The night of November 8 was a time of feverish activity in Sonagachi. The ban on high value notes proved to be a windfall for many sex workers besieged by customers eager to get a last bit of fun for their useless currency.   

BY ANNAM SURESH

When Pinky saw an unusually large crowd outside her room on the night of November 8, she was a little startled. She peeped cautiously; the place is notorious for violent crimes—assault, rape, gang rape, even murder.

Pinky is one of the more than 30,000 sex workers who do business every night at Sonagachi in Kolkata, Asia’s biggest and most crowded red-light area.

Then she saw her pimp collecting money and seating people in a kind of first-come-first-served queue. She recognised many as regular clients, but was still puzzled by the crowd. She asked the pimp what was going on. “Five hundred, thousand rupee notes are being cancelled from tomorrow, so they have all come here hoping to get change, he said, “but don’t waste your small notes.”

“What will we do with the notes, then?” Pinky asked.

“I have spoken to Usha, you can deposit them in your account.” Usha refers to the Usha Multipurpose Cooperative Bank started by Durbar Mahila Samanway Samiti at Sonagachi for and by sex workers. “Make the best of this chance; screw these chors,” he said.

Pinky occupies a small room, like 25 others in a crowded brothel. The room has space for a bed, a bucket of water, and a mug. A mirror hangs on the wall. In a dirty green trunk stowed under the bed, Pinky stores her clothes, cosmetics, trinkets and wad of cash.

As word spread in the crowded lanes and brothels of Sonagachi, new rates and strategies were rapidly worked out.

Keshav, 48, a regular, walked in with 500-rupee notes. Pinky normally charged Rs. 300 for a session. “I have no change. Today my rate is 500. But because you are my regular, I will give you 20 minutes instead of 15,” she told the client.

He then told her he wanted to pay her Rs. 1,000 instead of Rs. 900 for three sessions. “Today I have lots of customers, 1,000 for two sessions,” she said. As he pulled out a 1,000-rupee note, she saw he had many such notes in his wallet.

“That money is useless from tomorrow. You will not be able to use it here. You can give me some of those as advance payment and I will give you extra pleasure.” She managed to take 10 of the notes as advance for a month.

From the next customer onwards, she stuck to a new rate of Rs. 1,000 per session. “We will have to get rid of these useless notes.” She also took bulk advance bookings from most of her regulars.

***

When 19-year-old Shabbir walked into a narrow lane in Sonagachi, he had grabbed a bunch of demonetised notes from his father’s locker. He decided to take four of his friends along. They spotted Kajal, a fair-skinned Nepali who seemed about their age. She is actually 32, but doesn’t look it.

Kajal took one look at Shabbir and realised he was new to this.

“Are you alone?” She asked.

“No. My friends are here,” he said.

“We have special packages for students. You can take your choice: One person with me and others looking, or multiple partners. Others won’t give you such offers. Many students are my regular clients,” said Kajal. She wanted to make sure the whole group came to her room.

She offered them a small drink with a local aphrodisiac—masti. In a few moments they were horny and couldn’t wait. When they pulled out 500 and 1,000-rupee notes, Kajal feigned disdain. “These are useless notes. In one hour, they will be of no use.”

“All our notes are like this, and from tomorrow we can’t spend these. Why we have rushed here tonight. Please take them.”

With a show of pity, she said she could only take this money as bulk booking, else the pimp would beat her up. He had already grabbed Rs. 2,000 as his cut from the greenhorns (against the usual Rs. 200 to Rs. 400).

She also rushed them, pointing to the crowd outside: “They are my regulars. Decide fast. They get impatient very easily. If you are not interested you can leave now. But nobody else will take you on; that is our system here.

She winked at the pimp, and he charged in. “How dare you waste our time on a busy night like this? We’ll break your limbs and penises and throw you in the gutter,” he told the group of students.

The boys begged Kajal to do something quickly. She asked them to strip. “Better take out all the money. The bouncers here are real bastards; if they see you have come with these notes they’ll beat you to a pulp.  Whatever is extra, consider it advance for future. You can come back many times. I’ll take care of the notes.”

She gave them condoms. “This time I’m giving free. Next time get your own or buy it here.” She even had to teach them how to put on a condom. But the effort was worth the kill. She showed all four of them a glimpse of heaven. What’s more, she made them pay close to Rs. 20,000—a windfall.

***

In a more opulent part of Sonagachi lives Simran, one of the legendary Agrawalis, whose rates start at Rs. 3,000 but could go as high as Rs. 1 lakh. Agrawalis are traditionally sold by their families into prostitution for the upkeep of the clan. The role of the men is to guard the wealth created by the women (including offspring) and looking for the best bidders for the girls. This is one of the few communities where a girl’s birth is welcome.

On the night of November 8, after watching the Prime Minister’s announcement of demonetisation on her 50-inch TV, she decided to focus on numbers rather than style. Her “business room” attached to a regular bedroom, is a brothel out of a movie—velvet curtains and mirrors, an LCD TV to watch porn, a DVD player, a small bar with a shelf stacked with munchies, a tiny fridge. The drawer next to her bed has condoms, paper napkins and hardcore porn DVDs. Unknown to most is a hidden switch, should an unruly client make a call for help necessary.

People usually go to her for what they assume is a classier encounter, different from the shoot-and-scoot majority that populates the seedier lanes of Sonagachi. For a price, they could live many fantasies: watch a mujra, enjoy a slow seduction preceded or followed by raunchy dances, watch and copy porn scenes, have her lick wine off their bodies or do it off hers.

Her pimp had updated her on the situation. People with wads of Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 notes and nowhere to spend them were crowding the lanes. She upped her rate to Rs. 10,000 for the briefest of pleasures, insisting that more elaborate fun would resume the following week, provided it was booked in bulk in advance for a minimum of five days. She also made it known that for the next few days she would be available in the day too on cash payment. The idea was to attract as much of the big notes as possible before it became impossible to use the cash.

***

Apart from the brothels, small-time jewellers in the area too saw big business through the night, through back doors, as the women and their clients rushed to use up the notes. Many shopkeepers only took orders since they did not have the stock to meet the surging demand.

Mallika, another Agrawali who conducts business across the road from Simran, called up a couple of her regular clients. She not only booked them for the season, but took them to a jeweller who offered to take the demonetised notes at 30 per cent commission. They managed to convert some of their near dead notes. Mallika too managed to earn some gold trinkets in the bargain.

For the next three days Usha Cooperative was flooded with deposits of Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 notes. In the wake of demonetisation the usual daily deposit of about Rs. 5 lakh climbed to almost Rs. 30 lakh. Caught unawares, the bank was unable to dispense smaller notes. Worse, this shortage of small notes and new currency made it virtually impossible for the sex workers to access their money.

According to Pinto, a pimp and fixer, sex workers did better than the common people since they had greater access to dubious characters.

***

Three days after the announcement, Usha Cooperative announced that they could no longer change the notes since they were not authorised to do so. And business suddenly slumped in the bustling lanes.  Although Usha had inculcated the habit of banking, many sex workers had accounts in other banks, too.

For instance Shefali, an Agrawali, has five or six accounts. “Since I have many dependants, I have separate accounts for them, rather than send money orders. One is for my husband, so he can take care of his parents, the expenses connected with our house and farm. I have accounts for each of my three children so I can deposit their fees and money for other expenses separately. I have one where I am saving for my children’s weddings and two for myself. I never became part of Usha since it was mostly focusing on the lower kind of sex workers. I will go to a different bank each day and deposit some in each. As long as the banks are allowing deposits, I will take the old notes from customers. This way they are happy and so are we. In any case, the money they have been showering is only part of the much bigger hoard they have stashed. Maybe black, maybe white, maybe legal, maybe illegal, who cares? The only reason they’re bringing it is because it’s as good as junk. This way, they at least manage to get some fun from their worthless money.”

There are many like Shefali with accounts in other banks who continue to take demonetised notes. Many have sent money home to be invested in jewellery, cattle or land—whatever can be done with it.

Dependants and the kin of sex workers too made hay, offering to deposit their money in banks for a cut.

Rimmi kept a hoard of big notes in a double locked tin trunk under her bed. It was money for a medical emergency, or a clientless day. Her brother who had once dragged her by the hair and beaten her for wanting to marry a Christian had no hesitation in snatching her keys and taking away the money. “I will take it to the bank tomorrow and deposit it, so it will not be wasted,” he told her. He doesn’t tell her that it’s going into his account. She doesn’t tell him that he has got his hands on just a tenth of her stash. She had the foresight to hide her money in multiple locations. She calls the bouncer, gives him a 500-rupee note and tells him never to let her brother in again. Of course, this palm greasing will have to be done every couple of months.

Somnath visits Rani of Sonagachi, Munni of Khidderpore and Aaroti of Kalighat regularly—at least twice a month each. When he offered Rani a 1,000-rupee note, she said, “You think I’m a fool wasting my time running around to get rid of this?” She persuaded him to bring her monthly requirement of groceries instead. Rather than have a fight, he did the same with his other regular women too.

Many hotels in the Metro and Howrah area frequented by the women have jumped into the fray. “Earlier, we used to pay Rs. 100 to Rs. 200 rupees for 30 minutes. But with the shortage of small notes many of the women find this difficult in the first few days after November 8.” Rimjim, a sex worker from the suburbs who travels to Howrah, is a familiar face in a couple of hotels near the perpetually crowded railway station.

“In the first few days, many of the regular chaps came with Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 notes, thinking we could be fooled. They would give us a Rs. 1,000-note and ask for change, as if we are some kind of change machine. Our pimps had warned us that the big notes were useless and it would cost 25 per cent to change these. So we charged anything from Rs. 1,500 to Rs. 2,000 from men who were paying in old notes. Sometime we made them pay the hotel charges too—the hotel chaps too would coolly take a Rs. 500 note and vanish—earlier they charged Rs. 100 rupees for 30 minutes.”

***

In Bengaluru, Renuka found other ways. One of her three clients is a bank manager, whom she had got to know while depositing her children’s school fees. She made him deposit a year’s fees for her three children from her stash of Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 notes. In addition, she made him change most of them to smaller denominations over a few weeks. In exchange, she gave him longer service on some days, free on others.

When Meena’s client came with a bunch of the soon-to-be invalid notes right after the PM’s announcement, she called her rent-collector. Taking him into a quiet corner, she offered a year’s rent in 500s and 1,000s. After much fuss he agreed to accept them at a 10 per cent discount. She went to her client and told him the collector would charge 20 per cent.  With the extra 10 per cent she managed to pay for two months more, offering free service on another day. She made him give her a receipt for 14 months. She really made the nearly-dead notes work for her.

In Chennai, Padma of Guindy had had a nest egg—consisting of only Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 notes. Although she held a bank account, she rarely used it. Her 50-year-old regular owns a petrol pump on the highway. Twice or thrice a week, when he stayed late at the pump, he would sleep at her place. Being on the highway, his pump enjoyed a turnover of several lakhs a day. She had no difficulty changing her big notes to those of smaller value with his help. She also managed to help change the money for some of her clients and friends—at a 20 per cent commission.

“For me demonetisation has been a boon—it’s brought in more money. But this phase won’t last long. I don’t know what will happen after a month or two. Maybe my problems will begin then,” she said.

The Chennai women, though not as tightly organised as the ones in Kolkata, have found their own solutions. Lachmi, Ponni, Roja, Marykutti, Sabina share a couple of rooms near Beach station. Their clients are mostly traders from the Parry’s area.

The first two or three days they got many Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 notes. Surprisingly, the clients did not make a fuss even when they said they had no change. But after a couple of days, the women learnt that they couldn’t accept those notes. They went to the nearby banks. “Some of us managed to get smaller notes after waiting for hours in queues on several days. Some of us got only Rs. 2,000 notes.  We deposited the rest in our accounts,” recalled Lachmi.

After the first days, Lachmi and group refused to accept high denomination notes. They insisted on being paid in smaller notes. If a trader didn’t have small notes, they asked him to pay them in kind—saris, shoes, jewellery, utensils, usually the merchandise they dealt in.

***

The ban was less of an issue for transgender and male sex workers who began using cashless transactions long before demonetisation. Kareena, a 35-year-old transwoman, said, “When I look at a client and talk to him, I can make a fairly correct assessment of how scared or embarrassed he is. Although we dress and solicit like women, most clients can recognise we are transgender. Most encounters happen in vehicles—cars, tempos, trucks, shady parks or dark and desolate alleys, leaving us vulnerable.

“We’re also easy targets for hate attacks and holdups and usually get no help or sympathy from police. To avoid this jhamela, I meet the client in a safe place, have the money transferred by Paytm or to my bank, and then proceed to a different location. I rarely have much cash or valuables. This demonetisation does not affect me much because I didn’t have too much money hoarded. The only difficulty is withdrawing—no money in ATMs and bank queues are long.”

A number of male and transgender sex workers follow Kareena’s practice. At Sonagachi they are comparatively safe. If a client chooses to carry on the act elsewhere and cannot pay in kind, they leave their money in the custody of a familiar person.

“I left nearly Rs. 20,000 in 500s and 1,000s with a madam in Sonagachi. When the PM announced demonetisation, I and three of my friends were at a beach resort to entertain a group of businessmen from Murshidabad. The money was good, but we were paid in 500s and 1,000s. We had no idea of the situation till we caught a bus back to Kolkata. The conductor refused to accept our money. When he realised we had no idea they had been banned he explained the situation. We got off the bus and ran back to the resort. They had left. The two phone numbers they had given were switched off.

“When we told the manager we needed valid notes to go back, he offered to pay in exchange for one hour of oral sex. In the end, he also exchanged some of our big notes at 20 per cent commission. We rushed back to the brothel and collected our money from the madam.” Her pimp changed their notes—at 30 per cent commission. On the advice of a client, they have now shifted to an e-wallet system.

Santosh, a Sonagachi regular in his 40s, says, “I enjoy all kinds of pleasure here—offered by women, men and transgenders. But now it is difficult. The men and transgenders want online payment and I’m not sure how safe that is. The women want small notes else they charge three to four times the usual since they have to pay commission to change 500s and 1,000s. Or they demand payment in kind, so I get them saris or groceries worth at least twice their regular rates.”

In many places, transgenders are crossing the informally respected work boundaries; some try their hand at begging or casual labour. Many go for the more lucrative extortion or badhain, by offering blessings at auspicious ceremonies like weddings and the birth of babies. In Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, where transgender groups have clear-cut earning options, these crossover activities have led to violent fights.

The worst-hit are the laundas—transgender adolescent boys who dance in female garb at weddings and social functions usually in the Hindi heartland. Their annual season has just got over, but their bandmasters can’t pay them.  “I was promised Rs. 75,000 for the season after cutting food and travel expenses,” says one, “There are seven of us laundas in this group. After putting us through hell for nine months, this masterji tells us he can’t pay. At first he tried to pay in Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 notes. But when on the train we found they have no value, he said he was helpless because he had collected payment in Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 notes. We had no money at all. Since we left our houses nine months ago, we had given up our rooms, leaving all our stuff in a tiny store room provided by an NGO. We had to find cheap lodgings—a difficult task for laundas.

“We could not even buy groceries. To avoid an awkward scene, the masterji took us to a small hotel near the station and fed us. He also bought us a packet of biscuits. ‘I have no more money. When I pay you, I will deduct this meal and biscuits from your dues,’ he shouted. Some of us started crying. The masterji left us stranded outside the station with no money—not even to take a bus to the NGO’s store room.

“Two men walked up to us and asked why we were crying. ‘Here—take this 200 and go to your room; come to my house at 8 p.m. and I will try to help you’, one of them said.”

Wary, but with no other option, they accepted the offer. When they landed at his place, the man, whom they referred to as Vinay bhaiyya, offered them five kilos of rice and  potatoes, one kilo each of dal, oil, and salt and a couple of small packets of spices. But they had no use for these, with no money to rent a place to sleep, leave alone cook. Vinay bhaiyya then offered them temporary shelter in a shed where he stored building materials. He asked them to find an alternative fast, since they would have to vacate when his watchman returned from leave.

Once outside, they were uncomfortable with this sudden generosity. The next day he asked four of them to return dressed as laundas for a party the following weekend, then for a bachelor’s party, then for an engagement. At the end of the month he handed each a thousand rupees and some groceries. “Just Rs. 1,000?  We charge Rs. 5,000 each for one night.”

“Don’t forget I rescued you when you were on the streets. I’m giving you groceries and a big place to stay—much bigger than you can ever afford—free. If you don’t like the deal, you can vacate, return the grocery bags in front of you and leave. But don’t come back to me for help.” Defeated, they left.

So while some of them take on launda assignments arranged by Vinay, they also continue their sex work in the old haunts. They have also learnt to use online wallets. Sometimes they accept small notes. They also sneak in a fellow launda in trouble on rent for a couple of nights, careful not to get caught by letting them stay too long.

They seem to have beaten the demonetisation devil, but are not sure how long their luck will last since they are at the mercy of Vinay until cash flow gets normal. Vinay himself is related to a masterji in Bihar’s Chaturbhuj from where he hires girls and laundas.

***

A majority of sex workers, irrespective of the city, can’t afford to take a break and go home since their families survive on the money they send. Moreover, as Saroj of Budhwarpet, Pune says, “In this business, it is out of sight out of mind. If I’m not available, even my regular clients won’t hesitate to latch on to another woman. It’s a fight for survival. This note ban has only made things more difficult.”

In the lanes of Khidderpore, there are frequent fights over change, over money owed to petty shopkeepers for cigarettes, condoms, etc. At one of these, the shopkeeper was asking a sex worker to pay for the five packs of condoms she wanted. “I’ll pay after my customers pay me,” she promises.

“That’s what you’ve been saying for a whole month.”

“That’s because you want 100s. If you want 500s or 1,000s, I can pay all my dues today itself.”

“Great—why would I take raddi notes and run to change them? You keep your useless 500s and 1000s. I’m not giving you condoms till you clear the backlog.

“Yeah—what about the free service you got each time—that adds up to more than what I owe you,” she shouts.

“If I started taking payment like that, I would be doing nothing but getting laid 100 times a day. I’d be dead in a week,” he sniggers.  “Come with money and take the condoms.”

“Stuff them in your arse. I’ll get them elsewhere.”

Barter only works if both parties need what the other offers. In the red-light lanes this can be heavily one-sided.

One of Sumi’s regular clients is a doctor. The first couple of times, he would give her medicines for her ailing parents and health drinks like Horlicks,  most of which came from free samples. “But there is only so much medicine and Horlicks I can use—I have already got six months’ stock. And we need food, milk, clothes, vegetables. So now we have to look for other donors,” she laughs.

Hashi of Kalighat in Kolkata has not had a client in four days. The grocers too are feeling the cash crunch and are not willing to shell out money. So she does odd jobs at her neighbour’s place for a couple of meals.

Sarasu, a transgender from Choolaimedu in Chennai is in distress. A sex worker who would earn a few thousands every night, she has had no clients after the cash ban. The new Rs. 2,000 rupee notes are useless—no shopkeeper is willing to offer change.

She washes dishes in two restaurants in exchange for food, but neither will officially employ her. “We cannot keep them for long—the customers will get uncomfortable and walk out if they see ali (pejorative for transgender) staff in our kitchen,” says Somu, manager of a Chettinadu restaurant in Anna Nagar.

“Many of them are involved with criminal groups. If anything gets lost in this hotel, I could lose my job—so this is just a temporary arrangement because we are short-staffed,” says Ismail, who runs a biryani stall.

With a client’s help, Karuna has found a job as maid in two houses at Rs. 3,000 each per month—less than what she would make in half a week with less effort. But she is glad she has at least this to fall back on—the people she works for not only give her a couple of meals, but she takes home leftovers which she shares with some of her sisters-in trade, who have no income at all and would starve without this largesse.

Part-time jobs come more easily to women sex workers. Rekha, of Bengaluru, has found work as a cook for a young IT couple at Rs. 8,000, and says this could be a permanent backup when she is too old for sex work.

Madhavi, another sex worker from Bengaluru, had the foresight to invest in property that brings her a monthly rent. But daily expenses remain a problem.  So she does odd jobs in the kitchens of the lodges she uses, chopping vegetable and grinding masala or making tea.

***

Shakila, Ruhi and Rehana—transgender sex workers who beg at traffic signals are an angry lot. “There is no money in sex work now and people don’t have change to give at signals. In fact the excuse ‘no change’ is real for once.”

When they do find sex work, it becomes an opportunity to latch on to small change in addition to their fee. “If we see 100 or 50 rupee notes, sometimes we grab it, even while the client hurls abuses. We retaliate with even more vulgar expletives, loudly. They run away to avoid embarrassment. But we have little choice,” confesses Amit/Amrita, a transgender sex worker from Chennai who now begs at signals.

In Mumbai, sex workers have found other options.  “Some of us came from show biz when we didn’t get jobs. So we got in touch with old friends. Some could help, some couldn’t,” says Parveen, a transwoman who helps with make-up and hairstyling.

Many from Delhi’s GB Road (now Swami Shradhanand Marg) have moved from their brothels to solicit in and around markets and metro stations—especially Lajpat Nagar, Karol Bagh, Saket, Rohini, Mehrauli, Palika bazaar, taking whatever customers they can as long as they offer usable cash. At GB Road, many have stopped accepting old notes, except when the client is willing to pay a rate five times the regular one.

“The government says this ban is to catch and prevent black money. What about my money? Is it black—this is money I struggled to earn and saved for mine and my family’s future. As for taxes we have no idea how to go about it, and where is the time? Why doesn’t the government send someone door-to-door with a notebook and collect 500–1,000 rupees every month? We won’t refuse to give. We just need the government to arrange a simple process.  When they make complicated forms, uneducated people like us get scared. Just take a fixed amount regularly—we don’t have a problem. But please don’t call our hard-earned money black as if we’re thieves and put us through such trying times like now. Those with black money will anyway find a way by bribing the right people and only the helpless like us suffer,” said Manisha, from Chennai who has been in the trade for 20 years to educate her siblings and look after her parents, and now for her four children.

“The big fish will never have any trouble, only the common people are suffering.”

Annam Suresh is a development journalist based in Kolkata. She has been reporting from red-light and prostitution-impacted areas across India and several other parts of the world for over 15 years. She has received the Chameli Devi Jain award, The Statesman Rural Reporting award, and The Brief Media award, among others.

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2 Comments

C.Swami, 2 months ago

Kudo to Ink for going where angels fear to tread. The author has clearly walked into the shadowy world to bring to light these stories that need to be told.

Surit, 2 months ago

Great reporting by Annam. Fountain Ink as usual looks beyond the surface. This on the heels of the last issue on gigolos and Laundaz previously.Good work. Surit

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