by Reema Abbasi
Sonagachi in Calcutta wears indulgence without apology or remorse. Thin lanes stretch like veins in a 300-year-old district. It makes a single statement — freedom has to be seized for it’s the only possession that will stay forever.
The name means ‘tree of gold’; folklore has it that it was christened after a saint, Sanaullah Ghazi, entombed close to the Shiva temple in the colony. South Asia’s largest sex worker colony, Sonagachi is where over 18,000 women make a living in more than 7,000 four-storey brothels. And from all that the eyes and ears captured, this little city was not joyless.
Fabled buildings that lent their names to movies — Neel Kamal, Lal Kamal, Prem Kamal, Ganga Jamuna, Night Lovers Sangam and Nanda Ranir Bari — live on undiminished. Girls in Neel and Lal Kamal are mostly Agrawalis or Marwaris, who, it is speculated, prefer Muslim or Marwari clientele for affluence.
“They take up to 8,000 rupees for a night but can throw you out after an hour,” says a boy lurking in the alley. He speaks of their beauty and insolence, recommending Nanda Ranir Bari for honest Bengali and Nepalese women.
Just then, a dusky girl with a large nose ring, in black leather jeans and boots, moves closer; her tattoos emerge as tales of feral power. “Nothing unique about us; you eat when you are hungry,” she smirks before walking away.
The wider lanes are sets of seduction. The azure of the sky is barely visible through strings of red, silver and ochre that shimmer in the burnt gold of dusk. Jasmine and marigolds are spread on dewy mounds of foliage, iridescent musk stands and paan carts line up, and grille balconies double as boudoirs edged with dancing neon. The old carved facades are coated in pinks, greens and yellows, and in crevices business moves to pavements dotted with bedding, like the tight path of Shanti Palace.
As afternoon dulls, the paths are choked with women and brokers. Saris sparkle and guile populates finer quarters, whereas lower cadres are in scanty garb in deeper areas. Doors are left ajar to reveal seedy scenes to lure customers; decibel levels of negotiations rise by the second. It’s their daily cycle of life.
Inside, charm cohabits with crudity; customary patterns in alpana decorate doorsills and ceilings with marigolds and rose petals, against brocade curtains in reds and indigo. These tiny spaces have fragments of life separated in three tiers — at the top is the family platform, the middle has a worship niche and stove and the ground level is the service area.
Ironically, Subhanker, my volunteer, is prey to be shielded. “Don’t leave him outside. Women will lynch him if he refuses,” says Poonam who has spent 25 years here. “I came here after divorce and go to meet my six children once a week. They live with my mother and I live with my babu [partner] who cooks, does the chores and sends money to his family from my earnings. Most older denizens have babus,” she says.
The air of empowerment is Sonagachi’s newest avatar; past lifetimes have left wounds that bleed into generations. Paromita, 55, meets me at the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), an initiative which has turned the colony’s fate around. “I got into this trade when there was child trafficking here to support my siblings. They moved on with normal lives; mine stood still. I have a babu and am a bai [madame] now,” she narrates. “We lived in dismal conditions — police raids, rape, child prostitution. Now there is a large Durga platform and processions, but until the late ’90s we were considered too impure to worship a goddess who is incomplete till the mud from a prostitute’s home isn’t mixed in her clay.”
Pramila Singh, having spent 40 years here, doesn’t mind if her educated daughter “comes into this line”. She vouches for DMSC too. “Now girls are free to roam and earn without fear of abuse.”
DMSC, founded by Dr Smarjit Jana, a public health scientist, in 1992, is now run by the community. A marginal community development programme, it ensures prevention from violence, child labour, HIV and STDs, provides micro loans, vocational, sports and arts training.
“No girl will entertain a customer who refuses precaution and there’s a price chart for fetishes,” says Paromita. “We have three-monthly blood tests and a doctor on call round the clock. A board monitors new girls. If she is unwilling or underage, we organise paperwork to return them to guardians. Our union ensures basic civil rights and a secure future for sex workers.”
Usha Bank and Usha Multipurpose Cooperative Society were established in 1995 and employ sex workers or relatives and sends out over 50 collectors for door-to-door service.
The collective addresses the soul too. “We have weekly meetings where sex workers are counselled for past traumas,” says Paromita. “Without recognising sex work as an occupation, support services will not empower women in sex work to live with dignity. It requires courage to challenge our mindset. This will help women in general and sex workers in particular to regain their sociopolitical space,” says Dr Jana.
Shohini Ghosh, director of the award-winning documentary on Sonagachi, Tales of the Night Fairies,supports Jana. “I made the film to make an intervention in the feminist debate on sex work, where the abolitionist position was dominant.”
The model has been replicated in South Africa and in Bangladesh. There is little reason for it not to inspire Pakistan’s health activists to adapt it so that thousands can be saved from violence and disease.
In Paromita’s words, “There’s no one way to see us. From one angle we are a tragedy, from another, we’re free. In the end we’re all dust.”
Many believe there is an end. But choice cannot be extinguished.