BENGALURU: It is dusk in Gulli No. 5. Pools of water in the potholes reflect the lights flickering in an office block high above. The skeletal cement frames of tall buildings form silhouettes against the evening sky. In the narrow alley below, trade is slow; it is early.
The stench of stale urine and cheap liquor wafted the air; it almost has a physical presence, settling thickly on the skin. Scores of girls line up at this hour in garish clothes, low-cut blouses and bright red lips, dazzling under the dim street lights of Falkland Road.
This is Kamathipura, Mumbai’s infamous red light district. Here, in these lanes are all kinds of people – pimps and prostitutes, hijras, drug addicts, the homeless, traffickers, petty criminals, gangsters, mujra dancers, cops, upper caste, lower caste, wealthy businessmen, poor labourers, you name it.
One could easily get lost in these dingy lanes and never find a way back. On either side of the lane are crumbling chawls. By the windows stand women, perhaps contemplating their fate or just waiting to lure potential customers, one could never tell.
“Chandrika, teri customer aaya hai,” my madam calls for me. Zeenath pasha sat at Ramabhi chawl looking magnificent. So resplendent that it camouflaged the bitterness she had endured for years.
Clad in a black chiffon sari with a dazzling silver border, plunging neckline and chandelier earrings, I stood in front of a cracked mirror waiting for my customer.
Twenty identical beds spread on the two floors of the old moss-covered building, with grubby curtains separating them. During the day we slept on these same beds, healing our bodies.
“Paise?,” I asked him.
He hands me a 500-rupee note.
“Aur bees dena, bed charges.”
He pays me an additional twenty.
The curtains close behind us.
I was from a remote village in north Karnataka, Mudhol. At the age of eight, I was dedicated to the goddess Yellamma under the Devadasi system. Devadasi, meaning, servant of God. Coming from the madiga community, the lack of livelihood forced us into flesh trade. My mother who is only thirty-eight says she is too old for dhandha business, “ab toh buddi ho gaya hun, mushkil hai kammai”.
The marriage ceremony took place at Saudhatti temple in Belgaum. Having married an immortal I was now a nitya sumangali, a woman eternally free from the adversities of widowhood. At thirteen, I reached Bombay along with seven others with a promise of a better life that awaited us.
His nails carved deep into my skin and as I gasped in pain, he pulled me back to reality. His animated mouth shouted abuses, his eyes glinting with something that I couldn’t quite place. These are the places of fetishes, of adventure and thrill; where men shed their inhibitions and overcame their insecurities.
But these are also the places of life, laughter and freedom. It is like staring into an abyss. The yearning was constant; for love and life alike. The brothel seemed the unlikeliest place to speak of love with all the wisdom of those who had seen it all. And the philosophy of a prostitute was no philosophy at all.
But morality too is a question of time.
“Chandrika,” Zeenath, my gharwali called. It was time.
He grabbed my body in a rush one last time.
The world so far is in monochrome, it’s grey and several shades of it.
And then my world faded to black once again.