“She lines up men outside her door to f***, but won’t buy any make up, or even a hairbrush!”
It was said so casually, by a pimp about a whore. When you think about it, it makes sense, fits in with the mileu. But it held me by my shoulders and rattled me. I realised that ‘f***’ is not just a curse word here. It’s used in its verb form. This is the place where ‘f***ing whore’ stops being an insult, and becomes someone’s identity.
I started teaching the children of sex workers in one of the oldest Red Light areas in the world, Kalighat, in Kolkata, India, at the age of 18. I took this job because it was paying more than all the other part time jobs I could get, because no one else wanted to walk into a Red Light area everyday, and associate with these “shameless” women.
I was horrified of the heavily made-up women, who came to pick their children up from the community center where I taught them. Their sarees would slip and flash the switchblade they carried in their bra. 18 years of socialization had taught me that these women were the worst social outcasts. They had chosen the most degrading profession in the world. They had no morals and would do anything for money.
And so I would to bend my head low and walk in and out of there everyday, teaching the children but escaping to the bathroom or under my head scarf to avoid the mothers.
Until, one evening.
Our long division math lesson was rudely interrupted by the blast of sirens. A commotion broke out- a blurry of hands and legs sprinting, skidding, crawling into hiding spots. The police were raiding the Red Light area, and would arrest anyone they could get their hands on- men, women, children.
Amidst this insistent hullabaloo that had erupted around me, I froze. The police didn’t know I was only there to teach the children. They would arrest me like everyone else. They would throw us into a cramped jail cell, pull us out one by one to break us, interrogate us hitting those body parts where the baton leaves no marks. My mind went blank and my body stiffened in terror.
I was jerked back to reality by a strong grip around my arm that pulled me to my feet and dragged me along. The strong grip hurt my arm. I was dragged so swiftly I had to sprint to keep up. I looked up to see 7-year-old Babli’s mother, who came to pick her up from my class every day. Oh my God, she was going to hand me over to the police to save herself! Panic-stricken, I started screaming and trying to pull out of her grasp, clawing at her arms. But she was much stronger.
She dragged me into dark stairwells, across courtyards, leaping over walls, through dark tunnels, until we suddenly broke free into the sunlit main road. She let go of my arm, and simply said- “Go.”
I stood there, immobilized with surprise, “Why did you help me?” She could have run on her own and saved herself much easier, without having me slowing her down.
“Because you teach my daughter. She will study and take me out of here.”
At that moment the menacing switch blade transformed into a tool for self-defence. Her bright red lipstick morphed into a kind smile. These were not “morally loose” women, lazy, violent. These women were trafficked and put in horrifying situations they could not escape. They emerged strong, independent women. They worked hard, just like the rest of us, to support their families, educate their children and give them a better life. Babli’s mother’s selfless bravery that day for the sake of saving me, made her my role model.
I wanted to show the world what I had seen that day. I wanted to empower these strong, courageous women with the opportunity to choose a better life for themselves.
(This was originally posted on www.masterpeace.org/mymoment in July 2014.)