[From the print] Our correspondent relates the experience of an anonymous prostitute on the streets of Kolkata.
Source: Sandra Hoyn
Society has always viewed prostitution as a universal evil and the people associated with it are vessels that harbour an unimaginable form of sin. Society has certain names for us, names that are meant to demean, for the purpose to abuse and shame. People in the sex industry can never escape the tag of their profession, I often feel as if there was a tilak (mark) on my forehead. Everyone I know, knows who I am and what I do. Most of them do not know my name but that does not matter because to them, I am a whore.
I was named after the Hindu Goddess of Wealth, Lakshmi. In the dichotomous framework that India finds itself in, Lakshmi was both a goddess said to bring prosperity and fortune and a prostitute with broken dreams and nowhere to go. Amma, the woman whom I was sold to by my trafficker refused to have one of her ‘girls’ be called after a goddess, whose legs were open like one of Lakshmi’s lotuses. Amma was a pious woman and her tolerance towards blasphemy, freedom, and justice was an incontestable nil.
For years, the only escape, I had was my tiny window with an ineffective mosquito net and broken dreams. I would take refuge in the dream of going back to my village but quickly shook away the thought. I was one of them, a whore, a sex worker. My village would never accept someone with that label.
So, eventually Lakshmi was forgotten and Munni was born. There were three other Munni’s where I worked. They all probably had stories similar to mine but we never asked one another. Our name had no character, no significance, a perfect fit for the profession. A prostitute was a person with no stories, to be used as an object to please and fulfil fantasies. If my client replaced my name with another, it did not affect me. I was an artificial host of the dirty and unmentionable, who was less than the rest and society had chosen her to be the sacrifice of its community.
Source: Bernard Henin
The words used to describe my kind are considered vulgar and offensive in almost every spoken language in the world. From Bengali to English, prostitution has negative connotations. My profession itself was an offence. A whore, slut, prostitute, hooker are words that are meant to bring shame to the person who is called one. Language, often provides, a good insight on society. For instance, the tone and language used for prostitution tells you just what the community feels about it: filthy and immoral. When one joins my former profession, it is near impossible to escape from its clutches. Where do we go? Everywhere we try to run or hide and all they can see is a woman who has lost her morality and ergo her identity. If you were to go to any sex worker their thoughts or educate them on societal labels. They would laugh at how little the world knows. How little the world knows and how much the world hides. The slurs that were thrown at me stopped bothering me after a while because they had helped erase all that made me human.
Source: Prateek Jain
The Sonagachi red-light district in Kolkata, my former home was and still is a favourite amongst men, the kind that always had narcotics with them and greeted us with slurs. It was also the home to men who had large bungalows in the affluent localities of Alipore and Park Street . They were awful, they saw me as nothing more than the products of their sick twisted fantasies. These men were responsible for Sonagachi’s prosperity but refused to acknowledge their acquaintance with the place. Sonagachi is known for a lot of things in the city of Calcutta but it is most certainly not known for its justice. The Government of India has failed miserably to rehabilitate sex workers. The promised voter cards have been given but we can’t do anything. The powerless do not give the powerful power, it is taken away from us. Sonagachi is a label that never goes away. Your identity revolves around it and society only fixates on that.
Yama, the Hindu God of Justice, was always a busy person and rumours spread that he had a bigger disdain for prostitutes than the society we lived in. We never saw him, he had become a myth, a legend, that would help us fall asleep but he never showed up. The police, the ‘protectors of justice’, turned out to be regular customers. So, as quickly as we had thought of Yama, he had given up on us and we were once again alone and still whores.
After all these years, it is very easy to vouch that a life of a prostitute in India can never truly escape the experiences of physical and mental displacement, feeling unrooted, and unlearning and relearning their identities. A prostitute can never forget staring at another sex worker’s eyes because the lifelessness of her eyes mirrors hers. One learns the truly understands society when one works in an industry that feeds on exploitation. Even when you have escaped the label, the profession, you can never forget the language and its meaning. Society and taboo, both do not believe in a fair trial. A name is enough.
This letter is in no means for sympathy but serves as a reflection on Indian society. The pride that we hold so close to us about the balance of the ancient and the modern is nothing more than a nicely wrapped fallacy. Oppression has not been moderated but has merely transformed into other forms, just as bad as its predecessor. We live in our own cocoons that keeps us ignorant to the grave injustice, millions face right outside our doors. We turn our heads away from taboos because of the blasphemous and licentious stamp stuck to it. Taboo is blasphemy and all the greatest truths start as blasphemy.
If you want to learn more about the lives of sex workers in Kolkata, you can give this short video by the Youtube channel Ross Kemp Extreme World.
Edited by Pailey Wang, Philippe Bédos and Maya Shenoy