For the first time, over 10,000 sex workers of the “City of Joy” have organised their very own Durga puja pandal in their own locality.
Living on the fringes of society, these people have rarely got an opportunity to visit local community pujas.
“We were made to feel like untouchables at the local community pandals … we would be asked to stand apart and were not allowed to go anywhere near the Goddess, or make any offerings ... that is why we thought of organising our own Durga puja, in however modest a manner,” says a sex worker.
Like most things in their life, this too involved a struggle. The police denied them permission for building a pandal for the puja, saying it will block roads.
Ultimately, reprieve came via a Calcutta High Court order, after Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Samity (DMSC), a NGO that works for the rights of sex workers, sought legal redress.
“It all seemed so unfair. People would make a beeline for the girls here, for their ‘entertainment’ during festival days. The earth at the doorstep of a sex worker’s home is considered sacred [a fistful of which is a must for mixing with the clay of the idol]. Yet, she is considered impure and unfit to offer her prayers during Durga puja,” said Bharati Dey of DMSC. The organisation works with sex workers at Sonagachi, which is among the biggest conglomerations of red-light areas in Asia.
The Rs. 2 lakh cost of organising the four-day puja was raised through individual contributions of Rs. 20 each.
“Not everyone has been able to pay even this amount, but many people who are coming to the mandap are making donations in appreciation of the effort. We will manage,” Ms Dey says.
Surrounding the small idol procured from Amar Pal, one of the best-known artisans in Kumartuli, the idol makers’ cove nearby, is frenetic activity.
There is religious fervour around the deity; there are performances by sex workers’ children in the evening, there is a music band and, of course, there are sumptuous feasts.
And now, sex workers from other parts of the city and the outskirts who have visited the pandal, are making discreet queries, and are keen to organise similar pujas in their own locality next year.