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
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.
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," 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.