“Do I have to stay here all my life?” She questioned me with such innocence that I couldn’t restrain my tears. Every young girl who has come to me has asked me the same question. And every time, I told them, “You don’t have to, dear, you don’t have to.”
It has been eighteen years since I entered this profession, and I’ve seen all sorts of lucky and unlucky girls. The lucky ones had their saviours sweeping them off to safer places, while others have stayed on to rot in the squalor. Like me.
“What do I call you?” the girl was asking.
Everyone around here has called me amma these eight years. Eight years. That is too long a time. Eight years ago, our old amma was on her deathbed and she had told me, “You’ll be the next amma.”
The name commands respect and embodies motherly love. But how many can actually feel and exhibit that under the circumstances? I did not like our old amma, I just feared her. It is as likely that these girls now feel the same way about me. Not that this is a job I like. But I am helpless. I can do nothing at all, for I am chained. Chained to the wills of those around me. Amma is the matron, not the chief. She will never be one.
I clearly remember the day I was brought here. I was drugged by a man in the train. The tragedy struck when I was on my way to Vellore from my village in Trichy, to study medicine. 96% in my pre-university exams and I was the first girl in the village who had qualified to attend medical school. My father had prepared to send me to Vellore, to my paternal aunt’s house, but not without vehement protests from the elders of the village.
The entire village got together to organise a sabha and threatened to expel our entire family if I were to study further in such a distant place. Was it not enough that a girl had been allowed to study so much while she should be learning to cook and clean, that now she should be permitted to go so far away from her parents and pursue a life on her own?
But my father was a staunch believer in women’s rights and he stood up against the whole village. One by one the villagers were convinced of his resolute purpose and irrefutable arguments. All for the sake of his dear daughter in whom he believed. Whom he dreamt of as dressed in white, serving patients in the nearby Government hospital. And what luck that he should be sick on the day of departure and that she should travel alone.
Shattering his dreams and now serving…
When I opened my eyes, I was in a well-decked cot, complete with garlands of rose and mogra. I was bewildered. Where am I? What is going on? Am I dreaming?
As I wondered, the doors to the room opened and a big burly figure strode up to me. I cowered and withdrew into the corner of the cot. But those firm hands caught hold of me, and the aftermath has only remained as a subconscious memory. Oh, the agony of the moment! Even after eighteen years, I shudder at the thought of it – the struggle, the screams, the shame.
For hours after that first incident, I was totally unaware of what was going on. For two days, I lay in a subconscious state, alternately begging my father’s forgiveness and shouting for help. I remember a tight slap across my cheeks and slipping into blissful unconsciousness again, waking up only the next morning.
Amma came and talked to me, telling me I had no option but to stay. I was an absolute stranger to the city of Mumbai. The city where street boys turn into Bollywood stars, where crores are spent every day on entertainment, where a boy washing a car today could one day own a fleet of them.
But I had nowhere to go.
The red light district is like a prison; cordoned off from the city and yet so close to the people in it. It entertains men irrespective of caste and religion; people from all walks of life congregate here. We were unwanted, and yet in demand; scorned by the members of the same gender that should understand us, and looked down upon by the same gender that uses us.
Anyway, life has to go on. There is someone at the door already. Oh! It is 8 o’clock! Business will perk up.
“Oh Saraswati! Isn’t it your turn to go first today?”