A long night’s day

After the storm she has weathered for a large part of her life, she knows how vulnerable sex workers are and the stigma attached to them by the society. The indomitable spirit of Bharati Dey inspires her sisters in the profession

Rakhi Chakrabarty Kolkata/Delhi

They call her a fallen woman. When night spreads its black shroud over a sleepy city, she ventures out into the forbidden alley, kohl-darkened eyes, lips a bright shade of pink, shimmery, synthetic sari slipping off her shoulders. Even when the rain beats down hard on the tin roof on a stormy night, she waits under the eaves to seduce a 'customer'.

A night of pleasure for her client means food for her children in the morning. Behind the glossy lips, haze of smoke and clink of whisky glasses, lies a sordid life - the life of a sex worker.

For most of them, the new year means more business. Men looking to ring in another new year through revelry and wanton frolicking, seek out these women for a night of carnal pleasures. Their clients include businessmen, academics, activists, students and men in uniform.

Does the sun on the first morning of a new year touch the lives of these women, too? Who knows? For, the creatures of the night are then fast asleep after hard work. And, work it is.

Young Shelly, a sex worker from Mumbai's Grant Road, turns philosophical. "Men come to us for pleasure. But, for us, it's like any other work. Sex work doesn't mean fun to me. I feel no surge of emotions. It's just a job that brings me money which can buy me basic comforts of life," she said in a matter-of-fact tone.

And, then there are occupational hazards. Ask Bharati Dey, 46, whose life is the journey of a little girl in search of an identity. But, a twist of fate landed her in a dingy room in the red light area of Barrackpore in West Bengal.

"I came to this trade in 1986," she said, on a visit to Delhi to organise sex workers for their rights. Her story is not the stereotype of a girl wallowing in poverty, waylaid into a life of sin. She belonged to a well-off family. While she was studying in class VII, her father died. Soon after, her brothers stopped buying her books. She borrowed books to sit for her class X examination and passed with a second division. Yet, her brothers did not want her to study any further.

Miffed, she decided to leave home and strike out on her own. Scanning advertisements in Bengali newspapers, she landed the job of a sales girl with a cosmetic company. The job took her to Bhagalpur in Bihar where she fell in love with a colleague and married him. Only then did she stumble on an unseemly truth - her husband already had a wife and children in Patna.

Shattered, she immediately returned to Naihati in North 24-Parganas district of West Bengal. But she did not go home. She rented a room and started teaching children.

"Incidentally, my landlady was a sex worker in Chandernagore. One day, she took me to the red light area in Barrackpore saying that I could earn good money there," recounted Bharati.

She was 24 then. And, she had hurtled into a life, hitherto alien to her. On the very first day, the madam of the brothel forced her to drink. Not just alcohol, gradually, she had to get inured to the abusive language and expletives used by the girls and clients, too. But, these were the least of the travails of her new life.

"Very often, goons would barge into our houses. They would take away girls from the brothels and gangrape them. But, nobody dared to protest," said Bharati.

One day, a 14-year-old daughter of a sex worker was raped by the local goons. "That day, I took to the streets in protest. Some other girls mustered courage to defy their madams and joined me to build up resistance against the local goons," she said.

They reported against the goons to the police. They also sent petitions to political parties. The girls formed a resistance group and took turns at night to keep vigil over the area. "It worked. For six months, the goons did not enter our area. After that, they resumed. They started coming in the morning, instead," she said.

One day, Bharati led a group of around 10 sex workers and beat up a dreaded gangster, who had been booked for murder, and three of his cronies. Three of the gang succumbed to their injuries. Their place was taken by another ruffian who ordered Bharati to leave the area. She refused. But, she had to pay a heavy price.

"I was sent to jail for two days on a false complaint. My son, who had come to stay with me during the school holiday, was falsely framed in a dacoity case. Imagine, a boy of class X, who stayed in a hostel in another city, was sent to jail for 14 days for a crime he did not commit. He was paying for my sins," said Bharati. That was when her son dropped out of school and developed animosity for his mother.

However, in her fight she got unstinted support from the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), an organisation of around 65,000 sex workers. And, Bharati became a symbol of courage for DMSC members.

Life has come a full circle for her. Now, Bharati is a programme director of DMSC, which is striving for respect and dignity for sex workers and their profession. "We want sex work to be recognised as an occupation and that our occupational and human rights are protected and preserved," she averred.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2010

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