“When I was young, I loved watching my mother get ready every evening,” says Sheetal Jain, as she stands on a podium of Josh Talks, dressed in a simple striped top and jeans.
She recalls how she would take it upon herself to help her mother deck up–whether it was applying makeup or draping the saree just right!
Her mother was one among the many women in her infamous neighborhood in Mumbai. Dressed and decked to their best, they would stand and wait in front of taxis. And while the others waited for customers, her mother would sit in one of the cabs and go away.
“I didn’t understand at the time, why she would leave home late in the evening. It was only after I grew a little older when I understood that my mother was a bar dancer. Yes, I am the daughter of a bar dancer,” she adds, stunning the audience into silence.
Sheetal Jain was born in India’s oldest and Mumbai’s largest red light area, Kamathipura. While her maternal grandmother was a commercial sex worker, her mother took to bar dancing to make ends meet.
She told Josh Talks, “When I say Kamathipura, everybody thinks that it is the worst place to live. But it is my home. When I was growing up, people often mocked me saying ‘Your mother is a bar dancer, you too will grow up to become one.’ But they failed to understand that I didn’t want to and neither did my mother.”
She wasn’t ashamed of her mother being a bar dancer. But it did bother her when she would return every night with a different man. There were times when she hated the environment she was growing up in, even hated her mother’s line of work. But at the time, there wasn’t much she could do.
One of the many customers of her mother, Sunil Jain, soon became her unwed husband and Sheetal’s step-father. In the bar dancer circle, he was called her ‘fake’ husband.
This was the man who sexually abused Sheetal. Not once, but several times.
She opens up about this in an interview with #iMumbai, which chronicled the heroic journeys of people who turned their dreams into reality.
“When I was living in hostels in Jabalpur and Goa, and returned home to visit family during the vacations, he would come to pick me up. It happened quite a few times that when my hostel let us leave for the holidays on a particular day, he wouldn’t take me home the same day. Instead, he would take me to a lodge. When I would get up the following morning, there would be no clothes on my body,” she chokes up.
“At the time I did not understand, why he did what he did because he would shower me with more love than my brother in front of everyone. So I used to think that it was his way of expressing love. But I failed to understand why it hurt me unbearably,” she shares.
Sheetal did not understand that she was sexually abused until she joined Mumbai-based NGO, Kranti, “I realised he had been raping me. And that it wasn’t my fault.”
Kranti is an NGO that works with daughters and children of commercial sex workers to help them become agents of social change.
Her experience during her stay at Kranti was different from the other hostels or NGOs she had lived she tells #IMumbai. “Everywhere I went, people would tell me to hide my mother’s identity. But I would constantly wonder why I shouldn’t tell people. My mother too did labour to earn her living. She danced. When women who perform item numbers are respected and congratulated for being entertainers, then why was my mother who was also dancing on a stage being called a whore?”
This question kept bothering her.
The constant switching of NGOs and hostels through her childhood impeded her academics. She could never pursue her education in an orderly manner. If she were in class four in one place, she would be in class seven in the next and class 10 in the following one.
“Many of these places never allowed us to explore the world. All we were expected to do was to sit at home and study. Like most girls my age, I had a boyfriend too. When the authorities at the NGO came to know, they stopped me from appearing for my Class 10 boards and coerced me to sit at home. It was a crucial year for me because I never had access to education. It was at that time that I returned to Kranti. It was a space which used therapy, outings, music, workshops, internships etc. to help me explore my potential and turn my life around. It was through their programme that I understood my one true passion – Drums,” she told Josh Talks.
She loved drums in her formative years too. She would look in awe as the local drummers played lively beats during Ganapati Immersion.
“They were often boys, so I used to think that only boys could play dholaks and drums and I that would never be able to do it. But during music classes that Robin and Bani Di enrolled me in, I realised girls could be kickass drummers too.”
She wasn’t as inclined to academics as she was to music. She recalls how Robin Chaurasiya and Bani Das were one of the first people in her life to ask her what she wanted to do. It was then that she communicated to the two women that she wanted to pursue drums.
“When I first came to Kranti, I was full of anger. But Robin and Bani Di helped me through it. I earned a half-scholarship to USA, Washington DC, for ten months to pursue my passion. I was a part of a band and performed with them too. It was a beautiful learning experience,” she says, delightfully.
Once she returned, she was unsure of the path she would take. But she decided to attend the first-level workshop for djembe. Her interest grew, and she learned how she could use the rhythm of the instrument to connect people and narrate her story.
“I have now learned to dream. And needless to say, I love dreaming. My vision is to help other girls and children in Kamathipura like me explore their potential through music. I want to set up a café where they can attend classes and workshops which give them equal opportunities to understand their strengths,” she adds.
She works as a music therapist and plays the drums.
“To all those who think that their background is their weakness, I want to say – Your background is not your weakness, it is your strength. Don’t let your past decide who you are going to be in your future. We all live under the same sky. It doesn’t discriminate against anyone based on their social backgrounds. So reach for the skies, because a part of the same sky belongs to us too,” she signs off.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)