Welcome to Sonagachi – Calcutta’s largest brothel area is thriving
“I have been in Sonagachi for 25 years. I rent this room for 114 Rupees a month. This is my home.”
Champa Das has invited me into her home. Champa Das has been a sex worker all her adult life.
Sonagachi is one of Calcutta’s largest red light districts – narrow alleys, lined with small ‘apartments’ and corner stores form a confusing and nightmarish maze. The buildings lean into the street, the roads are crowded, it’s hot. The city seems to want to eat itself. Everyone in our small group is tense. Champa Das’ decision to grant me access to her life has not been taken easily. Sonagachi is one of the very few places in India where women have a higher street profile than men. That’s because most of them are prostitutes. 9000 women, many of them trafficked into the country from Bangladesh or Nepal, work in Sonagachi. 60.000 more sex workers area active across Calcutta.
In overcrowded India things don’t come in small measures. Two and a half million women and children (around 500.000 prostitutes in India are under 16) are working in the country’s sex industry. More than 5 million people are already HIV positive. Governments, both local and national, do little to tackle the increasing risk of a large-scale AIDS epidemic.
Large red light areas like Sonagachi are at the center of a problem that may soon spiral out of control and affect millions of people in Bengal and the neighboring state of Bihar. Sex workers are socially shunned and prostitution is illegal, which makes the women in Sonagachi extremely susceptible to extortion, blackmail, rape or murder by local gangsters, pimps and the police. Along with the government, the media chooses to ignore the enormous scale of the industry.
Champa Das lives in a tiny, 2 by 7 meter corridor-like room. The room is divided into three partitions. The second partition has a real bed and a TV. We sit under the TV. The wall is painted an ugly green. Young men pop their heads through a hole in the opposite wall at regular intervals. There’s no privacy.
Champa Das points to an adjoining cubicle behind her, “I rent that room for 8 Rupees a day, to make some extra money.”
Sex in Sonagachi can be had for as little as 10 Rupees. Champa Das points to her front door. There, another bunk has been set up to make another potential 8 Rupees a day. There is little room for personal belongings. Champa Das is a devout Hindu and small statues of Ganesh line the walls.
“I have to pay extra for the TV.”
Suparna Tat is sitting next to me on the bed. Champa Das sits on the narrow bit of floor next to the bed. Suparna Tat has been a field worker and program coordinator for The Durbar Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) for a year. She has a degree in anthropology. Suparna Tat is conducting an ‘exposure visit’. I am being ‘exposed’ to Sonagachi.
The DMSC, also called Durbar, an organization representing sex workers in India and across the world, was founded in 1992 and receives large donations from the national government and foreign donors to fund AIDS prevention programs. The aim of the organization is to promote reliance, respect and recognition amongst sex workers.
Suparna Tat is a good translator. She sits cross-legged, playing with her mobile phone while talking to Champa Das. In the light of the neon overhead our host’s scars become clearly visible. Champa Das’ arms are lined with old cuts and her face is battered. Suparna Tat has never been a sex worker.
Champa Das remarks, “The lady who owns this building rents out ten rooms like mine. Each woman in each room sublets part of the room to another sex worker. These flyers come for the day, from another part of town. In the evening they go home, some to their families.”
Champa Das curses her landlady.
Suparna Tat does not translate. “It was a dirty word, I cannot translate it.” She laughs uncertainly. “I cannot even say it.”
Half eaten plates of food are stacked on the floor next to unwashed cooking pots. Outside, the alleys team with rats and shady young toughs. Women lean into shadowy doorways, tucking in their saris, scanning the passers-by. Sonagachi is a hard place, forgotten by day, remembered by night by India, by Calcutta, by thousands and thousands of men who come to the area, pay a quarter Dollar for sex and return to their lives, as if nothing had happened. But things are happening. India is top of the global list of quickly rising AIDS statistics.
French writer and activist Dominique LaPierre has been running aid projects in Calcutta for 20 years. The best-selling author of ‘The City Of Joy’ is clearly worried about the sex industry in India.
“We are facing big challenges. Leprosy, and more recently, AIDS, has begun to seep into all levels of Indian society. The sex trade in Mumbai and to an extent in Calcutta is flourishing. These cities have large populations of itinerant workers who all take the diseases they have been infected with back to their villages and families. AIDS is like a time bomb.”
Calcutta is a city crowded with millions of men from the hinterlands of Bihar and West Bengal. Builders, construction workers, rickshaw pullers, even taxi drivers in Calcutta are mostly from out of town.
The DMSC, which claims to have 60.0000 members, is running a ‘comprehensive health development program centering HIV/AIDS’. That’s what the pamphlet reads that Debashish Chowdury, the organisation’s monitoring officer, presses into my hand as we return to the Union’s offices.
Champa Das has no worries about condoms. “Thanks to the DMSC, we get condoms very cheap, 5 condoms for 2 Rupees. But the clients, at least three quarters of them, won’t use them.”
Komala Das and Rahma Sahni, Champa Das’ neighbors, agree. “ If we force them to use the condom, they will just go next door. There are so many women working here, and in the end, everyone is prepared to work without protection for fear of losing trade.”
In 1999 the DMSC claimed that 90% of clients used condoms. These days the official figure is 65%. Sanjay, a middle-aged pimp who controls a small group of women in Sonagachi, laughs at the statistics, “That would be great. Unfortunately the scale of the trade makes things like this hard to enforce.” It’s hard to verify figures like this independently, but sex workers all over Calcutta tell a different story.
Champa Das receives very little information. “Some sex workers are tested for HIV. If they are positive, they are not told of the results. They live with the disease, not knowing they are infected, because the DMSC is worried that HIV positive women will be ostracized.”
Given the conservatism, the public double standards and secrecy surrounding AIDS/HIV, the epidemic is likely to get much worse. According to DMSC, HIV positive cases in Sonagachi have risen from just 1% in 1992 to 9% today. In Mumbai (formerly Bombay), figures run as high as 70%.
It’s been a long journey to Champa Das. Not only is Sonagachi a prison no one can leave; it is also difficult to get in. The risk to go and talk to sex workers without outside help is considerable. Armed youths make direct contact with women living in the area difficult. The alternative to get access is an organization like Durbar. To see Champa Das involves getting permission to work in Sonagachi by the DMSC in the organisation’s aircon office, then having it abruptly withdrawn by case-workers as soon as we hit the narrow alleys of Sonagachi.
Eventually I am told I am not allowed to talk to anyone other than women directly involved in the organisation’s projects. I have already experienced exactly the same strategy at the hands of another organization purporting to help women in Calcutta. Journalists are regularly invited by aid organizations working in the sex trade, then blocked to see anything but the organization’s own projects. Sonagachi, it transpires, is firmly in the hand of the DMSC.
On a small square, an argument develops amongst the case-workers. The entire community of Sonagachi has the opportunity to witness the stand-off.
Back in the office of the DMSC, money talks.
Debashish Chowdury is standing in front of me, his hand open, demanding 30$ cash from myself and the photographer, for the ‘exposure visit’ we have just experienced. Suparna Tat has bowed out of the picture and disappeared into the air-con part of the building. Today, the DMSC office is almost exclusively staffed by efficient looking young middle-class men like Debashish Chowdury. He apologises again, “I am sorry this document was not shown to you prior to your exposure visit and I must insist you pay.”
The pamphlet, entitled ‘Welcome to Sonagachi’ outlines the DMSC’s objectives (many) and achievements (barely tangible). The document is badly written and carries no contact information. No address, no phone or email contacts, nothing.
In the last paragraphs of the pamphlet, the DMSC states that ‘we have decided to request our esteemed visitors to support our program through token donation. To systematize the process, Durbar (umbrella of sex workers different organizations) decided to put charges on exposure visits.’…..‘The charges fixed for this exposure visit is Rs. 1,000.00 (Rupees One thousand only) per person.’….‘This charge will include only project briefing and visit to a near-by field for a half a day program. This will not include food and travel expenses.’….‘Cars may be rented from our Project for visiting far-off field visits.’
A 1000 Rupees would go a long way with Champa Das. So would the 50 Million Rupees that the UMSC, a subdivision of the DMSC has in the bank, for a rainy day, apparently. Debashish Chowdury shows me some recent press clippings his organization has received. Melinda Gates, the wife of the world’s richest man, has been to Sonagachi. She left 200 Million $US in India to fight AIDS. Will it help in the hand of people who promote a red light area like a zoo? Melinda Gates thinks that India’s pop stars and cricket players will change the nation’s perception on HIV.
Debashish Chowdury is getting agitated by my questions, “You are misunderstanding all this. You cannot make a statement about Sonagachi after only an hour in the field. Many of the women here choose to work in Sonagachi. DMSC is fighting for the legalisation of this work in order to give dignity and independence to India’s sexworkers.”
Indeed, the DMSC has been organizing festivals in Calcutta, where sex workers cook and dance for the local community. In the eyes of the average Indian, that’s a fun day out freak show.
Mahla Singh, one of the organisation’s founders, states, ”It is rarely acknowledged that for most sex workers, entering the sex industry is not a result of coercion or an act of desperation but a rational choice.”
I spoke to scores of sex workers in brothels across Calcutta. The only sex workers I met who’d made a rational choice of sorts where the high class girls in the city’s discos who charge up to 1000$ a night. It’s a long way from a posh Park Street night-spot to Sonagachi. The vast majority of sexworkers in India were sold into the business. The DMSC is cultivating the image of the ‘happy hooker’, a vapid hope raised with donors in order to attract large funds from abroad.
Indrani Sinha, director of Sanlaap, another organization purporting to help sex workers, disagrees with the DMSC’s philosophy. “Most women are coerced into this trade. I don’t think legalisation is the solution. We hear of women being trafficked into Calcutta’s red light districts every day. I wouldn’t even call prostitution work in this country.”
To celebrate its 12-year anniversary, the DMSC recently produced a fashion show. Debashish Chowdury is reluctant to show me the press clipping. After some heckling he hands me the Bengal-language reports. Sex workers turned into catwalk models for just one day. The clothes sold, the women went back to work. The monitoring officer has understood that it’s not a story a western audience might take to.
I refuse to pay. “With all due respect, I cannot pay this fee, which is squarely aimed at the media and trivializes the terrible circumstances out in the street. Prostitutes appear to have few rights in Calcutta, despite the best efforts of organizations like Durbar.”
Debashish Chowdury asks me to put my point of view in writing (I am doing so now), “The director is the child of a sex worker you know. WE don’t use the word prostitute. It’s derogatory. We believe sex workers should be allowed to work legally.”
He knows as well as I do that this is not going to happen anytime soon in a society where women have little independence and many are regularly abused, disadvantaged, starved and sold, beaten and killed by their male superiors, partners or family members. I am talking about ordinary women. Women like Champa Das are right at the bottom of a human pyramid so gigantic it almost defies definition. In other red light areas around the city, like Kalighat, thousands of young Nepali and Bengali girls work out of small hovels. In train stations all over Calcutta, in alleys and in the streets, more than a hundred thousand children eke out a living, sliding in and out of sex abuse situations every day.
Debashish Chowdury and I have come to an impasse, when our argument is helped along by a young voice behind me. “Mr. Chowdury is right of course. We need to give the women respectability. Only then can they be independent. You must not misrepresent this area as a place of misery.”
Gazi Nazrul Islam Faisal is project manager of a Marie Stopes HIV Prevention Project in Bangladesh. Gazi Nazrul Islam Faisal is on a fact-finding mission and does not have to pay for ‘exposure visits’. Gazi Nazrul Islam Faisal is a man. So are his two colleagues who have come over from Bangladesh. Except for photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat, all present in the room are men. We are talking about what women, who have no power over their bodies and lives, who are not free by any definition of the word, want. Debashish Chowdury wants my money. I want to go back to Champa Das and hear something real. My fixer tells me a gang of men has been following us and it is time to get into a taxi and leave the area.
“We have problems with landlords, the police and local goondas (gangsters). We try to help each other and it’s really tough. But we only go to the NGO as a last resort.”
As I leave Champa Das, she smiles in the door to her room, “Tell people about what it is like to live here, what you saw and what you heard.”
The fight for the women of Sonagachi continues. So does the trade of new girls to the area. Despite periodic denials by the DMSC, it’s a thriving business. No one has yet suggested to go after the clients, the pimps or the police. Perhaps in ten years time, the women of Sonagachi will have wrested control from the male-dominated society whose iron grip they feel every time they turn a trick. Perhaps, in a better future, the sex workers will be controlled by organizations like the DMSC and happy young Indian women will flock into the world’s oldest profession with new-found rights and enthusiasm. Perhaps. In the meantime, if I need to hire a car, I know where to go. Do they provide female drivers?
Published in the Irish Independent.
I am receiving a lot of comments for this story. Some of them can be read below. Some readers unfortunately send very abusive emails, generally aiming their torrents of anger at the sex workers. Also, many readers comment only to brag about their sexual escapades in India or inquire about how to access the sex trade in Kolkata. Most of these mails are deleted.
But due to the continuing flood of these disturbing confessions, I have now decided to run just one chilling comment from a Sonagachi client on this page. There is nothing typically Indian about this missive – abusive, criminal sexual predators exist all over the world. This comment illustrates the terrible abuse sex workers face on a daily basis.
I had a pleasent exprience of sex in sonagachi with anupriya she has been associated in this line at the age of 8years when her mother forced her to work as a prostitute. her ugly face was in tolerable but for in her lust i bang her for more than one hours at the rate of 125 as per the rate it would be only 25 rupees,but her crying face compailed me to give her 100 rupees. her house would not be more than 3meters per side still she managed to survive in that room.
i met with her mother and enquired about her life when she told me that she had been in sonagachi since 1983.she was verry helpless and recless when she was forced to be fucked by 3 person at a time. may she get more and more customers in future. call her in XXXXXXXXX (phone number removed).
For those readers who continue to contribute constructive messages and criticism, the comments remain open .