Thursday 9 March 2017

When Kamathipura showed me the mirror- Neha Singh

Last night, to celebrate International Women's Day and to commemorate the many, many struggles and fights women have had to go through to get us some of the most basic rights, we decided to go to Kamathipura to loiter.
For those who arent aware, Kamathipura is the (in) famous "red light district" of Bombay, or the place where a majority of sex workers live and carry out their daily work.
The idea seemed simple and innocent. We planned to meet at 8.00 p.m at Merwan's bakery at Grant Road East, and then start walking towards Kamathipura, which is about a kilometre or two away from the bakery. We were ten of us, eight women and two men. Some of us were friends already, some of us meeting each other for the first time, some just acquaintances who wanted to be part of the session.

We began walking and slowly the landscape changed. From more well lit, families infested lanes and gullies, the streets became darker and narrower, with mostly men standing, working or walking around us. A few men walked by extremely dangerously, brushing their bodies against mine. But we were a group of ten and we were determined to visit this much-talked-about place called 'Kamathipura'.

Prior to our visit their had been discussions about buying red roses and handing them out to the sex workers, but the options were open to those that wanted to do it and others who didnt. I personally didnt feel I wanted to hand out red roses to sex workers, so I chose not to. Some of us bought chocolates instead.

Slowly, the lanes became narrower and stuffy. There emerged small and gaudily lit old cinema halls that were playing Bollywood films from the eighties and ninetees. We seemed a bit lost, not having managed to reach our destination yet. We checked google maps for Kamathipura while some of us just asked the men working on the streets for it. Somehow, it took a lot more effort to ask, "Bhaiyya, kamathipura kahaan hai?" than the amount of effort it would have taken to ask for any other destination in the city. We subconsciously even judged the men who did know where Kamathipura was.

Finally, I saw a sign that said 'Kamathipura, Lane 3' on an inconspicuous small blue board. My smartphone carrying self immediately clicked a photo. It would definitely bring a lot of 'likes' on facebook. We were finally in Kamathipura. Another discussion ensued, about whether we should divide ourselves into smaller groups and just roam around and meet at a fixed point at a given time, or stick together. The majority voted for sticking together. So we did.

The place was a let down for us since it looked so 'normal', it didnt seem at all like the red light districts I had seen in films, I couldnt hear any titillating music, or spot vendors of gajras, paan and itar. No drunken men eyeing women, no pimps looking evil, no little children running around getting business for their unfortunate mothers. In fact, I couldnt spot a single sex worker! Then one of the loiterers whispered in my ears to look above. And thats when I saw the three to four storeyed dilapidated buildings with tiny, iron barred windows. And from behind those windows and balconies, women staring out on the streets.
I felt excited. I stared at them, they stared at me. It was getting real now.
We walked some more and I saw a bunch of women dressed in bright saris sitting on the steps of closed shops. They sat there waiting to get some work. I began talking with them. Some of us joined me. We asked them their names, where they came from, where they lived and how business is these days. They didnt mind talking to us. They told us their names, where they came from, how business was and where they lived. Some of us gave them chocolates to take home to their children. They accepted it gracefully and smiled at us. Some of the men that were inhabiting the streets gathered around us, wondering what we were doing and why we were talking to the women.
The crowd around us was growing and we kept talking to the women. And they were kind enough to entertain our questions and attempts at small talk.
Some of us bought some more chocolates and gave them to other women that thronged the streets.
To some of the women I said , "Aapko pata hai aaj antarrashtriya mahila divas hai?', they were clueless and laughed when one of us said, 'Aaj humara din hai, aapka bhi aur mera bhi'. They told us how demonetisation had hit their business severely. They told us, 'jab aadmi kaam karega tabhi toh yahaan aayega, jab aadmi kaam hi nahi karega, paisa nahi kamaayega toh yahaan kaise aayega?'.
As the crowd of men and women around us grew bigger, we decided to begin walking to the end of the street. It was around 10.00 p.m.

The crowd dissipated. We spotted a small casino. A tiny space with some screens and numbers that you needed to press to try your luck. I was curious. I entered the casino and saw a lot of men inside, playing. But they werent scary. They were just playing. The man at the counter asked me to give him some money for the entry charge and try my luck, but I didnt go ahead. I just saw for a while and then came out.
We walked some more. We spotted a video parlour that was playing films. We saw posters of old Bollywood films but some of us thought that that was probably a guise for the pornographic films that actually play inside. There were also some bars and eateries on the way that looked inviting, but we decided to walk to the end of the street. No untoward incident happened and we all felt very safe. We spotted a small restaurant at the end of the lane and decided to eat a small dinner, sitting on the small plastic stools outside the restaurant. We ordered nalli niharis, noodles, chicken tikka, caramel custard and some cold drinks. We sat and chatted and laughed and had a good time. And then slowly, one by one, we called it a night and went home.
Overall, it seemed like a good session. We had clicked photos which I shared on the Why loiter? group. We had met new people. Visited a new area.
But something didnt feel right. After I reached home, I began to question myself.

Why did we go to Kamathipura to loiter?
Why did I have a notion in my head about a red light area?
Why did I stop and talk to the women when I was clearly disrupting their work?
Why did I click a photo of the board that said 'Kamathipura Lane 3'?
Why did I ask those women if they knew today was International Women's Day?
Why did I subconsciously judge the men that told us the exact directions to Kamathipura?
Why do I remember what colour saris the women wore, or the fact that a lot of them were from Bangladesh, that they wore big nosepins and had put on bright lipstick?
What purpose did it serve us or them for us to loiter there?
Why did it not feel satisfying, joyous or good as it does after every loitering session?

Why do I feel that I am never going to choose Kamathipura as a space to loiter in again?

I realise now that I was loitering in Kamathipura with an extreme (although covered under layers of articulation) sense of middle-class-good-girl-entitlement. That reflected in all my actions and interactions in that space.
I realise that what for us was a 'unique experience' was maybe nothing more than a hindrance in someone's daily work.

I realise that we need to have discussions and rethink about what these loitering sessions mean to us.

The critics of Why loiter? often dismiss our movement as a 'frivolous', 'elitist' exercise and uptill now I have felt that none of our sessions fit the bill of being frivolous or elitist. But for last night's session, I have no defence. It did feel a bit 'frivolous' and 'elitist' simply because I dont think it managed to do what other sessions do. That is, bring about a change in the women loitering and in those that watch us walking. Last night, we were more like a bunch of tourists without any deeper engagement or reflections of the space we were in.

I am happy that this happened. It will help us rethink and revisit our reasons for loitering with a greater fervor than ever before.