I clearly remember my first day. The journey from Andheri to Grant Road in the local train. I was dressed in a full sleeves green kurta with an orangish yellow churidaar from Shoppers Stop. My aim was to look modest and professional without calling too much attention to myself. In my hand I clutched the address of the NGO I was to visit. I also kept feeling for my cell phone in my bag, my only sense of security. But mind you I was not worried about the place I was about to visit but my absolute pathetic sense of direction was my actual cause of concern. The lack of worry about visiting an NGO in a red light area was not due to boldness on my part but naivete, ignorance and truly being clueless about what to expect.
I had undertaken this journey because I was required to. I was doing post grad in TISS and the course required 5 days of classroom training and 2 days,Mondays and Tuesdays of field work. I was hoping to be assigned to the Narcotics Cell of Mumbai Police in VT(oops sorry, CST). I saw myself as the sexy intelligent future CBI agent clad in a pinstriped, butt flattering pant with straightened hair, hunting down the evil drug traffickers with effortless chic.
But getting posted to a NGO in a redlight area for one whole year was a big let down. The faculty concerned saying that they thought I was the most able and mature person in the class for such a post softened the blow. But I was not sure what I would really do with these women who sold their bodies for a living. They did not really need me or anyone else for that matter, did they? Oh, was I in for a big surprise.
The nature of the place I was visiting started dawning on me from the minute I got into the taxi at Grant Road station east and gave the directions to the driver. The man actually in an almost slow motion kind of a way adjusted his rear view mirror looked me over and said "you want to go there?" He was a nice guy I guess, and concerned about me because he went on to ask me 3 more times if I was sure I had the right address. By this time though his questions were lost on me because I was busy mouthing "shiv, shiv, shiv......" as I took in the scenery around me.
I was astounded, and horrified, would be the least to say. I saw a narrow street with wooden rotting structures on either side. On the doorways of these houses stood women of all ages garishly painted and in different states of undress. I saw men walking up and down the street looking at these women as if they were wares on display. Some women talked and laughed loudly, some beckoned the men who went by, while some just stood there stone faced. I went by a cinema hall which had some porno movie playing by the look of the posters. While I gawked foolishly at the men standing near the theatre someone grinned lecherously, saying something which fortunately I could not hear. But by now I was beginning to feel the stirrings of fear. I could hear the ominous sounding instructions of my faculty supervisor asking me not to stay beyond 5 pm in the Center (NGO) and in any case if I had to absolutely stay after dark I must insist on some NGO staff escorting me back to the station.
The building which housed the NGO had seen better years. It was a stone building, a relic from the Colonial Raj. The ground floor had a big, dimly lit but cool room where I saw a few young children sleeping, while some recited the hindi alphabets with heartbreaking earnestness. I later found out it was a night creche run by a NGO. A place where the mothers left their young ones at sunset, so that the children could have a good nights sleep while they went to'work'.
My NGO was on the first floor and had 2 huge rooms. One where the center in charge and a couple of more staff members sat. The second room was used by the women and children of the area to rest, hold meetings, do homework etc. There was another room on the ground floor which was used by the visiting doctor to see patients.
Even before I had settled in I met this woman whom we shall call S. She came in singing and laughing loudly. She was vibrant and beautiful - the first thing I noticed. She was completely shameless is the second thing I registered,when she lifted her 'nightie'/long gown to show some sore on her inner thigh. My delicate sensibilities were under fierce attack when she went on to tell us loudly that she had made Rs600 the previous night. I was busy calculating how many men she had to sleep with to make that kind of money. The center in charge had told me that the going rate was Rs 50 and maybe Rs 100 per 'act' if you were lucky or very beautiful. You can do the maths. But I had to admit that there was something about her so like able that I used to wait for her to visit the center and would worry over her prolonged absences. I went on to befriend her by impressing her by my knowledge of the Bengali language.
The second woman I met that day had 2 sons aged 3yrs and 9 months old. She had close cropped ragged hair and I was told she lived on and off on the roads and the brothels. She had HIV and the days she was well enough to service men some madam/brothel keeper more commonly known as the Gharwaali would take pity on her, giving her lodging and food in return of the money she made. And on days she was too sick she and her children would be found on the streets, surviving how, I don't know. She died by the end of my year there. What happened to her sons you ask? I truly don't know.
The other woman who made an impression on me that day was a young girl whom I had seen from the taxi. She was beautiful in a way you wondered what she was doing in a place like this. Mind you this is Grant Road/Kamathipura, a place where human life is cheap, beauty is mercilessly crushed by abuse and exploitation and disease so great that you age beyond your years if you manage to remain untouched by the ravages of TB and HIV and cheat a miserable and lonely death.
This girl was dressed in a blouse and lehenga/petticoat playing the innocent game of kitkit while waiting for a customer. She looked so out of place..a very North Indian looking girl in a population mostly consisting of girls from Maharashtra,AP,TN,Bangladesh and Nepal.
After a month or so when I knew my way around I went searching for her. But I never saw her again. There were rumors that she was sold and sent to Dubai or Sharjah but no one could tell me for sure what became of her. Memories of her still haunt me.
Thus ended my first day. I went back to the safety and comfort of my home bewildered, and confused. The only thing I was certain about was that I was very wrong in thinking I am not needed here. I still didn't know what I could do. But I knew, do something I must....well that is a beginning right?