By Antara Sengupta for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Editor’s note: For decades, sex workers in India have been pushed to the margins, forced to deal with shame and stigma from society. ‘Unheard Stories’ is a series of six stories by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with 101 Reporters that aims to bring these narratives to the fore, to build a more inclusive and accepting society.
“I did not know what a red light district was, or that Mumbai would have so many of them. I didn’t know about sex or that sex trade is the most prevalent in these parts,” says Nirmala Singh of the time she was a 10-year-old. This was the age at which she was brought to Kamathipura in Mumbai from her native village in UP with a promise of a job as a domestic help. The ‘concerned’ neighbourhood lady who sold her for 2 lakhs to a brothel disappeared after dropping her off, saying that Nirmala needed to be there for 3 months only.
Those three months were in fact, three years. And were no less than hell for Singh. “If I protested or put up a fight, I would be beaten and abused by the gharwali (brothel keeper). I couldn’t make friends with any other girl there in my mental state. I couldn’t venture out of my room. Many times, customers would beat me if I did not agree to do what they wanted,” recalls Singh. “I realised soon there was no point resisting, nothing would come out of it. That’s when I decided to hone my skills and do the trade well.”
Dressed in khaki-coloured jeans and a body-hugging purple t-shirt, today, the 35-year-old Nirmala speaking to Youth Ki Awaaz has lived a long and turmoil-ridden life. Her present home in central Mumbai is a tiny room that can hold just about four beds. The beds are separated by flimsy curtains which give four sex workers – one of them Singh – a sense of privacy when they are engaged with their customers.
Past her prime, she is one of the many middle-aged women who work hard to get the two or three clients a day – to earn their daily bread, as well as to pay the gharwali.
Singh works from 9 a.m. till midnight. Several times she literally has to fight with the other girls to snatch a customer. That’s mostly because, as she says, customers want young, slim, fair girls with long hair. And she, on top of everything else, has a squint – a major disadvantage in her line of work.
And so, she hardly ends up with five customers a day.
“If you earn less, you get an earful from the gharwali,” she tells us. “My share of the money also goes down. Sometimes, customers leave without paying. So, I make sure they pay before the act,” explains Singh. But that’s not the biggest fear. Getting caught by the police is. “If you get caught by the police, you’ve to pay at least ₹1,500 to get out of the fix. Sometimes, you don’t even earn that much money,” she adds.
Even on her luckiest day, she doesn’t make ₹1,500. There are girls as young as 15 in her line of work. “They are who the clients want, and they are the ones who get the money they demand,” says Singh.
While still in her prime, Nirmala started saving money to consult a physician who could fix her squint. The years went by. She moved out of the four beds in a room arrangement, to a two-bed one with a friend. The two divided the expenses. She saw a doctor who suggested an operation to correct the squint. Doctors operated on her eye twice. The first attempt almost left her blind.
The next few years were pretty tumultuous. Her friend was rescued, and she was left alone, with little money. So, she returned to the old room with four beds. The second operation on her eye was performed a few years ago. Now, she can see better. All in all, she shelled out ₹40,000 for the two operations and is in debt.
Back when her three-year term had come to an end, she was set free by the brothel keeper. She returned home. It was a different world. No money, no food, no one to talk to. Her father was still jobless, and ageing. The decision was made. Live in poverty and die, or return to Kamathipura, for a second inning.
“I returned, and took up a bed with four other girls. I’ve been here since except for a break. This place is free of pimps. The customers walk in on their own,” she says.
About the author: Antara Sengupta is a Mumbai-based independent reporter and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters. She has worked with CNBC, Hindustan Times and is currently with the Observer Research Foundation.