KOLKATA, India (WOMENSENEWS)–“My name is Shikha Morol. That’s not my real name, but I don’t want to tell you my real name. This is my name here. And please don’t take any pictures. I won’t allow it . . .”
The woman in front of me sat with her head bowed. She wore a blue synthetic sari with garish floral prints and a mismatched purple blouse. She looked neat and clean but signs of poverty were evident in her work-roughened hands and broken nails.
Her name, she said, was Shikha, “a little flame.” She said she was 30. I was surprised. I assumed she was closer to 50.
This was 2006 and we were in a corner of a tiny rented room in a building in Shonagachhi, the infamous red light district of Kolkata, the capital city of the Indian state of West Bengal that the British called Calcutta during their years of occupation.
The room was used as a multipurpose office space by Sanlaap, the nongovernmental group my co-author, Indrani Sinha, established in 1987 to combat sex trafficking and exploitation of girls and women in the sex trade.
A steady stream of people kept coming in and going out of the room, talking loudly.
I had asked for privacy, but none was to be had. Shikha had refused to invite me to the one room she shared with her madam that served as her home and workplace. She feared a khodder–or “buyer”–might interrupt us. I had chosen 11 a.m. as our meeting time because I thought it would be an off-business hour. But even then Shikha knew a client might arrive.
I was interviewing her for our book “Mothers for Sale: Women in Kolkata’s Sex Trade,” just published last month.
I was born in West Bengal.
But by the time I started writing this book, I had been working in the anti-domestic violence field in the United States for over 30 years, often importing tactics and insights I drew from the work of my activist friends in Kolkata.
At a certain point I wanted to get closer to the roots of my life’s work. When a friend introduced me to Indrani Sinha and Sanlaap one thing led to another and I found myself interviewing women with children, such as Shikha, for this book.
Shikha’s husband had been a landless farmer. When the youngest of their three sons was a year old, he committed suicide. She said he took his life out of masculine shame for not being able to provide satisfactorily for his family.
At first Shikha sold the milk of their cows, worked in a rice mill and picked vegetables in other people’s farms, sometimes working 16 hours a day. But she couldn’t earn enough to properly feed her sons and her husband’s parents, who lived with her.
A contact in a neighboring city recommended she go to the city. She imagined herself working as a housekeeper in the home of a wealthy family perhaps. But when she got out of the train she wound up alone on the streets. Her village was a two-hour train ride away. It might have been another continent.
She said she cried for three days after her arrival. But then she picked herself up, gravitated to the red light district and found a “madam,” a woman who rented a tiny room in a large building where each room was rented by other similar employers. From then on, her parents-in-law became the primary caretakers of her three sons.
In Kolkata, 48 percent of women engaged in sex work live in rooms that measure 50 square feet or less. Many–perhaps the great majority–share their one-room home with two to three people, including their children.
Money Orders for In-Laws and Sons
Shikha had been engaged in sex work for a little more than three years when we met. Since she began her work in Shonagachhi, she had been regularly sending money orders to her parents-in-law for them and her three sons.
Shikha’s days begin at 6 a.m. She gets up, bathes, completes her puja–or Hindu religious prayers–and starts her daily chores. Around 10 a.m. she finishes her cooking and by 11 she and her employer eat a mid-day meal. The two women also share the same bed at night when customers stop coming.
After lunch, her madam leaves the room to Shikha for the day. Shikha dresses up and begins to entertain clients. This goes on until midnight. On average, Shikha entertains four to six customers every day and each may have sexual intercourse with her only once.
In a sign of the times, Shikha says she insists that clients use a condom. In 1986, a lone sex worker in Shonagachhi was diagnosed with HIV infection, but it took another six years for official prevention efforts, helped along by the World Health Organization, to turn serious.
Shikha charges between 60 and 70 rupees–$1.50 to $1.75–per customer. Half of what she earns each day goes to her madam according to the rules of the “adhiya,” which literally means “half.”
‘They Tell Me I’m Their Son’
Shikha’s parents-in-law are proud of her for not abandoning them and being the breadwinner of the family. “They tell me I am their son,” which is about the highest compliment that they can give her.
But she says she hates this work and looks forward to the day when her children no longer need her money and she can “leave all this behind.”
Throughout our time together, Shikha kept wiping her tears as she spoke and beamed when I asked her about legalization of her occupation. She thought that legalization would take away the stigma and shame of prostitution. But when I asked whether she would recommend others to join prostitution if it were legalized, she replied with a passionate “no.” Her tears fell faster.
I tried to probe whether Shikha had experienced any violence in her life as a sex worker or beforehand. “My husband used to beat me up, but he used to like me also,” she mused.
When I asked her if she would want to marry again, Shikha shook her head vehemently. “Who would marry a widow and care for three children fathered by another man? And even if someone comes forward, I would not. I have had enough.”
At one point she told me that no one forced her to join the “line.” In today’s Bangla, or street Bengali, prostitution goes by a number of terms. The most common is “lainer kaj,” or “line work,” which I presume is derived from the lines some sex workers form in their neighborhoods to attract customers.
“I came of my own free will,” Shikha told me matter-of-factly.
She says this despite her narrow spectrum of opportunity. This may be the most troubling statement she made.
Shamita Das Dasgupta co-founded Manavi, an organization focusing on violence against women in the South Asian community in New Jersey, in 1985 and is an adjunct faculty of law with the NYU Law School. This essay was adapted from “Mothers for Sale: Women in Kolkata’s Sex Trade,” distributed by Global Books, and co-authored by Indrani Sinha, who founded Sanlaap in 1987 and works with women and young people fighting for their rights and protesting violence against women.
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