Red Light

“We say that slavery has vanished from European civilization, but this is not true. Slavery still exists, but now it applies only to women and its name is prostitution.”

– VICTOR HUGO, Les Misérable

Sonagachi


May 31, 2010, 2:25 HRS.

A SMS from Vinayak: “Awake?”

No replies. I missed the SMS.

*  *  *

 

3:24 HRS.

Vinayak: “Love you dost…”  (All drunk)

Reply: “Luv u a lot… Now at taj bengal in search of alcohol…”

*  *  *

 

3:41 HRS:

A SMS to Vinayak and Sonal: “All 5 stars closed… Going to sonagachi, d largest red light area in kolkata… D prostitution district… I m really afraid…”

 

I think they missed the message. There was no reply back from the receiver.

And then began a story. An experience which will always be with me throughout my life.

*  *  *

30th May, 2010: 11:05 HRS.

I was on a holiday in Kolkata after almost eleven months of working, earning and spending insanely in the Cyber city – Hyderabad. I got some school friends of mine (I will name them A, S and D, as they do not want me to disclose their names) to accompany me and have fun with as I often get bored, badly, when I find myself jobless. Trying to decide how to spend the night is a difficult task for all of us as we hardly reach a conclusion which is acceptable to everyone and the easiest solution which we always end up finding is to drink together late into the night, after my parents are asleep. After spending a year of ‘Hyderabad’ life, I feel very odd, now days, when I do not drink on weekends, as it has become a habit for me, and is the same for most of my friends as well. So, we began the night after some nice food which we had got packed from Arselan, a nearby restaurant.

The night was long, and so were the endless discussions, which continued throughout the night under the dim yellow bulb, which my mother had arranged for my room, on my request. The darkness of the night surrounded us, while the conversations seemed to take us back to the days of unadulterated excitement when we were together at school. I was feeling good. They felt even better to be together with me, drinking, after such a long period of time, which we never thought was possible ever after we departed to pursue our respective careers. During the school days, liquor had never been a part of our lives, but now, as we saw each other, its almost impossible to avoid it.

Everything was going well that night, but, the problem began, when, we realized that we had finished whatever liquor we had in our stock, brought at a very high price from a black marketer, near a local B grade theater, as a dry day had been declared throughout the city due to the impending municipal elections, which did not bother anyone other than a few power crazy people who did not care, even a bit, about the degrading living conditions of the citizens in the, so called, City of Joy. The city is no more joyous for the people who had been under the depressing communist rule for the last three decades, but refused to resist because of the age old “bong-attitude” of disliking any kind of constructive changes.

The British capital of the Indian Subcontinent, Calcutta, and now the Marxist capital of the nation, Kolkata, is still in mess. Nothing has changed here at all, and one can hardly claim with confidence that they will ever.

We thought we won’t be needing anymore of the liquid which we had been consuming continuously, for the last two nights here in Kolkata, but unfortunately, we could not resist our urge to drink even more. We began to think of all possible sources, friends and contacts who could get us a few more bottles.

But, we could not find any.

And so, at 2:55 AM that fateful morning, we slipped out, stealing the door keys from the room where my parents were deep asleep. No one at my house knew that we had moved out so stealthily in the city which is a safe-heaven for criminals, anti-socials and henchmen, sponsored by their respective political parties which are always at war.

Our destination: Hotel Taj Bengal.

As we walked through the lonely street in search of a taxi, which we could hardly spot, our hearts beat, but we were excited about the ‘adventure’ we were into. But we never thought it could go so far.

Finally, after ten minutes of walking like night stalkers looking for a lonely girl, we finally happened to find a taxi. The driver and his helper were sleeping. I woke up one of them and asked for Taj.

*  *  *

 

May 31, 2010: 3:20 HRS.

We moved into Taj Bengal. I went and asked the security guard, before entering, if any of the bars or restaurants were open. He spoke into his walkie-talkie and came back to me.

‘Everything is closed sir. I am sorry. It was a dry day, and because of the elections, we had to suspend all operations for a day. Sorry for the inconvenience’.

I asked, ‘Where can we expect a bar to be open at these hours?’

‘I am not sure sir, but you may try Hotel Hindusthan International once’

I thanked him and left.

‘Minto Park’ I said to the taxi driver.

*  *  *

 

3:36 HRS.

We landed up at HHI. After the security check, we proceeded towards the main entrance and asked the same question. As expected, the answer came out to be no. All bars, pubs and even the underground discotheque was closed. Reason, the elections.

Unable to find any way out, we finally came back and asked the taxi driver.

Dada, aapnaar kono chena-shona aache… aashe pashe?‘ (‘Brother, do you know any place nearby where we can get it?’)

Ekhane toh nei… Sonagachi te paben… aami maal paiye debo‘ (‘I don’t know anyone here… You may get it in Sonagachi… I will get you the liquor there’), he replied back.

We stood stunned there for some time.

The very name of that place sent a chill down our spine. We were not able to decide what to do next. Till the moment we heard that word, we were drunk enough to enjoy the long taxi ride in the lonesome night city, but now, we were tensed to the extent that we were immediately back to our senses within a few seconds, as if someone had pulled us down from the sky all of a sudden without any notice.

‘See, we have already come so far. I think we can give it a try’ said D. A and S also agreed. And so did I, although a bit unwillingly.

Sonagachi koto door?‘ (‘How far is Sonagachi?’), I asked the taxi driver.

*  *  *

 

4:04 HRS.

As we drove, we all were silent, but the excitement and the anxiety within us did not allow us to keep quiet for long. We looked at each other and exchanged our smiles, for which we were notorious at school, and then shook our head trying to realize what were we actually doing.

Before reaching the place, we gave two more tries. The driver knew a few people, who, he thought, could get us our stuff. But his attempts failed. Everyone suggested us the same place – the Red Light district. So, we moved forward.

And then, after five more minutes, the vehicle took a left turn.

Our eyes were wide open in surprise. And in fear.

Eta Sonagachi?‘ (‘Is this Sonagachi?’), I asked our driver.

‘Yes’ he said and screeched to a halt. He then stepped out of the car.

We were all silent again, looking around the place which had been, till a few moments back, just a mystery for us.

Sonagachi never sleeps. Unlike the rest of the city, this lane was full of life – a life which is very much prohibited when spoken in terms of the, so called, ‘well cultured’ citizens of the city, but still, for the first time in Kolkata I felt that the Municipal elections did not matter to any one over there in that part of the country. The street was like any other street of Kolkata – congested, buildings struggling with each other to retain their respective allocated spaces, some even struggling to stand erect, red flags all around with the communist insignia, a few walls painted white with the name of the ‘Comrades’ painted in Red, which I did not even bother to read. I looked around. The orange halogen above us continued to shine while our taxi remained parked.

Females, females, females and females all around. A few dressed scantily, trying to expose as much as the woman within them allowed, a few dressed in sari, a few smoking, a few aged and married too. A few very young, a few with loud make-ups. Some were decently beautiful, some were so ugly that D said, ‘Even eunuchs look better than them’. They all stared at us with expectations. I felt very uncomfortable. I pulled up the glass of the window to avoid their eyes and lighted a cigarette.

The driver came back and stepped inside the car. He began to drive down the street. He slowed down again when he came close to a lady in her mid thirties. I noticed the vermilion on her head.

Ekhane maal pawa jaabe? Onek door theke eshechi‘ (‘Can we get some alcohol here? We came from very far’), I asked her.

She smiled at me and said, ‘Araktu aage pawa jabe‘ (‘You will get it a bit more down the lane’) she replied.

I thanked her and showed her a thumb. She smiled again and showed me a thumb too. I felt a bit relaxed.

As the car moved forward, a man came closer and asked what were we searching for. I told him. He said that he will get it. I handed him a five hundred rupee note and asked him to keep the change. He seemed happy and went to get the bottles. I stepped out of the car.

A few women started approaching me, asking what were we looking for. I told them. Some of them suggested me that I should not have paid the man before he got the stuff, but again they asked me not to worry and that in case he runs away with the money, they know him well and that, they would help us get to him.

Aamra aachi. Aamader bolben‘ (‘We are there. Do come and tell us if there is any problem’) one of them said. Sonagachi was no more a Sonagachi for me. I felt at home after hearing that. Somehow I felt, I don’t know why, that they had already understood the situation we were in. Maybe that our eyes and our faces spoke our story.

As I stood there speaking to them, a lady in her twenties came to me. She was dressed in a black top and a long red skirt. She was slim, her hair dark, and around 5 ft.6 in. in height. She came and stood close to me and began to speak. She smiled. As time passed on while they spoke, they laughed, they smiled, they asked me for cigarettes, I stood close to that lady and the conversations continued unhindered. S stepped out. He came and whispered into my ears,

‘Why are you speaking to them? Come in and sit inside the car’

The lady heard that. She looked at him and charged him back, ‘Kano? Aamader saathe ki kotha bola paap?‘ (‘Why? Is it a sin to talk to us?’)

S was embarassed. He looked down. She got relaxed again. All the females were busy looking at we four males. All was well, but then, the very next moment, a fear gripped us all of a sudden. I was almost on the verge of a black out.

At a distance, we could hear something. Just as we were about to realize what it was, we saw them.

Two men in the white uniform of the Kolkata Police moved slowly towards us on an age old red Bullet, sturdy as always, and shining. They came and stopped beside us.

Ki hocche ekhane?‘ (‘What is happening here?’), the policeman asked. I remained quiet in fear.

Garir bhetore kara aache? Jalna niche koro‘ (‘Who all are there in the car? Pull down the glasses’), they ordered. We still did not know what to say. The ones inside did as was demanded by the Police.

Gari ta niye okhane park koro‘ (‘Come with your car and park it on there’), he ordered our driver. He did so. I remained outside the car. I followed.

As I walked, all the females who were standing around us followed me too.

Kichu hobe naa toh‘ (‘I hope nothing happens’), I told her as she walked by my side. She looked at me. My voice shivered with fear.

Kicchu hobe naa. Aamader thakte police kicchu korbe naa. Jaao, giye kotha bolo. Aamra aachi‘ (‘Nothing will happen. As long as we are there, Police won’t do anything. Go and talk to them. We are there for you’), she said. I felt relaxed again. I felt dependent on this unknown woman walking by me, assuring me every time that they are there.

I went and asked D to come out of the car too. The negotiation would be a long one, I knew. But even before we could say anything, the lady beside me made the first talk,

Ora prothom baar esheche. Maal kinte. Bhalo lok. Aami jaani‘ (‘They have come here for the first time. To buy liquor. Good man, I know’), she said. A few from the back supported her too. Among them, a very young girl came and stood beside her. She was fair, good looking, dressed in a top and a mini skirt, far above her knees. I looked down to her legs. She was well waxed. I looked back again at her. Her dress did not bother me at all. What bothered me was her presence – such a young girl, at such an hour, in such a street. I was speechless.

Ki hoeche?‘ (‘What happened?’), the policeman asked me. I began to explain him in English first. The two ladies took my side.

Ei, tomaar songhe kotha bolbo naa. Onno kauke bolte bolo‘ (‘Hey, I won’t speak to you. Call someone else’), one of the policemen said. I was shocked. I asked him why.

Aamra tomaar moto engriji bolte pari naa‘ (‘We can’t speak english like you’), he said. I said that I know Bengali too. I then explained him what had happened.

Ki? Kake poisha diyecho? Maal pawar aage poisha dite ke bolechilo? Jaao giye dakho se kothay galo?‘ (‘What? Whom did you pay? Who asked you to pay him before you got the stuff? Go and see where did he go’), said both the policemen.

Aamar eka jete bhoy korche. Kichu hobe naa toh?‘ (‘I am afraid to go alone. Are you sure I will be fine?’), I asked him.

Bhoyer ki aache? Police thakte kono bhoy nei. Aamra ekhane aachi. Kicchu hobe naa. Jaao, dekhe esho. Kon dike gache?‘ (‘No need to be afraid. As long as the Police is there, don’t fear anything. Nothing to worry about. We are here. No one will do anything. Go and check. Which direction did he go?), the policeman said. The females around us also iterated what the police said.

As I began to walk, the two ladies summoned me from the back and said, ‘Darao, aamra dujon aashchi tomar saathe‘ (‘Wait, we two will come along you’) the elder one said.

We went. As we walked, we talked about the place, the people, the police.

Ekhane police bhalo. Aamader khub sahajjo kore‘ (‘Police over here is good. They help us a lot’), she said.

As we were walking, the younger girl came jumping from her side to mine and slightly pulled my T-Shirt.

Tomaar naam ki go?‘ (‘What is your name?’), she asked me. The politeness in her voice numbed me for sometime. I looked into her eyes. She smiled at me.

Kano bolbo?‘ (‘Why should I tell you?’), I replied back to her jokingly in the same tone as she had asked me.

Tahole aamio aamar naam bolbo naa…‘ (‘Then I will also not tell my name…’), she said smiling, and behaving like a child. I smiled back at her.

Aami toh jiggesh korini…‘ (‘I never asked you your name…’), I told her tauntingly. She smiled.

Aamar naam Jyoti‘ (‘My name is Jyoti’), she said. I also told her my name. She repeated it twice, and the third time, I could hear her whispering it to herself.

I saw that man. I told the elder of the two ladies that he was the guy, pointing at him. He was standing with the bottles in a packet, waiting for me. She went forward and charged him,

Kire? Kothokkhon lage? Onekkhon theke dariye aache ora‘ (‘What is the problem with you? Why did you take so much time? They had been waiting for long’).

The man asked back, ‘Tor ki tate?‘ (‘How does that matter you?’)

E aamar bondhu‘ (‘He is my friend’), she said pointing to me. The man handed me the bottles and left.

As we turned back, I could see one of the policeman coming on his Bullet.

Ki, peyecho? Bhalo, bhalo…‘ (‘Did you get him? Okay, good… good…), he said looking at the packet in my hand and turned his bike back.

As we were walking back, I asked the lady her name.

Pakhi bole dake…‘ (‘People call me Pakhi‘), she replied. Pakhi, in Bengali means ‘Bird’. I was impressed, and at the same time, saddened by the irony of that name. A bird is free, but not was she.

As we were walking back, she pulled out a packet from somewhere, and took out something from it. I knew what it was. Marijuana. But still, I asked her to confirm.

Ganja‘, she replied.

We went back and handed the bottles to D. By that time, the negotiations were already done. The driver and his helper were also there. The police seemed cool. They were talking like friends. I lighted a cigarette. Jyoti came and stood beside me.

Tumi aamake ekta cold drinks khawabe?‘ (‘Will you buy me a cold drink?’), she asked me. I was touched. She asked me in a way, at least I felt, as if a daughter was asking a father to buy her something she likes very much. I could never have refused her after that. Never ever.

Nishchoy… kothay pawa jaaye? Kono dokaan khola aache akhon?‘ (‘Definitely. Where will we get it? Is there any shop open now?), I asked her. She gave me a nice smile. She was happy. She pointed me a shop. I asked Pakhito come along as well.

I gave Jyoti a hundred rupee note. She ordered three bottles of Frooti. For the rest, I bought some cigarettes.

As she was buying the drinks, she looked at a lip-stick kept on the rack. I could not see the brand. She asked the shopkeeper for the price. It was 60. She remained silent.

Jyoti kept looking at me and smiling as she gulped down a bottle. I offered Pakhi too. She also smiled and lighted the joint she had just rolled. I kept looking at her as she smoked.

Orom kore ki dekhcho? Ganja… cigarette er motoi…‘ (‘Why are you looking like that? Its Ganja… just like a cigarette’), she said. ‘Jaani‘ (‘I know’), I replied. She took three long drags and passed it on to me. I took a drag too, and passed it back to her. The smoke was too heavy to take in. I felt the kick within a minute. After sometime, she passed the joint again to me. I took another drag and said that I wanted no more. Jyoti kept watching us.

We kept talking. I told Pakhi about all the myths we had heard about the place since our school days. She listened with patience, and kept on confirming things which were true.

Sonagachi toh aaj kal world famous hoe gache naki sunechi. Zana didi aashaar por theke. Bhalo meye chilo. Khub khetechilo aamader baccha gulor jonne‘ (‘Sonagachi had become world famous now I guess. After Zana-didi came here. She was a nice girl. Worked a lot for our children’), she said. She was talking of Zana Briski, the creator of the Academy Awards winning documentary ‘Born Into Brothels’ which shook the entire world.

Someone called Pakhi. She went to meet her. I stood with Jyoti as she continued drinking. After she had finished, we began to walk back. I felt high.

Tomaar boyesh koto?‘ (‘What’s your age?’), I asked her.

Koto sunte chao?‘ (‘How much do you want to hear?’), she asked me.

Koto bolte chao?‘ (‘How much do you want to tell?’) I asked her back. She laughed.

‘101’, she said. I laughed.

Manush na bhoot?‘ (‘Are you a human or a ghost?’), I asked jokingly. She laughed out loud. I liked seeing her laugh. She then got serious all of a sudden.

’15’ she said.

I was shocked. I spoke out ‘Shit!’ on her face, although I tried not to react to that, but unfortunately, could not help. She smiled again. We remained quiet for sometime. She then came to my front. She did not look into my eyes. She kept on looking down towards the pavement. She then asked me,

Tumi jaabe aamar saathe?‘ (‘Will you come with me?’). I understood what she was asking me to do. She felt ashamed. I could see that on her face. She then held the bottom of her top and slowly began to pull it up, trying to show her skin. I held her hand immediately. She did not resist. I slowly pulled it down. She looked at me for once, and then looked down on the ground again.

We began to walk. I was not annoyed at her. Finally, I handed her the last hundred rupee I had with me.

Oi lip-stick ta kine nio‘ (‘Buy that lip-stick for yourself’), I said. She gave me a big smile. She wanted to hold my hand, but I ignored her effort. She did not try again.

Tumi kano gele naa aamar songe?‘ (‘Why didn’t you come with me?’), she asked.

Karon sob lok ei duniyae ek noe‘ (‘Because every man on this earth is not the same’), I replied. She remained quiet.

Tomaar mobile number ta debe?‘ (‘Will you give me your mobile number?’), she asked me.

Kano?‘ (‘Why?’), I asked, very politely.

Aami tomar sathe prem korte chaai‘ (‘I want to fall in love with you’), she said. I looked into her eyes. She looked down again.

Kintu, aamar je already ekta bandhobi aache’ (‘But, I already have a girlfriend’), I said.

‘Oh’, she replied. There was a call on my mobile. It was D calling. He said that police is cool. They had agreed for just hundred rupees. As I did not have money, I asked him to pay.

Pakhi was also standing with them, speaking, laughing and joking. The policemen also joined them. I kept my hand on Jyoti’s head. I then hugged that little girl. She also held me for some time. That was the only way I could have expressed my affection, and my sympathy for her.

As we walked towards them, the policemen looked at me. They smiled. I also gave them a smile and said,

Kicchu korini. Just ghurchilaam‘ (‘I did not do anything. Was just roaming around’).

Aami jaani tumi ki korecho. Tomar chokh dekhe bojha jacche‘ (‘I know what you did. I can see your eyes’), he said. My eyes were reddened due to the two drags of Marijuana. I laughed.

It was time to leave. I shook hands with Pakhi and Jyoti. The policeman then called me.

Tomar naam ta jaante pari?‘ (‘Can I know your name?’), he asked me.

Abhishek. Thaki Behala e, Chakri Hyderabad. Orom bhabe dekhben na… Koti taka kamai naa, are kono ghusher poisha o nei…‘ (‘Abhishek. I stay in Behala. Work in Hyderabad. Don’t look at me like that. I don’t earn in crores, and neither does anyone bribe me’). The policeman kept his hand on my shoulder and tapped.

Ekane ektu shamle thakbe. Ora onek somoy trap korar chesta kore. Aami dekhechi onek bhalo cheleder borbaad hote. Ekhane aashte hole aamader bole aashbe‘ (‘Be careful in these areas. Many a times, these girls trap guys. I have seen many good boys getting ruined. If you wish to come here, do contact us and come’), he said.

I thought of Jyoti. Did that small girl want to trap me? I don’t know if it was a trap. Even if it was, I will not accept it. It was not a trap, and I know because my heart knows it was not. That’s all.

It was dawn. We were on the way back home in the taxi. All of us remained quiet – we were speechless. We were badly touched by the incidents which happened with us that fateful night. As we drove through Esplanade, I caught a glimpse of Metro Cinema. Then I looked at Sahid Minar. I also caught a glimpse of Victoria Memorial after sometime. Morning Kolkata is so fresh, I felt.

My parents were still sleeping. I locked the door and placed the key at the same place from where I took it. None of us could drink after coming back home. S left soon. We asked why was he leaving. He said, he wanted to stay alone for sometime. I did not stop him.

D and me drank one more peg. I was not feeling like drinking. D said, ‘You know, at the time of leaving, a young lady came to me and said that its because of people like us that they survive. For the first time, it was not a movie or a documentary. I heard it with my own ears. I saw her with my own eyes. I was stunned’.

I felt as if I was raped off my manhood for a few seconds!

I never thought that a misadventure on our part that night would turn out to be one of the most important and the most enlightening experience of our lives. I don’t know what people think of Sonagachi or the people who survive there, but if possible, I will give the place a visit once again. One last time. Just to smile with those people who very much deserve a normal life like me. I will visit Pakhi again and share a smoke with her. And, I will visit that little girl Jyoti once more, who wanted to fall in love with me, but I could not acknowledge her love, because somehow I feel I am too weak when I stand in front of these infinite societal restrictions which we humans have imposed on our own lives.

We humans were born free of any shackles or boundaries, but unfortunately, we ended up being chauvinistic, competitive, acquisitive, dominating, discriminative, cruel, and selfish and then, we created an institution along these lines which we named ‘Society’.

I hate this ‘Society’!

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