A Visit To Kamathipura On International Sex Workers’ Day.

My first encounter like most of the Indian kids, to dating, love, romance, marriage, kids, travel, was through Indian cinema. I accompanied my parents to the theaters and movie halls every single time and was exposed to Indian or Bollywood movies at a very very young age. I remember we had this black & white television in a shutter box, our first, which I loved. As I’ve mentioned how badly I love watching movies and the testimony to that is, when I took my first steps, in our living room, I moved towards the TV set but not towards my father, who was the first to witness me walk.  Then, we never missed a chance to sit as a family with snacks on every weekly movie being shown on Doordarshan, the national broadcasting channel and the only one which existed at that time. And every Wednesday at 1800h, I would get glued to the TV set to watch some amazing old Hindi songs. I would be on DND mode during that half hour. Wednesday nights for this little girl were full of mixed dreams & emotions. The romance, the technicality of making movies, the lifestyle of the actors, the media, the publicity, the fame, the controversies followed by a series of serious questions – “How does Doordarshan manages to telecast a movie exactly at 1800h every Sunday?” and then the bigger one, “How do actors manage to change their attires in a snap?”, my small imagination wondered.

As I grew up, the black & white got replaced by a colored one. We then got a VCR and my father would just not stop collecting movies, songs tapes, concerts tapes etc. The house used to turn in to a mini theater. Our neighbors & the relatives close by would join us frequently. We would watch wedding recordings with a gathering of about 20-25 people, and everyone would end up laughing hysterically at all the stupid things they did. Weird dance steps by my mother’s aunts and uncles were the highlight of every screening.

Along all those silly questions, dreams, gatherings, there came a time when I started to understand that there’s after all more to society than what I see on the celluloid. It’s just not the happy picture always, it’s not the happy ending always, life is not always about struggling & sticking together as a family during hard times, life has more ugly twists than just taking a revenge from an underworld don for making your mother’s life miserable twenty years ago. Life is not about giving sympathy to a handicapped sibling and inspire her to become one of the biggest scientists. Life is more than just sacrificing your love for your friend. Life is definitely more than being in Switzerland’s snow-capped mountains or in a tulip garden in Holland and singing in a chiffon sari. It’s also not just about being a martyr and fighting for your country. My imagination scaled up. Yes, there was more to life.

The ugly truth came out. The unreal-to-a-child-world started unveiling. The darker side started to show its reflection. I was baffled, I was confused, I was effected to see this whole new side of Indian cinema. It was absolutely discomforting to see something which was not only disgusting but was also demeaning. I started to doubt the intentions of all the film makers. For this little girl, it was upsetting to see her favorite actors go to unreal places and do unreal things. Her favorite musicians and singers were producing music for the same movie. A questions struck the mind again, “Why aren’t they making movies on a positive, neat, non-vulgar, non-violent subject?”. The disgusted me said to myself, “My movie watching days are over”.

Well, the most disheartening experience as a child or a teenager was to see a new dimension to all the relationships. There were new ones and abnormal ones. My memory doesn’t serve me right, as I fail to recollect the first movie on the subject I’m talking about this time, Prostitution. The thought would make me sick all the time. Is it for real? Is it really a profession? How can it be a profession? Why would a girl or a woman go to such an extent just to earn money? I had nothing but disrespect for all of them. The heart was full of hatred. Why can’t they choose an alternate way to make money? How can they sell themselves? Is it characteristically or humanly possible? How can they get naked in front of strange, weird, full of lust people? And having sex with them was beyond my visualization & understanding. It was outrageous, obnoxious & the emotions were uncontrollable & unparalleled. “Throw me any situation, I’ll fight it out. I have it in me, I’m no less, but not under any condition, will I surrender myself ” she said while praying one night – the little girl had something in her, I tell you!

As I grew older and started to explore my own self, made new friends, started to open up, a lot changed. New perceptions, new definitions, new meanings and finally some sensible answers to every doubt & every unanswered question. I remember how helpless & scared I felt when I saw one of them standing on a bus stop one late night in Delhi. My car stopped and then my heart followed. It was horrifying. I slid further down in the back seat just to make sure I wasn’t visible. That face remains fresh in my memory. The smoky eyes, huge red lips, flashy outfit – it was an Indian salwar-suit,  jeweled from top to bottom, high heels, unmatched confidence, superb energy and vibes cutting through my window glass. If I was ten years younger, I would have pissed in my pants. That night, I didn’t sleep.

I’m a grown up now, a wife, a mother and have the capability to understand and explain what prostitution is all about. I’m no more a sleuth for the subject.

Since I’m mostly writing about women along with my personal life experiences, thoughts and anything I feel like expressing, I got to know about the International Sex Workers’ Day, again, just like the National Cleavage Day, something unheard of. I had to and had to look up and write about it. My imaginary flying musical notes changed to exclamation signs and started doing rounds around my head. Ideas started pouring in. What’s that one thing I could do to always remember this newly invented day in my calendar? Contemplating in my head, toying with this eerie idea & sitting next to my husband, I popped up the question, “Will you take me to Kamathipura tomorrow?”. We had a five-minute chat & the very next day, on 02nd June, we were there (I love him). It is Mumbai’s oldest red-light area. Please check this out for more intriguing details and history.

Lord Ganesha painted on a cab. What a way to start this journey! Most of the cabbies prefer an Indian God at the rear of their vehicle. It’s considered as a blessing.

That little girl inside me told me to visit this area. I won’t say that I wasn’t skeptical, I was. I simply didn’t know what to expect, what exactly was I looking for, will I be able to see something unseen, will I be able to feel the vibe, will I be able to click pictures, what if I get questioned, what if I get misunderstood, what if someone attacks and takes away my camera, what if I offend someone? The kind of person I am, if I get a feeling, a very strong feeling, I just blindly go with the flow, and I did.

One of my favorite clicks by far. Love this picture. This is on our way.

When my husband asked what exactly I was planning on doing, my answer to him was, nothing! We didn’t speak with each other until we came out of that area. There were thoughts squeezing in to my brain, my heart kept thumping, I felt short of breath while we drove. My hands went cold. I just kept looking out without a blink. I observed & consumed.

Kamathipura is located right between where we are & that building.

It was around 1800h and a couple of people I had spoken with suggested us to visit around 2000h(which we deliberately declined) as that’s when the whole market starts to heat up. The real picture comes out only when the place is lit up, when you can hear the music, when you feel embarrassed if someone comes out of the window & whistles or winks at you. And I said, ‘window’? You will see why.

A coal & a wood shop.

When I clicked this, my thoughts: The people look normal. The life looks normal. Was I insane to come here? Nothing looks abnormal or dysfunctional.  This is Mumbai, an everyday Mumbai. Or may be I should have come a little later, this trip looks like a waste. This doesn’t make any sense. I don’t make any sense. The idea was so ill-considered that it wasn’t even laughable.

A tea & snack corner. Don’t miss the dental care clinic by the side. I like, I like!

All I could observe was that the number of personal cars were lesser than any other markets of Mumbai. I’m sure the reason is obvious. People driving in & out with families avoid the route & the reason was evident.

A Medical store, are you kidding me?! (Only because I never expected one).

Now, I have to admit the two fleeting thoughts which hit my mind instantly when I saw this medical store: A. I was really happy, relieved & at peace by its presence. It just gives you hope, that’s it. That is the word. Of course, I didn’t expect a condom vending machine here and yet, I smiled. B. Well, more than a thought, it was my conceptualization which worked an extra second, I wondered if they have one first aid box and a fire fighter in every house or room or ‘window’. Yes, I did think that way, don’t ask me why?

The corner structures like this one are in huge numbers in the heritage areas of Mumbai. I can see the inspiration could be the Fuller Building in Manhattan, NYC. I simply couldn’t get that structure out of my head. Or the source of the inspiration could be somewhere else.

I recognize the struggle within me while I was trying to understand this whole picture & idea of prostitution, the pickle is to make your kids understand the same thing in a sane manner. They eventually will know & learn the pros & cons of the society we live in, & situations which are out of our control at times. But, exactly how does one start the conversation on the right note? I can talk about kidnapping, black magic, robbing, intercourse, rapes, STDs etc. but when it comes to prostitution, holy crap! My mind fails to give me a wise answer. I hope I get to that soon. Not something to look forward to though.

A normal base with an abnormal head.

My heart capsized the moment I saw these ‘windows’. Ssshhhh! – I immediately instructed my thoughts piling over my head. Why are these windows open at this hour, it isn’t dark enough, I asked myself? The more sensible part of the brain answered, “Really, that’s what you’re thinking? MAY BE IT’S FOR SOME FRESH AIR, YOU DUMB ASS!”. Keeping the laughter aside, one part of me was extra greedy to get a sneak peek. On the other hand, the second part said the opposite, it told me to roll over my window glass. I stayed calm as I had decided to not to click the worker’s picture without her consent, personally for me, it’s unethical, so we took our next turn.

The lanes looked unending, deep & dark.

It amazed me how poverty and other reality tours are getting popular in India. Be it the Dharavi slums, Kamathipura or the slums in Kolkata, foreigners are willingly paying for a few hours drive in the name of ‘knowing India better’ or showcasing the ‘real India’ to the world. There are specific guides who of course have been either living in the same areas or been in and around them. There are fixed car rentals and drivers who know exactly what the customer is expecting and has already prepared the answers for the questionnaire. OK, even if they are making money or may be doing a service in uplifting the economy, I highly doubt their sophisticated and polished intentions. This isn’t Disney Land, where people get intoxicated with the abundance of joy around and tend to forget their woes. Disney Land ain’t called the happiest place in the world for no reason!

A bit low-level, underlying Mumbai here.

This is the way I feel. One, I will never, on an international vacation spend a single rupee to visit a red-light area of the US or the Netherlands, unless, I’m an artist. I have seen foreigners vacationing in India with family & kids taking a stroll here. Two, forget about foreigners, when us, being Indians are mocking around everywhere about the whole situation and people, how do we expect someone from another region to pay a tiny bit of respect for our conditions? This is beyond demeaning. This is no entertainment & far from the Kardashian television. Also, knowing how efficient the government system is, are there any records to show that the money is veritably helping the people, no, we haven’t witnessed any visible changes in or around this whole process. It is simply appalling.

There is no place to stand or walk during the night time, here, at this place.

Kolkata recently witnessed a protest by sex workers against USA for the denial of visa for the International AIDS Conference held in Washington. Eventually, they held a parallel conference in Kolkata. The city witnessed thousands gathered on the streets with red umbrellas from almost 42 countries. What agitated me was, why not revolt or protest for something more reasonable, may be mandatory education for all in the community? If all of you get together, and there is a chance that you have an idea that you’ll be heard, then why not do MUCH MORE?

The only wide opened road.

Not just Indians, there are numerous girls who come in every year from foreign lands & get settled here choosing Prostitution as their primary profession. You may not find them in the red light areas but they are available through agents, they visit hotels and private parties or could be living in a posh society unlike the ones here. It’s the same rule I say, the rich becomes richer & the poor becomes poorer. It’s keep getting complex and very journalistic and that’s where I draw my line.

The Twilight Saga! This perhaps is another shot very close to my heart, another favorite. It carries a stock of warmth. The journey started with ‘windows’ & we see plenty of them here.

I name this picture, The Twilight Saga, which to many sex workers translates as the beginning of the first dark night, or an unending sorrowful episode, or a wild party, or an unbearable abuse, or losing strength, or mourning, or a piece of jewelry, or just another fun night, or an unanswered prayer, or a fight with HIV, or a kid’s school uniform/school fee, or savings for a planned escape, or the rent for her parent’s house, or helping a friend, or medical services for a sibling, or A TRAP!

I love the blue in the picture but not the synonyms.

Saw a lady collecting all the washed clothes. Someone mentioned, they are clearing off the view.

Mr. Peek-a-boo!

The man peeping out of the window smiled at me as if he was some celebrity & I was some interviewer. Trust me, if he was standing on the road, I would’ve definitely interviewed him. He seemed knowledgeable, comfortable & confident too. Rest of the story – I don’t know.

One of the rooms with the lights on as the Sun sets.

I saw the lights on & surprisingly, it didn’t have any impact on me. I was neutral no motion, no emotion, no sense, no feelings, just blank & bland. There is no reason to get excited & it isn’t necessary to jump out of the car just because you finally see an opportunity to capture the unseen in your mind. I started getting restless & panicky a while later and I told my husband to take me back. It was not the right time for a confrontation or may be an eye contact and that’s all I was trying to avoid. It can be hard for some and I was one of them.

The last window!

The journey ended here. My last click of that evening. Something so strong comes out of this picture, sadly enough, not what makes me chirpy. All it gives me is discontent, it doesn’t give me hope, it’s unsanitary, it’s rotten, it’s corroding, it’s brutal, it’s got a thousand horrifying untold stories – a plethora, it’s agonizing, it’s like a bad dream which will loom over me, it’s alarmingly wounded after all, a window of millions shattered dreams and to me, it’s dead. It doesn’t breathe, it doesn’t!

If I could, I would just make all the sex workers hear one of my all time favorite songs. It’s a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, Ekla chalo re! (Translation here). Please don’t underestimate the power you have as a Female Human, make self-belief your harness & you can climb the biggest mountain of any sort, even suffering! Go, WALK ALONE.

Lastly. I wrote exactly what popped up in my head. The politically correct drama doesn’t suit me well, personally or professionally, I’ve tried and it’s so brruullgghhtthhhrrrsszzz. I’ve said this earlier too when I started the blog that I’ll try to be as realistically honest as I can and you know what, I’m glad I’m sticking to that. This post was not meant to judge people or have some sort of opinion on anyone related to a certain community, these are my feelings, a way to get that small girl inside me out in the open and at peace. I’m sure all of us have had similar situations where we had nowhere to go and no one to ask (so wish Google was born in the 80s). Well, I’m feeling lighter after writing this, mission accomplished, that’s one chapter closed, shall get to another one now.

PS: Different websites suggested different dates for the International Sex Workers’ Day. Choose yours, I did mine.

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About Neha Mendiratta Khullar

Photographer learning photography. Age: 29 From Mumbai, India. Blogger. Gardener. Singer out-of-practice. Sketcher out-of-practice. Dancer never-out-of-practice. Overtly Optimistic. Passionate Creativity Lover. Irregular Chef. Excellent Host. Not Your ‘Best’ Friend. Quick Learner. Movie Buff. Mush Queen. Family Gal. Lazy Wife. Crazy Mommy. Highly Observant. Respect First, Age Later. Respect First, Love Later. Heart First, Head Later. Day Dreamer, NO, ‘A Dreamer’. Won’t follow your rules. Don’t follow mine. Oh! I have none. FREEDOM. Never Jealous. Not my Trait. Most Loyal. My Trait. Love Giving Surprises. As secured as one can be. Favorite Number: 9 Intuitive Like No Other. Can See Your soul. Opinionated. Mostly Silent but my Head is not. Mostly Detached. Hyperactive Head at Night. Swear by work ethics but with a pinch of fun. My best work comes at the last-minute. Loading….loading…loading…please look up after some time for more.
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17 Responses to A Visit To Kamathipura On International Sex Workers’ Day.

  1. petrel41 says:

    Hi, good to see you blogging again 🙂

  2. Deepa M. Puri says:

    Very well penned down! Another great blog from you…:-)

  3. Wow. You’re back with a statement to make. Thanks for sharing your well-stated visit and thoughts. I enjoyed reading about something I previously knew nothing about.

  4. inthesearchof says:

    Nice! i like the disclaimer.
    But if you have not got all your answers yet, i d love to accompany you the next time am in Mumbai.
    May be it would be a different revelation.
    May be you will find a reason to chirp,
    just may be.

    I dont know myself. but am keen to find out.

  5. You too are here? That’s a perfect surprise. Thanks a bunch. We are definitely exploring more next time you land here 🙂

  6. inthesearchof says:

    ofcourse, i thought you knew, remember the one who couldnt participate in your poll for Samantha coz of the lack of the option! ;P

    Anyway i came across this, and thought of you. check it out.

  7. The home page & the SIN trip!

    That’s exactly what I’m saying, write more & give me an opportunity to be critical. LOL.

    Just finished the video, OMG, this is completely insane and so apt for my post. Thank you! Leave aside the swear part, which I guess is what the director is trying to highlight and the attempt is deliberate, the essence lies with the truth beneath the language. I would applaud his ingenuity. Thanks once more!

  8. You are obviously a person who feels deeply. And not knowing the answers is not a bad thing. Being aware of what is happening in so many corners of the world is a good thing. I thank you for allowing me to share your jouney to Mumbai. Namaste.

  9. Hi Neha, interesting post. Prostitution is about poverty, about desperation, early abuse, drug addiction. There is no such thing as a happy hooker, and I am glad my country (Norway) followed Sweden: it is now illigal to buy sex. But it is not illegal to sell, and the prostitutes get some help and support. Tourism to red light districts is not ok, it is not ok to earn money on others misery or poverty, but I admire your trip. To have an opinion is it necessary to have some knowledge, and to get a change people have to see what is going on.
    Interesting blogs: http://secretlifeofamanhattancallgirl.wordpress.com/ http://alexandrakinias.wordpress.com/

  10. Namaste! Sorry for a late reply. Thanks a bunch for your visit, I admire you for your approach towards life & learning. I do feel deeply about the subject & it just churns my heart every time I think about the subject. There is so much more I can write & explain but somehow feel helpless. Looking forward to some conversations at your space 🙂

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