Van of good times

A mobile library is bringing books and joy to the children of sex-workers in Kolkata

Published - March 16, 2019 04:00 pm IST

Happy hours: Children have fun with the mobile library.

Happy hours: Children have fun with the mobile library.

We, along with a Maruti van stocked with books and stationery, are waiting for the children to arrive as we stand under Hastings bridge in south Kolkata’s Kidderpore area. Soon, they start trickling in, looking excited. They have reasons to be thrilled: it is Thursday, a day assigned for extra-curricular activities. A sit-and-draw contest and a storytelling session are in the offing today.

In January this year, Apne Aap Women World, an NGO working to prevent sex-trafficking, collaborated with Coal India, Apeejay Anand Children’s Library, Oxford Bookstore, and willing friends to launch a mobile library initiative. The van, a product of this collaboration, travels to the red-light districts of Kolkata — Sonagachhi and Kidderpore — and to Topsia, every week. Run by volunteers, it provides children of sex-workers and other underserved kids with books to borrow and helps them with homework.

Helping hand

Apne Aap has been educating and engaging with children in red-light areas for years now, sometimes teaching them in rented rooms in the same building where the brothels are housed. “There are limitations to this,” says Ruchira Gupta, Apne Aap’s founder. “We cannot store too many books in these rooms. Moreover, volunteers can’t be taken into red-light districts for safety reasons.” With the van, volunteers and teachers can travel to more slums and red-light areas, reaching out to more children.

On Thursday, I find the children busy with artwork: they have borrowed crayon boxes from the van. “Most of the children are first-generation learners with no one to help them understand what they are taught in schools,” says Gupta. “They are often hungry and homeless when they return from school: that is when their mothers begin to get customers, so the room is occupied with nobody to watch out for them. Our mobile library fills that void.”

A different life

Ayush Sarda, a St. Xavier’s undergraduate and volunteer, points out a student whose mother wants her sent to a hostel since she thinks her daughter is the reason prospective customers often go away. Whatever traumas the children might be suffering, it seems forgotten temporarily during the activity hours. Familiar ceremonies of the classroom and the camaraderie of a tight-knit Kolkata neighbourhood are echoed by the volunteers and students. Even the few initially reluctant children, idling on the fringes, are soon enticed by the communal spirit.

Ayush says the number of children has grown since the last class. “The children themselves often encourage others to join in,” says Rachna Nayak, a teacher at Apne Aap.

One of the aims of the initiative is to curb intergenerational sex-work in the red-light districts of Kolkata. Gupta says she doesn’t favour the word, ‘sex-worker’.

“It makes the harm inherent to prostitution invisible,” she says. “It is exploitative and that cannot be defined as work. It is a survival strategy. Women in prostitution know this. That is why they want different jobs, different lives for their kids.”

I meet Juhi Khatoon, a student of St. Xavier’s and another diligent teacher-volunteer. The daughter of a sex-trafficking survivor, she was nurtured by Apne Aap’s programmes through her school years. She stresses, as does Gupta, on the need for more volunteers, and donations for buying stationery and books.

By the end of this year, Apne Aap hopes to have more vans and more areas covered.

The Kolkata-based writer is a Felix Scholar from Oxford.

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