Long before it became politically incorrect to call sex workers by any other name, it was considered inauspicious to worship the goddess Durga without seeking out the blessing of courtesans, even if they were otherwise stigmatised and ostracised by society. Thus originated the little-known, age-old custom of collecting a handful of soil (punya mati) from the nishiddho pallis of Calcutta, literally ‘forbidden territories’, where sex workers live, and adding it to the clay mixture which goes into the making of the Durga idol.
The idol-makers go personally to Sonagachi, Calcutta’s biggest red light area, “on an auspicious day” about a month before the onset of the festive season, around the time when potters begin to start work on idols, to collect what they call the “virtuous dust from the doorstep of beshhas (prostitutes).
This process is so sacred that on the morning of the visit they take a holy dip in the Ganga and chant mantras from the scriptures all through the soil-collection process. The most auspicious method of collection is to beg it from a prostitute and have her hand it to you as a gift or blessing. If it is taken from the ground, the pujari must know the correct way of doing it, including knowing which mantras to chant and how to position the fingers in a yogic mudra while scooping up the soil.
But this year, all that pious knowledge went for a toss when pujaris and potters met with stiff resistance from sex workers while trying to collect soil from different brothels across Calcutta.
Many potters faced angry women who refused to allow them to take even a pinch of soil. “I had to practically steal the soil,” says a priest , adding, “We cannot do without it.” One potter even shamefacedly admits to having “impersonated a client to be able to enter the premises and collect soil”. Not everyone was as enterprising, so in the end, many of the Durga idols immersed lacked the “essential” ingredient.
The intriguing question is, why did sex workers suddenly turn against an age-old tradition?
The sex workers at Sona gachi have an answer, and an eloquent one: “We’ve gradually come to understand this so-called sacred custom is a load of bull,” thunders a 55-year-old former sex worker who now runs a brothel inside the squalid red-light area. “Once, I used to feel honoured when priests asked me for dirt from my doorstep. They told us Ma Durga would be displeased if those who worship her do not take our blessings. But over the years, I’ve begun to ask, what are we getting out of it? They can’t make goddesses out of us once a year and then call us whores for the rest of the year.”
This former sex worker lives in a tiny two-room mosquito-infested area of a crumbling multi-storey cement building. “Look at the way we live,” she hisses, pointing to the surrounding filth. The open drains running alongside the narrow congested galis are swarming with flies. “We’re treated like these flies, dirty and unwanted. So why should we only give and not receive anything in return?” Chimes in a thirty something sex worker . “We have some demands—don’t treat us like criminals, we’re not here out of choice. Poverty has forced us to be here. Let society do something for us and then we’ll willingly give the soil.”
The sex workers are touchingly anxious to explain they are as pious as any middle-class Durga worshipper. Says 28-year-old Seva, “We pray all the time to our gods to deliver us from this sinful life.” She grabs me by the arm and takes me into her room and points to a wall that is plastered with framed pictures, photos, posters and paintings of spiritual leaders and gods and goddesses representing a range of religions. “Here Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists all live harmoniously,” she says, with pride.
Her point is not an irrelevant one: One of the theories explaining the soil collection is that all religions are represented in the sex worker community, making their involvement in the ritual a fitting tribute to the all-encompassing Durga. The ‘non-cooperation’, as one priest calls it, was not confined to Sonagachi but spread, word-of-mouth, to other red-light areas across Calcutta.
Neither priests nor potters are inclined to challenge the sex workers. “We could of course take the soil by force but that would defeat the purpose,” said one priest.
Shopkeepers, however, have smelt a commercial opportunity. Since the protests, establishments selling items of religious worship have begun to stock ‘pros-quarter soil’ as one store owner calls it, ranging from Rs 1 for a pinch to Rs 20 for a bagful. Taking the complaints of the sex workers on board, and addressing them is, sadly, not an option.