The 39 acres with its 14 lanes in the heart of Mumbai called Kamathipura is dying a slow death. While the red light area only spans a few lanes, the place has attracted storytellers and filmmakers. Gangubai Kathiawadi is set here. But the parallel world of Sanjay Leela Bhansali, with its aesthetically-lit windows and luxurious sentimentality that glows in the yellow fairy lights, doesn’t reflect the underbelly of this place. That’s just one story he picked and made it grand. Countless other stories remain untold. Real estate developers have moved in and taken hold of the old buildings and brothels. Most of the sex workers are gone. This story is an ode to the lives of all those men, women and eunuchs. For the ones who left and for the ones who are still here.
“When the towers come up, remember us.”
The brothel has only one goldfish now. And only two eunuch sex workers. Perhaps that’s their ode to the sea that kisses this city. A sea in a small room. That’s Bombay. The sea is omnipresent. In the decay, in the aquariums and in the eyes. I first saw a bunch of goldfish in a small aquarium in that room in Kamathipura’s Gali No. 1, or the Hijra Gali. That summer of 2012, there were a few of them. Orange and gold in that little made-up sea in a glass container. Zeenath’s fish. Zeenath, a eunuch brothel madam, lived here with eight other eunuchs. After the brothel was sold to a builder, she moved to Hyderabad. Soon, this one will be demolished. Like the rest on this street.
The room with its tiled walls is still there. The bed’s gone. The old dresser is still there. The windows still look out at the street and the sky. In Bombay, they say the view is of a sky punctured by highrises that shoot up like needles. Hundred floors. Maybe more. In this city, you can only go upwards. How else do you accommodate people? The sea has been encroached upon, the marshes filled and new lands created. Yet, it is not enough. Reclamation, redevelopment, rehabilitation. That’s as far as the policy goes. Redemption is not part of the policy framework. Sex workers are not part of this grand project. They can’t afford the new apartments. This, they say, they have known for a while. Now, there is another fish, which is too big for that tiny aquarium perched on the top of the fridge like it used to be.
I ask K if she would bring another goldfish so they can make a pair. “Do the fish even talk?” she asks. K first came to Ramabai Chawl a decade ago. She must have been 18 then. K is from Agra and left home when she discovered she was a woman trapped in a man’s body. She joined the eunuchs and eventually landed in Ramabai Chawl. She was the youngest and the prettiest, with long hair and a slim waist. She had many lovers then. One even lived on the terrace. She said they had even got married. “Off ho gaya,” she says. Many lovers came and went. That’s how it goes. “The fish, they’ll live,” she says. “With or without the other.”
The other night, I found her in her usual place. Outside the old brothel that now has a board that says, “This property belongs to Golden Realty.” She was soliciting customers. She wore a black jersey dress and fake eyelashes that cast a shadow on her cheeks. Next to the ramshackle chawl, a highrise has come up. I can’t count all the windows and the doors. Someone whispers it is 35 floors. “The tower is here,” K says. K won’t live in the tower. Like the rest. “I don’t know where I will go,” she says. The world’s a big place, I say. “It is also round,” Khaja Bi pips in.
Bi has aged over the years. For many years, she lived in an adjacent chawl in Gully No. 1 but moved here when the man she lived with died a few years ago. The chawl where she lived was razed a few years ago so a tower could come up in its place. Here, they call them towers. These highrises with all their promises of an uninterrupted view of the sky, and bedrooms with windows, are illusions, at best. At least for Bi. For 30-odd years that she has lived in Kamathipura, she has known that nothing lasts forever. Not the goldfish. Not love. Not life. “Many of us die on the streets. That’s how it ends for us,” she says. There is an unspoken rule here about redevelopment. No sex work would be allowed. In the kitchen, there is a window that opens to a view of the maze of the other gullies. You see an old building with its tiled roof, another with its crumbling edifice. There’s a tower on the left. That used to be a chawl once. Sex workers lived there, Khaja Bi says. “We don’t keep an address book. Remember that the world is round,” she says.
Ramabai Chawl, she says, is the oldest in the Hijra Gali. It was so worn out that parts of it crumbled. They rebuilt it. This is the only brothel that remains here. Theirs would be the last one to go. To build a driveway or a park. On the website of the real estate company, they have promised a park for children. Across the street, there is Gandu Bagicha. They rechristened it as Durgadevi Udyan. Once, the radical Marathi poet Namdeo Dhasal had written about the park in his stark poem Gandu Bagicha.
“The Inferno of lovers’ separation and
the graveyard of compassion;
Extreme loneliness and the magic of the frightened;
Behind every word,
There’s a naked face hidden.
How can I yoke these slaves of the bed to my plough?
Your city of insatiable angels,”
This is Zeenath’s story. She showed me this world, this underbelly and its denizens. Zeenath, who was once a man, and me, a reporter—who are we if not bilocated personas? There are forgotten promises. Like the ones I never kept. Of giving them their pictures. She is no longer here. The first time I climbed the staircase of the brothel a decade ago, Zeenath was sitting on an old bed holding a little girl. She wore a black chiffon sari on which she had stitched a silver border, chandelier earrings and her customary wig with that side parting. They say she no longer wears the wig. A framed photo of hers taken when she was young is placed on a shelf. That’s what remains of her here. That evening when Zeenath sat on that bed, a young woman was sitting next to her. She said her name was Shonali. The child was hers. Castration at best rids you of the burden of maleness, Zeenath said.
But there is that burden of desire. Zeenath wanted to be a mother. Shonali had wanted to abort the child but Zeenath offered to adopt and pay for everything. When Saleha was just a few days old, she came to live with the eight eunuchs in the quarters of the second floor of Ramabai Chawl. They say Shonali took Saleha back later. We would later climb the iron staircase and haul ourselves up through a hole cut into the ceiling. From there, the sky would reclaim its immensity and enormity. An uninterrupted view. There was a birthday party and a DJ was playing music on the roof. Bollywood songs. Zeenath did a twirl. She surveyed the men who had parked themselves on the roofs to witness the party. She hung tattered curtains to block the view. But this is Kamathipura. You can’t hide anything. Everything is on display here. Most are for sale. “Life needs to be lived. Anyhow,” she had said. “Stay,” she commanded. I didn’t. Not that night. I had accompanied Gauri Sawant, a eunuch who had adopted a girl in Malvani in Mumbai, to Kamathipura. She had said Zeenath had also adopted a girl. That was the story I was writing then.
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But I returned later. Zeenath told me how she fell in love here. The man gave her a watch. He had said she would not keep him waiting if she wore a watch. For more than 30 years, Zeenath has lived in the building. She came here from Hyderabad. “We carry the illusions of love until we can’t,” she had said. Someday, I will write Zeenath’s story.
For a decade, I didn’t climb that staircase. Until last week. The sky is not the same anymore, K says. The red and purple sequined saris were hung out to dry. They belonged to a crossdresser who sometimes frequented these streets. That night, he smiled at me. He was wearing a black sari paired with a velvet blouse. “He comes and goes,” K says. There are framed photos with traces of sandalwood powder on the wall of predecessors. A black and white photo taken in a studio somewhere, a coloured one of a eunuch guru dressed in a red sari, a portrait in sepia of another one and another in colour of Sushila Ma of the Poonawalla Gharana, a kinship network of the hijras. They have always been there on the wall above the window. Every Friday, K washes the frames, applies sandalwood powder, lights the incense sticks and places red roses on top of the frames.
Ten years is a long time to compress into a single story. There are too many people, conversations, deaths and towers. Too many disappearances. Like Zeenath. Like Munni. Like that man who lived in Ratnakar Mansion in Gali No. 14. They called him Maharaj. He wasn’t a good man. He once locked me up in his room on the first floor of this building when I had gone to him for a story. I remember the loud banging on the door. Pooja, a sex worker, was there. He opened the door. “I came for you. You don’t look like you are one of us,” she had said.
For years, I have looked for Pooja there. But nobody remembers her. I still go and have tea there, just in case she comes by. I have met others there. Last week, one older woman from Latur told me it is a cursed place. She is in her late fifties. She lives on the streets. “When I die, I will be one of the bodies they collect and burn,” she says. “Don’t feel sad for me.” Another woman says she had seen the posters of Gangubai film and the trailer. “She is beautiful,” she says. “Tell me more about Gangubai.” Another younger woman from West Bengal asked if the story is true. There were these protests. I asked about Pooja. “You are looking for ghosts,” she says. Pooja had once told me the trick of her trade. “Never look them in the eye,” she had said. “I try to make him come in between my thighs. I try to block my thoughts. It hurts, but money is important. I have a family to take care of.”
She was one of the prettiest women I had seen. Brave, too. She was from a village in Uttar Pradesh and when her husband abandoned her, she came to Bombay with a friend and started working as a prostitute. “I will return,” she told me once. Love and loss. They would sometimes drink Corex to stop thinking about so many things. There are many Gangubais here. Every woman is a warrior. Every woman is a saviour here.
The prostitutes don’t kiss. Unless they love the man. Lips with all that shiny lipstick outlined with black pencil sometimes are for show. You kiss somebody in the mouth and that’s love. Love in Kamathipura is complex. It meanders and migrates. Like its lanes. Like some of those old buildings that look like ghosts but have names like Alishan. Or the one with the board that says “Garden View” because in those mazes, where identities overlap or become distinct, there is always that aspiration. Of things that aren’t. There are no gardens here. There’s love and there’s work. Kissing and fucking are different in this universe where an aquarium is a sea and a window, a kaleidoscope. All you need is imagination. And here, there’s a lot of it. It co-exists with reality, the brutal revelation that redemption that they talk about in scriptures is just a fantasy tale. Their gods are from everywhere. Their customers too. The brothels are secular places. They are dark, dingy and hellish too. Complex spaces. Films can’t contain this world. Poems do. Like Kamatipura by Namdeo Dhasal, who lived in Dhor Chawls in the red light area and was a taxi driver.
They say Sanjay Leela Bhansali had come one day. That’s not enough, K says. To get to the past, one begins from the present. That’s the only way. All these lanes where sex workers live and work are a parody of the traditional world of romance. You need such places to understand love. K tells me many other stories. Like always. About love, lust and goldfish, about the elusive truths. She asks why some are rich and some are poor, if we owe responsibility to each other or why should sex have a context deeper than pleasure. Why paying a consenting sex worker should be all that different from paying a masseuse or psychotherapist or even a writer, she asks. Isn’t it all intimate labour, which is professionally done? It is work, K says. Aren’t we all selling something? That evening, she led me into that corner where they have their shrine. She pointed out to the gods stacked in a row. “Haji Malang, Murgi Mata, Yellama, Sai Baba, Lachmi and Ganesh.”
A wedding buggy stands in the middle lane that divides the lanes of Kamathipura across from Gali No. 11. The buggy, painted in silver and gold and green and pink is a recent addition. It stands at the intersection of the residential quarters, the street and the lanes where sex work happens. Leaning against its body, the street prostitutes stand through the afternoon and the evening with their lips painted in red and their faces dabbed with a lot of powder. They get picked up if they are lucky. Nobody knows why the baggi is there. Nobody climbs onto it and sits in the cushioned seats. It just stands there as a monument of lost futures and partly erased longings. It could also be a memorial. Dedicated to the departed.
Years ago, this used to be the spot that Suman frequented. One morning, I found her sleeping under a Maruti Omni. Even after Munni, an elderly prostitute, shouted her name a few times, Suman didn’t wake up. A man appeared and kicked her and she sat up and rubbed her eyes. It was afternoon and soon, they’d have to be ready for dhanda. The street prostitutes go for much lesser than what the women who rent places charge. In any case, it isn’t much. Before I met Suman, Munni—a 55-year-old street prostitute when I met her in 2012 at Zeenath’s place—narrated her story. “You won’t be able to look at her,” she said. “You might vomit after you look at her.” But that’s only during daytime. The night is kinder that way. The creases, the scars, the bruises aren’t so visible then, Munni said. Suman slashed her wrists, arms and feet. Out of desperation or depression. One didn’t know. “To keep her lovers from going away,” Munni had said. “But they left and she remained. With all the scars.”
Many years later when I went to Chambal and saw the ravines, I thought about that body. The ravines had looked like a body that had erupted in boils. A canvas of unrelenting pain, of lines drawn sporadically. No erasure had been attempted. Suman, they said, would sell her babies. She had HIV/AIDS. She was addicted to cheap liquor and garda. That afternoon, she was wearing a red maxi and the bulge of her stomach showed. Her lover, a ragpicker, was also there. Suman didn’t ask me who I was. She told me her story. Suman was from Karnataka. She was brought here by a man she had trusted like many others and she ended up as a streetwalker. Suman, Munni and others like them, rented beds in brothels if they manage to find a client. They ate at the numerous hotels in the area and sometimes madams at the brothels would let them wash and dress. I remember she wore anklets. Suman died. Munni too.
Munni got pregnant at the age of 14. Her lover abandoned her and she left her child behind when she boarded the train to Mumbai. She found herself in Kamathipura and worked at a brothel. When Munni first arrived in Kamathipura, Apsara, a madam in Gali No. 1, took her in. She knew she could be sold, but only at a cheap rate. Munni offered herself for Rs 25 or even for a quarter bottle of cheap liquor. She had said she was HIV positive. Apsara moved to Sholapur, leaving 30 sex workers homeless. After Munni left the brothel, she started living in the streets. She talked about death often.
HIV-AIDS was first detected in 1985 in Kamathipura and it changed many things. The Nepali sex workers left after the epidemic hit. “Not for long. Kamathipura is dying like me,” Munni had said once. “We are all doomed. Young and old. Firm and infirm.”
Once home to more than 50,000 sex workers in the early 1990s, barely a few hundred remains today. In Gali No. 1, only two eunuchs remain out of over 500 who worked here once. Sex trade is now confined to a few lanes of Kamathipura.
In Gali No. 7, Musa Building’s fate is of an amputated thumb. They call it half-down building. Mhada had declared it dangerous and demolished two floors. Broken and bruised. Like the sex workers. On the ground floor, there is a doorway that leads to a passageway with doors on either side. In this dilapidated structure lives a woman who paints her face white and lines her eyes with green liner and stands in her doorway waiting for men to come and empty themselves into her. She was once in love. It isn’t an unusual story. The man abused her, left her and she ended up here. The woman is in her thirties. She walks very slowly. Polio, says Savitri, the neighbour. Her left hand is thin and the fingers are like stumps. When I met her last in 2019, she offered me tea and let me see her room. She told me about her daughter. Business has been slow. She can hardly make ends meet. But all that is routine. As routine as a story on a beat.
I was intrigued by the white powder, the excess of it. I was curious about the glossy pink lips that reminded me of Warhol. “Jo dikhta hai woh bikta hai,” she had said. A man walked out. He was drunk. A woman walked behind him. She turned to the small mirror in the room and dabbed more powder on her face. I remembered they once told me they don’t kiss. The corridor was empty except three women with white faces and red lips sitting in the doorways. “We wait. Always,” she had said. It was raining. “Come in the afternoon if you want,” she said. Her white face haunted me. It reminded me of Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. There was a strange sadness about that white face. The rain doesn’t wash it away. Elsewhere, floods have washed away entire buildings, roads, and cars. The woman’s name is Seema. In the evenings, they pass around a bottle of cheap whiskey. Sometimes, there is beer. It is good to get drunk on any evening, they say.
In the brothels of Kamathipura, you are confronted with an architectural innovation resembling bunkers where berth-like wooden planks are stacked to form rows and small cubicles complete with an exhaust fan and a thin mattress covered in tarpaulin sheet. There are ramshackle curtains that act as a veil. These are called pinjras. The ones with the wooden sliders are called partitions. They cost more. Around Rs. 100 to Rs. 200. These are used for sex work and for one-time usage of the pinjra, the sex workers pay Rs. 10 or Rs. 30 depending on the kind of brothel. In my research, I figured that brothels are places of fetishes and quick sex and no indulgences and these bunkers are designed for that. It is an innovation by the oppressed to not allow for anything other than quick sex that is paid for.
In a 10 by 10 room in Musa Building, two narrow beds are divided by a wooden board. A curtain is a flimsy armour against the world. Inside these so-called pinjras, sex workers service their clients. On an average, they make about Rs. 330 daily. The rate in Musa Building is Rs 110 for sex with a prostitute. A sex worker, who didn’t give her name because she doesn’t want to people in her village to know she is involved in flesh trade, says the talk about redevelopment has gone on for years. She rents out a space here and lives in the 11th lane where she pays Rs 3,000 per month for a small space barely enough for her to sleep and keep some of her belongings under the bed. She sends Rs 5,000 to her village where her parents look after her three children. “I don’t know what I will do. Maybe I will go back to the village,” she says. “But I have to bring up my children.”
Musa Building is suspended between the past and an imagined future. A staircase opens to a vacant floor. The 45 tenants who agreed for
redevelopment are languishing in transit camps in Sion, Vikhroli and other places. They had once dreamed of an apartment in a tower. The building is a testimony to what went wrong with the redevelopment project. The ground floor has 15 rooms in total. While there is a long tradition of red light districts (RLD) being concentrated within the city centre, gentrification policies are aimed at spatially dispersing the sex market and its workers to the fringes of the city and that calls for an examination of the moral geography behind such policy decisions. “It is mostly a stigma,” Seema says.
Across the street, there is the Alishan Building. A dilapidated structure that is one of the oldest in the area, is now home to labourers and sex workers. Champa Bai is an old matriarch who still rents out rooms to sex workers for Rs 30 each. She has a few women who work for her and on the landing, you will find the women playing cards or just taking a nap. Champa Bai came to live in Kamathipura when she was just a five-year-old. Her sister worked here and, in those days, business was good. She knew Gangubai.
“She was a kind woman and she owned a couple of rooms in the Musa Building where her girls worked,” she says. Champa Bai won’t give up on her rooms in this building. “They broke down that Musa Building. We never got anything. We don’t want the towers,” she says. An iron staircase leads to the chambers built for sex work. Four in total. Just wide enough for a mattress. No windows. Only a partition. “That’s all you need.”
Now, K takes care of Khaja Bi while they wait for the others to return. They never asked me personal questions except why I worked as a reporter and why I wasn’t married. “Get married. There’s still time,” Khaja Bi would say. But love is a malady, she says. Once you have known love, it is harder to live without it, she adds. “Have you been in love?” she questions. In 2005, my father bought me a wedding ensemble. The gold lehenga remained in the closet for years. In 2017, I asked Zeenath if she would take the two wedding ensembles as a gift from this reporter. The other one, a white and red lehenga was bought for my engagement. I broke it off. The gold ensemble was made for someone who never got married. I never met that woman but the seller told my father this story. My mother always believed it was someone else’s story. Zeenath called to say she liked them. Our stories had intersected. Even if only for a decade.
Kamathipura is many places. It is place of cheap sex, familial lives, migrants and video game parlours. On many nights, I have come here looking for that light in the window of the corner house in Gali No. 1. That’s the only window that matters. Towers and more towers. They look like staple pins stacked together. Impersonal, futuristic and dystopian. But as long as the window remains, there will be stories and goldfish. He would take her to the ocean, they could count the waves. There, in the submarine silence, they would share their deepest secrets. Dive for pearls like stars. I don’t remember who wrote that. But it is in my notebook. As an ode for my two little goldfish that swam around in circles in the little glass bowl and died. And for Zeenath, who always keeps a goldfish. Last week, I tapped at the glass. Tell Zeenath that I will always remember her, I told K.
Kamathipura was first settled in 1795 with the construction of causeways that connected the erstwhile seven islands of Mumbai. It was first called Lal Bazaar. It got its present name from the Kamathis (workers) from Andhra Pradesh who worked at the sites. Considered to be Asia’s largest red light area, the British maintained the brothels for their troops. While sex trade has dwindled over the years and is now confined to a few lanes after the real estate developers came in, the promised redevelopment remains a distant dream. Many sex workers have been pushed out. The issue of livelihood of these vulnerable women remains to be answered.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Love, Loss and Longing")
Chinki Sinha in Kamathipura