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Notes From a Red-Light District, Calcutta

by Dina Bennett Apr 25, 2013

Sangita Dey was driven from her village home by profound poverty. Or rather, profound poverty made her vulnerable. Given away by her mother who couldn’t feed her, she was married off as a young teenager. Sangita then became her mother-in-law’s slave, loaded with housework and starved. Sangita’s husband allowed his brother to molest her, and he abused her himself. She had two children in quick succession. Two girls.

Sangita’s in-laws took her to Delhi in hopes of selling her. But no one wanted to buy a scrawny teenager with two babies. They returned home and the abuse worsened. Beatings were added. Sangita fled to Calcutta, where she lived on a train station platform. That’s where she met the sex workers.

“Why didn’t you go back to your family?” I asked her, through an interpreter.

Sangita didn’t hesitate in her answer. “My mother was alcoholic. She gave me to someone else when I was very young. My guardians are the ones who arranged my marriage. I couldn’t go back.”

“Was your mother a sex worker, too?”


“And your father? Could he not have helped you?”

“I do not know my father. Only his name: Harun.”

Her new friends took her to Bowbazar, a small red-light district near Calcutta Medical College. She made nearly $6 that first night, more than she’d ever had in her life. Nearby she rented a room, where she lived with her two little girls. Every evening when she brought clients there, she would put her two girls outside and tell the older one, “Hold on to your sister and don’t let anyone take her.” Each time she emerged from her room she would find Juma crouched nearby, her arms wrapped tightly around Jasmin, the baby, hugging her to her chest.

Turning three to four tricks a night at three dollars each, and paying only a few cents for rent, Sangita and her girls were no longer hungry. They managed like this for several years. But Juma was growing up wild. By age five she was unmanageable, and her sister Jasmin was following her lead. Sangita feared for them, she told me, as we talked for some hours one afternoon.

And though she didn’t say this directly, the way she turned her face when she said she had a son now, who lived at home with her, left me wondering whether she might not also have felt burdened by them. When a friend introduced her to Urmi Basu, the founder of New Light, an NGO pursuing gender equality in India and providing full shelter for sex workers’ children, Sangita asked them to take her two girls.

That was nearly seven years ago. Things have turned out well for Sangita, who sat with me on a balcony overlooking the thick, polluted water stagnating in a canal in Kalighat, one of Calcutta’s thriving red-light districts. And I know her girls. I live in the same house as Juma, who’s now a bright, if naughty 12-year-old, going to school and staging dance competitions with her friends at Soma Home, the residence for daughters of sex workers, owned by New Light. And Jasmin likes to play Angry Birds on my iPad when I’m at the New Light shelter where she lives full time, a different one from her sister. As for Sangita, she’s married and working as an office lackey. She visits her daughters when she can. But she has not taken them home.

For the few weeks I’m in Calcutta, I’m in the midst of such stories. I live with the 34 girls who are sheltered and supported at Soma Home. To give the girls the benefit of a normal Bengali upbringing, they reside in a pleasant, lower-middle-class neighborhood. It’s a peaceful area, with wide empty streets lined with towering mangos, palms, and shrubs. Pariah dogs sleep undisturbed on the warm pavement. In the early morning I can hear doves cooing, interspersed with the hoarse cries of the rag man and the vegetable seller. The neighborhood beauty shop washes my hair for $4, and the snack vendor near the subway station will fill a newspaper cone full of fresh popcorn for 25 cents.

Each young girl at Soma Home has already lived a life of tragedy. Protima’s mother died of AIDS. Juhi’s mother is alcoholic, the impact of fetal alcohol syndrome evident in Juhi’s face and her difficulties studying. Kajol’s mother saw men eying her beautiful daughter when she was seven and feared for her safety. Neha’s mother and father beat her mercilessly. A few, like Monisha, have mothers maintaining independence thanks to micro-credit loans from New Light, and the desire not to shame a daughter who is now so well educated. For every Monisha, there’s a Rani or a Smrithi, with a mother who disappeared into another red-light district, or who doesn’t want her daughter, doting instead on her sons at home.

If you knew nothing about these girls’ history, their intelligence, exuberance, and talent might persuade you you’d stepped into a girl’s camp. A somewhat crowded, noisy camp, with threadbare sheets on the beds, girls sharing clothes, barrettes, shoes, not having any personal belongings to speak of, and never receiving letters from family, but otherwise just the same. There’s the teenage group that boxes three times a week with Razia, boxing judge, referee, and coach of India’s national women’s team. There are the middle girls, making cards and bracelets for each other like 12-year-olds anywhere. There are the elementary-school girls, who stage their own version of Dancing with the Stars. School is de rigueur, meals are nutritious, rules are clear. Everyone takes a turn helping the cook prepare. TV is allowed only on weekend evenings.

While I live at Soma Home we eat together, make up word games with Bananagrams, share stories. Sometimes I help with lessons. On weekends, I take the young girls to a park to play. They can swing for hours. With the older girls I go to a Bollywood movie for an evening of hoots, whistles, and clapping when Shahrukh Khan appears with the starlet of the moment. Bags of chips and liters of Pepsi sustain us through the three hours of entertainment.

One day Puja, Shibani, and Borsha offer to teach me a favored Bengali chicken recipe. In exchange I agree to teach them how to make ratatouille. When I tell Puja the name of the dish, she says, “Oh, if I tried to say that my teeth would fall out!” That night everyone samples our creation. “Not spicy enough,” says Madhobi. “Reminds me of pizza masala!” says Shibani, detecting the oregano, thyme, and rosemary mixed into my Mediterranean dish.

Blessings are a matter of perspective, and the perspective of benefactor and beneficiary may differ. No one at New Light takes for granted that a street walker is willing to part with her child. Some mothers consider it an insult, not a boon, despite knowing they’ll be able to see their child as they wish, and to bring her home at will. To have the greatest credibility with the women it serves, New Light has purposely established its offices in the midst of the Kalighat red-light district. This is one of Calcutta’s old neighborhoods, a place of low, crumbling buildings and cramped lanes hung with drying sheets and saris. Broader streets ring loud with hawkers, blaring music, and honking horns.

Several sex workers stand at the entrance to the narrow alley where the New Light shelter is housed in the ruins of an abandoned temple. I can detect their profession, because a) they’re standing still while everyone else is moving, and b) their bright saris and lipstick are unseemly for daytime. I pass them each day and know they are Nepali victims of human trafficking. At first they drop their heads or turn away when I walk by. Then they look at me as I look at them. A week of my coming and going, and they finally nod to me. I’ve become a regular.

After greeting the corner workers, I walk down the damp passage, past women sitting on curbstones, alongside windowless rooms the width of one narrow bed, around mangy dogs nosing garbage, avoiding the splash from a man bucket-bathing against the wall. I step over a used condom lying next to a pale stalk of cauliflower. A fat woman pushes one enormous breast back under her threadbare sari. In a narrow courtyard, chickens scratch under the rope bed where a body lies curled in a red blanket, nothing visible but a head of tousled grey hair. A few people cluster together, talking loudly. I hurry my step, not sure if this is standard Bengali chat or prelude to a fight.

Fifteen hundred women sell themselves for sex in Kalighat. It is not Calcutta’s largest red-light district. One district is where a man goes to find a girl of ten or twelve. Most of the girls there have been trafficked, sold for a sack of rice, or kidnapped off a village street. Another is known for its beautiful young women. They earn such a good income on the street that they can send their children to private school, special uniforms, color-coordinated barrettes and all. And in every red-light area you will find girls following the family business, trained by their mother to do what she’s always done. They learn the trade early.

As I walk, I breathe the cool reek that wafts from an open drain carrying murky black sludge, as it clashes with the warm stench flowing off the canal at the alley’s far end. All the smells of life are here, a hint of acrid smoke from a small coal brazier mixing with the ammonia of urine deposited during the night, cardamom from steamy chai blending with the silky sweetness of cooked rice and the bite of a handful of peppers dropped in a pot of dal.

Through a communal 8×8 courtyard, up a narrow, tiled stairway and I’m on the roof terrace which houses the New Light crèche and offices. For the children of Kalighat, it’s a haven of laughter and lessons, of regular meals, nap times, friendship, and hugs. The shelter is clean, predictable, and disciplined, everything the teeming Kalighat alleys below are not.

I always stop at the top of the stairs to visit quietly with Priti, a wizened slip of a woman with a deformed hand. She lives in a 6×8 room with her ancient mother and her alcoholic husband. One day when I arrive, she’s slowly, carefully pulling a broad-toothed comb through her mother’s steel grey wisps of hair. Seeing me, she wraps her arms around her mother and points her chin in disgust at her husband. He’s asleep, crossed-legged, slumped against the wall, one arm flung out toward a filthy plastic water bottle filled with an amber liquid. I see her right eye is bloodied red. We squat in her doorway for a few minutes as she stares deep into my eyes, her toothless mouth working in outrage and pain. I hug her, carefully. She feels as fragile as a baby bird. She strokes her mother’s cheeks, then brings her twisted hand to her own and winces.

Before I leave Calcutta I spend a few hours with Harini, a sex worker for 15 years whose daughter Tanisha has lived at Soma Home for 10. Harini’s small bed takes up most of the space in her one-room home. The room is immaculate, with a pink cotton spread on the bed, and posters of Salman Khan, Hrithik Roshan, and other Bollywood hunks on the walls. In small glass wall cabinets I notice bottles of nail polish lined up like toy soldiers, Tanisha’s school awards tucked in behind. Sitting cross-legged on her bed while we talk, I eye the nail polish. Those bright colors are tempting. And distracting.

Surreptitiously I start counting the number of bottles. When I reach 42 I can’t help myself. “Where did you get so much nail polish?” I ask.

“One of my boyfriends owns a salon!” Harini says. After we’ve shared chai and talked ourselves into silence, we both look at the shelves and have the same thought. It’s time to do our nails, she painting mine, I painting hers. I choose bubble gum pink. She chooses grass green. Girls will be girls. [Editor’s note: The names of individuals in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.]

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