Behind the Curtains

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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?

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Inspired by and photo credits to: Falkland Road by Mary Ellen Mark

40 thoughts on “Behind the Curtains

  1. It’s those moments when I try to get into the head of a prostitute that sends shivers down my spine. And yet it’s a way of life, and these girls go about their jobs with a courage we would never know…

  2. Krishna,
    This is a very well written piece about the not so well lit aspects of every person’s life….. it is not about the brothels but about every family, individual and society….. sometimes we need articles like this for people to skip from their existing strain of thought and see things clearly…..

  3. Loved this. I just wish it had been a profession of choice for these women and not one they’d been forced into as a child.

  4. This girl is alive, standing by her window, smiling, mouth full of teeth, hearing nighttime grunts, smelling cheap liquor, tasting roasted peanuts at Marine Drive. A painful read.

  5. You have portrayed a different perspective of their lives … very beautiful and full of power … loved reading it.

  6. So beautifully written. It definitely opened my eyes to the dark truth that’s been there all this time, and that these girls are forced into the situation and don’t necessarily volunteer for it.

  7. Reblogged this on priyavarughese and commented:
    A friend shared this bit on facebook and I am glad I read it.

    To put yourself in a place, create a setting and imagine the life of someone peeking through the curtains is not easy. Yes, she’s bold and beautiful in ways and every wife’s sworn enemy. I sometimes wonder what “safety” really means. In a way , she is secure inside the busy brothel. Sometimes even more safer than little girls walking back home from school in the evening. The assumption regarding ‘What DO girls really want?’ is thoroughly dealt with. It shouldn’t have happened to a 13 year old, it shouldn’t happen to ANY 13 year old. But then again, how many of us are actually safe? The piece definitely deserves an applause.

  8. Amazingly written. I was expecting it to be an article showing the prostitute’s desperation to get outa there. But this shows it in a whole new perspective, of her considering it as a job and more importantly being happy.
    Legalizing prostitution will make life a lot easier for such women.

  9. I am running out of words but still commenting because I wanted you to know that this was something… Urmm… Neither amazing nor flawless but something beyond that…

  10. Ofcourse my heart has always felt heavy for sex workers.. It is difficult to get an insight being a third person. But for your age and upbringing in a good family set up, you brought it all out Krshna – the plight of helpless children who end up in brothels, human trafficking, violation of children’s rights and the atrocious physical violence on young girls.

    “Don’t fall for his pretty words. No one wants a common prostitute for a wife.”
    – No, that’s not true. Let these girls have some hope. The world outside is much brighter than their dim-lit rooms… there are good men out there wanting to help them lead a good life. If not marry them… they will give them safe dignified employment opportunities.

    But inside this dimly lit brothel, I am rich.
    – What does a young girl who has spent her years 13-17 in a brothel know about the better world outside of her dark world?

    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.
    – Oh no… We don’t want another Saroja Madam on the raise, pathetically luring the life of another innocent child.

    That my money is never snatched from my hands by an alcoholic husband. That I am not answerable to an abusive father.
    – Please girls, don’t settle in for the worst. Every women fights for the injustice against them in some way. You have to fight yours.

    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.
    – I urge the Government and the social workers to get more aggressive on recovering all those children from the brothels and bring strong laws that protect children.

    And, if only, we as a society, give them a chance to live their life they so deserve!

    • Thank you for your view.
      The problem is, most of these reforms you mentioned don’t exist today, and I do believe that it is realistic for a girl in a brothel to feel safer there than on the streets or even in her own home. However, I do ofcourse, hope mindsets will change and appropriate reforms will be put in place.

      In any case, I have to say this article was not to highlight what is right or wrong. Or echo what i believe in. It is simply a perspective on what I believe is their reality.

  11. I am so sorry kiddo. I don’t want you or any of your readers to believe that it is realistic for a girl child in a brothel to feel safer than on the streets or in their own home. Writing has power and internet has greater power. Wishing you positive perspectives.

  12. Pingback: Behind the Curtains | Alexis

  13. Enjoyed the blog post, but am appalled at some of the comments! There’s nothing negative in this post. It’s just a perspective and I laud you for sharing it. Some may agree, some may not. However, it doesn’t take anything away from the beautiful way in which it has been written.
    No woman in this country voluntarily chooses to be a prostitute. But, a sizeable proportion of them do believe that its the best job for them after being in it for years. You have captured that mindset brilliantly here. Kudos to you on that!

  14. I am sorry again, Krshna or Harsh. I totally enjoyed the read too. I am not criticizing the writing or the perspective. I am only advocating for those millions of women around the world, who are tortured in the name of sex work. People like you and me sitting in the luxury of our couches blogging and commenting have very less say on those women in brothels, unless we put our feet on the ground and work on this issue.

    What I want to challenge is the idea that Krshna mentioned as “I do believe that it is realistic for a girl in a brothel to feel safer there than on the streets or even in her own home. ” and Harsh’s comment “No woman in this country voluntarily chooses to be a prostitute.” So could we gather the homeless children and put them in brothels for safety? Or leave those girls who are trafficked and forced into sex work to suffer, until they get comfortable to the point they accept it as a job? Think about it.

    If the majority of us think that “a sizeable proportion of them do believe that its the best job for them after being in it for years”(Harsh’s comment), there won’t be a solution for child trafficking or support for thousands of social workers who put their life at risk to rescue many girls who are kept as sex slaves in brothels.

    We certainly, will not in our weirdest thought could imagine any girl child that we know a face, be trafficked and let to suffer physically and emotionally for years, to come to terms of acceptance just because she doesn’t have a choice.

    No one questions about a perspective on a political leader being a clown or Armstrong’s landing on the moon. But sex work is an international crisis and a serious one.

    I appreciate Krshna for boldly writing on this sensitive topic. That is the plight of girls who end up in brothels. But let’s put that thought on the right track.

  15. You are such a wonderful writer. I have been reading your blog for years now. Even now, as I lay awake for three hours, unable to study, trying to think of a topic for a speech tomorrow, I suddenly felt like reading the blog and I feel fresh already. Thanks!

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