MUMBAI ~ The red of their lips was outlined in black. Kohl was applied carefully to accentuate the lips, give them shape. But they looked exaggerated. Comical, yet tragic. Eyes that looked as if they’d lost their way to sleep. But it is the lips that they protect the most. The body is up for sale. The black is ugly, they agree. But that’s to keep clients off kissing, and licking.
Sex workers in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red-light district, say they don’t like kissing. It is disgusting. Their mouths stink and they always want more, they say. Business is down there, Puja says, pointing below her belly. That’s what she sells. “Do it, get your release, and off you go,” she says. “We don’t indulge men. They are chutiyas. Bhadwaas of the first order… randichod, they are.”
The women would like to think they are in a noble profession. Only the others look at them with disdain. They are saving other women on the other side from the vagaries of men’s desires. They are receptacles of all the world’s shit. Clients can piss in their vagina, shit in their bed. That’s when it turns ugly. But they are nonchalant about this ugliness. It is part of their world. They didn’t choose it, but now that they are here, they have to make the most of their time, and their bodies.
Men with hollow cheeks and empty eyes sniffing whitener lurk in the background, drinking toddy. Once they have made enough to buy prostitutes for a few minutes, they unleash themselves on them. They stumble in, list out their desires, shell out the cash, haggle with them, and ask them to fulfil their fantasies.
Puja and Seema sit on a staircase at Alexander Theatre near Gulli No 14 in Kamathipura, waiting for customers. Business is not as usual. Most brothels here have been taken over by realtors. Kamathipura is fading. But in the afternoons and evenings, women solicit customers. They glitter like fireflies in sequinned saris; the powder on their faces makes them look like ghosts. Later, many of them will walk into small taverns here, buy beer, and drink to ease some of the pain. You never get used to it, Puja says.
Only a few hundred remain in these alleys. Pimps and customers hang out. Beyond the truth of exploitation, the women here have become dismissive of the men who visit them. “No, they won’t beat us,” Puja says, “Because then, we would beat the shit out of them.” But they have strange desires, she says.
Puja closes her eyes when she lies down. Never look them in the eye, she insists. “All of them are the same,” she explains, as she waits for someone to pick her up that afternoon. “When I switch off the lights,” she says, “I try to make him come in between my thighs. I try to block my thoughts. It hurts, but money is important. I have a family to take care of.”
She is from a village in Uttar Pradesh. When her husband abandoned her, she came to Bombay with a friend and started working as a prostitute. Her family thinks she works at an office. She sends money home for her son and parents. One day, she will return, she says. But it is a tough life for now. Her ‘madam’ is nice to her, and her room is like a hovel with a bed and some bit of floor. It is dark, and the smell of men lingers for days.
For three days, a man has been clinging to Puja, buying her bangles and clothes, but never giving her any money. Her madam was getting impatient. “But I can’t jump on him,” she says. “This is what I am talking about. These men are idiots. They want this girlfriend experience. But it is too much work.”
Puja is in a net lehenga. She has at least four of them. Over the months, she has come to think that men only come to her when she is dressed this way. She has a light complexion, with full lips and a slim body. She has a lover, like many women here have; they hang on to them, drink beer with them, and talk of being together forever. But once they are back here in this space, they laugh at men.
Sometimes, they cry. Over many things. Love and loss. They drink Corex to stop thinking about so many things. Customers. Permanent ones. And youth.
But the ancient wisdom of brothels is that youth isn’t forever. Use it to earn money, and don’t waste it on men who come seeking to prove their masculinity or discover themselves. In any case, they eventually become leeches. Yet, many have fallen into that trap.
Zeenath Pasha, a eunuch who owns a brothel in Gulli No 14, says the men who walk up the stairs are not to be taken seriously. “There is no love here. Only sex. All kinds of sex,” she says, “There is no end to desire here. Brothels exist because we don’t judge. Money takes away that privilege. We are only providers.”
Nisha, another eunuch, says she got sentimental a few times with a man who would dress her as a bride, adorn her head with flowers, and pluck them out one by one. It was like in films, she says. “The sex was good.”
Orgasm is a word they don’t use. Instead, they say, ‘Mera sex aa gaya’ or ‘Mazaa aa gaya’.
“What do you call it in English?”
“Orgasm,” I offer.
“We call it ‘paani girna’.”
She enacts a scene: “Abey bhadwe, tera paani gira kya? Get off, you paid for only one session,” she says in Hindi, making a gesture of pushing a man off her.
But sometimes, they want to take it out on the world. If they have a disease, they plot passing it onto someone else, Nisha says. That’s revenge. On men. Those who come here think they own us, but they don’t; here, we have mastered the art of keeping the body separate from the soul, she says.
They order more tea. A middle-aged woman curses everyone—mostly men walking by. She’s had too many beers this morning. Her sister had died leaving four children in her care. She has three of her own, and it’s difficult keeping them off the streets. “Men have used us, abused us,” says the woman, “We carry children of men we don’t know. They infect us. We tell them to wear condoms, but they manage to slip those off as they enter us. They are disgusting. They want to urinate on our bodies. They want to stub cigarettes on our bodies… useless creatures. But we need money. It is a strange life. We are in control. Yet, we lose ourselves in this.”
Zeenath says many women don’t live past the age of 30. They contract illnesses because men do not use condoms. For the money they earn, which is usually Rs 100 a session, they trade their lives. HIV/AIDS is common. She has lost many of her friends to it. Men, she says, stink.
On the floor sprawls a pregnant woman, her bump covered with a shawl as her son rides a bicycle nearby. It is difficult to have others enter your body, she says, in this state. They don’t make love. And she says she doesn’t even know what it feels like—fucking with love. Here, all they have is dehumanised sex. Here, it is all about the basics. Pull up the sari, or maxi, and let them pull down their pants and open up. In a few minutes, it’s over. Insist on a condom. But if they refuse, let them have their way. In the end, money is important. Men are bastards.
They call for more tea and start talking about some of the men who buy sex, laughing over their fetishes—like this man who would make them drink beer and ask them to piss in bottles so he could drink it. It is ridiculous.
Nandini, a eunuch, speaks English.“Golden shower,” she says, referring to a urination fetish. “Money is God. We charge extra. These men must be paid to pay for their stupid demands. We don’t bring sentimentality to this.” She speaks of other things. Things that would be described as ‘BDSM’ in a more sophisticated world. One man would tie the woman to the fan, spread her legs, and then get into the act. “She would say it’s fun,” says another sex worker.
“But it is weird. We can talk about many such things.”
“They are strange, all of them. We have one rule: ‘never let them stay on’,” says Puja, “Because they will first patronise you and then eat off your earnings. In Kamathipura, such are the men who come to us. They want to do strange things. Some even want to piss inside you.”
Seema is from Bengal. She came to Kamathipura after her husband abandoned her to live with his sister- in-law. She had a daughter, and a madam she ran into advised her to keep morality aside and sell sexual services to bring the child up. That she fell for a man who was her first customer is a story she recounts with nonchalance. They married, and she had a son with him, but she carried on with prostitution because no man could be trusted. Her daughter is now living in another part of the city, studying so she can get her mother off the streets.
But for now, Seema has to suffer men with bad breath and idiotic preferences. “They want to lick, kiss, and it is not part of the deal. For Rs 100, they can’t have the world,” she says. “But these men are cheap bastards. They don’t want to wear condoms, and they always want more.”
In the other brothel, a eunuch says men are like children. They come here to play. They think they are too smart for us, she says. “But the truth is that we laugh at them.” She was once raped by ten men when she had gone looking for customers near Grant Road. They took her to railway tracks nearby and raped her. She fainted. The police refused to register a case. She cried, and was angry for a long time. She hates sex, but will do it for money.
Brothels don’t exist for men to just buy sex. These are places where they can play out their fantasies without any fear of reproach. Some of these men are sick in their minds, says Nandini. There is a man who visits with Amul butter, honey and jam. They call him ‘the shahadwaala’ (honeyman). He likes to smear their bodies with butter and jam, and lick it off them. “It is absurd,” says the eunuch. “The first time he started smearing it on me, I kept laughing.”
There are other fetishes they service. This one man would want to wash the clothes of menstruating women. Zeenath Pasha would arrange for the garments, he would happily wash them, spread them out to dry, and leave. “I didn’t mind. It made him happy. I got the money without sex, and he did our laundry,” she says. “He comes sometimes.” There is another man who would come and ask them to take off their clothes. One by one, they would. Then he would wear their clothes, and sit while they stood naked around him. After he was done with his little play act, he would pay and leave.
Yet another—a balding, ageing man—would decorate them, paint their forehead with dots, make them wear jewellery, have them look like brides, and then sit there drinking beer and gazing at them. An hour later, he would leave. They would laugh, drink the leftover beer, and wait for other customers. “He had lost his wife, and he had this urge to remarry,” says Nisha. “But they are so ugly. All of them.”
Desire is primitive, and so is sex. And sex isn’t only about entering another. Or intercourse. These cramped quarters with their cages and berths are places where sex workers give men a chance of holding on to their sanity, before they are sent back to their world of morality with their urges taken care of. Their kinks are safe with the women. They may be ugly, even diseased, but they are customers and they need to keep coming.
“What are they to us but customers? We take them to the rooms, service them, take our money,” Puja says. “The problem arises when a customer becomes permanent. Then, he wants your soul. That’s not for sale.”
Others refer to men as passengers who ride them. They come and go, that’s all.
Ruchira Gupta, founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide and field producer of The Selling of Innocents, says it is interesting how empowered women are in these situations, and yet so exploited in a way, agreeing to do almost anything for a few rupees. Apne Aap is an NGO that works with sex workers in Bihar, Bengal and Mumbai.
Gupta studied clients as part of her research. ‘Who were these men who bought sex? Why with young children? And who were the men in the villages who let their daughters, sisters, mothers, lovers and friends fall prey to traffickers? What motivated them to collude in the exploitation of loved ones? Who were the procurers, corrupt border guards, agents, middlemen and pimps? How did they feel about living off this misery?’ she writes in her paper ‘The buyers: The masculinities project: Why do men buy women? What can we do to stop the demand?’ ‘The clients who visit the brothels are students, daily wage earners, migrant workers, office clerks, even policemen— anybody and everybody… When making The Selling of Innocents, we were shown albums of women to choose from in many hotels in Mumbai. At a massage parlor, we were taken to a back room and girls were paraded for us—the youngest was five years old.’
On the motives of men, Gupta found plenty. Apart from the obvious need for sex, she found: ‘Curiosity’, ‘Desire for power and control’, ‘Peer pressure’, ‘Fear of losing virility’, ‘Desire for violent sex or to be violent’, ‘Thrill of having multiple partners’, ‘Preference for unequal relationship with women’, ‘Preference for sex with children’, ‘Social conditioning’ and ‘Seduction of commercials’, among others.
But the women at brothels have a basic view of them. “Men are chutiyas,” says Puja, “Deal with them.”
In this world, the men are indeed passengers. They come and go. But in these purgatories, they are purged of their most primitive desires so that women on the other side, back in safe homes, can get to make love.