"I lost my mother at a very young age. I was three then. My father molested and raped me for 15 years. I had no clue if what was happening to me was right or wrong. I just felt uncomfortable and dirty. I met my boyfriend when I was 20. We eloped from a small village in Karnataka and came to Delhi. I was promised the moon and stars. Later, within a week after our honeymoon, I was sold off to a brothel here, on GB road. After almost 30 long years, it feels like home. It at least gave me an identity, where I take care of myself and don't depend on someone to fend for me." — Sweety
"I came to Delhi looking for work. But an uneducated woman on the Delhi streets makes a better living by selling her body than by doing odd jobs. Gradually, I chose this. My family back home, in Madhya Pradesh, thinks that I work as a maid and stay with the family I work for. I send them money and that's that." — Reema
"I ran away from home thinking my boyfriend will follow suit as promised. I reached Delhi but he did not. I was scared. It was a new city for a girl from a very small village in Assam. Later, after being drugged and raped at the railway station itself, I was sold off here." — Baby
"I was married into a family that tortured me for dowry. I ran away to Kolkata first. My husband tracked me down. One thing led to the other, I was trafficked several times till I finally landed in Delhi." — Dolly
These stories and many others unfolded as I made my way up the numerous flights of stairs that lead to places that we partially get to glimpse at through cinema and literature.
"Encounter rooms", as these women call the tiny, dingy enclosures within rooms, can barely host a house mattress, a pillow, a small stool that doubles up as a table, and a water bottle. Beyond living make-believe lives in these encounter rooms for their clients and customers, these women live another life populated by the friends they have made here - sharing the kitchen, a washroom and an "aangan". They also share laughter over the movies they watch, their pain and trials of living the lives they do; bring up the "illegitimate" children they have mothered – sometimes because they were forced to, or because they wanted to.
"My mother belonged here. She was helpless and perhaps made this choice for me. I will not. My daughter is two years old and I want her to study. I can't dream of giving her an almost dream-like life that you live, but I will ensure that she stays out of this mess," Saima said.
"I had no option, didi. Now when I look back, I see that I don't know anything else to fend for myself. Sewing, knitting – all this will take time. And how much will it earn me in this place I live. And who will accept me outside? Why do I go back to a ruthless world which has no value or compassion for its people? If I asked you to do something else, against that which you already knew and earned your living with, didi, would you do it? The money, which I agree comes easily, is money that has helped me build my house in my village. I will return to it when I grow old. Anyway, even this profession is ruthless. There is nothing you can do when you grow old," Reema's voice trailed off.
"I send my son to school. It is right here, near the railway station. I know the company he finds here is bad. I also know that he will not be able to escape his past that easily. But that is the best I can do for him. I cannot see him becoming a pimp, a part of this muck," asserted Baby.
Before I left the company of these women, I was left with baffling questions. Who are we to deem them victims? Why do we think we have the authority to grant them an alternate life when most of us making those suggestions come from elite classrooms and air-conditioned conferences?
Most of us slip from one surname to the other, choose the least risky of professions that gives us the "grace" and "stability" to comment on something that is so far removed from mere academic and intellectual constructions.
These women with abused bodies, broken trust, subjects of their circumstances, know what they are doing; they know that it's part of a larger system and social phenomena, and they have been taking corrective measures to ensure that their futures are secure. They take pride in their efforts and their conviction, if not in their profession.
It is time we moved away from the Umrao Jaan depiction of these women, stopped seeing them only as victims, and stopped treating them as titillating "stories" to be written. It is time we acknowledged women in red light areas as resilient agents of change and hope.
(The women at Kamathipura, a red light area in Mumbai, sent one of their daughters, Shweta Katti, to the US to study Psychology at Bard University. Shweta wishes to come back and work in the red light areas of the country.)