Every year, as the dark, clouded skies of monsoon gives way to the sun-filled days of autumn, the people of Bengal welcome mother Durga with great pomp and glory. The idol of Durga stands tall with the trishul in her hand piercing the chest of the asura (demon) at her feet, as a symbol of feminine power.
Palms folded in a devoted namaskar I stood in awe before the imposing ten-handed and armoured idol of Devi Durga. As I stood below the idol amidst a crowd of spirited men, women and children, I witnessed the smoke from the yagna (holy fire) blurring the idol’s view. The grey smoke mingled with sunlight, outside the pandal, reminded me of the ‘punya mati’ (dust of purity) which comes from the forbidden and dark lanes (nishiddho pallis) of Kolkata, where a different version of the Durga Puja was being held.
A three minutes’ walk from the Sovabazar metro station will take you to the dark alleys of Sonagachi, which is home to over 10,000 sex workers, rendering it the largest red-light district in Asia. Here, you will witness a string of women lining the pavement beside the main road glittering like fireflies in the murky backgrounds of the age-old buildings. They are the sex-workers of Sonagachi.
Tops with dropping necklines, sarees draped to give a glimpse of their cleavage, lips painted bright red, faces smudged with white powder, the women are always ready to hook customers from the streets. However, inspite of all the glitter, the dullness lurking in the eyes of these women cannot be missed. Most of them are here by force. Stricken by poverty or victims in the hands of the trafficking mafia, these women have no escape. With over a hundred multi-storeyed brothels, Sonagachi is always busy serving clients. For as low as $2, men can buy anyone they desire. Facing tough competition, the women, here, have very little bargaining power. And the battle for the sexual health and rights of the sex-workers is an ongoing battle. The Government and NGOs, inspite of best efforts, find keeping HIV at bay a daily ordeal. While condom use is advised not everyone follows through because a condom too costs money.
In 1995, with the aid of government and NGO’s, the women of Sonagachi formed a committee, the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Samiti, to protect the interests of the community. In October 2013, after years of struggle, the Samiti finally had their plea heard by the Calcutta High Court for holding a Durga Puja in the forbidden streets of Kolkata. While celebrating a Hindu festival in the infamous streets of Sonagachi was unthinkable a few years back the women still consider it to be a major victory. However the High Court, in 2014 denied them the right to scale up the size of the celebration. I guess the rigid Hindu gurus (religious leaders) and the bhadraloks (cultured public) of society did not find their Goddess safe in the hands of these sex-workers.
The link between the sex-workers of Sonagachi and Goddess Durga however, unlike the two year old Sonagachi Durgotsav, is decades old. According to an age-old Hindu tradition, the making of the idol of Durga requires ‘punya mati’ or dust from the doorsteps of the sex-workers, as an essential ingredient of the sculpture. Every year, before starting work on the idol the artisans of Kumartuli pay a visit to the sex-workers for a gift of dust from their doorsteps.
Various theories lie behind this custom. Some say when men enter the sex-workers’ house for sex, they leave their virtues behind in the form of dust at the doorstep. Others say the ritual is a way that makes the ostracized sections of society indirect participants in the festival.
Whatever be the reason, in 2014, the women of Sonagachi were no longer willing to part with their dust which seems completely logical. People who shun them the entire year, worship idols of Durga with dust from their doorsteps, is that not the ultimate form of hypocrisy? To protest against this, last year the sex-workers of Sonagachi denied their dust to the artisans. Rumours say some artisans, pretending to be clients, brought back the dust from Sonagachi while others got it after a lot of pleading.
By denying the dust to artists the women were demanding that the society acknowledges them. A legal recognition of their profession is what they aspire. They believe they are doing noble work, by receiving the filth of the world, and protecting other women from being victims at the hand of savage sexual predators. However, to the bhadraloks of the Indian society, the sex-workers are still ‘unrespectable whores’ who cannot cross the boundaries of their ‘sinful quarters’ to be a part of mainstream Indian society.
With the smoke from the dying yagna vanishing, the Goddess Durga once more came into my view. In my pose of namaskar, standing infront of the devi, I prayed for the freedom of the women of Sonagachi from social ostracization and hoped that they get the recognition they deserve.