Tuesday, 28 January 2020: It was 12:30 pm. I was on the transit bridge that connects Ghatkopar metro station to its central railway counterpart. The Thane local arrived and I boarded it to head to the Central Mumbai suburb of Bhandup. Another 20 minutes of inhaling the local train air, I arrived at Bhandup. This was the first time I set my foot into the area. Walking out of the station, I hailed the first rickshaw that drove into my sight.
“Kidhar jaayega, Madam?” (Where do you want to go, Madam?) the driver asked nonchalantly.
“Sonapur chaloge?” (Will you drop me to Sonapur?) I asked.
And there it was. The instant transformation in the way he looked at me.
I noticed and felt in just a microsecond. The indifferent expression in his eyes convoluted into something resembling horror and judgement. It was slightly unsettling as his gaze scanned me from top to bottom.
Churidar, kurta and dupatta. Triple-check.
By the time I looked up, he had scurried away. I garnered the same response from the next five rickshaw drivers who refused to ferry me to the location.
There was no way. I decided to take the 30-minute walk to Sonapur.
And just like that, I am in the heart of North Mumbai’s lesser-known red-light district where underworld crime syndicates run prostitution rings. This is where spine-chilling and heart-wrenching stories come alive.
“Ab toh buddhi ho gaya hun, toh mushkil hai kamaai,” says Farida. Meaning she’s older now, so it’s harder to make money.
While Roopmati, another woman I am speaking with, entered the sex trade only two years ago, Farida has been in the business for almost two decades. None of their family members know that they work as commercial sex workers. Except for Farida’s second husband, a rickshaw driver in the city, with whom she has a nine-year-old daughter.
The veteran of the two continues speaking about how the bazaar no longer runs the way it did ten years ago. The market that once fetched them almost a lakh a month, now has their earnings dwindling to less than Rs 10,000-15,000.
I entered Sonapur with the help of Purnata, an NGO that focuses on rehabilitating women involved in sex work. On reaching the area I call Anagha, who facilitated my visit to the Purnata’s established centre in the area. A lady called Sangeetha picks me up from the entrance of Sonapur. We walk and talk about how long she has worked with the organisation.
Four years, she says.
We walk for a few minutes and enter a narrow lane as she beckons me to turn left. It feels like the walls on either side will close on me anytime. But 15 steps later, the path expands into another cramped lane. This time, a broader one.
A gutter runs from the centre of the gully, parting the rows of homes on either side, which are painted in bright shades of blue. What grabs my attention aren’t the chipped walls or battered doors, but the women who sit on the verandahs.
One washes her face, three detangle their hair, laughing away to jokes privy only to them as older women look on. Dressed in low-neck nighties, decked in gold, with well-plucked eyebrows, a hint of blush on their cheeks and bright red lipstick adorning their lips, they wait for the first customers of the day.
Their eyes are fixed on me, the intruder. The gaze is piercing, and they do not try to hide it. It is intimidating and makes me uncomfortable. But I mask my expression and walk up the stairs to reach Purnata’s centre.
“The rules are clear. The sex worker cannot leave the brothel or refuse a customer.”
Farida gives me a sneak peek of her place of work.
Each room in a brothel, depending on its size, has space for three to eight sex workers. In contrast to other cramped rooms in the vicinity, she shows me a dormitory-like hall. It has wooden bunks rising to the ceiling.
She tells me that all the women who live in that particular dorm work there, and at the same time. While I digest this, she tells me that many of them are unwed mothers. Their children, who are too young to understand what is happening, sleep in the corner or under the bunks. Only a thin veil of a curtain separates them from their mothers who trade their bodies to give them a better life.
Like Farida, the stories of many others who work in red-light areas across Mumbai, including the oldest district at Kamathipura, are similar.
My journey to understand these places also leads me to the doorstep of Rescue Foundation, an anti-trafficking NGO. Operating for the last 30 years, the NGO comes full circle–rescuing trafficked women and girls and rehabilitating them. It has impacted more than 5,000 girls and women to date.
Girls as young as nine are sold for Rs 50,000 to Rs 3,00,000, while older women are sold for much less. They come from across the country and even beyond the borders, from Nepal and Bangladesh. Their abject poverty makes them and their families vulnerable to fake promises and hollow opportunities for big money in bigger cities.
And for some, the chance of finding love.
My conversation with Triveni Acharya brings to light many horrors. She’s the co-founder of Rescue Foundation.
When newly-trafficked girls are brought in, they are put in what is called a pinjra or a cage. Triveni adds how the pinjra still exists in Kamathipura. It is a wooden cell or bunk where the victim is kept until she is brainwashed into becoming a seasoned sex worker.
While underground elements benefit from a brothel, gharwalis or housekeepers run the place. Often, she’s an older woman who has been in the trade all her life.
“99 per cent of brothel keepers are women, who were trafficked at some stage in their lives. Unable to escape, they were brutalised and brainwashed into thinking that they were outcasts. And that their bodies were mere commodities. Because many of them were rejected by their families and societies at large, they became veteran sex workers. And as they grow older, they take up the reigns of the brothel,” says Triveni.
They are feared and keep the workers on a tight leash. They cook, wash, and keep the rooms clean, ensuring that the girls do not escape.
“The gharwalis use different methods to make the newbies give in to the trade. From coaxing them with sweet, comforting words to pressuring them meanly. Statements like ‘We have paid so much money to buy you. How can you just leave?’ are common. If the girls don’t listen, they are intimidated, gang-raped, and emotionally traumatised. Women who are trafficked with their daughters are sexually abused in front of each other. They are starved, burned around their breast and genital areas with cigarette butts, chained with fetters, and forced to undergo sterilisation, so they don’t procreate. Many of them don’t even see sunlight for days.”
Despite the torture, some refuse to give up. They are told that if they work hard enough and recover the amount they were sold for, they will be free to go.
The ones who escape are transferred to other brothels where they are tortured further. They are put under bandhan, which is similar to what the corporate world calls a ‘probationary period’.
During this time, they work to recover the money which was spent to ‘buy’ them. They don’t earn a penny, just food, clothing and accommodation.
“The rules are clear. The sex worker cannot leave the brothel or refuse a customer. Once the principal sum of her karja or loan is recovered, she gets paid half the money. Healthcare is an additional expense.”
Though most women leave the brothel once they have paid off their loans, many can’t find employment elsewhere due to illiteracy. Being rejected by their own families makes things worse.
They return, this time for themselves, to make good money.
“Even if I have to sell my own blood, I will do it to educate my kids”: Roopmati
Back in Sonapur, a woman in her late 30s, Roopmati is dressed in a bright nightgown and an equally colourful dupatta. Not a hair peeks out of her tight bun. Her eyebrows are thick and well-brushed, the effort to maintain it visible. Her lips are lined with a subtle-shade of lipstick in stark contrast to the other women. A large bindi adorns her forehead. Her ears have multiple piercings, each adorned with a gold earring.
I cannot help but notice the mangalsutra underneath the dupatta.
She grew up in Khedegaon, in rural Maharashtra. Fourth of seven siblings, born to a homemaker and a marginal farmer, she never lived in a pucca home, just a shed with makeshift tin sheet walls.
When she was merely seven, her father passed away. It was the beginning of the worst.
She begins, “My mother was illiterate and couldn’t afford to send me to school. I envied the girls who went to school every day, while I toiled in the harsh sun from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for a meagre wage of Rs 10. And yet, a square meal was a luxury. Sometimes when the flour was not enough for eight of us, my aai (mother) would add water and make transparent rotis. We’d joke that if we looked closely, we could see the silhouette of the person sitting on the opposite side. I thought marriage would relieve me of my poverty. But I was wrong.”
Her voice is husky and guarded. She was married at an early age to an older man, who worked as a driver.
“He was illiterate, with elderly parents to care for and no proper home. His monthly salary was Rs 10,000 for the longest time. So I did household chores for five years to earn a menial sum. While this sufficed to run the household and pay medical bills for his parents, it fell short of funding the education for my kids. I couldn’t bear to watch them live the same life as me.”
A neighbour told her about a work opportunity in Mumbai, and Roopmati set out for the city of dreams.
In retrospect, we all know how this goes. The neighbour had lied to her.
“I am sure he earned a commission in bringing me here. If I were educated, I could at least move a pen or do some work for a company to fund my children’s education. But what could an illiterate woman do? My husband and children would hate me if they ever find that I am doing sex work. But I have no other option. I will not let the lives of my children be ruined like mine. I won’t let my daughter be pushed to the extremes for being uneducated like I was.”
Her earnings have now helped her purchase a home in Pune.
Roopmati’s eyes well up as she tells me how she’s spent over Rs 3 lakh from the trade on the education of her two kids–a son and a daughter. While her daughter is now studying at a private-cum-NGO-run agricultural college in Pune, her son has returned from the residential school he was studying at to stay with her husband and in-laws.
She sounds troubled as she speaks about them. A little coaxing reveals that the partner NGO she entrusted the education of her children had conned her. Despite spending lakhs of rupees over the last three years, Roopmati was never given a receipt. The children were admitted as orphans to save the costs of education, food, and accommodation. The truth never came out because every time she spoke to her children, the warden at the hostel would put the phone on speaker. The administration there even put up a fight to send the children home during their Christmas vacation last year despite it being the first time they were returning home.
“They knew that I was working as a commercial sex worker to educate my children. When they refused to send the children, and referred to me as their relative and not as their mother, I was shocked. I had to pay an additional Rs 9,000 to bring them home,” she shares.
And that’s not all.
When Roopmati’s daughter finally came home that Christmas, she burst out crying, sharing the mean things the hostel staff kept telling her. They even made the children clean toilets, work in the fields, and fetch groceries from the market. Often, her son was bullied and beaten up, even being made to beg.
“Once when they refused to eat dinner, one of the staff told them, “‘Madam, yeh dhandewali ke bacchon ke bahut natak hai.’ (Madam, the kids of this prostitute are too fussy). I was aghast. My heart broke as my daughter kept asking me what a dhandewali meant. I told her it refers to vendors who sell goods. I don’t think she was convinced.”
I ask Roopmati, if she plans to leave the red-light area. She says, “I am adamant to clear my pending loan of Rs 30,000 and get out of here as soon as possible. I feel my husband and daughter suspect that I work here. But I just want my kids to get educated and never see the life that I have lived. Agar badan ka khoon bhi bechna pade, toh karunga. Lekin mere baccha log ko padhayega. Yeh line mein nahi aane dega. (Even if I have to sell my own blood to educate my daughter, I will. But I won’t let her step into my line of work).”
“My daughter is nine. She dreams of becoming a doctor or an IPS officer”: Farida
I am overwhelmed. But before I wipe the tears that are flowing down my cheeks, I hear a sniffle. It’s Farida. Her reaction comes from a place of deep hurt, not just for her friend, Roopmati, but also her own life. Her lost dreams, her yearning for her daughter.
In her early 40s, Farida is one of the veteran sex workers in the area. Her face is devoid of any make up. Just a tiny bindi, her hair in a messy bun.
She isn’t willing to open up to me in the first few minutes, just offers me a few words here or a sentence there.
I stop trying and wait.
Slowly, she opens up. Her Hindi has a heavy Bengali accent.
I learned that Kolkata was anything but the city of joy for her. Her family was very poor. She was married and had three sons, but was soon abandoned by her husband.
In time, she grew estranged from her in-laws who took her sons away from her. She then came to the maximum city 20 years ago, and has spent most of those years in the sex trade.
“In the first few years, I did household chores at Sanpada. But the money was barely enough. I found love for the second time 13 years ago, and remarried.”
Farida’s husband is an autorickshaw driver and they have a nine-year-old daughter, who has been studying in a residential school in Pune. She tells me that her husband knows about her line of work.
I asked her if there was no other way of funding her daughter’s education. She answers, “Didi, bolna asaan hai. Jab zarurat tha tab kisine madat nahi ki. Toh mai haath kyun failau? Main apne paise ka kamata hun, khata hun, aur baccha ko padata hun.” (Sister, it is easy to tell someone not to do sex work. But when I was in dire need of money, nobody helped me. Now, why should I beg? I earn my money, fill my stomach, and fund my daughter’s education).
After spending two decades in the business as she approaches her 40s, she doesn’t have big dreams. But smaller ones. Not for her, but for her daughter.
“My husband stays in Uttar Pradesh. When the time is right, I will move there with my daughter. We’ll start a new life. For now, I just want her to complete her education.”
She tries to smile, but I can sense her masking her pain.
She tells me, “Choosing this life wasn’t easy. I may appear composed to you but I can’t sleep at night. Sometimes, I lay in bed awake until 4 a.m., thinking about what my life has become. But I wonder if it would have been different if I was born in a middle-class family, got an education, found love and raised my child differently. But when I look at the glint and delight in my daughter’s eyes every time I visit her, nothing else matters. What matters is that she is getting educated. She will never live the life that I did.”
Farida visits her daughter twice every month. She boards a bus late on Fridays so that they can spend the whole of Saturday together. Naturally, she looks forward to the visits.
“I stay up on Fridays cooking everything she likes. You should see the happiness on her face, as she devours everything. She is studying in Class 2 in an English-medium school and tells me that her dream is to become a doctor or an IPS officer. Every time I pay her fee, she signs for me. For the longest time, her teachers thought I couldn’t speak. So she told them, ‘My mummy finds it difficult to interact in English and Marathi. So please speak to her in Hindi.’ The teachers are all very fond of her. They say she is a bright girl and that she will achieve something big in life. And at times like these, I can’t stop the tears.”
Sangeetha brings us tea and that’s when I realise that I have been tearing up too.
But Farida smiles as she shows me pictures of her little girl. I admire the fondness in her eyes as she tells me about visits to her daughter in the last three years.
In that moment, she is not a sex worker, but a loving mother, working hard to provide for her daughter.
“Won’t lose my life to earn an extra buck, right?”
I ask the women how they protect themselves against HIV or other STDs.
Roopmati quips, “We place our safety before anything else. We have watched young women and girls suffer and die from unprotected sex. So our rules for our customers are clear. If someone asks for unsafe sex, we tell them to leave. We don’t engage in unprotected sex with any customer no matter where they come from or who they are.”
Who are their customers?
Farida answers that they come from all backgrounds. From a rickshaw driver to a cop. Some have families, others stay alone in the city to scrape a living.
“They reach our doorstep for their needs,” she says, adding, “For us, it isn’t about intimacy. Just a transaction. Some pay Rs 500, others Rs 1,000. Once a man tried to push me into having unprotected sex. He offered to pay Rs 5,000. I told him to either put on a condom and give me my regular rate, or leave, and that I wouldn’t consent even if he paid me a lakh. Do rupayee ke liye apni jaan thodi gavayega! (Won’t lose my life to earn an extra buck, right?). Only if we live, will we be able to help our children and work for a few more years.”
“The bazaar no longer runs like it did.”
The red-light areas in Mumbai no longer make the business they once did.
This is changing with law enforcement striking down on brothels. While they continue in privacy, they have to protect themselves too.
And the attitudes of sex workers doesn’t aid their dwindling incomes.
Roopmati says, “Many of them transfer here from other brothels. Since this place is not as exploitative, their attitude changes. In the greed to gain more money, many of them loot customers and hit them. The gharwalis here also assist them. They abuse the customers and blackmail them. This inconveniences the rest of us who are working hard. But what can we do?”
Not much, and life goes on for many of them.
I revisit Triveni, who has worked in the anti-trafficking sector for the last 30 years to know more about the legal stand on commercial sex work.
“It is a grey area,” she says.
“There are several loopholes. While there are clear laws on the trafficking of humans for the sex trade, there is no clarity on the exploitation of women above 18 who are living and earning in prostitution. Besides, the social stigma from 30 years ago still exists. So, many of these women have nowhere to go. But with the new anti-trafficking law that is under consideration, rules on rescue, rehabilitate and compensation of trafficked individuals as well as exploited commercial sex workers will become clearer.”
Fear, risk, betrayal: the carousel keeps turning
Rescue Foundation also handles in-brothel counselling. Leveraging their pool of informers, investigators and spies, they conduct raids and rescue operations in red-light areas. The investigators put their lives on the line and disguise themselves as customers. They focus on minors, and once they are left alone in the room with the girl, they counsel her.
Sometimes it takes multiple visits to the brothels to build trust with the minors, who are scared for their lives and have already lived the worst form of betrayal. The interaction is risky–not only for the minor–but also the investigator whose identity is protected at all costs.
Triveni says, “Once the trust is built, the girls open up about their sorrows and insecurities. It is only when she gives us her consent and agrees to cooperate with us, do our informers report back to us. After a few days, we file an FIR and raid the brothel with the police. We do not enter the red light district without police protection.”
There have been attacks on investigators in the past. One of their investigators was stabbed five years ago. Triveni lost her husband, the leading founder of Rescue Foundation, 15 years ago. She suspects that his accident was framed, but that hasn’t stopped her from continuing her work.
Do women always cooperate or have there been instances where they backed out?
She answers, “Sometimes, girls change their statements, lie about their age or state that they are working out of choice. Even though they do this out of fear, there isn’t much we can do for them after this. Many are stuck in the cycle of prostitution because they are convinced there is no life for them in the outside world. But at other times, when we go to rescue one girl, several others step up.”
Once rescued, the girls move into the Foundation’s residential facility and go through a series of processes to regain stability and balance. Apart from legal proceedings to punish their perpetrators, the survivors also attend counselling sessions and therapy to deal with the trauma. They are enrolled in training courses, and provided with education and employment.
Like Rescue Foundation, Purnata too works with law enforcement agencies on prevention and rescue. As their website says, their mission is “Protecting the vulnerable. Restoring the stolen”. Their team does surveillance of major railway stations in the city and rescues children in transit at railway stations and other nodal points.
In five years, Purnata has rescued over 30 victims of trafficking, including 15 minors. It has rehabilitated and reintegrated 12 survivors into mainstream society. It supports them by helping them find love and get married. It has also ensured safe housing for 25 children who were at risk of being trafficked. Its awareness programmes have reached more than 50,000 people.
Purnata has a centre for women in Sonapur where they hold training, counselling sessions, and events. They also run a daycare centre for kids, providing quality education, nutritious meals, and activities to promote hygiene and good health.
As I leave Sonapur, my heart feels heavier than usual. But the smiles of Farida and Roopmati lighten the burden, even if by a feather’s weight. As they bid me goodbye, they tell me, “Didi, aap se baat karke mann halka ho gaya! (Sister, speaking to you has lightened our burden).“
It’s not often that they share their sorrows.
“Sometimes, we wish to share our stories with people who care. But nobody has time. In fact, they laugh and mock us. It’s easier to judge dhandewalis, no?” says Roopmati.
As I let their words sink in, I realise that these women are warriors in the true sense. I lament the thought that if they had better opportunities, they would perhaps not trade their bodies.
“Ab chalein, didi? Bohot kaam ruka pada hai,” (Should we leave now, Sister? A lot of work is pending)” they jolt me back from my thoughts to the daily grind.
I hug them tight as I leave, promising to drop by the next time I am around.
I leave the space. But I carry their stories in my heart.
Support Purnata’s work by sending your donations to the details below:
Bank: Kotak Mahindra Bank
Branch: Sher-E-Punjab, Andheri East
Account no: 0011506058
IFSC code: KKBK0001363
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)
The names of the protagonists have been changed to protect their identities.