In a crowd of bright, ambitious, college-going girls, Sheetal is not out of place. When she gets up on stage, you find out why that’s an achievement for her. Growing up, she was sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend – who also fathered her younger brother. He was also not the only man in her mother’s life. There were others she brought home on different nights.
Mumbai’s Kamathipura is that kind of a place. It is kept out of polite conversations. The men who visit, clear out before dawn breaks. For the women who live there, however, there is no escape. Their body is their livelihood, and the day inevitably brings revilement. For their daughters growing up, the choice is submission or defiance. Sheetal is a fighter.
Defiance. It is a metal that is embedded deep.“Haan meri maa bar dancer hai, aur haan, main bar dancer ki beti hoon (Yes, my mother is a bar dancer, and yes, I’m the daughter of a bar dancer).” The emphasis she lays in these words is combative. Against the accumulated derision of years past, offence is the best defense. The crowd at Josh Talks, Mumbai, is not hostile. But the impulse to brace herself for hostility, chin up, is now instinctive.
Then, with a single word, she breaks the spell. “Drums”
This may well be the most dramatic moment in a two-year long series of conferences. All it takes is the space of a deep breath for the thought of her passion to completely release Sheetal of the pain, battle, and heaviness. The drummer could not have won a more spontaneous applause with a beat than the young girl did with the power of her disarming, uncomplicated smile. Coming out of her circumstances, the significance of this emotional achievement is not lost on the crowd.
Kranti, the NGO that fought for Sheetal’s future, and continues to do so for a number of other girls from Kamathipura, has earned its place in the narrative on rehabilitation, change, or the sexual climate in India.
“Kranti is an NGO that works with the daughters of sex workers to become agents of social change,” Sheetal runs through in a mix of Hindi and English, but the point barely needs emphasis.
Social change could not have been more meaningful.