Today, I attended the wedding ceremony of an acquaintance. I had gone with my friend Nadeem, in his car, along with his brother. However while returning, since the reception venue was not very far from home, we decided to walk. So my friend handed over his car keys to his brother and the two of us proceeded to walk home slowly, indulging in idle palaver.
As we were approaching Hotel Aurora Towers, we passed a section of the street that was rather dimly lit. Suddenly, and at almost the same time, Nadeem and I noticed a woman walking on the other side of the road, going in the opposite direction. Under normal circumstances we would have hardly even noticed her; but on this particular occasion, the circumstances weren't normal.
The lady was well-dressed. She was wearing a noodle strap top, which revealed more than just a hint of her cleavage. She seemed to be in her mid-20's. The reason why we noticed her was because the street was almost empty and it is uncommon for a woman, attired as she was, to be out at this time [10.45 p.m.] unescorted; and certainly not walking along on the street.
Call us prejudiced if you will, but it didn't take long for us to form an opinion in our minds about her purpose. She was a CSW [Commercial Sex Worker]. That's polite talk for a streetwalker. In many ways, it shouldn't have surprised me much, because I had heard plenty of rumors about streetwalkers plying their trade in that particular area. [Though I hadn't actually come across any there before tonight.]
We continued walking on, and within a couple of minutes we came across a few more girls. All standing on the opposite of the road, at fairly regular intervals. While most of the girls were alone, one particular girl was conversing with two young men. All three were in their early 20's. As we were passing by, the two guys proceeded to shake hands with the girl. I don't know what happened next, because we had already past by. At another point, a sedan pulled up on our side of the road, and then proceeded to turn around. As it did, it stopped in front of one the girls and remained there with its headlights focussed on the girl. After what seemed to be 30 seconds of silence [I tried to make out if there was any exchange of words between the people in the car and the girl, but I couldn't detect any], the car suddenly drove away. I don't care to speculate what that was about, but I am fairly certain that one of the two people in the car was a woman.
Even though the sight of the CSW's on that street didn't shock me, a few other things did come as a little surprise.
1. All the girls were well-dressed, and wearing Western attire.
The reason why this is surprising is because it is common knowledge that almost all CSW's in Budhwar Peth [Poona's official red light area] wear saris, and that too mostly old ones, since they aren't very well-off financially. The girls that I witnessed tonight appeared to be in a relatively far superior financial position to the women that hover around Budhwar Peth. It is obvious that they cater to the needs of a higher class of society than their Budhwar Peth counterparts.
2. All the girls were in their 20's.
Once again, this is quite different from the situation in Budhwar Peth, where the average age is much higher. Even in Budhwar Peth, there are some young girls, mainly brought in from states like Orissa and West Bengal as a result of the flesh trade rampant in those parts, but a large percentage of the women are in their 30's or even early 40's. All the streetwalkers I saw tonight looked like they were fresh out of college, and certainly none of them was even close to 30.
The Indian government is currently debating over the passing of a Bill to legalize prostitution. Personally, I am in favor of it. I'm not sure what the chances of it getting passed are, though. Especially when you consider that the Maharashtra government recently passed a law in Bombay banning dance bars. I'd be surprised if the Indian government did end up legalizing prostitution.
It needs to be legalized at least to protect CSW's if for no better reason. Currently, CSW's are subjected to a great deal of atrocities at the hands of the police and other similar authorities, and they cannot speak up against it because they are plying an illegal trade. However, along with legalization, a few other actions have also to be taken. The most important one being ensuring that these CSW's indulge in safe sex. The rise of AIDS and other STD's in India is alarming, and this step is a must. The government has to enforce this.
The government must also ensure that all CSW's are above a certain age, and that the prostitution of minors does not occur. Currently, little action is being taken in this direction. Girls in places like the smaller towns of Bihar, West Bengal etc are lured to cities like Poona with the false of promise of a decent job. Once in the city, they are sold to a brothel owner, who wastes no time in putting them to work. Often these younger girls are valued at a higher price than the regular, older women. The poor girl, with no one in the city to turn to for help, is condemned to a long time of misery.
I have a German friend, Julia, who was in India for almost a year in 2004. She had visited quite a few red light areas during her stay in the country, to try to gauge the conditions there and also see what she could do to help. She told me that it troubled her a lot to see the plight of Indian CSW's. She tried to compare them with those in Amsterdam and other European cities where prostitution is legal.
"The situation in India is just so much worse. I guess the biggest difference is that while most European prostitutes have a choice of whether to take up prostitution or not, most of the Indian ones do not. They do it because they are forced to."
And she's right. With a drunken husband wasting the family's income on alcohol, and hungry children to feed, most CSW's in India do not have much of a choice. At least this way they are earning enough to survive and so they stick on with it. And judging by the conditions in Poona's red light areas, it's obvious that no one would take up prostitution as anything but a last resort.
The streetwalkers I saw tonight were a little bit different. None of them were what I would call poor. Their appearance and the kind of clientele that they serviced are enough to convince me that they earn themselves a pretty decent living. I also feel, though I may well be wrong here, that they seemed to be English speaking and of at least a high school education. It didn't appear to me, as if they would struggle to get a job in an alternative profession if they so desired. Perhaps it wouldn't pay as much, but I'm sure they could choose to do something else. So the question is - were these streetwalkers doing what they were doing because they chose to do it? Because it pays more than what a normal job would? Because they like the extra cash? Because they enjoy the life/lifestyle?
To put things into perspective, I remember an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show where she spoke to a young girl, barely into her teens, who was streetwalking. The girl describes candidly to Oprah how she would 'pull tricks', making upto $1000 a night. The reason why she did it? Simple really. She liked the extra cash. And she liked the adventurous time that she was having. She admits that she wasn't forced into it. She just enjoyed it.
In India too, I've heard of rumors about college girls who leave their houses wearing traditional attire like a shalwar kameez, and then once they are outside, change into something that's uh... better for 'business', and streetwalk. They don't do this because they have to support themselves - their parents are doing that. They do this because they feel it's a good way to earn quick cash. I cannot vouch for the certainty of these rumors, but after what I observed today, I would be less surprised if they were true.
What do you guys have to say?
Interesting as that was, it wasn't the end of the night for us. I think I should buy myself a camera. I come across too many fascinating sights to let them pass by uncaptured.
As we continued on, walking down Main Street, we came to place where someone had stolen a manhole cover right off the sidewalk! There, in the middle of the sidewalk, was a big gaping hole, huge enough for a man to fall into easily, let alone a stray child. However, what amused me even more was the fact that someone had placed an old bicycle on its side on top of the manhole, in such a manner that the front wheel of the bicycle covered the hole!
A little further down the road we came across a family consisting of a father, a mother and their young son, of about 3 years. Now it soon became apparent that the boy desperately needed to take a leak, and there was no washroom in sight. So instead of trying to go into one of the few stores that were still open and search for a washroom, the father instructs his son to stand on the edge of the sidewalk and pee onto the street! Well, not the road actually, but a smaller lane that was leading off it! There was little that we could do except shake our heads in disgust and carry on.
And then finally, the last sight for the night. We passed a small roadside shrine with a statue of some Indian God in it. Standing just outside that shrine was a man, deep in prayer. What was so funny? He was wearing a crash helmet! Okay, I know you've done something terribly wrong, buddy, but it's alright. God's supposed to forgive you, not crack you on the skull!
I swear, I need a camera!