Ever heard of "hostess girls" who entertain men at Japanese bars? A variant of the Japanese geisha tradition where young women who were trained from childhood to become ‘hostesses’ well-versed in the arts and art of entertaining male guests, liquor mates in the bars of Assam's Guwahati keep men company while they enjoy a drink.
Young girls, mostly from the upper and central Assam districts work as 'liquor mates' to lonely men who come to gulp a few pegs at the bars near Guwahati railway station in the Paltan Bazaar area.
A girl would typically approach the customer at the table, asking him if she could take a seat. After an affirmative nod, she would request the customer to order a peg of liquor of her choice and then start chatting with him. After a few pegs, some cigarettes and sharing of stories, she would leave for the next customer.
While the public perception is that the 'liquor mate' girls indulge in prostitution, the girls say they refuse to have sex with customers, despite frequent requests.
"Mostly, middle-aged men would demand sex," said Tutumoni Gogoi (name changed), who hails from upper Assam's Sibsagar district.
Though most young girls would at first claim that they are students of colleges Guwahati, once prodded, they would reveal that they work as 'liquor mates' and that it is their only source of income.
Besides paying for their liquor, customers often pay the girls handsomely for the company. Besides, the bars also pay them a percentage of the total sale on the table, as the presence of the girls draw in customers.
Most of these girls hail from regions that are severely affected by floods every year. When asked about the annual calamity, a pall of gloom hangs over their faces.
Narrating about her family's annual flood ordeal, Neekumoni Phukon (name changed) says her native Dhemaji district is flooded every year when big dams in the upper course of Brahmaputra open their sluice gates.
"Floods have become such a routine that every year before the monsoon, I have to send my family back home a good sum so that they don't face problems when they go to take shelter in schools and government offices that are in relatively higher grounds. After floods, I have to send them some money for repairing the house," Neekumoni said.
"To earn some extra money, I have to give hugs to the customers and sometimes give a peck on their cheeks," she added, saying that’s as far as she goes with physical intimacy.
When asked about the societal perception of her job, Pompi Das (name changed) of central Assam's Nalbari district says:"The Assamese media hounds us, society hates us and people use us. Despite inundation in my native village every year, I can't call my parents to Guwahati to stay with me. My secret would come out, which they won't be able to digest. I can't let that happen." Pompi has told her family that she works in a beauty parlour and sends them money every month.
Are these women forced to work in this profession or are they hooked to the flowing money and free booze? The answer is both.
"Many of us initially did not like drinking but saw this as an easy method of earning money. Gradually, we got addicted to free booze. But, even if any of us wants to leave, the racket has so many tentacles leading to highly-placed individuals. So it is nearly impossible to get a decent job once we quit and leave," said Rimpi Saikia (name changed) of Lakhimpur district. "Also, we need the money to sustain our families back home," she added.
Bar owners agreed that the girls are a catalyst to their business. "Many people come only to chat and spend some time with these girls over a few drinks. The girls act as a catalyst in boosting our sales," a bar owner said.