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Look Beyond: My Experience in India's Sonagachi

Look Beyond: My Experience in India's Sonagachi

Have you ever visited a brothel? Or have you ever spoken to a prostitute for an hour- just to know her story so far? As a teenager, it always irked me when I read a story of a sex worker. My naïve nature made me question their inability to pursue any other profession- something that is common and acceptable in a society. Intrigued with their reasoning, I questioned their individual decision– why would anyone want to be a sex worker? Pursue a respectable career instead. Walking down the narrow lanes of Sonagachi - Asia’s largest red light area, I finally found some of my answers that encouraged me to look beyond the sentences of articles that arrested my attention.

I was a twenty year old graduate who stepped into the red-light area with an attitude of not to learn, but rather preach about HIV, protected sex, and self-realization. Little did I know; it would be the other way around - it increased my self-awareness and gave me a heightened sense of respect towards my surroundings,especially the inner circle. I was sixteen years old when my cousin told me about her experience of working with sex workers. Like any other inquisitive teenager, I was intrigued about their lifestyle that furthered my passion in the field of development. Four years down the lane, when it was my turn to choose a profession, I was inclined towards development. Excited to learn about an uncommon profession - a career that is still looked down upon due to its key responsibilities;  due to its hiring process or impact on the society, I walked through the artery of Sonagachi, and began my journey of discovery.

Sonagachi- positioned in the heart of North Kolkata in India -  its meandering lanes with open drainage channels, traditional mansions (havelis) erected on those and a constant pungent smell- have girls and women dressed up in bright colorful dresses, with heavy make-up, eagerly waiting for their customers to arrive. While my peer educators -  retired sex workers and active social workers guided me through the bustling streets and antediluvian brothels every morning, I made a stop at every corner and passage, each time I witnessed something astonishing. Sometimes, it was a line of 10 beautiful girls waiting for their customers to arrive in the middle of the road, sometimes it was fifty-year-old women trying to convince men that business with them is a good deal, sometimes men screening my body to see if I qualify as per their checklist, and sometimes pimps wearing their standard uniform marketing girls as their best products. It was an unique world, right in the middle of an archaic metropolis of India.  

My decision to work in this sector began with my eagerness to learn about human trafficking and sex work as a profession. Trust me when I say this - confidence and strength are two traits which were reflected in every person I encountered. Their stories ranged from being sold by their own kinfolks to their independent decisions to pursue the profession that would ensure the financial well-being of their families. I will be honest - my thought process while interacting with them vacillated between compassion for them and praising their astounding capabilities to overcome adversities that were inflicted either by their inner circle or by life in general. Becoming a mother at the age of nineteen (not knowing who the father is), being abandoned and sold by husband at the age of twenty-two in a foreign land, or undertaking the role of the bread earner in the family, instead of pursuing education, and countless other stories that forced me to change my outlook towards them and my life.

Their pragmatic decision-making ability, and vigour to overcome regular challenges in order to lead a happy life is encouraging for many like me who get disheartened easily. Their narrations of their journeys to  Sonagachi and continued lifestyle did not bring a smile to my face. Yet, they inspired me with their contingency strategies to strive towards living a happy life. Yes, my depth of understanding the world of prostitution has evolved over time. However, I am a believer that whether it is out of choice or by force- it is an exploitation of a person at countless levels. We are still part of a society where people are scared to own up to this profession in front of a larger crowd with the fear of being rejected. We are still part of a society where girls and women are pushed into the profession by force- be it economic or human trafficking. Working with them enhanced my learning curve to unfold the various layers of sex work. I was one of those who easily passed  judgements on girls pursuing sex work, rather trying to investigate their reasons. Thirty days of rigorous work developed my understanding on the various facets attached to sex work, and gaps between the two worlds that require urgent abridgement.

It’s been ten years since I visited the place. Yet the experience is still etched in my memory. It brings a smile on my face and pride in my soul that I dared to visit a place which is considered to be uncommon or forbidden for a girl belonging to a “good society”. Sonagachi continues to be my favorite, because it challenged me to overcome my fears, and apprehensions about sex workers and sex work as a whole. It gave me a perspective to move beyond the limited knowledge provided by books, movies and urban class conversations.

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