Sex workers in the Majestic area have to cope with threats from rowdies and cops, and struggle to bring up their children
Two months ago, on a wet summer evening, 27-year-old Rani (name changed) was gauging the street. She recalls she had set out early from her home in Bidadi, after telling her two children that she had to work the graveyard shift at her hospital.
It wasn’t easy to get the neighbours to take them in, but I had run out of rental money, she says. When she left home, she hadn’t the faintest idea that the one evening would wreck her life overnight, leaving her bereft of a home and a family. For, that night, standing outside a lodge near Majestic, she was filmed by a local television channel as part of a police raid operation on a lodge located in the heart of Majestic.
Though she herself never got to see the report — she doesn’t own a TV — the next morning brought untold mayhem and misery: she returned home to find that her house owner had thrown them out. No neighbour came forth to help, she recalls, for, she had been branded as part of some prostitution racket on TV and her detailed ruse of being a hospital worker had been exposed, even before her children. She packed them off to Hassan the same day, to “spare them shame.”
Months later, there’s more anger in her voice than grief. “Who is the media to moralise about us? Will they raise my two children?” Her friend, Sania, points out that many of them travel to Majestic daily for sex work in order to be able to feed their families. Sania asks what the media, or the police or society achieved by ‘exposing’ a mother who was trying to shield her children from the grotesque life she led. Herself a mother of three, she says: “Even I don’t want my children to grow up with the stigma, so we live double lives. We want them to study and have a job, get married and have children, like all others.”
A transit hub
Unlike most cities, where a designated ‘red light’ area hosts brothels where women live together, often controlled by pimps, the bus-stand and railway station area around Majestic is more a transit point. Many women come from across the city here to find customers, and then return to their “normal lives.”
There are also a substantial number of women who live on the streets here and earn enough to eat, and of course, pay ‘hafta’ (or weekly money) to various authorities and non-authorities with power such as the many “local rowdies.” “None of them can stop telling us we’re dirty and immoral – but they don’t have moral hassles taking our ‘dirty’ money from us,” laughs Sania.
She claims that if she earns Rs. 500 a day, one-third of it goes into paying the cop and then the ‘rowdy’ in-charge of the lodge. Many women allege a nexus between lodge owners and local authorities in running designated wings as brothels, that keep and trade girls trafficked from across the country.
If we complain to the police that we feel insecure, they laugh at us, as though the very concept of us being vulnerable is a joke to them, says Seema, who lives at the Majestic railway station. She alleges she’s often been beaten by the police and the guards.
No ‘second chances’
Like Rani and Sania, she also came into the profession after she was violated, cheated and left stranded and “unfit for anything else,” she says. Married to a man 40 years older at the age of 14, Seema ran away from Hassan after her husband’s first wife threatened to beat her to a pulp. When she landed in Majestic, another older man offered her protection and food, and as if in exchange, demanded sex.
“He brought others and before abandoning me, after months, he taught me that this is the only way I could live here.” She says that those who moralise about what she does will never give her a “second chance.”
“A second chance,” mumbles Salma (35), sarcastically. “I am tired of social workers, the police and everyone asking us why we don’t go find a ‘more respectable’ way to earn money,” she says. Salma works with sex workers in Majestic and is part of Sadhana Mahila Sangha, a welfare group. “It’s not like we chose this life for ourselves! Every NGO that comes here talks only about trafficking and rescue operations; and then they tell us we should ‘reform.’ Tell us where is the chance? If a sex worker tries to sell vegetables, men send their wives to tell us that we don’t deserve to vend near their homes.” She points out that no government has taken rehabilitation seriously. “The government cracks down on us like we’re a menace, but what after they send us home? How do we feed ourselves, and our families?”
(All names have been changed to protect identities)