Expectations and realities, sometimes, reside on different sides of the galaxy. Inundated with visuals of Rekha dancing to ‘Salaam-e-Ishq meri Jaan Zara Ku bool kar lo’ in a visually stunning Kotha, the eyes, however, saw the stark reality of what it is to be Zohrabai these days.
It’s the darkest beneath the lights, an expression that aptly describes the shanties housing close to a lakh prostitutes co-existing with some of Mumbai’s toniest neighborhoods. Ever wondered what Diwali or for that matter, any festival is like in the red light district of the city? Is it colourful? Or is it business as usual for the women, trying their non-existent charm cards on prospective clients? All these questions called for a cab ride to two of the most notorious localities of the city, where prostitutes compose their love songs in grim rooms of despair.
A cabbie, with evident reluctance, agreed to ply two pleasantly dressed women to Kamathipura, lane number 14, which is next door to the old-world ruins of Alexandra Cinema. The reason for reluctance dawned on us once we got to Kamathipura, one of the oldest existing prostitution zones of Mumbai. Located near Belasis Road, it is unlike anything one has been subjected to (or seen through the eyes of celluloid) — the place smells of bodies, stale food, dim staircases, and dead hopes of women. No lanterns, no lights dangled from their balconies to welcome us, but their dead stares .
Lane number : 14
We walked into the dingy lanes, a little past 4 pm, in the fading sun, the women looked like birds caged in a zoo, with dyed hair and garish loud lip colours on caked-up faces. A brothel was awaiting its prospective customers for the day. A prostitute, in her mid-30s, grudgingly let us in although she said it wasn’t a good time for us to be there.
We were anxious about what we’d see once we climbed up the claustrophobic narrow and dark staircase. There were plastic doors on the first floor and separators that slit a typical one BHK flat into multiple rooms to house one or two people at best. We met three women there. The rest were sleeping in their respective rooms after servicing clients. The younger woman was draping a netted sari and had tucked her mobile inside her oddly fitted blouse. Tina, in her 20s, has been servicing men for three years now. She entertained our queries while an older lady looked on and another continued to wash smelly linen and utensils. “Diwali is business as usual for us though it can get pretty lonely. At a time, we go back to our native places as there aren’t that many customers around this time. We barely do any decorations here. Whatever we earn is barely enough to suffice our needs. Why just Diwali? No festivals are celebrated here. But it (in the name of a festival) gives us an excuse to take some time off and go back home,” says Tina.
Radha Akka, who was watching us, decided to speak up too. She’s a worker in the two- storeyed building for 30 years now. She has seen the glamor and money, swell and deflate. She rewinds, “This place is more than a hundred years old. There was a time when women made ` 5 and could still save money. We celebrated festivals. But now, the earnings aren’t all that high. And there aren’t that many women here either. Once, this place was brimming with faces. Not anymore. Abhi to zyada mard aate Bhi Nahi. Diwali mein Woh Ghar pe hotel house. Idhar kam aate hain toh Diwali zyada gram Nahi Hota,” she says.
Lane number: 11
On our way out, we dodged past lecherous men and moved into another lane, which turned out to be a residential chawl. Nita Gala, a resident for decades, tells us that a cleansing drive, almost a year ago, confined prostitutes in the area to a few lanes. “We’ve faced problems because of them. Bacchon ki Shaadi Nahi ho paati. Not too many people come to our homes on Diwali because of the area we’re living in, but we still try celebrating it in our own way. We don’t have an option so we’re not moving. But we have a clear demarcation. Their area is across the road. The schools for their children and their living quarters are all on that side,” she said pointing to the lane we had just left behind. On our way out, we saw a clinic that provides health-care facilities to the sex workers in the district. We paced towards a couple of other lanes. Outside Lane No 11, we met Lipika, a mother of five children who stay in their hometown in Bihar. Wary of being photographed, she was, however, more forthcoming and confident than her colleagues we met so far.
“Women here often don’t know the name of the father of their babies, but are mighty protective about them. Who wants their children to be trapped in the drudgery of sex trade?” counter-questions Lipika, the loneliness in her eyes is hard to ignore. She continues, “Tyohaar ka time hai didi. Baccha log ghar pe hai. Idhar, aadmi log aata hai jiska aurat gaaon mein hai. Hamara Diwali to dard mein hi jaata hai, koi aaye ya nahi aaye. Pahile bahut accha kamai tha lekin ek saal se bahut kam ho gaya. Kabhi kabhi to khaali sau rupiye milta hai din ka.”
Festival or no festival, for thousands of women like Lipika, Radha and Tina, their bodies have to get to work so there’s a meal at the end of the day. And if the cops nab them for standing on the streets to attract customers, they better have enough to pay the fines. As we walked past the brothels of Kamathipura, on our way out, we turned around for a final glance at the area. More women had appeared at road crossings, doors of their dingy shanties, intersections of bylanes and some perched at the windows of their homes. Nights become days here. A couple of men glanced at them. We could have called that admiration, except that it wasn’t.
We decided to make our way to Kennedy Bridge and learnt yet again that hailing a cab to or from a red light area is not easy, not for women for sure. We grabbed one which plied us there, and dropped us where the infamous bridge ended. This wasn’t an in-your- face prostitution zone, but the women were all out there. They were younger, dressed in casual clothes and strolled around freely on the street. Their hideout was tucked inside an unsuspecting colony of chawls. Most of them were at that point hailing taxis to attend to their customers waiting at a lodge, hotel or maybe, the comforts of their homes. When we tried asking one of the girls, she retreated and mumbled, “Sorry ma’am. I can’t talk to you.” That sentence from her in English left us stumped.
When we asked around in the neighbourhood, it turns out that there is no Diwali celebration here either. It’s as dark as that of their fellow professionals in another zone of the city.
Legendary writer Manto, we’re told, once stood near the Falkland Road, another restricted entry zone in Mumbai, then Bombay, and observed the goings-on in the streets. In another instance, Gulzar in his poem, titled Prostitute, wrote:
Trampled in the midst of a lush field,
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