Her cubicle is tiny, neatly kept, and lit by a tube light. An old ceiling fan, a trifle unsteady, whirs silently. There is a large cupboard in which she stocks up on cash, jewellery and some clothes: sarees, salwar kameezes and undergarments. She has a bank account with a nationalised bank and a passbook she is proud to show. She has Rs 18,000 in it. There is a chair, a small table with powder, lipstick and some makeup, a mirror, and pails of water under the cot. A thin brown rope stretches from one end of the room to the other with some clothes hanging on it. They are her clothes, washed, wrung and left to dry. She will iron them later, or the pressman on the ground floor will come to the brothel in the morning, collect all the girls’ clothes and send them over in the evening, ironed and sorted out in neat bundles.
The room is small, clean, cool and intimate. It wears a good feeling probably reflecting the aura of the occupant. There are shadows lounging around and geckos are mating on the wall. They grab one another with little gurgles of ecstasy.
She lifts her saree and shows me her arms and legs. I can see knife and burn marks. She tells me that even her vagina has been cut up. One nipple has also been sliced off. She says all this in a matter-of-fact voice as though reading out a child’s report card. There’s no drama, no tears, no look-at-my-sorry state cry. “How’s the tea?” she then asks smiling, trying to cheer me up.
I ask her how she knows all this. “Is there any other reason? Look at my life. Is there any reason for all that has happened? What have I done? I haven’t even had the chance to be a bad person. I was raped as a child. So there must be something I did in a previous life and this is my punishment. When I die my punishment will be over. My next life will be good. I have done nothing wrong this life. We have talked about this in the brothel. All the girls agree. There is no other explanation. You tell me. You are educated. If not for karma, why have we suffered like this? It is destiny, nothing else.” I look for answers. The happy geckos are also not on the wall.
I ask her about God, religion, about her spirituality. Her room has several pictures of deities. Yes, she prays every day. All the girls pray. They have grown up praying to some God and the madam also insists that they pray together. “I am born a Hindu and I pray to all the Gods and Goddesses. I also celebrate all the festivals. Religion doesn’t matter to me. I don’t know too much about all this. I haven’t studied much, but there has to be some power that makes all of us so different. Even the girls in the brothel are so different from one another. How? Isn’t that surprising? I feel happy when I pray. So I pray. I don’t know anything else. Maybe, there is no God. I don’t know. Maybe, He is not kind, maybe He is not just, may be He is. I don’t know all this. How can I know all this? I just pray to what, I feel, is responsible for creating life. Prayer makes me feel strong and secure and happy.”
We have more tea. It is late at night; early morning actually. The rooms are full. Business is good like it always is. The cubicle’s door is shut and there is no noise intruding our space. A long triangular stretch of light seeps in from under the door. Some girls who have not been taken for the night sleep in the hall outside on charpoys laid on the ground. “Why don’t you eat? It is not good to have so much tea. There is some rice and dal. I will heat it. Let’s eat,” she insists. We eat together in clean, separate plates. She gives me a spoon so that I don’t dirty my hands.
Do you miss your kids? “I am a mother. Which mother won’t? I am here for them. I want to live and work till they are settled. Both are boys. So I am not worried. If they are girls anything can happen to them. When I meet my mother I wonder what dreams she had for me? She must have had some dreams, at least. Having become a mother, I understand my mother better. Luckily, she is blind and can’t hear or speak too well. If she knew what I have gone through, her heart will pain.”
She has pictures of the kids framed on the wall. Two little boys, short, thin, tanned, oiled hair and powdered up, in matching blue shirts with white stripes grinning away astride a red motorcycle. It is a studio shot taken in her village.
What’s her daily routine? She normally wakes up late, but it depends on customer traffic. If the traffic is heavy, the brothel gets a life only at noon. Every girl gets about five customers a day on an average. There are love stories and special customers, and weekend and festival rush. So the numbers vary depending on several factors. Customers can walk in anytime; some even come to the brothel for breakfast. Some stay in the brothel for weeks on end. Customers can stay as long as they want if they pay. But the evenings and nights are always busy.
Madam, a former sex worker in the same brothel, wakes up early every day and looks into the provisions and other details. The girls, who had an early night, help her. Everyone does something or the other; duties are assigned. Some cook, others clean up, and food is also ordered from the several hotels nearby. Customers may want to drink and smoke, too. Biryani, tandoor dishes and kebabs can be ordered. On festive occasions the girls cook the dishes they are most fond of. They don’t entertain customers during their menstrual cycle but hang around and chat. It’s holiday time then. They also eat out with customers. Vendors come to the brothel with fruits, vegetables, flowers, clothes, utensils, jewellery, with almost everything the girls and the brothel needs. So there is no need to shop unless they need the colours, smells and noises of the bazaar.
The brothel is spick and span. There are maids to clean up; normally they are retired sex workers. The two toilets and two bathing areas are kept spotlessly clean and disinfected, water collected in large cauldrons, floors swabbed several times a day, condoms are used always, and great stress is laid on post-coital hygiene. The girls and their customers clean themselves thoroughly with water, lemon and soap. Lemon slices are always used as a natural disinfectant. It is used for everything: washing, cooking and eating. A doctor on the street below is always available. He lives above the clinic. Sometimes the girls fall sick, but
There is order and the brothel runs without murmur. Fights between the girls, though not uncommon, never last. There are some 20 girls in the brothel and
The Buddha talked about clinging and non-clinging. If something good happens, you have a reflexive tendency to try to hold on to it, and if something bad happens, you have a tendency to push it away. This clinging response is inevitable if you believe yourself to be the same as or the ‘owner of’ all the desires and fears that arise in you. You become trapped in an endless web of tension and contraction. For most people life is just this.
“He who understands clinging and non-clinging understands all the dharma,” said the Buddha. This is the dharma of happiness. The alternative to the tyranny of clinging is to fully receive the experiences that arise in your life, knowing them to be pleasant when they are pleasant and unpleasant when they are unpleasant. Life dances and you have to dance with it. Each moment is a fresh moment in the dance, and you have to be present for it.
Tara and the girls instinctively radiate the wisdom of the Buddha. I spent years with my yoga practice, yet was unable to scratch out the images of burn-and-knife wounds on Tara’s body, her dazzling eyes, the wisdom of her words and the smile that roped in all the joys of the world in its loving expanse in a badly-lit cubicle of a brothel on the first floor of a building steadily falling apart in one of the most notorious flesh districts in the world.
Life is dancing, and
(Excerpted from the forthcoming issue of Urban Voice: Bombay)