Calcutta is home to one of Asia’s largest red- light districts called Sonagachi. I spent many weekends as a child playing at my grandfather’s house only a few lanes from the district, but for years my parents kept me from any knowledge of it.
Despite being only one-mile radius in size, Sonagachi is home to ten thousand sex workers. Poverty drives many women to the area while others are trafficked in from neighboring countries, such as Bangladesh and Nepal. The “Sonagachi Lane” main street begins a few hundred paces from Liberty Cinema Hall on Chittaranja Avenue. Every evening, rickshaws vie with one another to enter the illicit roadway, weaving their passengers past mounds of rubble and sewage streams to begin a night of sordid entertainment.
I caught my first glimpse inside Sonagachi when as a hospital Board Member I agreed to assess its medical needs. I was appalled by what I saw.
The district’s main street gave way to a clumsy patchwork of dark alleyways on which hundreds of dilapidated, multi-story brothels caressed each other in close proximity. The brothels’ ancient walls crumbled and split like broken seams, exposing supporting iron rods. The buildings’ highest floors creaked and leaned precariously into alleyways, ensnaring in their crooked grasp a thick aroma of dirt, sweat, and hot garbage.
Brightly-adorned women in tightly wrapped saris leaned seductively against the decaying outer walls, making obvious the offered services. Men, young and old, circled the women, following them unashamedly into the open doors of the brothels. Fifteen minutes later, the pairs emerged again, the men disappearing around the nearest corners and the women resuming their places alongside the street.
There was nothing nice about the area. It brought to life all the deplorable stories I had heard about it. A colleague once told me about a sex education program that gave condoms to truck drivers and showed them how to smooth the condoms over their index fingers for practice. The condoms were intended to help stop the spread of HIV, but instead the truck drivers visited Sonagachi and used them for nights of illicit pleasure.
I read reports that nine percent of India’s sex workers were HIV positive. That implied that almost one thousand Sonagachi women carried the disease. If the infected women slept with one married man each night, and the married man returned home and slept with his wife, imagine how many more people contracted the disease.
A Human Rights Watch report estimated that there were more than twenty million sex workers in India. Thirty-five percent entered prostitution before the age of eighteen, oftentimes following their mothers into the trade. This was especially true in Sonagachi where approximately four thousand of its ten thousand sex workers were children. A friend of mine had spoken with one such girl who was only sixteen at the time. The girl told her, “Yesterday I played with dolls. Today I am a woman and have been raped five times.” The girl had entered prostitution when she turned twelve, and already had had five abortions.
That was not the worst of it. Pimps and madames encouraged women of all ages to have sex without condoms. When the women became pregnant, they aborted their babies in the recesses of the brothels using crude and dangerous methods. The few who birthed their babies brought them into the brothels. When the babies became toddlers, the mothers used rope to tie the toddlers’ ankles to the beds, while they earned a few rupees on top of it. When the toddlers became children, the mothers gave them mats instead of ropes. The children slept on the floors beneath the mattresses while their mothers worked above them.
Inside Sonagachi, the women were subject to a domineering group of madames and pimps who ran the brothels. Beyond Sonagachi, they were outcasts. The madames and pimps took half of the sex workers’ earnings and with the other half, the women tried to survive. When the women passed their prime, the madames sent them back to their villages to beg or starve. The same happened if they were found to be HIV positive. They were used, abused, and then finally let go.
Perhaps most of all, I was surprised to learn that branding made a key difference in Sonagachi. The street on which a woman worked determined her income. The most coveted areas dotted both sides of Sonagachi Lane. Here, sex workers could demand high prices and make up to ten dollars a night. The smaller adjacent lanes hosted cheaper prices. Sex workers there had to aim for volume in order to walk away with five dollars in the morning. Truth was, customers preferred going to the more famous lane to pick up their prostitutes, so they could say, “I have been to Bangkok, I have been to Bombay, and I have been to Sonagachi.”
During a subsequent visit to the area, I asked a group of madames what they thought about the documentary Born into Brothels. I did not expect their response:
“It was the best thing that has ever happened to us,” they chimed.
“What are you talking about?” I responded aghast.
“Well, since the documentary aired, it has attracted a lot of foreign customers to the area. We now employ some ladies who speak a little bit of English so that they can cater to these customers. Born into Brothels has earned us a lot of extra money.”
This was a depressing revelation, to say the least.