Fifteen years ago, Sumitra was one of the richest among the lower rung of brothel owners in Sonagachi, Kolkata’s red light area. She ran 12 brothels that together housed more than 50 young women trafficked from far-flung areas. In addition, many women paid her half their earnings for the use of a bed. There was also money to be made when she sold the slightly older girls to “madames” who could afford no better.  Today, she sits on the pavement in tattered rags, folding and sorting a small mound of used clothes for Hossain Molla whose shop is a hundred metres away. A small boy comes with a cup of tea for her, which she generously offers me.  “Dadu is calling you” the boy tells me, pointing to Hossain’s shop.

I go into Hossain’s shop. “Why does she sit so far from your shop with all that material? Don’t you fear you might lose some of your merchandise,” I ask.

‘Where will she go if she steals anything from me?” he says. “Those are rags. Till I fold them nicely and display them nobody will buy them. As for her, there was a time when she gave me better and many more clothes than what’s in front of her. Anyway, she is half mad with grief. I sell clothes nobody wants. And now I have this woman, too, whom nobody wants.”

“But why does she sit there in the sun?” I persist. “Why don’t you let her work inside your stall?”

“Oh, I haven’t turned her out. Come with me,” he says, leading me to the corner Sumitra occupies, at a corner of Central Avenue. She folds the clothes mechanically, dropping them in small piles. Her eyes are fixed on the house diagonally across. Every time a heavily made-up woman stands close to her corner soliciting, she yells at her and forces her to move away. She yells at the women in the building she stares at. She also swears, curses and wishes a rotting hell upon some invisible bloodsucking rakshas. Hossain points to the building across.

“She was the empress of that building, owned more than half the girls who operated from there. A dozen pimps worked for her. She used to buy young and pretty girls and sell them as soon as they lost their youth. She bought and sold girls—like salt and sugar. She used to be loud and haughty. The jeweller would come to her house with new designs every year before Pujas. She would give the girls her old saris to send home. She would give me a lot of old clothes from the building and I sold them. Sometimes, I went as a client, too—she had very pretty girls there. I don’t go anymore.  

“One day, one of her girls ran way leaving her newborn son behind. She adopted that boy. Although she was rich and looked happy, she had been yearning for a son. So she brought up this abandoned boy, sent him to school, dressed him in stylish clothes and shoes, bought him ice cream and even named him Amit after Amitabh Bachchan. Do you think just giving that name will make anyone Amitabh?” he asks, pointing to a flabby man sitting on the second floor balcony of the building drinking himself silly.

“That is the fat bastard she brought up,” Hossain says, “She should have thrown him out after his mother abandoned him. She was a witch—leaving a newborn and running away. If it hadn’t been for this woman’s maternal obsession, he would have died. But he was the biggest mistake of her life. We warned her, but she pinned her hopes on him. You see he was a witch’s son. And a witch can only give birth to a demon.

“Despite all she did, not once has he thanked her. She got him married to one of the girls in the brothel and set up their home. But he put the girl back into prostitution and grabbed the money she earned. Then he got married to another woman somewhere in the city. From the time he was a teenager, he ill-treated his mother. Even before that, he was rude and ill behaved, but Sumitra put that down to childhood. She let him be, thinking one day he would change his ways. Nothing like that happened, One day, he beat her up so badly that she landed in hospital. When she tried to lodge a police complaint, her son bribed his way out and she got no help from the cops. In this business, all the brothels have a couple of cops in their pockets. After she returned from hospital, Amit would not let her in. Even though it was pouring, he made her sit outside. I felt pity on her and brought her here.

“At first, my wife was unhappy, complaining that I had brought a prostitute into the house. But I said ‘Sumitradi adopted a son and he has almost killed her and thrown her out. Now I am adopting a mother and bringing her here.’ Reluctantly she agreed. Now Sumitradi sleeps in my shop and sorts the clothes I sell on the footpath. My wife grumbles that I don’t make enough money, and yet want to do charity. But it costs me so little to feed this woman. It is painful to see what has happened to her. Her son is a local goon and we cannot fight him or force him to take her. He has no love for her. He will pay for his sins—his children will throw him out and he will die on the streets.”

The prophecy seems likely to come true. Both his daughters—Shoma and Roma—left his house and moved to another brothel. The son pimps for the madame. “We were doing the same thing in my father’s house. My parents used to bring in the clients and live off our money, drinking and gambling. Now at least we get to keep our own money.”

Their brothel owner was glad to take in all three. They needed a place and she got them free. As 65-year-old Monali walks into the room, she is followed by the shy and skinny Karishma, all of three years old, but who looks barely half her age. Monali was 13 when she was sold into Sonagachi. Every time she got pregnant, she went for an abortion to a quack a few lanes down. He would give her some pills. A few days of heavy bleeding and the pregnancy was terminated.

“Do you know this place has more quacks than doctors? Each quack is known for a special treatment—and many times they fail. But the girls are young and helpless and prefer these treatments. Moreover, proper doctors won’t touch advanced pregnancies while quacks won’t say no to money. When pregnant girls died after these bizarre treatments, money silenced the relatives and the madame.

“Looking back, I realise I was lucky to survive those abortions,” Monali says. “Now there are doctors and NGOs. Those days there were just a couple of clinics.”

 She moved from one brothel to the next in search of money. She never wanted to return to the poverty that led to her being sold. She never wanted to marry a man as he might turn out to be like the father who sold her. Or the drunk and abusive men who came to her when she was a teenager. If she made enough money, she could live life on her terms, at least most of the time. Parents sold daughters for money, so did husbands. If the cops came to raid, money sent them back satisfied.

Within a year Shoma had three abortions at a quack’s place. This was not new—her father had put her through that earlier. But Roma only knew she was pregnant in the fifth month. In the seventh month, she died while giving birth. Monali was left to look after the baby, Karishma, since Shoma had to entertain clients—almost twice as many to make up for the loss of income from Roma’s death. Although she had initially thought Karishma would be a good investment, in a year she got so attached to the child that she decided she would adopt her and not take her into the trade.

Despite the heavy promotion of abundantly distributed condoms, unwelcome pregnancies are extremely high in Sonagachi. Many women risk unprotected sex for extra money. Crude abortions with disastrous consequences and sexually transmitted diseases are frequent. Most women realise they have been rendered incapable of motherhood only when it is too late.
   There are no accurate estimates of the number of abortions every year in Songachi. Most happen through quacks, and even for the legal ones not records are available. “This is a dark world, a black mayabazar (world of illusions). Everything is done on the sly and anything can be bought and sold here. After the first couple of times, nobody actually keeps track of the number of abortions – not the girls, not the quacks, not the doctors,” says Sailesh, a veteran pimp.

Dr. Rupesh Mondol who used to run a clinic near Sonagachi and has since retired says that he has lost count of the number of abortions he had himself done and the number he had referred to other hospitals. Even if he did remember the numbers, they would be meaningless, because many women would come with their pimps or babus (paramours), pretending to be housewives, or they would be from rural places visiting Kolkata for the anonymity it offered.”

“Till they get married, girls are told to keep off men and boys as it could result in a shameful pregnancy,” Monali says. “Here we do nothing else, day in and day out. We have pregnancy after pregnancy—a situation we find intolerable because it means days of zero income. For years we run after money, and sex is the only regular activity in our lives. Then one day, the wrinkles come, the clients thin out, new girls replace the old, and the madame wants the room because you are no longer profitable.

“Many of us try to find something to do—cook and keep house for the other sex workers, wash their clothes, run errands. But when we sit down doing nothing or go to bed alone, we have no one to call our own. After killing so many in the womb, when we want just one baby, our wombs won’t cooperate. That is the price for this sin of killing all those babies before they were born,” Monali says. That is why Karishma is so precious to me. Of course, in front of her and her family I grumble that they have burdened me with the unwanted child of their dead sister. If they knew I feel blessed to have this child in my life, they will try to make money out of that happiness, too. Here everyone is out to make money out of everything,” she says.



 couple of lanes away lives Protima. At 45, she is the mother of Akshay and Manisha. Actually they are the children of Nahida of Midnapur. “Nahida shared a room with me and two other girls. By the time she was 18, Nahida was  mother of these two children. Our madame wouldn’t allow us to keep the children there, so she sent them to her mother’s house in Murshidabad. She was beautiful and had many customers. When her mother died, she was forced to bring them here despite the madame’s protests. Just then a sheikh kind of chap offered to take her to Dubai, but she had to leave her children behind. I offered to adopt them and bring them up if she could buy me a room of my own.

Actually we had another mother. But she went to Dubai and abandoned us. Since then this is our real mother. We hope she won’t leave us.

“She managed to convince the sheikh to buy this tiny room so I could look after her children. One day before leaving for Dubai, she met me, gave me and the children some new clothes and groceries and left us. That’s the last we saw of her. We have no idea if she is alive or dead, but I have kept my promise and looked after them as my own”.

Protima has started her own brothel and hired a few girls over the years. What if Nahida comes back? “What if she does?” she asks defiantly. “The moment she found a man she was willing to ditch her children.”

I point out that Nahida bought her this room. “She did me no favour. She could have got a room for herself and kept the children and brought them up. If I hadn’t taken them in, she would have had to abandon them—leave them on the street. Even her landlady wouldn’t allow her to keep the children. I got this room—but bringing up the children was a tough job. How will she prove these are her children? I will beat her with my slippers if she comes for them,” she says.

She whips out an album. “See—they’re with me in all these photos. There is no photo with her.” Pratima asks me not to mention Nahida in front of the children as it will confuse them. When they enter the room, Mitu, one of the girls in Protima’s brothel asks “Hey what is your mother’s name?”

“Protima,” they say in unison. Manisha, the elder of the two says, “Actually we had another mother. But she went to Dubai with a rich man and abandoned us. Since then this is our real mother. We hope she won’t leave us.”



hy didn’t Protima legally adopt them? “What is legal?” she retorts. “A piece of paper. If you walk down these streets for one evening, you will see hundreds of different relationships. See the number of women sporting sindoor. Ask them who their husband is. Every few months it will be a new man whose name they cannot be sure of. But for the time he is around, he is the husband. Ask the women who were sold by men they legally married or the real parents whose names were on school certificates. Did those legal papers ensure permanence in any relationship? In fact, once the women start making money, the same husbands return to grab their share as a matter of right. What use is such an exploitative document? Our blind faith is far better.”

Malati agrees. “My biological son left me when he got a job in a security agency and married a salesgirl. I never saw them for years. The girls of my brothel and the daughter I adopted from a sex worker in another brothel have stood by me, nursing me in sickness and old age. Two years ago, my son wanted to move in with me after his wife left him when he was thrown out of his third job because of his drinking. But I didn’t want him in my life.” 

Asha was 38 when she adopted Rupa, abandoned by Rekha who used to pay half her earnings to Asha for rent and food. When Rekha got pregnant, she hid the fact from Asha for fear of being thrown out. Eventually, too late for a safe abortion, she went to a quack who kicked and punched her tummy and fed her all sorts of concoctions. But the pregnancy continued till she delivered a frail, premature baby. She ran away, leaving the baby behind. That is how Rupa entered Asha’s life. Her neighbours teased the fair-skinned Asha for adopting the dark, skinny and squint-eyed Rupa. Asha doted over the child, a gift she felt came straight from God in a most unexpected fashion.

“A child is a child. Even your own child can be ugly, no matter how good looking the parents; and the sex is not in our hands. What would you do, then? Very rich and intelligent people often have retarded children, whom they bring up with great love. Only when you yearn for a child do you know its true worth.”

Asha was fortunate because little Rupa knew no other mother, but it lasted only a few years. As she grew up to be a voluptuous adolescent, boys in the area chased her for free sex. Often taunted for her looks by neighbours and schoolmates, she found this interest uplifting and often gave in. Eventually she got pregnant and was thrown out of school. Thrashed by Asha, she ran away with Abdul, who promised a good life.

But he simply got her an abortion and set her up in business in another lane in Sonagachi. Five years later she died of multiple diseases brought on by HIV. “She did not value the life I gave her and eventually turned out like her mother. She could have had a good life here—I would have married her off to a decent guy in another part of the town and set up home for her with a good dowry. But this was the destiny she chose,” says Asha.

The incident did not discourage her for long. Five years ago, she got one of her girls married to a small-time grocer’s son in Behala. His only condition was that he could not take Meethu’s son home as he could not tell his parents about his wife’s background. He promised that they would be long distance parents keeping in touch with six-year-old Sunil, visit every month or fortnight and even pay for his upkeep and education. Asha decided to be the foster grandmother. Meethu and her husband have two children of their own now and do not want Sunil in their lives.

Asha tried to contact them, but they had moved and she has no idea where they are, nor does she have the time, energy, resources or interest any longer. “Sunil is my son and I have put him in a Christian boarding school–away from this environment. In his school papers, I am his mother—so Meethu and her husband cannot later claim him when he does well for himself and they grow old.” Teachers tell Asha that Sunil is good at his studies and well behaved. So she keeps her fingers crossed. “Maybe he will light my pyre” she says.

A frail and old Tilottama lies on her bed near a sunny window in a two-bedroom apartment of Khidderpore. “This house belongs to my son. I’m bedridden after a stroke some years back. He and his second wife look after me. His first wife, a very beautiful girl, ran away with one of the pimps while we were in Sonagachi, leaving his daughters behind. After a few years, when one of my girls got pregnant, he married her, with my consent. We sold our brothel and moved here. Rahul’s two older children are in a hostel here. The youngest is here, but will soon go to the hostel,” she says, updating me on her life since I last met her.

I recall that meeting–nearly 20 years ago. This is what I wrote then:


Tilottama still shudders when she recalls her early days with Rahul, (then called Prakash), who was just eight-and-a-half when his mother ran away with a regular customer while he was still asleep.

“Circumstances forced me to look after him since Vimala used to stay here. I wasn’t happy about it. I had left my daughters with my mother in Murshidabad not only to shield them from the harsh realities of this world but because children are a nuisance in this profession and affected your earnings. I didn’t welcome this intrusion into my life.

“Prakash was hostile and viewed me with suspicion. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I simply told him to get out, explaining that I owed him nothing and had been doing him a good turn, which he had repaid with bad behaviour.

“That night the little boy went to bed hungry—I didn’t give a damn.The next morning he woke me up with a glass of tea—a luxury I hadn’t enjoyed in years. His eyes were swollen—he had been crying the whole night. He said he would leave immediately—he had waited for me to wake up because he didn’t want to leave stealthily, like his mother. He thanked me for all that I had done and apologised for his behaviour. I was so moved I burst out crying and hugged him. I told him to stay back till I could make alternative arrangements for him. He began to run little errands for me and do odd jobs, all the while maintaining an emotional distance. It took me well over a year to think of him as anything more than an errand boy and to break through the defensive wall he had built around himself. As we began to develop a certain warmth for each other, the trauma of his childhood haunted me and I decided to offer him a new beginning—starting with his name, which I changed to Rahul. I put him in a school and there I am known as his mother.  Over the years we have grown close and today we cannot do without each other. He is the son I never had but longed for ever since my husband drove me and my daughters out one night many years ago.”

Tilottama has opened fixed deposits in the names of her daughters and Rahul, all for equal amounts. “Naturally, they are all my children. So what if I didn’t give him birth—I have accepted him as my son with my whole heart—how can there be any discrimination now?” And to look at them, no one would ever guess that he wasn’t born from her womb. Tilottama runs a crèche for children of sex workers, so there will be no more Prakashs. Of course there are, but she wants to give the children and their mothers a chance at happiness and security, however fleeting.


Rahul has turned out to be a caring son. “What I am doing is far less than she has done–considering that she owed me nothing,” says Rahul, wiping the drool that roils down her wrinkled chin whenever she speaks.

Do you know my daughter bought this home with a bank loan? She works in Wipro—got the job on merit. Could I have foreseen such a life?

Ruma glows with pride as she cooks in the modern kitchen of her upper middle class Jodhpur Park three-bedroom apartment. She is alone—her maid has taken the week off to visit her family. “I could never have dreamed of living in such a posh area. What a contrast to the spit-and-urine speckled lanes of my Sonagachi room.”

She shows off her tastefully done up house. “Do you know my daughter bought this home with a bank loan? She works in Wipro—got the job on merit. Could I have ever foreseen such a life? Although I have a maid, I like cooking for my daughter—the one I bought from a beggar. I was running a profitable brothel. I put my daughter, Jyoti, in hostel in Darjeeling, far from my home. She grew up in a convent, studied well. Once she got this job, I sold my brothel and made the down payment for this house. Jyoti did the rest. We have a new life. She speaks English like girls from posh families. She will get a promotion soon–she is doing well at work. Adopting her was the best decision of my life–it made all my earlier suffering and hard work worth it.”


r Smarajit Jana who heads the Sonagachi project (started in 1992 as a health education and condom promotion program) that has a multitude of programmes for sex workers and their children, initially began his work in the area as a doctor with the School of Tropical Medicine, a stone’s throw away. He was conducting a survey to assess the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV. During his discussions with the sex workers he learnt frequent abortions were a part of their lives—especially in their most productive years and the consequence of that—infertility, the biggest burden later. He also found that many of the women who came to him had picked up any child they could and accepted it—looks, colour, deformities, sex, age and all.

“They were not choosey about sex, colour, age and looks. In fact, they adopted handicapped children. They were so desperate to call someone their own that any child who needed a mother wrung their hearts. There were instances of women buying children from beggars and the destitute. They were far more doting than most mothers—probably because motherhood came so late in their lives they were making up for the years lost. In fact, some of them took a great deal of nonsense from the foster children for fear of losing them. Many did actually lose the children, who ran away or threw them out. But that is just the same with women who have biological children, too.”

But there were others who showed exemplary gratitude, repaying the women with care and kindness for taking them in when their own mothers had abandoned them.



or as long as people could remember his early childhood, eight-year-old  Shivprasad  had been an intrinsic part of the tea shop in one of the narrow  lanes of Sonagachi. His bright smile and “cha khabeyn dada? (You want tea?)” was a familiar refrain in the lane. Often a faceless scream—“Ey Shibu–dui plate pokoda niyeshu (Shibu, get two plates of pakodas)” would pierce the air and Shivprasad would spring to the room from where the voice came, he recalls. He could identify almost all the sex-workers and regular clients by their voices—whether sober or drunk, happy or depressed. The shop was run by two cousins—while Hari made the tea, Sanjay fried pakodas. It was Shivprasad’s job to deliver the orders for tea, or dal and chicken pakoda. Sometimes, though it was not really part of his job, for a rupee or two, he would fetch beer and rum for the men visiting the brothels.

Annoyed by all the paperwork and questions  she shouted, “Some drunk beat him. He is my boy." That was it. In that moment, Shibu the tea boy became Basanti’s boy Shivprasad.  

One evening, a glass of hot tea slipped from Shivprasad’s hand and fell on Sanjay, who was sitting on the pavement frying pakodas. A furious Sanjay splashed hot oil on Shivprasad and began kicking and punching him. When Hari came to the little boy’s rescue, Sanjay threw the hot oil on him. Hari crumpled in pain. Sanjay kicked and punched him and began beating him with a piece of iron pipe. Nobody intervened and Hari died on the spot.

Sanjay turned his attention on Shivprasad who began running, screaming at the top of his voice, with Sanjay in hot pursuit, pipe in hand. A few onlookers shouted at him to stop; it had no effect. That was when the portly Basanti hit him on the face with her sandal and pushed him. A startled Sanjay stopped in his tracks and turned on her. Unfazed, Basanti gave as good, even better, than she got. She had just entered the fray, but Sanjay had been at it for half an hour and was out of wind. He beat a retreat after one last attack on Shivprasad. Basanti caught him by the collar and spat on him, warning him to keep off the boy. She threatened to have him beaten to a pulp if he so much as looked at Shivprasad. “Go take the boy and keep him with you. You can feed and clothe him,” he shouted as he disappeared before a crowd gathered around Hari’s body.

When Basanti dragged Shivprasad to her room, she found that the pipe had broken the boy’s shin. She put him in a rickshaw and took him to the hospital nearby. The people at the reception wanted to know how she was related to the boy, who his parents were, how he was injured.

Annoyed by all the paperwork and questions to some of which neither had an answer she shouted, “Some drunk beat him. He is my boy. First treat him instead of asking useless questions,” at the young girl filling the register. That was it. In that moment, Shibu the tea boy became Basanti’s boy Shivprasad, as his school records show, though he is still called Shibu at home.  



rom there through weeks of nursing, changing dressings, feeding and sponging him, it was a short distance from “boy” to son”. But all that was more than a decade ago. As if on cue, Shivprasad limps in—a legacy of that fateful night, carrying his books to a table in the corner. In a few weeks, he will appear for his Madhyamik (Class X) exams. “Get some tea and pakodas for didi,” orders Basanti. Shibu, as Basanti calls him, runs to do her bidding with a smiling “yes, Ma.” 

“Neither of us will forget that night. If I hadn’t brought this boy home, he would surely be dead by now, either from the injury turning septic or another assault from Sanjay.” It was only after a few more encounters with Basanti’s slippers that Sanjay finally went back to tending his tea and pakoda business. “In fact, that is where Shibu has got this chai-pakoda,” she laughs. “Aren’t you scared?” I ask.

“Him—he is now a tame cat. He won’t even look us in the eye. He is terrified of Ma and now me too,” Shibu says. Recalling his last day at the tea shop he says—maybe it was all for the best. I would have remained an orphan tea boy all my life if that hadn’t happened. Only I wish this limp hadn’t happened—I could not join the school football team,” he shrugs wistfully.

“An old maalkin (brothel owner) like me would never have had a son,” adds his ma. A doting Basanti consoles him. “So what, how long can one play football? Even big players have to stop after a few years. But your talent—you can be at it even when you grow old.” She points to the harmonium in the corner. Taking the hint, Shibu renders a beautiful Rabindrasangeet piece and a popular Hindi song, playing the harmonium as accompaniment. 

“He has been learning music for the last five years. He is good at studies–never failed in any class. Only, because he started school late, he is a little older than his classmates. Just watch—my son will be a big man one day.” Shibu is embarrassed by the praise. “I am learning computers,” he says. “I also give tuition to the children here, so they can have a good life one day. Whenever I go to the village where my sisters and grandma live, I help the girls and some of their friends with their studies.” He considers Basanti’s mother and daughters his family.

“When I delivered a third daughter, my husband and his family threw me out. They didn’t even wait for me to recover from the delivery. It was the dai (midwife) who accompanied me to the village where my parents lived. The midwife’s brother lived in Calcutta and she assured me that he could get me a job in his malik’s garment factory. When my father—a mason—died of snake bite, finding work became top priority. I contacted the dai and left for Calcutta with her brother, leaving my children in the care of my mother. The man sold me to a madame for `30,000.

“I don’t know whether his sister knew there was no garment factory, and trafficking girls to the various brothels was what he did. I never asked. After the initial month or two, like all the other girls I too settled down. Especially when some of the older girls who had worked in garments and as maids pointed out that there too they were sexually exploited, paid far less and treated far worse. Here one could make more money in a month than those girls had made at other jobs in a year, even after deducting pimp and other expenses.

“I was busy for years thinking of nothing but providing for my mother and three daughters. There is a bank here where many of us have fixed deposits for our children. A few years ago, I opened one for Shibu also—he has turned out to be a good boy—not like the local loafers who rape even their mothers and sisters and are good for nothing. He has assured me he will look after me and our children and my mother all his life. When we go to the village, he takes my mother—he calls her nani—to the doctor. He tells my daughters to study hard because their mother is working hard to provide for them, despite a great deal of hardship.”

“I, who was an abandoned orphan kicked and abused by anyone and everyone, have three sisters tying rakhi,” Shibu says. “And doing bhaiphonta (the festival for brothers and sisters). How can I call her a foster mother? She is better than my real mother who left me on the streets like many women do. Only, not many of those children are lucky enough to find a mother like I did. They get eaten by dogs and rats.”

The gratitude seems real and brings tears to Basanti. “See—my useless husband who threw me out couldn’t give me a son. But God has given me one–probably far better than if it had carried that nalayak’s (good-for-nothing’s) blood in his veins,” she says wiping her tears. When Shibu leaves for his tuition, she gives him the usual maternal instructions—“be careful and come home soon.”



any women in Sonagachi have adopted abandoned children or the children of young women who work for them. Sometimes the sex workers want their children back and this can lead to ugly fights—especially if it is a girl since there are often ulterior motives. “But I have no such fear—nobody will come for my Shibu,” Basanti says. “And he will not ever ditch me—like that Sumitra’s son. Good his children left him—he has no one to light his pyre.”

She calls out to Durga, walking past. She walks in with a 12-year-old girl. “This girl is also adopted. Durga found her in the dustbin outside her house when she went to chase a bunch of noisy dogs.”

“How could I watch silently when those stray dogs were pulling at the bundle in which this girl was crying? I decided to keep her since she would be ready for business in a few years. But I got attached to her. The NGO didis came and asked me to put her in a school. I make it a point to drop and fetch her. My sister and I were on our way back from school when an auto driver trafficked us to this place. I don’t want that to happen to Madhumita. At my age I cannot have a child—she is all I have.”

Madhumita joins the conversation. “I want to be a teacher and teach children to be good to their parents and to keep away from alcohol and drugs. Or a policewoman—to put thugs and violent visitors in jail. They really harass the women and girls.”

“Everything in our world is upside down—the girls want to be protectors because the men are all bastards. And we believed that if we got married the men would provide for us and protect us. How wrong we were.”

Not all adoptions are happy stories. There have been cases where the lure of quick money convinced a woman to sell her daughter. But the happy stories outweigh the tragic ones.

I recall Dr Jana’s words. “Everything is topsy-turvy here. In their most fertile years they live only from one sexual encounter to the next, but destroy the natural outcome of that act by terminating every pregnancy or abandoning the babies. For years they take their bodies for granted, only focusing on money. By the time they reach menopause, they realise they have not kept even one of the many children they would have had with so much sex. With fewer clients and more time on their hands, they begin to yearn for other relationships. Most of them are cynical of bonds like husband, parents, brothers, uncles—since these very relationships brought them into this hell. Many of them have never experienced motherhood–either the joy or the pains. So at the first opportunity they offer their hearts to any child available.”

Of course, there are some like Basanti who had her own children but simply rose to the occasion when a child needed her.



hruti Bose, a social worker who tries to promote safe sex and runs HIV-AIDS awareness programmes in the area says it is no use talking of legal adoption to the women. “Few government or police officials or even social workers believe that the women genuinely want to adopt abandoned children, especially girls. Even outside, boys are preferred. Here the motive for adopting a girl would be doubly suspect. Also, they will have little time or interest in all the leg and paperwork. And in the end, if they are not given the child, it could lead to some ugly situations.

“Besides, look at Mohini—physically and mentally retarded. She would have lived all her life in an orphanage or on the streets, abused by drunks and drug addicts. No family would have come forward to adopt her,” says Anita, pointing to a plump and visibly challenged 15-year-old being fed rice and chicken by 70-year-old Parbati.

“I can’t do anything about what will happen after I die,” Parbati confesses. “Who knows the future? Who knows who will die first? Everyone here knows Mohini–maybe somebody will look after her. For now I have found the life of a mother—see, she smiles and hugs me. That joy is enough for me—everything else I have.”

Not all adoptions are happy stories. There have been cases where the lure of quick money convinced a woman to sell her daughter—biological or adopted. Or the offspring made away with the mother’s hard-earned money and threw her out. But the happy stories outweigh the tragic ones—since this is a last-straw opportunity for mothers and children. Many of the children do realise what they could have faced without these mothers. Of course, there are others who feel that if they had been sent to an orphanage, they stood a chance of being adopted by rich, childless couples, maybe even foreigners, and could have had a luxurious life far from this place. Irrespective of the outcome, the finders-keepers stories have been a unique and practical solution for sex workers who through trial, tribulation and experience have learnt that the best solutions to their problems are often in their own backyard.

None of these women fears that the biological mother may turn up. “What proof is there—everyone has only seen the child with me,” says Ruma, adding, “How will they recognise a child whose face they haven’t seen for years? Even these children won’t go, whether or not they know they are adopted.”

Most of these foster mothers seem to have gained immense fulfilment from adoption. This is what Jharna says: “I was shattered that both my foster children disappointed me—but when they were small, they did love me. In retrospect, I am grateful I had the opportunity to experience the joy of motherhood. Yes, some of the pain too. I blame this environment and the company for what they became, since I was busy working to provide for them and could not keep an eye on them always.  At least I will not die never having known the joys and the frustrations of motherhood.”

The feelings of the foster children range from speechless gratitude to intense hatred, but the women seem more than happy with their decision—it seems to have given meaning to their existence. Many of the children feel the grass is greener across the dirt road and they could have had abetter lifehad they not been adopted by the “wrong women”. There are as many,  especially among the girls, who realise that had not a “fallen” woman picked them up, they would have simply festered in the cesspool.


(Names of the sex workers and their families have been changed on request)