Quickly, she hides one of the hundred rupee notes and the loose cigarettes—just seconds before her brother Sonjoy rushes in. “How much?” he asks.
“Here, more than two-fifty,” she says handing him the lot, and the umbrella, the full pack of cigarettes, the fancy lighter, watch and rum. He takes all except the cash to Montu’s shop in the lane behind. Sonali is optimistic. A few more deals and they can splurge for the Pujas—Bengal’s mammoth carnival and one of the world’s biggest.
Barely into their teens, Sonali and Sonjoy have perfected the art of making quick money. Sonagachi, Kolkata’s biggest and most vicious red light area, is a great teacher. The siblings begin work late—usually after 9 p.m.
“By then our mother, like the other women of this area, is busy with her business and has no time to think of us. Most of the social workers also have left. We tell her we are off for tuitions and get away. I dress up after that and between my brother and I, we waylay visitors to this area. Often I get hold of my mother’s clients or those of others in the same building. My brother stands outside—both as guard to warn me if anyone is coming as well as to lure the men.”
Thanks to STD, AIDS, HIV being talked about so much, the two have a great time. Though many in these parts have heard of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), not many know much, and myths regarding prevention and treatment abound. Many believe, and this belief is perpetrated by people like Sonjoy and other vested interests in the red light areas, that the younger the girl, the lower the chances of the man catching some disease or the other.
Another widespread myth is that sex with a pre-pubescent virgin is a sure cure for any sexually transmitted disease, including AIDS. Hence, many clients are willing to pay exorbitant rates for young girls and virgins. Some actually look for young girls as an instant antidote after visiting an older sex worker.
Sonali and her brother have little difficulty luring one or two men to a dark corner and blackmailing them into parting with money and valuables—“Valuable by our standards. Lighters and umbrellas may not mean much to the clients but they mean quick money for us.” They do this about once or twice a week and that gives them enough spending money.
“Most of the time, my brother walks in just as I finish stripping the fellow and threatens to collect a crowd for leading a minor astray, and the terrified guy simply gives in to our demands,” giggles Sonali. “I don’t even have to have sex with the fellow. Since they are all here on the sly, nobody makes any trouble.”
What if someone lodged a police complaint? “Who will? Not the client, he just wants to get away without a fuss,” they laugh, wiser far beyond their years.
Sonali earns Rs 2000-3000 a month from the sex trade without having to actually have sex. But most of the money goes to keeping her brother and boyfriend in drugs. Without their help she cannot function. And all this at 13.
Sonjoy admits he is addicted. “I don’t even know the name of the drug. Mangal, himself an addict, gets it for me. I have to manage the money for both of us, while he manages the drugs. And Sonali manages the money. With our help.” So it’s teamwork, each helping the other, and each a victim of the other.
It is almost midnight as the siblings walk to the hotel run by Mustaq Ali, a migrant from Bihar. They occupy a bench in the far corner and order a chilled Coca Cola split in two glasses and a large plate of chicken pakodas. Soon they are joined by Raju and Aslam who flaunt their day’s earnings of almost Rs 2000. As they too order a “Coke-by-2”, in walk Biswanath, Gobindo and Ashis with a nervous 12-year-old standing hesitantly at the entrance. Come here and eat, says Ashis and the starving child gratefully joins them.
Anywhere else, a bunch of under-17s, including two girls aged 13 and 12, hanging out in a roadside hotel way past midnight would not only be unusual, but considered inappropriate and risky. Here in Sonagachi, one of Asia’s biggest red light area, you see them all the time.
Everything about the life of Sonali and group is far removed from the world of children most of “us” are accustomed to. All of them, except for 12-year-old Munmun, have always lived in these lanes. They are already edcuated to life of crime.
and Aslam have had a busy day hanging around Howrah station picking
pockets or stealing the baggage of unsuspecting passengers. Since
this is late September—just a few weeks away from the Pujas
(falling in early October), they also “did” Sealdah station and
the Esplanade bus stand which are full of traders from moffusil towns
coming into the city to stock their shops before the Pujas. And a
detour to the busy New Market and Gariahat market yields a few neatly
Kolkata turns into the world’s biggest carnival, overflowing
from mammoth pandals and grounds, clogging every street and lane,
exhibiting an unimagined array of hues and textures, fragrances and
ensembles; emitting a cacophonic blend of music, chatter, laughter;
and mundane quarrels and arguments spawned by the sheer impossibility
of negotiating one’s way sanely through this tsunami of heads,
limbs and flabby torsos in crisp new clothes.
It also leads to the creation of the world’s biggest fair for criminals—pickpockets, chain-snatchers, kidnappers, traffickers, rapists, burglars (who break into homes with ease since most families are away at the Pujas and the deafening noise muffles the breaking of locks and grilles, while the accepted presence of strangers keeps them free from suspicion). For this bunch from the narrow alleys of Sonagachi, it’s an unmissable opportunity.
Every few months, Biswanath, Gobindo and Ashis visit their half-starving relatives in villages a night’s journey from Kolkata. There they offer jobs as domestic servants to young girls and bring them to Kolkata. Usually the girls come from such poor backgrounds that the parents are grateful to the boys, who, they believe are themselves working as domestic servants or as petty errand boys. Once the girls reach Kolkata, they are handed over to a wholesale trafficker who sends them off to various places, including Delhi and Mumbai.
The boys, all in their late teens, make Rs 3,000 to Rs 8,000 a girl, depending on how young and good-looking she is.
Part of the money pays for an advance to the girl’s family, buying her a set of clothes and chappals, paying off nosey cops, their contacts in the villages they visit and other accomplices. Munmun is their latest catch, netting a neat ₹7,500 and the promise of two of her cousins in a few months. Between these visits, they indulge in petty crimes like cycle thefts and burglaries.
Kishore Saha, a businessman, was once lured away by a boy who offered him a virgin. Saha followed him to a dimly-lit building in the lane, where he found a pretty girl waiting under the staircase. She took him to a tiny enclosure under the staircase, began undressing and made him do the same.
Once he was naked except for his vest, the boy turned up saying the cops were conducting a raid. But the two wouldn’t let the frightened man dress till he parted with all the money in his wallet, his watch, a silver chain, two rings, his shoes and sweater. Even though he had struck a deal for Rs 125, he had to part with nearly Rs 7,000 in cash and kind. Did he lodge a complaint?
“No chance. Can you imagine the trouble I would have had to face at home if they found out? The police would also take advantage of the situation and blackmail me. Why should I leave my name and address at the thana and make myself vulnerable?”
Police officials admit that they are unlikely to receive complaints from red-light areas—the vested interests are many and varied. Too many people have too much at stake to risk going to the police. “Besides, policemen are part of the crime taking place here. They are among the pimps, the customers and money-lenders. They are even part of the trafficking. So how can they be expected to take any action?” asks Santosh, a pimp who started out in business when he was barely 10.
“This is a charge everybody makes—that policemen are involved, and so we don’t take any action,” admits a police officer. “But it’s not possible to take action on vague allegations. If anyone comes with a specific complaint, names any of the policemen involved, we’d be compelled to take action. But no one comes to us. Since they’re all working in areas outside the legal framework, they do not want to implicate themselves.”
During a visit to Prayas some years back, he remarked “They don’t see it as crime—for them it’s survival. For example, stealing and burglary don’t worry their consciences at all, they’re only afraid of being caught and beaten by the police. They believe that as long as they don’t get caught it’s fine. They see so much violence around them that they’re inured to it. When we talk of crime, we mean crime by our standards, not theirs. Looking at their childhood it’s not surprising they turn to crime. It’s simply a matter of survival. But once removed to a more conducive environment they begin to shed their insensitivity to crime and to understand certain values.”
Mohua, a sex worker in her mid-thirties feels trapped. “Having been tricked into this trade, I wanted something better for my children. But I was helpless. In the evenings when I was busy with my clients, and my children were small, I left them in the care of an old woman, a former prostitute herself, who runs some kind of a crèche. But as they grew up, they began to run out to play and she was too old to exercise any kind of control. They were constantly getting mixed up with all sorts of criminals.
“Maybe the old woman was introducing the older girls to the sex trade—it’s lucrative business for her. As I grew older and clients became fewer, I had to take in a few girls who gave me half their earnings in return for board and lodging. I would also let floating sex workers use a cubicle bed on an hourly basis. I was busy keeping track of their clients.
“Soon I realised my boys had got involved in crime. Even the evening classes run by an NGO have been of little help. The tutors leave around 8 pm—that is when my busy hours begin. That is peak crime time, too. If I had kept my children far from me, perhaps I could have made better human beings out of them.”
Jhooma, a bright-eyed 17-year-old who buys trinkets and clothes every so often with money from her trade, justifies it. She willingly entered it and made the most out of each customer. Her mother made a couple of half-hearted attempts to educate her, but Jhooma showed little interest. She got involved with her mother’s pimp, got pregnant, was jilted and decided that it was better to be a sex worker than depend on any one man.
Soon her mother saw her as the golden goose and tempted her (then 13) to entertain her clients if the money was good. Jhooma is not averse to stealing their wallets, making them part with their watches, umbrellas, chains or rings. She has no qualms either about the sex trade or holding men to ransom.
“Do you know the kind of people who come here? They’re policemen, teachers, fathers, politicians, priests, social workers—the ones supposed to set an example. Who are they to call us thieves? Where were they when my mother was sold? Where were they when she forced me into prostitution? I try to squeeze my customers for whatever I can get, no matter what was agreed to before.
"For me it’s now or never. A few years on I won’t find any clients. Will the ones who come to me now look after me then? Do you know how many times I’ve been treated for syphilis? Did the customers who gave me the disease pay for treatment? Madam, don’t talk about honesty to us. If there was any honesty, we wouldn’t be here. If a mother can sell her daughter into prostitution, can there be hope of honesty? There is no such thing as ‘crime’ in my religion. If it benefits me, it is good.”
At 17, she’s been through everything. She started stealing when she was barely five—from the client’s pockets. She began blackmailing men when barely 11, she’s been picked up by police a couple of times, but managed to wriggle out using her body. Our middle-class notions of crime mean nothing to her.
Latika is equally casual about it. “You name a crime I’ll take you to people who’ll commit it—just a matter of money. There are fellows who regularly commit burglaries. There are many who hang out as domestic servants for a couple of weeks, and clean out the house. Many of the boys and even some girls here pick pockets. A lot of them hang around parks and whenever they see lovers in a romantic clinch they harass them and make money. Here everything is money—it’s our god, our religion. There’s no sin greater than poverty—so we’ll do anything to make money.
Of course, many of the mothers wish to keep their children out of this society, but do you know how many return? Nobody can survive honestly in this hell. We sell drugs, we procure drugs for clients and others, many of us are addicted to drugs and alcohol. We brew illicit liquor, we drug people and rob them. If we happen to find out where a client lives, we blackmail him. And many a time, policemen are involved in this crime,” she whispers.
But Shovan, her neighbour cautions: “Don’t believe all she says—she is wont to lie and exaggerate.”
Sonagachi would be a good training ground for policemen,” quips a police official who has come across several criminals linked to this area.
“The place is so complicated, even geographically—it’s like a confusing maze—that anyone who’s not familiar with the lanes and bylanes can get lost,” he continues.
“It’s a perfect hideout for criminals. Many of the babus (paramours of sex workers) are criminals on the run and lying low here, or operate from here. One of them sent out boys for petty crimes and built up quite a network. While we managed to catch a couple of the small boys, the man fled before we could get to him.”
Preeti Roy, a social worker who has worked among these children says, “We need to bear in mind constantly that our world is far different from theirs—so the values of honesty, etc, that we talk about are alien to them. For example, we don’t use abusive language to children, and if we catch them with even a pencil that doesn’t belong to them, we make them return it. But our children don’t wake up to a drunken or ill-tempered mother, who’s either exhausted from too many customers or frustrated at not having any. Violence, the most vocal medium of communication and expression, comes instinctively to children of sex workers.
"We should first teach them to handle anger, speak better, learn a skill, before telling them not to take stuff that doesn’t belong to them, not tell lies. But the moment they go home, they see just the opposite. So many of them return to their familiar backgrounds because that situation they have learnt to handle. They’ve not been trained to recognise a conscience. To rehabilitate these children, first remove them from their environment to a healthier atmosphere and then watch them grow. As long as they live in the red light areas, any effort to make them different will be a frustrating experience."
Shoma Banerjee concurs. “Understand the tragedy of a childhood here—subhuman conditions. Apart from physical abuse, there’s emotional, moral and sexual violence. These kids have no chance to experience anything like a normal childhood.
The home, the neighbourhood and the business environment teach children the most unusual of lessons and warps their minds and hearts forever. Yardsticks to measure them have to be completely different and customised” says Shoma, a social worker who used to conduct free classes to help children from the brothels of Delhi’s GB Road cope with school work.
About 100 metres from where Sonjoy and his sister Sonali carry on their surreptitious business of extortion lives Ranen. His mother Sumita’s orthodox family lives just a couple of streets from the red light area.
They disowned her the day she eloped with a taxi driver hoping to
escape from her lower middle-class drudgery to reasonable comfort and
three square meals. Instead, Sumita found herself transported to a
world of vice. As far as they are concerned, she’s as good as dead.
Financially, she’s no better off. Yet her life bears no resemblance to the one she grew up in. Her son Ranen is nine. The room in which he sleeps is 8 feet by 8 feet. His own space, though, is much smaller. A thin beam of sunlight sneaks past the tattered curtains to Ranen. Next to him is his baby sister, just over a year. She has soiled her clothes and his, and her bottle of milk lies in the mess. On the other side sleeps his five-year-old sister, Anjali.
Ranen shares his “room”—the space under a rickety wooden cot, measuring barely three feet by five feet—with his two sisters, a cat and a horde of spiders, cockroaches, mice, mosquitoes and flies. In one corner is a battered trunk, holding the family’s belongings. Next to it, towards the edge, stands an ancient stove with a few utensils—a kadhai, a saucepan, a couple of glasses and plates. Inches away lies his bedding—a couple of tattered saris, crudely quilted together, to lie on and a similar one to shield him from the cold and insects. But now, the entire lot is a mess, covered in his sister's urine and faeces.
Ranen gets up, rubbing his eyes to remove the remnants of a fitful, frequently interrupted sleep, and picking up the milk bottle from the mess, he stuffs it into his sister’s mouth. If she begins howling, he’ll have hell to pay. He crawls out of his “room” cautiously, careful not to hit his head against the “ceiling”. That might disturb the persons sleeping “upstairs” and fetch him half a dozen lashes. Once outside, Ranen casts a furtive glance at the two persons sleeping above his “room”—on the cot—his mother and her paramour, lying in a drunken stupor, oblivious to the world.
He walks out into the morning to the tap in the corner, washes his face and fills a plastic pot. Making sure nobody’s looking, especially his “father”, he returns to his room, carries his baby sister out, cleans her and puts her back on another set of old saris. He mixes some milk powder in a feeding bottle with water from a dirty jug, quickly stuffing some of the milk powder in his mouth all the while looking around to make sure nobody has seen him steal some milk powder. Not much to quiet his hunger pangs, but the fistful of milk powder will have to do for now till he can find an alternative. He wipes his mouth on his dirty sleeve before stuffing the bottle in his sister’s mouth, washes the soiled bedding and goes back to his space under the bed.
A few hours later, he starts feeling hungry. Crawling out again, he reaches for a plate of soggy pakodas, some half-eaten—his parents’ leftovers from the day before—and chews on them.
The room stinks. Barely two feet from the cot hoisted up on four
bricks under each leg so that the overflowing drain water, flooding
the room in the monsoons, doesn’t reach it—is a cracked “urinal”
sunk into the floor, with a large hole opening outside the room. A
tin bucket, half filled with water, and an aluminium mug stand next
to it. A dead cockroach floats in the bucket and ants make a feast of
the food strewn all over the floor.
The betel juice-stained urinal, used by his mother and her clients both as a kitchen sink and toilet, smells of urine, beedis and illicit liquor.
A couple of used condoms lie discarded near the hole, their contents leaking out on to the plates and the baby’s milk bottle kept nearby to be washed.
All these are barely a few inches from where Ranen and his sisters eat and sleep. But he has learnt to ignore the sights and the smells. All his instincts are honed towards finding food and staying away from a thrashing, though he isn’t always successful.
Sometime later, he sneaks out to play with his friends Hari and Bimal. Their homes are no better than his. Bimal at 15 is the oldest. Today he has stolen a tenner from his mother’s box. His constantly hungry belly has helped him develop nimble fingers and quick feet. And sharp eyes to locate where his mom or her drunk clients keep their wallets. And judge how much is safe to steal without inviting a thrashing. With a princely Rs 20 between them, they feel rich enough to go to the tea stall in the next lane.
Breakfast is watery tea in tiny clay cups, a few slices of bread and a piece of sticky barfi. Mukhtar who runs a beedi and pan shop down the lane is familiar with most kids on the block and their thieving ways. He is quick to encourage them, ensuring that not only does some of that money come to him, but knowing that in years to come, some of these boys will get involved in bigger crime and he is bound to get a cut on some of those. Already, he is rumoured to be the most resourceful person to dispose of watches, jewellery, fancy shoes, etc. stolen from clients.
Suddenly aware that he’s been away for too long—an hour almost—Ranen rushes back, hoping his absence hasn’t been noticed. But of course it has. Minutes after he left, his sister, losing the grip on her bottle, began to scream, setting off a predictable chain of events.
Ranen’s father-of-the-moment—Sumita’s current lover—angrily kicks her out of bed and Sumita shoves the bottle back into the baby’s mouth, but not before giving her a resounding slap.
While she waits for Ranen to vent the rest of her anger on, Sumita exchanges expletives with Pradeep—her lover—who lolls on the bed, nursing a hangover from liquor bought with her money, exhausted after a night of sex for which he didn’t have to pay.
Playing part-time husband to Sumita—who at 45 knows that the likes of Pradeep are the closest to a spouse she can get—has its advantages.
As soon as Ranen comes in after his brief escapade, he’s greeted with a volley of abuse and sharp smacks with Sumita’s plastic chappals. Pradeep joins in too, till the boy runs out again, to safety.
Such encounters aren’t out of the ordinary. Few children start
their day more pleasantly in this area. An hour later, Ranen sneaks
back to his “room”. Pradeep is snoring again and his mother is
out for her morning ablutions.
Quickly, he pockets some money and runs out again, this time to the small shop at the end of the lane, selling luchi (maida puris), dum aloo, tea and jalebi.
A little later, Ranen’s five year-old-sister Anjali wakes up. As soon as she crawls out, Pradeep stirs and drags her to him. I wonder if this is the gentler, paternal side to the man who appeared murderous minutes ago.
But Shabana, a neighbour who is fast hitting 40 and lets half her
matchbox room by the hour to flying sex workers, dispels my
“He’s fondling her, not cuddling her,” she tells me harshly. I find it hard to believe, till I see the little girl, hiding in a corner, trying to put her knickers on. Hearing Sumita come back—her loud curses to some neighbour preceding her gives her away—Pradeep pushes Anjali off the bed.
“He’s not her real father, and Sumita knows about his interest in her daughters,” says Shabana. “The last time a woman from an NGO tried to inquire into a similar affair, she was heckled and threatened. This locality is infested with criminals and even if she was murdered no one would know about it. Or even try to prevent it. Interference is strictly unwelcome here,” she warns.
Ranen’s elder sisters, aged 12, 14 and 17, were sold by Pradeep after he had his fill of them. Sumita doesn’t care. He is the only man who has stayed so long with her and she doesn’t want to lose him. Besides, she was planning to induct them into the trade anyway. The girls, along with free liquor and sex, are the pegs to hold on to Pradeep. Otherwise he may leave for greener pastures.
For two years, Ranen and his brother—two years his senior—attended a school nearby, after social workers persuaded many Sonagachi mothers to get the children enrolled in school. Ranen’s brother didn’t care as much for learning as he did for the free meal and a few carefree hours at the school. But that had to stop after one of his sisters visited the school and took him away to pimp for her. Since then, Ranen has been detained at home to run errands for Sumita and her customers, to babysit his sisters and to pimp for his mother at night.
As the morning comes to an end, so does the easiest part of Ranen’s day. The afternoon and evening will throw up more pictures of a growing up process that defies all concepts of parenthood and family. These are pictures totally alien to an ordinary, protective middle-class family. Yet, Ranen’s is a life full of learning and activity, only the goals and rewards are different. One thing is certain, though. He can have no childhood.
Those who try to leave all this often suffer even more when they are betrayed and exploited by the very people who flaunt their virtue. Shanti was nine when a social worker helped her get out of this milieu. She was admitted to a boarding school to be educated and socially whitewashed. It was also a place where for seven years she was systematically molested, “loaned” out to visiting dignitaries. It was only a careless pregnancy that alerted her mother about what she had been going through.
Shanti is back with her mother doing what she had been doing at
the boarding school—only now at least half the time it is on her
terms, and every time it is for money.
“When I confronted the warden, he simply told me not to make an unnecessary fuss,” recalls a shocked Malati. She is not shocked that her daughter was molested—in the lanes of Sonagachi, that is a fact of everyday life.
She is appalled that people who look down on her way of life and offer to help rehabilitate her children should be no different than those who exploit closer home.
“That is what she would be doing anyway,” Malati recalls the warden telling her. “Don’t talk as if she would have been a sati savitri otherwise. At least she gets her education and upkeep free here,” he added.
“After this I simply kept her here. We went to a doctor, got an abortion done and eventually, she became a prostitute like me. This is our fate.” Today Malati doesn’t bother to talk to the social workers who visit her area.
“Getting out of this cesspool is difficult even for a boy,”
says Mahesh, the son of a sex worker. “For a girl, it is a hundred
times tougher, since a thousand hawks watch her every moment from the
moment she is born,” he adds. His mother is from Kalighat, another
red light area, next to Kolkata’s most famous temple of the same
“Things should have been easier for me since my mother never stood in line for a customer, at least not since I can remember. She was the mistress of a very senior Central government officer—I won’t mention his name as he’s my father. He was her babu and he did look after us quite well.
“My mother didn’t need other clients, he sent me to school, behaved decently with me and my mother. Since we were no longer starving (which was what pushed her into prostitution), our only dream was that I should be educated well, find a decent job, and get my mother and myself out of this. I did fairly well at school and but was careful not to bring any friends home or visit them at their place since I didn’t want to talk about where I lived. This red light area is very well known.
“However, in my second year at college, one of my classmates saw me coming out of the lane. He, and a couple of other boys, met me outside the college gate and asked me to introduce them to some beautiful girls in that area, promising me a tidy commission. I was so disgusted by their persistence, which turned nasty after my refusal, that I didn’t return to college. Despite my best efforts, I was identified with the lane. That was my logo—not my name, not my studies, not my dreams. I was a guy who lived among prostitutes, was born to one.
“Since I seemed to have been branded by my birth, I decided to make the most of it,” admits a frustrated Mahesh.
If a guy looks decent and reasonably well-off, Mahesh tries to follow him and find out where he lives. He then meets him close to home, extorting money threatening to reveal his escapades to the family. Most times blackmail works.
“But one businessman, related to a local police officer, complained and I got into trouble.” He now sticks to pimping for his cousins, aunts and neighbours.
He was inducted by a couple of NGOs in an effort to educate and rehabilitate youths in the area. “It’s all very well to talk of rehabilitation, but unless the people outside, the so-called bhadralok (genteel folks) are rehabilitated too, taught to view us as normal human beings, not as options from red light areas waiting to be exploited, these measures will remain just talk.”
He recalls the difference between the two worlds. “In school and
college I saw how people behaved with one another—I saw
relationships like that of affectionate siblings of both sexes, the
interaction between parents and children and among friends. In the
red-light community everything, including one’s affections, are up
for barter. In fact, I was one of the few who didn’t wake up five
days a week with fresh bruises, or stay awake at night cowering in a
corner when some drunk man was kicking a woman black and blue, or an
equally sozzled woman battering a child, or a couple of women
fighting over a client on a lean day.
“Laughter and love were not part of the general emotions we saw here,” he recalls.
It’s an observation shared by Radha, an unusual product of Sonagachi. She’s one of the tiny minority who escaped the fate of her childhood friends. Against all the odds, she trained to be a teacher. Acutely aware of her good fortune in finding a life so different from that of her friends, she visits the old neighbourhood to help change things.
“The violence among children here is a natural outcome of their upbringing. They’ve been seeing violence and exploitation for so long, it seems normal to them. In fact, many of them can’t talk or stand in front of a woman without thinking of her as an extension of her genitals. This is why sex education is so important here—to put sex in its right perspective. And to teach children that it’s possible for a woman and a man to have interactions that are not sexual, not commercial or one of power play. An attitude to inter-personal negotiations that doesn’t have sex as the sole fulcrum.”
Radha was ten when a visit to her married elder sister’s house in Amtala, not far from the elite IIM-Calcutta, changed her forever.
“There I saw children younger than me reading and writing. I saw women wake up in the morning, bathe and take the children to school. I saw fathers play with their children. It was a completely different world. Where I came from, the women rarely got up before noon, and even then many of them were drunk and disorderly. The men were either clients, or pimps or some kind of exploiters. The only interaction I had seen was one of abuse and violence.
“So when I begged my sister to send me to school, she agreed on condition that I stayed with her, and kept quiet about my background. After high school, I began to teach in a nearby school. When I returned to my mother’s place I found several centres being run for children of sex workers. But all concentrated on teaching the children a skill. As a sex worker’s child, I knew we needed far more than just money-spinning skills. Our mentalities need to be changed.”
Radha had to fight tremendous odds to take up a career that is considered the refuge of those who don’t manage to find other jobs. But where she comes from, it’s an unheard of accomplishment. What makes her exceptional is that she loves her job and uses it to help others overcome the same handicap she once faced, being branded an outcaste long before she was born, because she is the daughter of a prostitute.
Radha is the third child of Mumtaz, a prostitute in Sonagachi. “Radha, daughter of Mumtaz?” is the first question people ask.
“My mother’s paramour was a Hindu and named me Radha,” she explains.
“Whatever the evils of prostitution, it has one great virtue. People forget caste, creed, religion. Everything is just flesh and money—there are no other distinctions.”
Today Radha, married for over 25 years to a head clerk in a private firm, teaches in a school where she meets children from a cross-section of society. And every now and then, she goes back to her mother’s house where she meets children who share her background.
“This constant to-and-fro review is necessary because it gives me perspective. While I tell children from more fortunate circumstances about children of other backgrounds who have not been as lucky, I talk to children in the red light areas about the world outside. I teach them to respect women, to dissociate sex from them and regard them as human beings first and women later. I cannot ask them to treat women as their mothers and sisters because these relationships have little meaning in our cesspool, where brothers, mothers, sons, fathers and husbands have all been equally predatory.
“When the children get married, I call the couple and explain the concept of parenthood, the difficulty the woman goes through in bearing children and the joys of parenthood that can be shared by the man and woman alike. I talk to them of homes where there is no violence.”
While practically every child in a red light area has watched the act of sex at close quarters, to a majority of them it remains simply a system of barter. The man-woman relation is one of either predator-prey or oppressor and victim.
“Which is why boys marry girls and bring them into this profession,” she says. “To them that is what a girl represents—a sexual partner, and if she can be made to generate income, too, it’s good. And if she can produce daughters who eventually follow in their mother’s profession, she’s even better.”
Men mostly consider women little more than a willing-to-oblige vagina. Women, with good reason, consider men little better than vampires who suck the last drop of blood and leave their prey to die a slow, painful death.
Radha, whose job supports herself and her family, admits that it’s a tough job. “I can’t even reveal my identity, because if I lose this job, I’ll be just another destitute.”
Past 50, with two daughters to be married and a son in a decent job, she has reason to be cagey. “My son will lose his job and it will be impossible to settle my daughters, both engaged, if my background is known. Right now everyone only knows me as a teacher who lives with her three children.”
While it’s hard to negotiate life in the red light alleys, it’s far tougher to move out and survive outside. Prema, from Bangalore, tried to escape the brothel in Mysore where she was trapped by her brother-in-law, the son of a prostitute and pimp. Three weeks later, he traced her in Bangalore and sent a bunch of teenagers to harass and molest her, embarrassing her in front of her neighbours, her partner and her children who had no inkling of her past till she agreed to return to the brothel.
“Now my children too have learned to make money by harassing other women who try to escape from the brothels,” she says.
Prostitution is not a stand-alone trade. It spawns a whole range of auxiliary activities—pimping, trafficking, drugs, and illicit alcohol. The business rivalry can generate very high levels of violence, including murder. Children born into these circumstances can hardly help being affected.
That’s why more residential centres are needed to give them a childhood. The earlier they enter a different environment the less they will have to unlearn and the easier it will be to mould them. But as prostitution grows by leaps and bounds, so does the number of children exposed to its raw underbelly.
A senior police officer who has handled trafficking and cases related to red-light areas, says the very nature of prostitution spawns criminals.
“It’s not as if the police do nothing,” he says. “Whenever tipped off, they conduct raids and round up suspected minors, who are produced in court. After that they are no longer in police jurisdiction. It’s very difficult to tell the children of sex workers from minors in prostitution. They could be both.
“The medical examination determines only whether they are habituated to intercourse. But child abuse is so rampant in these areas that many of the children are initiated into sexual activity very early. Once they’re produced in court, they’re claimed by so-called parents, who often are Madames and pimps. And then they are back in business.”
Early introduction to mainstream age-appropriate lifestyles can make a tremendous difference. One case is a home for children of sex workers run by an NGO. It focuses on micro-enterprise and vocational training requiring very little skill or education, but generating instant income (such as assembling plastic pencils, toys, etc). It’s been seen to make a big difference, especially at an age when they are heading to leave.
“And since the money generated is visible, they take a great deal of interest,” says Alok Mishra who runs the centre. “Over a period of time, they begin to lose interest in the kind of quick-money rackets that they were part of. And the broad-based education that they get alongside strengthens the empowerment process.”
Indira Sinha of the NGO Sanlaap feels the first thing is to set up a large number of residential schools for these children. The NGO is involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of women and girls from prostitution.
“Between the government and the NGOs, all we can manage is to house a few hundred children.” While Sanlaap and a couple of other NGOs run a few residential units for children of sex workers and over half a dozen NGOs run drop-in and training centres in almost all the red light areas in and around Kolkata for a few hours a week, “it does not touch even the tip of the iceberg,” says Sinha.
“A majority of the children are left to their own devices, and eventually find crime and prostitution the most profitable trades. Even those children who have access to drop-in centres are in touch with us only for a couple of hours a day.
“While some do overcome the temptations that surround them day in and day out, poverty is a great persuader. T here’s a great deal more money in crime and sex than there is in jute bags and candles. Sooner or later, they’re going to be victims of some form of exploitation.” And these scattered attempts are largely urban. Rural sex workers’ children have to fight their own battles themselves.
In effect, it means that thousands of children are groomed into crime right from childhood simply because there’s no other kind of schooling and environment. And everybody pays the price, just as everybody, in some measure, is actively or passively responsible for it.
(All names of children and sex workers have been changed)