As politicians become blind to the immorality of poverty and the indignity of unemployment, they can no more than pay lip service to the dignity of women engaged in prostitution.
It was summer in Shillong and the place was full of tourists. This was my second visit to track and interview some women for my research on trafficking and prostitution, as part of a media fellowship from the National Foundation for India.
The first time I visited, most people said the Khasis, with their matrilineal lineage, didn’t really believe in prostitution and it would be very difficult to find “such” women. Few were helpful but a kind person did venture to suggest someone and I managed to contact a pimp near a very seedy looking theatre in Bada Bazar. He said he could introduce me to some women and we hung around in a bar with dull red lights, till he could find them. Then he said it was not possible to sit here for long and we waited outside the movie theatre for the two women he knew.
He hesitantly introduced them to me. They were from West Bengal and looked at me eagerly. The pimp slunk off and the two women, short, feisty and talking rapidly ushered me into a tea shop and ordered chai. I was surprised since most women were not too keen on being interviewed for stories even though I would assure them I wouldn’t use their real names.
The reason for their excitement became apparent very soon. They asked me matter-of-factly if I was from Mumbai. They knew even before they asked because they were used to meeting women from Mumbai. Then one of them looked at me and said, ”It is so nice to meet you, have you come to buy us?” It’s almost 16 years now but I remember that encounter and the faces of the women clearly. The question was unclear to me, and I asked her what she meant. Oh, she said as she pushed my hand, come on you’ve come to shop around haven’t you?
I understood at last and I protested, in vain, as it happened. The younger of the two was talking and she gently assured me that it’s okay, "we are used to it." She was not offended by people coming to buy her or other women and it seemed to be quite the done thing. On the contrary, she seemed excited. Nothing I said would convince her I wasn't on a shopping spree and I tried to calm her down and painstakingly explained to her that I was a journalist researching stories on prostitution in the Northeast region. She understood at last, and smiled benevolently at me.
"Oh so you don’t want to buy us?" There was disappointment. I launched into another long explanation but by then I could see their interest waning and I had to quickly ask them all the questions I needed to.
Then I met two Khasi women with great difficulty near the taxi stand, and they took such a liking to me because I was from Mumbai that they insisted on coming back home with me. I couldn’t for the life of me convince them that I was not a prostitute and that I hadn’t come to Shillong “for work” as they thought. Business was very dull, they assured me. They couldn't understand my by-now feeble attempts to explain my research. In any case, they told me charmingly that I was too fat for “the work” and it was amazing how I even made any money.
My interview was hampered by the fact that one of them was very drunk and had caught my hand in a vice like grip and refused to let go. Finally when I disentangled myself, they hugged me and begged me to take them back with me much to the amusement of passersby. I had less dramatic encounters in other places.
Before that, I had spent a week in Dimapur visiting brothels which were full of Bengali girls and army men popping in and out of their bamboo cubicles in a thinly concealed “red light” area of sorts. Even in the Maharashtra=Karnataka border when thanks to friends like Meena Seshu, I could visit a lot of brothels and lodges, young girls would wistfully ask me if I could get them into dance bars in Mumbai - this was in 1996-97, before they were shut down. They had heard stories about the dance bars and aspired to work in them - often I was asked to recommend a suitable bar or owner and my research was getting increasingly frustrating.
They would also ask for my phone number but none of them ever called me. Some of the women couldn’t believe I was wasting time writing and I was paid to interview them - often the interviews ended on a hilarious note when they got fed up and told me that nothing was going to come of all this. But there was nothing remotely funny about the plight of these young girls who dreamt of coming to Mumbai and working in the dance bars where they had heard about the vast amounts of money to be made and a life of luxury.
Sitting in their small dark houses in the far off villages, I realized that they had very little choice. You didn’t even have to force them or sell them, they were perfectly willing to come anywhere for a job or a chance of earning a livelihood and send money home to their impoverished families. Perhaps R.R. Patil and his moral brigade should leave their charmed security-cordoned glass palaces and visit these humble homes and find out why women are flocking to bars in search of jobs.
A Congress ex-minister had cautioned us before the start of the fellowship that not everyone was kidnapped and sold into prostitution. I was firmly convinced at that time that women were bludgeoned into it but in the course of my research I found he was almost right. And politicians who pay lip service to the cause of protecting the dignity of women could start from these homes and figure out why the bylanes of Kamathipura and the hidden dance bars in the city will never run short of those wanting to work there. It’s not only the women: the lodge owners I met- one had a masters degree in geography and I asked him why he was running a lodge, a term used in some places for brothels. He said he made good money and it was easy to find the girls. He didn’t seem particularly worried that he was virtually duping them into coming to the city, Solapur in this case.
I also found a lot of older women, one in her 60s, working since she had no one to support her. With jobless growth and investment in the rural sector dwindling, there will be increasing pressure on women to earn a livelihood. It is here that some serious intervention is needed. Why aren’t politicians offended by the immorality of poverty and the indignity of unemployment? Women then wouldn’t have to flounce around while men threw currency notes on them. And what is worrying is with all this economic depression maybe those notes won’t count for much anyway.