It didn’t matter for Kolkata-based Surjo (name changed) that the girl he was falling in love with had a stigmatised and horrific past. He saw Sulekha (name changed), his co-worker in a factory, as someone who was brave enough to fight her circumstances and remodel her life.
Sulekha, who was forced into prostitution at an early age, was also betrayed by her own family and abused mercilessly at the hands of her former employer. She found it hard to trust anyone. But Surjo waited patiently for a year till she finally came around in 2015. Today, they are happily married with a four-year-old son.
Breaking away from social stigma and discrimination that is often intertwined with the daily lives of former sex workers, the couple are an epitome of what true love can conquer. The Better India spoke to the couple about what it means to break stereotypes in a society filled with regressive mindsets.
‘I Woke Up Chained to a Bed’
Sulekha grew up in Nandakumar, a quaint village in Medinipur district of West Bengal. But her childhood was filled with trauma. Her father regularly beat her mother and when she tried to intervene, she would get beaten too. For years she yearned for love but only tolerated abuse. At the age of 10, she decided to put an end to her sufferings and ran away from home.
She walked to the nearest railway station to board a train and find a job in another city. But watching her all alone, two men approached her and offered her food. In return, they asked her to work for them.
“I had no idea what ‘work’ they wanted me to do but I was so hungry and scared that I blindly trusted and went along with them. They took me to a home and gave me the most delicious food I had ever eaten. But after eating it I became unconscious, and when I woke up, I found myself chained to a bed in a brothel,” recalls Sulekha. She didn’t know it then but later realised she was held hostage in Haldia district, which was only a couple hours away from home.
She mentions how her innocence was shredded overnight when she was forced to engage in intercourse with clients. Every inch of her body hurt and she remembers crying herself to sleep every night. If she refused to participate in intercourse, she was punished with cigarette burns and beatings all over her body.
Finally, during a raid in 2009 she was rescued by the police. While this may have been a boon to many, Sulekha was freed from a murky world only to reenter a society that labelled her as an ‘immoral outcast’.
“The International Justice Mission (IJM) [an NGO focused on human rights and law enforcement] took me back home but my family had disowned me. On entering my house I saw my picture adorned with a garland. I was dead to them. My mother didn’t even look at me let alone offer me a drink or something to eat,” she recalls.
Having nowhere else to go, IJM took Sulekha to their shelter in Kolkata and provided her vocational training in baking. Sulekha would then go on to intern with a confectionery on Park Street before getting a job at a bag factory where she met Surjo.
Finding Love and Dignity
Though she had left the brothel, the emotional scars and nightmares stayed with her for a very long time. It became impossible to trust anyone, including her employers at the new factory. She tells me, every time a man looked at her on the street she would walk faster. On most days, she preferred staying inside the shelter.
“A simple conversation at the bakery seemed like a mammoth task. Forced prostitution had taken a toll on my mental health, and, in the beginning, no amount of counselling from IJM helped,” she says, adding, “On a couple of occasions, I tried to kill myself but didn’t succeed. I was a hopeless soul who was stripped of her identity. It took me years to accept that it was not my fault.”
As Sulkeha tried to settle into her job at the bag factory, she caught the attention of Surjo. All he saw was a young shy woman earnestly doing her work. He shared his feelings with Sulekha through a mutual friend but to his dismay she dismissed them on multiple occasions.
“I had accepted my fate that no one would ever marry me after learning about my past. My own family abandoned me and this was still a co-worker,” she says.
Shedding all her inhibitions, one day, Sulekha faced her fears and told Surjo the truth about her past. “I gathered the courage to tell him everything — from my childhood struggles to the circumstances that led me to become a sex worker,” she says. She anticipated judgment or disgust from him, but for Surjo, what mattered was their present and future.
“It was love at first sight with Sulekha,” says Surjo, adding, “After learning of her hardships, I liked and respected her even more. I thought — ‘here is a strong woman, who refuses to bow down to situations and makes her own destiny’. I wanted to give her a better life and all the love she never got when she was growing up.”
Surjo introduced Sulekha to his family, and a few months later, they were married.
Every love story has its ups and downs and two people who are willing to stick with each other through thick and thin. Surjo didn’t victimise his wife, and instead fought stereotypes to be with her. Sulekha remains a ray of hope for us all, reminding us that even if you’re facing the darkest hour, life can turn around.
Today, Sulekha tells me that she has finally found the happiness and peace that she had always yearned for as a child. “He loves cooking so he takes care of the food while I am a cleanliness freak. Our days are incomplete without small banters and it’s very hard for both of us to stay upset with each other for long after a fight,” says Sulekha, giving us a tiny glimpse of their blissful married life.
Edited by Yoshita Rao