t matter how bad their health is. When they don’t get brothels for rent, they are even forced to entertain the customers in public toilets or in any unhygienic surroundings.
Even with all the hard works and determination to rescue and revamp the lives of these kids, the stigma associated with their original identity was something that haunts them day and night. Even after years of having a life far away from Mumbai and their real origin, the moment their cradle is revealed, they have been forced in all possible ways to be back to prostitution. Rakini (name changed), daughter of a sex worker was one among those rescued by Prerana and provided with education. She worked as a female chef in a hotel, that’s when someone came to know about her background and forced her into human trafficking. Later on she had to move to another place where her life won’t be threatened again. This constant fear haunts them lifelong.
Many successful stories like that of Shweta, the first girl from Mumbai Red Light Street area to get admission in a prestigious university in US. The rates of success stories are increasing with the support and help from well-wishers and donors along with the work of different organisations.
When a few successful stories like these are divulged in the mainstream world, untold stories of many wretched lives in atrocious circumstances are buried even without a silent mourning. It was late evening when we were leaving the dreadful flesh market. I looked at each man who came across me, as we moved on thinking about where they are heading. The sights I witnessed today kept on rolling in my eyes, every forward step I made. How many girls would have craved of leaving this place just like we are moving on? The sun was already in the horizon, setting the peak hours of the street, getting more crowded. Alas! We see the same sunset, but are in two different worlds. How sad! But truth. The bitter truth.