The plight of women in India has been a topic of conversation around the world following the brutal rape and murder of a young medical student. This is an excerpt from a novel I have written about India, Children of the Lie.
They came upon Kamathipura suddenly. For a moment it did not seem so .different to the other suburbs through which they had passed. But it was different; here was one place at least where the birth of a daughter brought joy. This was the place of the ‘cages,’ the red-light district of Bombay. Jan wanted to see one of the women who worked the seedy streets. Jo was simply curious. Her name was Ana, Jan said, and she was the daughter of a woman who had died recently in the south. He knew the family through the mission where he was working and he had known them well enough to be sure that no-one would write to Ana, the lost daughter, to tell her of her mother’s death. They would no longer even speak her name, such shame did she bring upon the family. That they accepted in silence the money she sent them, was a different matter altogether.
Jan had told the old woman, as she lay dying, that he would find her daughter when he was in Bombay and he would tell her what had happened. The drifting, distant eyes had given no indication, either one way or the other, that the old woman wanted this to be done. Even if she had rejected what he proposed, he would have done it just the same. That the daughter, no matter what path she had taken, had a right to mourn the death of her mother, was without question. And so he had sought the help of a social worker, Nita, who promised to find the woman and send them word when she had. The call had come the previous evening.
Jan searched through the window on his side for some sign of Nita who said she would meet them in Shuklaji Lane, while Jo looked around her at this squalid, but amazingly lucrative place of prostitution. It was a place as much of children, as it was of women and the men who paid for their services; for not only the children of the prostitutes wandered the filthy streets, but of the whores themselves, some twenty percent were below the age of eighteen and almost as many were below the age of sixteen.
Young girls were considered to be good meat in this bustling market place; not surprising then, that the birth of a girl child should bring rejoicing. To the pimp, she was immediately marked off as a future source of income, to the brothel-keeper, she was that premium prize, a virgin, and as such would bring a high price; at least once; and to the money-lenders she was a valuable pawn to be secured when her mother came to him, as she invariably would, for money.
The street was paved with square blocks of cement and the rooms ranged along either side, with doors and windows barred, for greater security: It was this physical self-imprisoning, which had brought it the name of ‘the cages.’ Pieces of clothing hung across the chipped and broken wood of doors and window-sills; even here, there was always washing to be done. Many of the women stood by their doorways; those openings into Stygian depths; others sprawled on charpoys laid out in the slush of the street, or squatted, scrawny knees close to their chins, in a bird-like gathering on the doorsteps.
They were dressed brightly, in the main, in richly coloured skirts and tight-fitting tops of shiny fabric, but some wore drab saris, and yet others were in Western style dresses; there was something in fact, to suit the taste of every man, no matter how jaded his palate. If they shared one thing it was a dullness of eye and a set of face which spoke of the most unspeakable boredom. They said little, even to each other; moving only to scratch listlessly at their bodies. Small, pinched faces peered from their pigeon-holes; women of the night before the age of ten, they waited, just like all the others, for the fall of darkness and the coming of the men.
Children played in the streets, darting nimbly between the heaps of rotting garbage; jumping to avoid the swipe of a hand; running barefoot, with all the energy that their scraggy bodies could muster. Dressed in dirty rags, they roamed the putrid alley-ways in search of childhood. The younger ones, those below the age of ten, could still laugh, in a free and innocent bubbling from the heart. They knew that their mothers were dhandas, they knew what the price of an hour was, and what it cost for the whole night. They knew about condoms and how to use them and about the aphrodisiacs which were sold at every street corner in the area.
They knew too, all that happened in the name of sex, but they did not truly know, not as yet, what it all meant. When they learned that, they would become sullen, and then they would no longer play, but would sit, without smiling, along the sides of the road. Some of them would choose instead to stay inside, hidden in the darkness of the room. Others, especially the boys, would run away, knowing all the while that there was not far to run. The room was at best, a temporary haven for come six in the evning the children would be fed and then, thrown out of their homes, they would be left to their own devices until the following morning while their mothers worked the night.
The very small children would be allowed to remain inside, pushed beneath the rough wooden bed; beaten back into silence, should they disturb any of the succession of men who came to share it with their mother through the long hours of darkness. The lucky ones would be given opium to keep them quiet: respite in the realms of blissful ignorance. As soon as they could walk they would be put to work cleaning the room and preparing it for the next customer. They would work especially hard in the mornings because their mothers would be catching up on lost sleep.
It was perhaps appropriate that much of the facade in the otherwise dingy street, was painted blue. However worn and faded it all was, there came with it still, a sense of the sky and sea-green, those colours of infinity, of peace and compassion, of gentleness and caring; feminine colours, the blue of the cloak of the Holy Mary; the shades of the Mother Goddess. Since ancient times it is blue which has been known as the ray of love, the colour of truth, of revelation, wisdom, loyalty, fertility, constancy and chastity … it has also been known as the colour of rigidity and self-righteousness, behind which, some may seek to hide, believing their intentions to be honest, and yet, all the while, manipulating reason for their own ends.
The truth of Kamathipura, was far more likely to be, that one of the pimps had come upon a source of cheap blue paint, mislaid by one factory or another, and so had made a commercial killing in the district, bringing as he did, although unwittingly, a touch of sky brightness to the wretched place.
There she is,” said Jan suddenly, waving one arm through his window. “Come on,” he added, opening his door and disappearing in what seemed an instant. Nita, who was wearing a cotton kalwar sameez in a busily printed fabric of yellow and green, appeared to be in her early twenties, although there was still about her, something of the child. She had been working with the children of the prostitutes for the past year. She was not yet married and her parents did not know what it was that she did. They would not have approved. She loved the children and she wanted to make their welfare her life’s work, although she knew it was unlikely that she would find a husband who would approve of such a thing. She had yet to make up her mind as to whether or not she had the strength to oppose her parents for the sake of her chosen career. She hoped that she would not have to. She was young enough to believe in miracles.
“Hello, hello,” she said cheerfully, as they reached her, rocking her head from side to side and flashing the most glorious of smiles. She had a wild curl of hair, which framed a small, thin face of pointed chin and rounded nose. Her eyes danced, and while she was not pretty, and would perhaps have trailed in any serious marriage stakes, she had about her the quality of some slight, bright elf. That the children knew her as their fairy queen could not be doubted for they thronged about her in laughing dance, each seeking desperately to gain her attention. She shushed them with a laugh, which was as close to a tinkle as any human being could get, and promised that she would be with them soon, but first, she had some work to do with the gentleman who had come to see her. He was a man of God and they must be very good and very quiet while she talked with him. They were not of course very quiet, but they were reasonably good and while some wandered off to play, keeping her always in sight, the others trailed slowly behind as she led the way to the house of the woman who had lost her mother.
As they made their way through the press and huddle of the lane, she told them about her work. She ran a school for the children whose ages ranged from five to fifteen and although it was non-formal, it was an opportunity to provide some education for them, some hope, however meagre. These children wanted to learn so desperately and yet without money there was little hope. Even if their mothers did save the money to send them to a proper school they would be cruelly rejected as soon as the other children found out where they lived, for then they would know, just what work it was that their mother did.
These children were outcasts wherever they went, condemned as pariahs by the society at large, for no other reason than the accident of their birth. Many of them, she said, were fiercely possessive of their school, or their ‘home,’ as they called it, for the bare two rooms offered them more acceptance and normality than the cramped space which they shared with countless others and which would otherwise have been called home. The girls especially had to fight hard to come to school, both against their mothers who may want them to stay home and clean and scrub and the pimps, who did not want their young meat ruined by education.
Jo felt compelled to ask why it was that so many of the prostitutes had children. It was, explained Nita, the one thing which they could do which put them on a par with respectable women. The child was the one human being with whom she could relate with human dignity. Until the child reached the age of understanding, she would have total acceptance; some sort of love. It was one way in which she could enter into a tangible human relationship: it was the only one which offered anything genuine in an otherwise shallow and meaningless existence. The prostitute, with the grubby little child clinging to her worn sari, had given birth in order to know love. She had wanted to give love and to receive it in return. That she believed in love, was at least something, Jan remarked.
Jo nodded in agreement but she could not help but think that there was something cruel about these babies, born out of a quest for love, but doomed to a life of exploitation and misery. She wondered how long the love lasted. At least they had someone like Nita. She couldn’t offer much, she said, but it was better than nothing. The school was a place of refuge. There were rudimentary lessons in history, geography, biology, and also time spent on drawing, dancing and singing. It was the last three subjects which the children preferred, if only because they were, in the main, hyper-active and sometimes neurotic. That they needed to yell and scream, to jump up and down, to fight and even to belly-dance when the fancy took them, was accepted. They led brutal lives and the cruelly suppressed energy needed to go somewhere.
Many of them were scarred without as well as within, from the beatings and cigarette burnings which were a frequent form of punishment from the pimps and brothel owners. There was Ashok whose face was a mass of scars, burns driven deep by the press of live cigarette butts, and Vikas, who would carry to the grave the imprint of the horsewhip which ripped across his bare buttocks when he was four-years-old; and Ajay, who tries to squeeze the breasts of his teacher in greeting, because that is what he sees happening around him. And there was little Sushama, a broken tearing of a child, twig-like; her mother dead, she was fed from time to time by the pimps, in order to keep her alive; she would be fattened when the time was right. She clutched to her brittle chest a dirty, plastic doll, its bald head covered with a bright scrap of rag: she hugged it tight to her heart with the wide-eyed joy which belongs to any little girl in possession of a doll.
At one time, said Nita, she could give them milk and bananas but it was not possible any longer because of financial constraints. There was also a chance that the school itself would be closed when the current funds were exhausted. Such projects were not popular; the prejudice against these children was very strong. And yet, she told them, without such schools they would have no hope at all since it was almost impossible to bring them into the normal school system. It was held by many that such children were tainted and would, in turn, blight all other youngsters with whom they came in contact. Some shelters and boarding houses, which could otherwise offer an alternative, openly refused to take prostitute’s children because it was believed that they would ‘spoil’ the other children. While some prostitutes did succeed in sending a child, usually a son, far away to be educated in safety, most did not. This, said Nita, was why her work was so important:if the children were to be helped then it had to be done here.
They stopped at last by a narrow doorway. From between the heavy stones, pushing bravely from a minute bed of earth, was some green and reaching sapling. It was a palm tree; or it would have been had it chosen some more hospitable place to take root. It was doomed, but for the moment at least, like the little children, it gloried in life.
Nita led them up the feculent, unlit stairs, through the nauseating stench of this crushed and apathetic life. They passed a succession of women and child-women, all with heavily painted smiles, draping themselves in a variety of seductive poses. There was Salma, who had been brought to Bombay when she was twelve by a friend of her family who promised to find her a job. She found herself instead, enrolled in the world’s oldest profession. After a fortnight of torture she received her first customer. Her rates were sixty rupee for the whole night and twenty rupee for an hour. While she made anywhere between eight hundred to twelve hundred rupee a month, she earned only one hundred rupee for herself. There was Mira, all of twelve years old but wise in the ways of the world. Her parents had sold her in marriage when she was ten years old, to an Arab sheikh in his sixties. He had paid an enormous dowry for her and after two days spent in a hotel in her home town he had been taking her out of the country. But she had been found crying on the plane by one of the air hostesses and had blurted out her story and begged to be freed. Her husband had been arrested and the court had ruled that she be returned to her parents. Her parents were enraged at the fuss she had made. Her mother beat her, and then, some months later, when it was felt safe to do so, she had been bundled off to Bombay in the custody of a woman she called aunty but who was better called pimp.
She was an object of shame she was told and her family no longer wanted her. She was threatened with an even worse fate if she should try once again to return to them. She had not of course. Children learn quickly. Many of the child prostitutes were the victims of incest. There was Sushama, a fourteen year old girl who had been sold to a brothel by her own father following incest. The girl was now twenty, and said Nita, was still in a state of shock. She was also syphilitic. Many of the girls had been abducted, like little Geeta, who had been brought from the north and sold and re-sold into various brothels and forced into sexual intercourse with seven to ten males every day. By the end of the first year she had contracted tuberculosis.
Quite a few of the little girls had been brought from Nepal; some as young as nine. It was easy to see why, said Nita, there was great poverty in the country, most of the people were illiterate, and, in the main, the girls were also fair-skinned and attractive. The girls from Bangladesh were popular too, and cheap, relatively; one for the price of three scrawny cows. It was a busy trade across the border.
Many of the prostitutes too were devdasis, those who had been dedicated to the Goddess Yelamma. Despite the fact that the system was banned by law, some three thousand or more girls, aged between nine to fifteen, are ritually dedicated each year, usually on the full moon of the eleventh month of the Hindu calendar. When the red and white beads are tied around her neck she can no longer marry, she is devdasi. In the old days she would have remained with the temple, but now, in the modern world, she will find her home in Kamathipura, or some other such place.
There was a terrifying enormity to the problem, said Nita, and now with AIDS it was even worse. More than sixty percent of these women and girls tested positive. She shook her head as she conveyed this last piece of information. The light, bright smile had gone. And they had arrived. The door in front was that of Ana, the woman they had come to see.
She was younger than Jo expected; swarthy of complexion and pockmarked, just a little, on the rise of each cheek. She wore a scarlet sari in shiny, cheap silk. The room was bare, apart from a narrow, wooden bed and a small side table, upon which lay, a neatly placed round mirror and a green comb. She looked, thought Jo, so ordinary and hers was no more than the rough, bitter-sweet love sought by sailors in any port.
She nodded her head slowly as Nita introduced them and then explained that Father Jan had come to see her. A flash of something akin to fear lit for a moment the dull depths of her eyes, and then, as Nita translated to her, what Father Jan conveyed in English, there came a deep howl, born in the depths of an anguished soul. It poured from the woman; a cry of pain and fear and terrible rage. Jo found herself holding both hands to her chest, as if to protect her own heart. Jan looked stricken, and yet, he must have expected at least this. But the grief was so real, so great, and so much more than a mere mourning for her mother’s death. It was that extra, unexpected power, which reached out and shook viciously, all those who stood within the room.
When they left her, in the care of two of the other women who had told Nita they were friends, each felt as if they had taken something terrible into a life which had more than enough of its own horrors already. And yet, it had had to be done, and perhaps in the final awful grieving, which was both for her mother and for herself, the woman Ana, would find some semblance of peace.
As they drove away, Jo looked back through the rear window. It seemed strange to be able to walk into and then out of such a place when so many within were irrevocably trapped. It did not seem right that they should enter and then leave with such ease. A little girl watched them as they went. She looked to be about five years old, standing at the corner, her coal black skin in stark relief against the purest white of her dress. The garment appeared to be new: shocking in its purity. Her long, black hair was pulled back from her forehead, tied at the top of her head with a trailing of thin, white ribbon. She looked for all the world like some freshly frocked child about to take her first communion, except for the fact that she was barefoot. Standing there on the dusty path, watching, waiting, she looked for all the world like…..
……..Adriane, the woman who had stood by the hospital gate, day in and day out, watching and waiting for the return of her lover. She too had been barefoot. She said it allowed the earth to speak to her, allowed her to walk the music of her own making.
Adriane’s hair had been long and straight, tied in a ribbon at the top, but her trailing locks were the colour of ice and the ribbon was black, as was her dress. She had been forty-one, with milk-white skin and soft, grey eyes; beautiful of body still, while yet rotting of mind. She had been married by then, for some twenty-four years and given birth to two sons, and yet she believed, that she had become once again, a virgin: immaculate. She waited, for the arrival of her lover, her hero, her lord; he who would surely come, even though he had never existed in any place other than her head. He would carry her away and to him, only to him, would she give of her perfect, unsullied self.
She came from a place deep within the heart of the country. When she was barely seventeen she married a man who owned a cattle station. Her father had died the previous year and she was sent to live with a maiden aunt. She was nine when her mother walked out with another man. She saw her father’s pain and she learned that to love brought only the hurt of losing and so, unknown to herself, she chose a man whom she could not love. That he had married her almost solely for her looks meant the match was doubly doomed.
In the beginning each found enough satisfaction in the physical union to bring an element of contentment, but as the years passed, each began to sense that the agreement between them was less than honourable. It had never been a conscious thing, and that of course, was the problem. Neither could she acknowledge that he or she had played an active part in the creation of this arid reality. The anger came, in its own good time, and in the course of things, that too was replaced, by indifference and apathy, enough to see them through the middle years. But then, almost without warning, came the time of hatred: a slow and bitter drip upon the soul.
And so they had lived, the last five years, held together in the bonds of holy hatelock, until that day, when they found her, out behind the water bore, crouched down in the blood-red dust, naked, gnawing at the raw haunch of a calf; engrossed in a sharp, white tearing of the flesh. They sent her south; banished such Dionysian frenzy from their realm. She was forsaken by both husband and full-grown sons: they possessed no stomach for the orgy of passion which had been released. They feared her nocturnal ragings; shrank at her awful shriekings. They decreed that the dance of madness would be done alone, and they would not listen to the drums.
Jo met her, some many, many months later, after leaving the hospital. She ran into her in the city. Her hair was cut shorter, but still hung straight, ice-white, either side of her face. It had been strange to see her out in the world, so lost had she seemed when Jo first knew her. She would not return to the north, she said. She had a new life, a job, and she hoped that the divorce would leave her with some money, but if not, then it did not matter; it was enough to be free, to know her own self at last. She had seen her mother again, after so many years and come to understand that her leaving had been more of a separation for survival, than a desertion. She had been clinging to things which were not real. She had fled from the truth into a loveless marriage and become the bride of death. And when at last, she sought the underworld, had entered the labyrinth, that realm of both hell and the soul where life is found or souls are lost forever, it was her mother for whom she searched. Her decision, never to love again, after the suffering of her mother’s betrayal, had merely doomed her never to live. In forgiving her mother she had begun to put back the pieces of her own self; begun to live again. That she in time found herself to be the mistress of the labyrinth was unexpected.
In the end, she had met herself at the gate: it was she who came to her own rescue. She came as her own hero, her own lover. She became woman in relation to her own powers, not as defined by relationship with others. She promised the doctor, she had confided to Jo with a laugh, that she would stay away from steak tartare. She in fact became a vegetarian, having found, that for the time being at least, she could not stomach meat of any kind. Perhaps it was that which gave her milky skin an added translucence, a shining, or perhaps it was merely happiness instead.
She was still a virgin, she said, if only because she had given birth to herself and been renewed. It was not perhaps in the sense of hymen intacta, she had added with a wink, but in a symbolic sense and that was far more important. She believed that she had something pure and unsullied to offer, both to herself and to the right man when he came along, as she knew he would … but even then, she would remain a virgin in the truest sense … a woman unto herself.
To think of Adriane now, as they drove away from Kamathipura, seemed somehow strange and yet the figure of the small girl had taken the hand of memory and dragged it into the light. Perhaps there was a link, because these women too watched and waited for their lovers, day in and day out, with the same sense of helplessness and perhaps madness that had possessed Adriane. But she had found a way to freedom, a way through to herself and that was something which could never be for the women of Kamathipura. Their destiny and culture condemned them to remain forever as they were, circling the boundaries of life in a cruel and foolish dance.