In 1993

a 15-year-old came to Bombay. A deal had been struck somewhere, a price had been put on the body, and she had been delivered from the hills of Nepal to Kamathipura, a place that does not care for a return address.  For `40,000, Ambika Jeroo Nepali, was bought by one of the brothels in Mumbai’s red light area. It’s a price that she repaid for the next 11 years, the first five of which her earnings went entirely to the brothel owners and pimps. She had to earn back the amount she had been sold for, before she could see any money of her own.

In her eighth year at Kamathipura, eight years into a life of abuse and violence, her world started to change. Parvez Khan, then in his early 20s, first came as a client. He returned, almost every day, for the next three years. They shared tea inside her room, talked and laughed, and he showed her the city outside. They did what couples do in Mumbai: they went to the movies, they went to the Chaupati and they had bhelpuri, and flirted with the idea of a future, together.

She was HIV-positive, and the doctor who treated her told Parvez that in Kamathipura her days would run out sooner than later. They decided to get married. He wanted her out of Kamathipura, out of a room the size of bathrooms in middle-class homes. He wanted her to see the sun, he wanted her to cross the threshold of his house.

In the dark corridors of the red light district, it was a dangerous idea. The pimps were reluctant to let her go; the brothel owners didn’t want to give her the money she had earned, they told her of a harsher world outside, and promised violence. They wouldn’t allow for this precedent—it was bad for business. The local cops wouldn’t help either; they knew where the butter on the bread came from.

Sudharak Olwe, a photojournalist, found them one day, sitting in a dispensary in Kamathipura. He helped set up a meeting with a higher ranked police officer, who promised help. The officer was true to his word: the local cops grudgingly stayed out, and the brothel owner parted with `1.40 lakh—Ambika’s net earnings for 11 years as a sex worker. 

In her last day inside the sunless room, she thought of the hills she came from, her childhood flashed before her eyes, and her heart beat faster when she thought of what lay ahead. She smoked what she thought was her last cigarette, stepped out of the room, and walked hunched for the last time in the low-ceilinged corridors of the brothel. On February 17, 2003, she became Zarina Khan, the wife of Parvez Khan. On that day she crossed the threshold of his house, she found the sun.


The seeing eye

The photographs following this page document the next nine years in the life of the couple, as they settled into domesticity. For nine years, Sudharak and his camera were a candid presence in Parvez and Zarina’s life. First, he was the helpful journalist, later a friend and then extended family. They opened their hearts and home to him, trusted him with their most private moments and believed that their story needed to be told.

“Initial pictures were tough, but once they knew I had their well-being in mind, they opened up. Over the years, I have become a family member of sorts. They don’t notice my presence anymore and aren’t really aware of the camera. They trust me, and I respect them,” he says.

It’s consumed him so much that he says he can’t just leave it now. “I worry about them. Is she okay? Is everything fine?” He taught Parvez the basics of photography, and he now earns a living from it.

“Once you’re part of the story, it’s all the more difficult to do your job. We’re all storytellers, but when there’s such a connection with the story, it’s all the more challenging. They’re such brave people, amazing human beings. There’s no fear in their lives. They don’t worry about the future; don’t worry where the rent money will come from, where the food will come from, where the medicine will come from. They want to live with dignity.”

Nine years since that last cigarette in Kamathipura, Zarina has lived the life she left Kamathipura for: to have tea together, to share meals (she likes to cook) and watch movies, and share a house. She’s a housewife, and on the ART regime for AIDS treatment. For now, her health is good and the future isn’t something they fear. She dreams of a house that belongs to her, a small one would do, one where she can live without worrying about the rent.

Both of them say they are living for each other. “Ek dussre ke liye” is their definition of love.

(This work of documentary photogrpahy will be published as a book later this year.)

A step across the threshold 0

Ambika alias Zarina Ahmed, a 24-year-old Nepali girl who was lured into Mumbai’s flesh trade at the age of 15.  Here, she embarks upon a new journey as she leaves the brothel to marry Parvez, a former client. 

A step across the threshold 1
A step across the threshold 2

Kamathipura, Mumbai.

A step across the threshold 3

The first photo: Zarina and Parvez at a dispensary in Kamathipura before her marriage.

A step across the threshold 4
A step across the threshold 5
Zarina smokes what she thought was her last cigaratte on her last day in Kamathipura in 2003.  She lived in this room for 11 years. 
A step across the threshold 6
A step across the threshold 7

Ambika Jeroo Nepali weds Pervez Khan on February 17, 2003.  The ceremony took place at a well-wisher’s home in Kamathipura. It was witnessed by friends and the Kazi who married the two of them in a room measuring ten feet by ten feet.

A step across the threshold 8
A step across the threshold 9
A step across the threshold 10
A step across the threshold 11

Married life begins. Home cooked meals eaten together are of particular delight to the couple.

A step across the threshold 12
A step across the threshold 13

Parvez inspects the marks on Zarina’s arms that have appeared out of the blue.

A step across the threshold 14
A step across the threshold 15

Parvez took Zarina for a routine blood test when she came down with fever that wouldn’t go down. Here, he looks through the sonography report and other reports for tests done.

A step across the threshold 16
A step across the threshold 17
A step across the threshold 18
A step across the threshold 19

A rare moment of vulnerability, when the thought of the future scares Zarina.

A step across the threshold 20