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Shackled in Independent India

Oishimaya Sen Nag


Among the ruckus of Kolkata’s streets, the familiar noise of clapping alerted me from my comfortable seat inside the car. Clutching a penny in my palm, I waited for the hijra to arrive. Soon, a strange face peeked into my car window. ‘Didi kuch doh.’ Sister give something. I transferred the penny into her palm. Not quite satisfied with the amount, she left without the ritual blessing ‘Matarani tujhe khush rakhe,’ which I would have been a recipient of had I been generous enough.

My irritation did not leave me as I knew very soon at some traffic signal down the road I would have to repeat the same act again. Even though beggars at traffic signals are quite common on an Indian road, the most nagging ones are the hijras. They are India’s transgenders. Fancily decked up like an Indian woman, you can easily distinguish them from the female gender by their masculine features and voices. Their other most unique identity is the ‘hijra’s taali.’ Contrary to the vertical palm, closed finger clap of others, the ‘hijra’s taali’ booms over with palms perpendicular to each other, striking horizontally. The hijras are very difficult to deny, and keep pressuring you with threats to undress themselves if you do not pay them money. Once, one even picked up my lipstick from my open purse when I refused to attend to their request for alms.

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A hijra dance show in the streets of Kolkata. Photo courtesy of Biswarup Ganguly.

From my car window I noticed the mirth and laughter in the faces of men and women in the surrounding vehicles. Hijras are an object of amusement in India. In a society where women are still far from being treated as equals, transgenders are aliens. The social stigma surrounding them is so unyielding that no one is ready to provide them with employment, education, housing, or any other facilities enjoyed by members of a civil society. Hence, these hijras have their own close-knitted communities and resort to begging or prostitution to earn their bread.

It is believed that the ‘hijra’s curse’ is lethal. This fear used to plague many households in India and during childbirth, hijra visits to the family of the child were an undeniable custom.

I still remember my parents’ tales of hijra visits to our home after my birth. How they danced with me in their lap and threatened my father to make him shell out the most money possible. One even started to open his clothes before my shocked family members. In the end, they won and left with a large amount. Calling the police was not an option then, as police hardly intervened in matters involving these transgenders.

With modernisation and growing disbelief in superstitions, the ‘hijra’s curse’ at present no longer plagues modern India, leaving the hijras no option but to beg on the streets or sell their bodies for sex.

Driving further down the street, a small, dirty hand with long, unkempt nails started touching my arms. A child beggar started crying out his need for money in the most pleading manner possible. This time I did not yield. Child begging in India is part of a big racket. Children are hired from their parents or trafficked from their homes to serve as beggars in India’s streets.

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A child beggar resting against an empty traffic police booth. Photo courtesy of Arijit Nag.

What is worse is the sight of women with babies in their arms begging for money to buy food for their kids. ‘Didi baccha bhookha hai,’ Sister, my child is hungry, is what they say to buy your sympathy. Blood tests from these babies have shown that they are usually drugged so that they sleep while the women beg in a hassle-free manner. These babies move from one arm to another and suffer misery in the hands of this begging scam. Every child in India grows up with their parents warning them: ‘Keu dakle jabi na, ondho kore rastay boshabe.’ Do not go out with any stranger, they will blind you and put you to beg on the streets.

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A woman beggar with a child (Note : the baby is sitting naked on a dirty street exposed to all types of infections). Photo courtesy of Arijit Nag.

As I drove towards my home in Sovabazar, I fixed my eyes on the pavement running by the road. A sight you cannot ignore even if you watch it daily. Brightly clothed women with plunging necklines, shining red lipstick on their lips and faces smudged with white powder lined the pavement in dozens. They appeared like glittering fireflies before the grim backdrop of rotting buildings in North Kolkata. Their seducing looks and body language could not hide the boredom beneath their false facade. They were the prostitutes of Sonagachi, Asia’s largest red-light area.

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Sex workers waiting to hook clients in the streets of Sonagachi, Kolkata. Photo courtesy of Arijit Nag.

Everyday when I pass by this open air sex display, I wonder what lies in the no-go zone beyond the safe streets my car passes through. Home to 10,000 sex-workers, Sonagachi comprises of dingy alleyways and shoe-box rooms in rickety houses where these women and of course underage girls sell out their bodies to sex-mongers. Clients range from college students, married men, vehicle drivers to occasional white foreigners, called goras. A daily struggle to survive in the face of tough competition, these women and girls serve the maximum number of customers possible in a day. HIV is common here but the practice of wearing a condom is limited to a man’s fancy. Eccentric acts of sex are not uncommon with money deciding everything. Men may urinate inside the prostitute’s vagina or torch the woman’s body with cigarette butts. Everything can be bought for as little as $2.

The prostitutes here want to believe they are serving a noble profession. I am told the same thing when I question my family regarding the exploitation of these women. They say that if these prostitutes did not exist to receive the shit of the world, rape cases would be unstoppable.

This did not convince me. The prostitutes of Sonagachi are what they are out of compulsion, not by choice. In a country stricken by poverty, it is very easy to lure parents to sell their girls to the sex mafia. Unsuspecting women from rural areas are tempted with the promise of a safe job and money, and they come to cities and fall prey to the sex mafia. Teenage girls are often brought here by false lovers who promise them marriage. Sonagachi is like a spider’s web. Once you get entangled, there is no escape. Even the police are involved. The mashis, madams, and pimps feed the police with money and the best of their girls during times of raid. NGO workers attempting to rescue the girls are murdered.

Every year the artisans of Kumartuli make idols of Goddess Durga for the widely celebrated festival of Bengal, Durga Puja. In a society where the sex workers of Sonagachi are shunned as impure, the tradition makes it compulsory to use the dust collected from the door steps of these prostitutes’ homes as an essential ingredient in sculpting the idols of Durga. This is believed to be punya mati, pure soil. Such is the hypocrisy of our society.

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A sculpture of Goddess Durga killing the asura (demon) in Kumartuli, North Kolkata. Photo courtesy of Arijit Nag.

As I stepped into the safe quarters of my home, the anguished faces of the hijra, the child beggar, and the sex-worker from Sonagachi haunted me for a while. India won independence in 1947. Yet, our society failed to free these people from the shackles of agony. In this respect, a quote of Nelson Mandela points out our own responsibility towards these less fortunate citizens of independent India.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

A must read for women in India and Nepal: "Women Run Nepal But Men Rule It."


I, Oishimaya Sen, a neuroscientist by profession, am perplexed by the complexity of the human brain. Being a citizen of India, I get to experience life in all forms. My husband Arijit and I travel widely within our country to get a taste of the eclectic communities residing here. Kolkata being my hometown also has a lot to offer. From rags to riches, Kolkata keeps me enthralled and the philosopher in me alive. I also take active participation in wildlife conservation and indulge in travel writing.

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Kathy Clark
8 months, 1 week ago
This is fascinating to read, thank you for posting it!
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