Saroja Madam rang the bell earlier than usual that evening. I pushed my copy of Femina under the pillow and straightened out my hair. Amla rushed in with our make up. “Only 15 minutes!” she whispered, smearing the talcum powder over her face. I grabbed the powder box and did the same. Saroja madam always told us “if you don’t have time for makeup, apply powder. If they wanted dark girls, they’d go to the other brothels on the street.”
Friday nights were always busy. But today seemed to be more rushed than usual. I peeked out of my window to see if I recognised anyone. I couldn’t tell. These men like to keep their faces down when they queue up outside. Most of them recognise each other. Especially the taxi drivers and rickshawallas. But they never speak. Keeping their eyes glued to their mobile phones until one of us lifts our curtain and gestures for them to come in.
I remember my first day here like it was yesterday. I was 13 when my uncle brought me to Saroja Madam. She invited us inside and gave us a cold glass of Rasna. I liked her instantly. My uncle told me she was a relative, and that she would take care of me for a few days.
As the evening faded into the night, I realised where I really was. That night, I cried and cried until, one of the girls walked in. She looked at me expressionlessly and started applying makeup on my face. I was told to get up and wait inside a dimly lit room for my first customer.
I am 17 now. And it has become much easier. There was a time when I remembered each man that walked through the creaky wooden door. I remembered the colour of their sweat-stained shirts. The smell of the cheap liquor on their breaths. But as the days went by, I started to forget. Every night felt just like the last. Just a series of uncoordinated thrusts and grunts.
I never let them kiss my lips. Saroja madam is okay with it too. “As long as they keep coming back, you can do what you want” she said to me, handing me a smoke one rainy afternoon.
Our afternoons were usually free. We’d play cards, clean, discuss Bollywood and boyfriends. “His weenie was the size of my little finger and he’d never last more than 2 minutes. That’s when I knew it was over”. Rekha declared as peals of laughter resounded through the bedroom. “I cant wait to have sex with Roshan” Amla whispered “I hope he’s nothing like your boyfriend”.
Many of the girls here sneak their boyfriends into the house when business is slow.
But I. I don’t dream of sex with the person I fall in love with. I won’t care if he has a pot belly or a small penis. I have stopped glorifying sex as an act of love. Infact, I’ve learnt that sex has nothing to do with love. I just want a man who I can fall asleep beside and not have to worry about sleeping into the next man’s time. I want a man who will fall asleep beside me on Friday nights, and not at a dimly lit brothel across the street.
But I know it is hard to find love in a place like this. “Don’t fall for his pretty words. No one wants a common prostitute for a wife.” Saroja madam told us one afternoon. I hope to be a housemaid someday, serving coffee and making lunch for a family. I think I would be good at it. I even asked the waiter at the bar beside us to ask his wife to check where she worked. But he told me they were not comfortable with hiring me.
You keep yourself at a safe distance from the brothel, look at me standing at my window and click your tongues in disgust. You see me as impure, tainted and dirty. I don’t blame you. On some days, I spend hours scrubbing myself, for reasons I don’t understand. Some days, I’d fall asleep heavy with the guilt of having sold love to someone’s son, husband, father. Some days, I look into the mirror and I see exactly what you see.
But inside this dimly lit brothel, I am rich. I look at the ironing woman across the street and realise I am lucky. That my money is never snatched from my hands by an alcoholic husband. That I am not answerable to an abusive father. That when I smile, I do it with every tooth in place.
Often, after a shower, I stop at the water stained mirror, dotted with brightly coloured bindis along the sides and look into it. Some days, I think I am quite beautiful.
So is this place. In its own way. If I had been given the choice, I would’ve stayed in my village. But I would never have known what I missed out on. Here, I have Amla and Rekha. I have enough money to buy new clothes for diwali. We eat chicken twice a week, and share roasted peanuts at Marine Drive when Saroja Madam is in a good mood. I have my own bed, a pillow, makeup and magazines. I smoke an occasional cigarette by the window on breezy afternoons.
What more could a girl ask for?
Inspired by and photo credits to: Falkland Road by Mary Ellen Mark