Not helpless victims of fate

Print edition : April 22, 2005
in Kolkata

A sex worker fetches her son, Pappu, from school at Sonagachi. Pappu was crippled by an accident in infancy.-PARTH SANYAL

AT first glance, Sonagachi is all that one might imagine it to be - dilapidated houses, dark, dingy alleys, pimps and provocatively dressed sex workers everywhere. The bleakness is pathetic, and a little unnerving. There is no gloss about India's largest red-light district: this is no Amsterdam with a thriving sex-tourism business. But the first glance does not reveal the changes in the parallel society of Sonagachi that have come about over the years. Only a closer look at the lives of the 9,000 sex workers who make a living there - 6,000 attached to brothels and 3,000 `fliers' or street walkers - will reveal that change.

It is not as if the `respectable' people of Kolkata are not aware of Sonagachi. After all, it has been a `place of disrepute' for more than 120 years. It is just that until it came into the news with Born Into Brothels winning an Oscar, not too many of them gave it much thought. As a result, it remained a sinister, mysterious place - the haunt of criminals and the depraved - in their minds, an impression that the documentary reinforces. But in truth, Sonagachi has come a long way from its archetypal portrayals.

Shyamali Gupta, president of the All India Democratic Women's Association in West Bengal, told Frontline: "I have not seen the documentary yet, but from what I am told, a lot of things have been suggested in it that are not true. In fact, a lot of development has been taking place at Sonagachi for a while, thanks to the non-governmental organisations working there. The instances of oppression by pimps and policemen have come down drastically. The women are now aware of their rights and they want the next generation to have a better life. Their children can now use their mothers' names to get admitted in schools. Moreover, thanks to many vocational courses, the women are becoming more productive with their lives outside their profession."

There are around 850 minors among children of sex workers who live in Sonagachi. At a conservative estimate, 70 per cent of them go to corporation and other primary schools in and around the area. There are evening schools within the red-light area to keep the children occupied during peak business hours, and also five vocational training centres for the children and their mothers. "That more and more girls among the children of sex workers are attending school is ample evidence of the change that is coming about. Efforts are on to bring the children of Sonagachi into the mainstream, and we do not require foreign help for that. But most people don't really want the true picture. They would rather stick to the traditional notion," Shyamali Gupta said.

Thirty-three-year-old Roma Debnath has been in the profession for around 10 years. She has three children; two girls aged 15 and 13 and a boy of 11. All three go to school. The girls are in Standard VIII and VII, while the boy studies in Standard VI. "By giving them an education, I am doing my duty as a mother. After that, it is up to them to decide what they want to do with their lives," Roma told Frontline.

Neither she nor her children think her profession is shameful in any way. "It is through my work that I can assure an education for them, and they know that very well," she said. When asked whether she would like her daughters to join the trade, she was non-committal at first: "If that is what they wish to do, I will not stop them. They know what kind of life this is." Prodded further about her aspirations for the children, she said, "I want them to take up a profession that is socially useful. I want them to make their mark in society."

Attitudes are changing, but old prejudices die hard, as Jharna Ghosh found out when she tried to put her boys, now aged 12 and 14, in school. "When they realised that I was a sex worker, they tried to find ways of keeping my boys out. They asked to see the father. But I fought tooth and nail and got my boys admitted under my surname," Jharna told Frontline. It was a big victory for her, but it was not the end of the war. Her children, Babla and Raja, initially faced ostracism from schoolmates and victimisation from the teachers. "One day my younger son was beaten by a teacher for smelling a flower in the school garden, as if his touch would make it impure. But I kept fighting with the school authorities, and finally they came to accept my children in their social fold," she said.

If a customer comes calling when the children are around, they play outside or watch television at a neighbour's room. If she works at night, the children sleep on the other side of a wooden partition that divides her tiny room, a common practice in brothels. However hard the situation is, Jharna is determined that her children should not be denied opportunities that are accessible to others. "My children know what I do, and when they say they are proud of me, it makes my travails easier to bear. My elder son wants to be a judge when he grows up, and the younger one wants the same because he does not want to be far from his brother," she said.

For ageing sex-worker Champa Das, her 11-year-old son Pappu is a constant source of anguish. The boy walks with difficulty, crippled by an accident he had when he was very young. He stumbles along on his thin, crooked legs, satchel on back, through the narrow alleys of Sonagachi, taking a shortcut to school. His ambition is to become a motor mechanic. He finds it hard to cope with schoolwork. "I like to study Bengali, because that is the only subject that I can understand," he told Frontline. Champa thinks he needs private tuition, but she cannot afford it. "I am getting old and do not get as many customers as I used to," she said. Yet, she does not want to be separated from the boy. ""Who will take care of him and love him more than his mother? Besides, we want our children to know that what we do is our job, like any other job," she said emphatically.

Many of those who have worked for the uplift of red-light areas also believe that it is not always a good idea to separate sex workers from their children. "I personally believe a child needs family protection while growing up. Whatever the social situation, a foster home cannot give the affection that a mother gives," said Shyamali Gupta.

Bharati Deb, who is associated with Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, an NGO that works in Sonagachi told Frontline: "If the sex workers did not care about their children, it would not have been possible to make so much progress here."

The sex workers' attitude towards their profession and their children reflects the change that has come about at Sonagachi. They are more confident, more assertive and are not willing to make compromises about their children's future.

Thirty-seven-year-old Purnima Naik, who has been a sex worker for more than 16 years, does not believe that children born into brothels have little option but to follow their mothers. "Even earlier, when there were not so many NGOs helping us, no sex worker would want her daughter in the trade. And we want that even less now, when there are more opportunities for our children to get an education and have another life," she said, adding, "but I am not saying that there is anything shameful in what we do."

Twenty-two-year-old Saikat Das has shown that being born at a brothel need not seal one's fate. His mother, Ritan Das, is a graduate and joined the profession when he was in Standard VIII. Saikat is now doing B.Com. He works part time at Durbar as a computer typist and plays cricket in the club division. "I want to do my masters in Computer Application. That is going to be my career," Saikat told Frontline.

Even the children who played a central role in Born Into Brothels went to school before they met Zana Briski. Fourteen-year-old Puja, one of the main characters in the documentary, said, "We were all attending school when Zana Aunty met us. My school is Matri Jati Sevak Samity. At that time even my friend Suchitra went to school, though now she has dropped out and works as a maid servant." According to Gour, another child in the documentary, the children's association with Briski gave them a sense of purpose. But even he was already enrolled in a school - Iritala Bangavidyalaya - before that happened. "Even though I was supposed to go to school, I hardly ever attended. I wasted my time hanging around my neighbourhood. But later I started going to school because I realised the need to get an education before I become a photographer," he told Frontline.

Briski's association with the children goes back to 1997, when none of them was in their teens yet. Puja said, "Zana Aunty would stay with us for some days, then she would go back again. Sometimes she would be here for 10 days, then leave, and then come back again after two years. But she always kept in touch with us. The moment she won the Oscar she called me up, early in the morning."

The filming of the documentary was completed in 2001.

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